8 thoughts on touring Christian music

hymns_tour_bridgeWe’ve just finished touring our 11-piece New Scottish Hymns band on three dates around Scotland. Thanks to everyone who took part, and came along. We hope you enjoyed it!

Some reflections:

1. Playing live music is wonderful.
Performing your songs with a band of talented professional musicians is the greatest privilege for a songwriter. Hearing Rich on drums nail the exact same complex groove every night, at exactly the right tempo…hearing Graham on fiddle throw out a totally creative and unscripted solo…watching as I make a mistake and hearing the band smooth it over as though nothing even happened…these and numerous other examples…Something amazing happens when gifted musicians get together, and it’s a privilege to be part of it.

2. You can never rehearse enough.
We started rehearsing for this tour about a month ago. The album had been recorded early 2012, and even with the recording, with chord charts and sheet music to help personal practice, there’s nothing more valuable than simply playing through the tunes together, again and again, until it’s under your skin. Some of us used music stands on the stage, which I’m never keen on, but logistically it’s almost impossible to perform an hour and a half’s material with only a few rehearsals. Worship bands use music most of the time, and I don’t think the audience is particularly bothered if the music sounds right, and the players are still interacting with each other and the audience. It’s better not to use music, because when it’s in your head, it comes from a more personal place when you perform it. You have confidence and ease, which in turn puts the audience at ease. But the time it takes to get a band ready for that should never be underestimated. It’s an interesting point to note that the first time the full band played together was the afternoon of the first gig! Babies, holidays, touring, jobs, families…all these things make it very difficult getting everyone together at the same time to rehearse. And see the next point…

3. Money is always an issue.
An 11-piece band is a luxury for all but the most established artists, especially when the players are professional. We were blessed to have a band who were invested in the project to the degree that they were willing to invest the time in rehearsals, practice and also the tour itself for a relatively low fee. But money is always an issue. All band members made sacrifices of time, which almost always has a knock-on financial effect. Turning down pupils, taking days off work…It costs money to put on a tour like this. New Scottish Arts do their best to pay the musicians to make such a project workable, if not financially profitable, and it’s great that they do. I have no qualms about charging money for albums, and for tickets to the events, even though the music is worship music. I know too many great musicians who are poor, and a bit of money helps people to thrive. We try to make it as affordable as possible, because we prefer people to hear the music and the message to simply getting their money. But money is not the enemy: the problem is loving money more than God…(that is the root of all kinds of evil.)

I’ve got some friends who have started a venture called rechord, which is about making worship music which is both good and free. It’s a laudable project, and I hope to support them in it. But it’s important to remember that good art may be free to the consumer, but it always comes at a cost that needs to be absorbed somehow. Financial incentive is valuable in facilitating good art, so long as it never eclipses the spiritual incentive which drives the artist – the desire to communicate something of fundamental worth must always be greater than the desire to make money.

tour4. Marketing is blind.
You spend money and time investing in all kinds of publicity. So many NSA volunteers and staff phoned churches, sent newsletters, took out adverts, leafleted, posted videos on facebook, set up competitions, recruited friends to share and publicise the event. In the end, ticket sales are what counts, and the problem is that probably around 50% of people bought their tickets on the day, or on the door. So right up to the night itself, you have no idea whether you will break even or not. Only once you’ve done many similar events can you build up a picture of how much marketing needs to be done, and how successful an event is going to be. Good promoters have developed a sixth-sense for this. It’s a dark art, and not recommended for the artist if you can possibly avoid it…you need to be working on your music, not worrying about whether people will be interested!
Because we had a large band, and the NSA were investing significantly in the project, we were taking a bigger risk than many bands do. Often, bands start out by committing their time and effort for no return whatsoever. Sometimes it’s because the band themselves are learning their trade, so they’ll happily play anywhere for nothing, or for a very low fee. We’ve tried to jumpstart that process, and build momentum for the project in a more artificial way, since we’re working with established artists and experienced musicians. But breaking a new ‘product’ into a relatively unknown market is a matter of great faith: both in your product and also in the God whom you are attempting to glorify. But God has been faithful, and the positive feedback we have received from people has suggested that the project has been a worthwhile endeavour. We had audiences of a good size at all events, with the biggest in Glasgow (around 230). We sold a lot of CDs, too, which helped (around 120 on the first night!)

5. Spiritual fruit is not immediately visible.
I received some great encouragement on the last night of the tour, from a man who said he had received our album, and had printed out the music, and now he plays the songs with his worship group in church. But often it takes a long time for that kind of feedback to filter back to you. I don’t know to what extent these songs are going to be instrumental in a congregation or individual’s spiritual development. I can only try to be faithful to scripture in my writing, faithful to God in my effort, and trusting that His word does not come back to Him void.

6. God uses sinners.
Selfishness, bitterness, jealousy and pride don’t stay at home when you go on tour. They’re always striving to be band members, because they love the limelight too. When you’re on the road with other musicians, it’s easy to lower the tone for a cheap laugh, or start complaining about other people’s imperfections. So many times I found myself regretting thoughtless comments I’d made. It was great to be part of a group of Christians who understood that temptation, and helped one another not to get sucked into that kind of unedifying behaviour.

It’s also easy to perform and pretend that you’re engaging with God, when really you’re just enjoying the music, or the attention, or the idea of being spiritual. Our aim is to encourage the church to engage with God through the music, and we worship leaders have to model that. Thanks be to God, though, because His spirit is working in us to draw our hearts towards Jesus. That’s something I genuinely felt throughout the tour, and was grateful to God for it.

7. Communication is difficult.
Having an audience is a humbling privilege. I think that once you acknowledge that your aim is to connect with people, and that doing so is very challenging, you start to put more effort into crafting what you say and how you say it. Learning to articulate a message clearly and powerfully is a worthwhile use of your time, and something I want to get better at.

8. You can’t do it on your own.
I’m a fairly competent guy in a broad range of areas…I can usually turn my hand to a lot of things. But this tour has shown me that you have to depend on the help of others, and it’s a wonderful thing to do. It’s great that you can turn round and notice that the band have carried off the heavy gear from the stage while you were doing something else. It’s great to come to your changing room and realise that the NSA people have put bottles of water and fruit there for you, and you don’t have to go out and buy it yourself in the 10 minutes before the show starts.
This is what church is fundamentally about. People united with a common purpose, spurring one another on, preferring one another, and producing a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. God is a perfect triune community, and He desires that His church benefit from this blessed communion in the same way. On the tour, in our small, mobile incarnation of church, we saw people joyfully serving each other out of love for Christ, and it’s a pleasure to behold.