A Word With: Martin Atkins - Spring Break Week


Martin Atkins, post-punk veteran and accomplished author of the indie musician’s self-help Bible, Tour Smart. Photo courtesy of Martin Atkins.

Like most writers for music-related websites, I spent a good portion of my college years entertaining ideas of being the ultimate millennial oxymoron: an indie rock star. They’re years I look back on with warm memories mostly of youthful indiscretions that I have no business sharing on the Internet. Most of these memories surrounded my band’s strenuous Spring Break touring schedule, in which we’d try to cram as many shows along the east coast as possible into a week-long span while our roommates were off partying in Mexico.

Along the way, one must-have text for any aspiring young musician became our Bible: Tour Smart by Martin Atkins, the former drummer of such totem industrial acts as Public Image Ltd., Pigface, and Killing Joke. Martin’s experience finding sustainable success in the early stages of one of the least approachable genres in music is hard to categorize as anything less than noteworthy for a struggling musician of any background.

His book, which is designed vaguely like a college text, imparts practical advice for everything from budgeting to insider anecdotes from industry pals and touring veterans like Henry Rollins. Last week, Atkins replied to an email interview to talk about the best strategies for balancing music with academics, how much the industry has changed since he published Tour Smart, and some of the wildest gigs he’s ever played.

BreakThru Radio: Ideally, how far should a band of meager college-budget means travel in a single week’s time?

Martin Atkins: As far as makes sense — to wherever your fans are. Go places that have an established night for your genre. Gig swap — open for a larger band in their market then let them open for you.

BTR: You discuss in your book different booking strategies to save on travel expenses. If you can’t afford to rent a hotel and have no couches to crash on in a given region, are there any other options? I know you mention touring around a specific “home base” in your book and I was hoping you could expound on that.

MA: Well I don’t think a beginning band should ever get hotels – you need to be staying with people and forming connections. By beginning, I mean the first five years. You can just start using the flower petal touring pattern – one offs and weekends make sense at first . It is hard to string 10 fats together – now in addition to not being very well known, you are also performing on a Monday or Tuesday!

You should use free tracks on your site as a means of tracking the location of people that like you – then go there! Never take your country to war unless you are sure of the outcome!

BTR: With the price of gas rising to ridiculous proportions and other obstacles mounting in the industry, do you think it’s harder for college-level bands to make a substantial, worthwhile, and sustainable touring schedule than it has been even in the past ten or so years?

MA: Gas prices have been bad in the past. It just makes everything more important, not just the bands traveling but the audience too. A band has to make sure they maximize the opportunity with a range of shirts, recordings, and unique items so that fans can help support your activities. A tip jar will make a 10 to 30 dollar difference a night – a choice of shirts will make another 50, etc. It’s all an accumulation of tiny increment stuff that slowly mounts up. It takes 5-plus years to become an overnight sensation.

BTR: Since you published Tour Smart, so much about the grassroots level of the industry has changed; Myspace’s waning popularity being probably the most prominent difference. Do you think the end of the Myspace craze is a good thing or not?

MA: It has just been replaced with Facebook and Twitter. One thing remains constant: do noteworthy remarkable stuff and people will spread the word for you. Be lame, uninteresting, and half-assed and it’s over.

BTR: In speaking of those important “first five years,” what’s the biggest difference in the challenges that a musician starting out today now faces compared to those you faced in your first five years back in the ’70s, if any?

MA: Well, there used to be barriers to entry – a pressing of 500/1000 vinyl records, etc. Now there are NONE. So, there is a lot of noise to cut through but, there are tools that can help you — and, ultimately, if you are hard working, smart, and have great ideas, then you can succeed. I think this has always been true, it’s certainly NOT enough to just be good on your instrument and have great songs – that’s maybe half of it.

BTR: You talk a lot about booking yourself in the right environment in Tour Smart and in brushing myself up on your background for this interview, I came across a YouTube video of PiL on American Bandstand in 1980. I have to ask, how did that come about?

MA: I think that was Warner Brothers, just slotting us into the things that they did for band X or band Y. It was awesome because we didn’t KNOW how HUGE of a show that was. So it seems like we were being totally irreverent, but we just didn’t know what the show was or who Dick Clark was!

BTR: Aside from that show, what’s the strangest venue or show you’ve ever played?

MA: We did a shopping mall with PiL in the early ’80s — the galleria in San Francisco. The way that Jerry Gerrard got around the local ordinances was to have a ‘book signing’ at a local bookstore — we were the musical entertainment for the book signing. 2000 kids showed up, the low end from the bass caused many of the decorative light bulbs to vibrate loose and smash on the ground like machine gun fire…

Opening for the Pixies in 10,000 seat stadiums in Europe with Killing Joke, Japan with PiL — all amazing, and just about every Pigface show. It’s not so much the different venues – but the different people onstage every night.

BTR: Any last words of advice for aspiring young musicians simultaneously pursuing a college education?

MA: Yes — get three internships, work five jobs, keep at it, punch the world in the face, and MAKE things happen – don’t listen to ANYONE that tells you something is impossible. Anything IS!

For more on Martin, you can check out his website and purchase a copy of Tour Smart here. For those titillated by the Public Image Ltd. appearance on American Bandstand in 1980, allow me to save you the googling: