Talking DIY with the
acoustic guitar savant.
BY RANDY HARWARD
Doing it yourself is the motif, and increasingly the
motivation, of more and more musicians, including acoustic guitar maestro Andy
McKee. He rose to prominence on YouTube, having filmed himself performing Sisyphean
guitar instrumentals that he composed or arranged-notably much-viewed cover of
Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” And, apparently under the
maxim ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ McKee continues to handle a lot of his
own business while on the road, cutting out the middle-man road manager
position. That’s a common role for independent bands, but more interesting when
it concerns a solo performer. That’s the ultimate DIY move, a virtual Man vs. Wild scenario where it’s McKee
against the world in a business that Dr. Hunter S. Thompson famously said was,
“…a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and
pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
To get an idea how McKee survives in the touring wild, BLURT
piled an email Q&A on his plate, which he was kind enough to complete
between gigs and Xbox bouts.
BLURT: You’re a
one-man operation. How many hats do you wear?
ANDY MCKEE: I
wear about four or five. Driver, tour manager, roadie, tech, and performer. Oh,
and sometimes merch guy.
How long have you
operated like this, and how did it come about?
Well my first gig outside of my hometown was in 2003, all
the way over in Taiwan
of all places! I had been teaching guitar and doing the odd gig from 2003 until
2006. In late 2006, things started picking up on YouTube so I stopped teaching
and started touring full time. I’ve been going for around four years now pretty
hardcore. It’s been great, I really love playing for people and getting to see
So how do you manage
your time? Do you have to be very regimented with your practice, writing,
When I am on the road, I focus pretty much on getting to the
venue and hotel. Oh, and the performance. I don’t really practice when I am
touring; there’s just not any time for it. Fortunately, my fingers remember
what to do pretty well! I should mention I have a manager who really handles a
lot of the business stuff.
What are the pros and
cons of being out on the road alone?
Well I’m not always alone. A lot of times my wife is
actually out with me and she helps with some of the driving and merchandising.
When she isn’t with me I would say the most difficult thing is selling and
signing CDs at the end of the night. It can take well over an hour when I am
handling both duties.
What are the benefits
of handling your own business?
I do have help in my business from a few people. These
include my manager, booking agency, accountant, and lawyer. Without their help,
particularly my manager Eric Hoppe, I would not have been able to make it as
far as I have. It’s difficult enough wearing the five hats I’m already
sporting! But the benefits of handling my own business are great. I’ve always
been a bit of a non-conformist and being my own boss is really comforting. I
also like being able to see how well everything is going and being involved in
decisions about what to do next as far as touring, marketing, and publicity
goes. I am very much in control of my music and message, which is something I
will never relinquish.
What’s a typical day
like for you? Take us through your routine from alarm clock to pillow, for days
with and without gigs.
Gig Day: Wake up, shower, check out of hotel. Check the tour
book (or my own website if I don’t have a tour book!) and see where the next
venue is. Punch it into the GPS and hit the road. Stop at a Starbucks somewhere
down the road and Priceline a hotel room for that night. Check into the new
hotel and drop luggage. Go to venue and load-in around 5:00. Soundcheck three
guitars. Hang around until gig time, usually 8:00. Finish gig and go sign CDs/meet
fans until everyone is done (30-90 minutes) Load out all the gear, settle the
show (get paid), find dinner somewhere, go to hotel and crash.
Usually I hang out at the hotel and either play Xbox or go swimming. Maybe hit
the gym if I am really feeling energetic! If I am exceptionally energetic I
might even leave the hotel and go see some sights if there is anything
interesting around, but usually I just want to do a lot of nothing on my days
So you arrive at a
venue: Is it as simple as locating a contact person, loading in, setting up,
soundcheck, show, settlement?
Surprisingly, it usually is that easy! [I’ll] call the venue
while en route to find out where the load-in parking is, park the car, load in
the gear and merchandise… In my experience, the most common speed bump has been
that the venue has either forgotten to save you a space for load-in/load-out or
that they simply don’t have one. It really sucks when you have to carry gear
all over town from your parking space to the venue.
How about some
hypotheticals? First, what happens when the promoter tries to screw you over
and there’s no tour manager to tangle with?
I can’t recall any instance of this off of the top of my
head. Fortunately, I am working with a booking agency at the moment called
Monterey International and they would be the ones to handle something like
this. Actually, I just remembered a
festival in Ireland
that never paid. They were supposed to cover airfare as well and skipped on it.
They declared bankruptcy and I don’t imagine I will ever see any compensation
on that one.
When your guitar or
other crucial gear malfunctions/is damaged and must be repaired or replaced
I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid this so far. I’ve had
broken strings before on-stage and I will either switch to another guitar or
try to tell an interesting/funny story while changing the string.
really have a go- to story. I’ll try to think of something funny that happened
recently or just say something ridiculous like, “How about that local sports
team?” People generally empathize with you and the situation you are in so I
would say it’s best just to stay calm and get through changing the string as
smoothly as you can.
When you arrive at
the venue and there’s a double-booking?
I have had something similar to this – though not a
double-booking – happen in the UK.
When I arrived at the venue, it was revealed that there were three opening
acts. I was a bit disappointed, as I would be going on a lot later than I (or
perhaps the fans!) had planned on. I just ended up doing the gig and informed
my manager later about the situation. Won’t be at that venue again anytime
mind too much about playing later, it’s more about the fans who were expecting
me to go on at a certain time as advertised on my site and suddenly I’m not on
until a couple hours later.
When the opening act
I’ve only had this happen once as I recall. I just added an
extra 20 minutes to the show. I just play a few more of my original tunes, no
improvising, no covers.
A show is canceled by
someone other than you?
Well hopefully a deposit was sent to the booking agency so
it is not a total loss. Other than that, working with that promoter or venue [again]
is usually out of the question unless the cancellation was for a very good
are made and sent to the booking agency for a few reasons. One is to pay the
booking agency (the remainder of which is sent to me after the tour). Another
is to cover any expenses should the venue cancel the gig. The deposit is
typically 50% of the guarantee for doing the show.
What advice do you
have for musicians who might try this themselves?
If you are interested in being a touring musician, be ready
for a good bit of work! It’s not all tour buses and caviar. You also have to be
comfortable with being away from home for long bouts of time. I know some great
guitarists that are simply not comfortable touring much and unfortunately, it
is a detriment to their career, in my opinion. It was something that I had to
get acclimated to personally. Now, it’s almost more uncomfortable to be at home
for long periods of time than on the road for me.
also say that it is wise to build up a local following, then regional and
national. Try to get out and gig every weekend! Get to know local venues and
promoters so you can open up for national acts that come through town. Get an
online presence immediately on Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube. If you can, go
to festivals or conventions such as NAMM to make connections with people.
say it’s very important to stay sober and be professional if you want to try
hitting the road on your own. I’m a guy who likes a few beers every now and
then but when I am touring, I won’t touch the stuff. You’ve got to keep a clear
head and be able to get from town to town on your own. Be friendly, of course,
but hopefully you don’t need me to tell you that!