How To Tour Alaska & Alter Your Life’s Path For The Better
Alaska could be the best thing that ever happens to your life. Whether you are a semi-professional musician or simply a food service employee or a bartender, just head up North and work for a Summer. I cannot tell you how many happy Alaskans I’ve met-young and old- whose origin story starts with a journey they made to the North to just check it out and see what it had to offer.
Touring the planet has become difficult for most of us road dog musicians. With all the uncertainty, I leaned even harder into playing shows in Alaska. The wide open spaces, nature, & wonderful music fans have made touring life up North extremely joyful. I did not set out to tour Alaska to make a ton of money. I went up there to find a new path. I went to see the last frontier of North America and experience something new. As it turned out, Alaska has given me so much more than I ever could have imagined.
I get a lot of notes asking me how to get a foot in the door in regards to playing shows in Alaska. I’m going to break it down for you so that you too can travel to the last frontier of North America, play some fun gigs, meet great humans, and alter your life’s path for the better while simultaneously giving your creativity a serious boost.
My musical tours of Alaska started when the Whistling Swan Promoter Mike McCormick saw that I was wearing a vintage Alaska T-shirt on the cover of my second album and invited me to play three coffee shops in Anchorage, Palmer, and Kenai. I immediately realized that there was more to this land that I wanted to see. One thing led to another, and now I have toured Alaska for twenty years, playing shows of all sizes from festivals to house concerts, songwriting workshops, benefit shows, and fishing trips where I am the campfire performer after dinner.
For established acts, i.e. those with record companies and booking agents, there are really only three or four main gigs: Anchorage, Fairbanks, Salmonfest, and wealthy patrons of the arts house shows or specialty shows. Whistling Swan Promotions is not operating anymore, so there is indeed a vacancy or a need for strong singer-songwriter slash folk-rock band promoter in Alaska as of this time. Some actts that may draw 250 people or more are just going to have to wait until times are better, but for those of you folkies who are willing to tread slightly off the beaten path, I have some ideas to get you started.
I am writing this down for the thick skinned troubadours and folk acts that are able to handle some of the excitement, glory, and challenges that come with touring up North. This might not work as easily for full bands that have drum sets, etc…but that can be done too. Don’t let anything stop you from following your dream, but you need a dream to start with. Here is a dream that is attainable and quite fulfilling. I can already hear some of my Alaskan musician friends bemoaning that I am even writing this. The deal is- if you can handle it and wish to do something different with your touring life, than this is just something to get you started. If you are a good fit for Alaska then Alaska will be kind to you. There is plenty of room up there for all kinds of musicians. I know for sure that if you are able to throw down for the round trip plane tickets to get you there, follow some of my instructions, then get on the internet and do your research, you will have one of the best times of your life.
STEP ONE: WHERE DO I BEGIN?
Tour routing is a fascinating thing in Alaska. I love looking at random bands tour routing in Alaska to see how they are doing it. I can tell right away if they are going to be able to make it or not. There are some great distances in between shows, and you could really wipe yourself out if you are not careful. Let us now focus on the one long highway from Fairbanks all the way to Homer. This blog will focus on central Alaska. There are plenty of shows in Southeast Alaska, but you would need to book separate flights just to get there. Let’s concentrate on the single road going North or South out of Anchorage, which is where you will most likely fly into. From the big city you can head North, into the interior of Talkeetna and Denali and Fairbanks, or down South to Alaska’s Summertime playground of the Kenai Peninsula. I like to do both, and even fly to Kodiak and other remote spots, but I am a bit of a traveling workaholic who likes to fish along the way.
I am sure you want to play sweet gigs where everyone is hanging on every word and you sell tons of merch. These gigs do exist, but you are going to have to work up to them. I am not going provide house concert contact info with these instructions. You will have to come to Alaska, kick some ass, and earn this privilege. I would begin by booking one of these locations. STARTING YOUR PHONE CALLS IN NOVEMBER OR DECEMBER FOR SPRING & SUMMER 2022, look them up on line, get their phone number, and call the bartender and ask to speak to the person who books the shows there. Be sweet, get a contact name & email address. Send them your digital PRESS KIT, a promo shot, a video of you performing, your newest album, and some press quotes. DON’T CALL ON WEEKENDS. If you want to really secure your presence perhaps you will physically mail a package to the bar with your poster, CD, and a hand written note that says you really want to play there. Perhaps you will include a gift or a sticker of some kind. Be creative. Try to stand out somehow. Then wait a few weeks and call or email the booker once again.
Try these venues for starters:
THE BROWN BEAR, Indian, AK
VAN’S DIVE BAR, Anchorage
THE YUKON BAR, Seward
THE DIRTY SKILLET, Hope
SEAVIEW INN, Hope
GWINS LODGE, Cooper Landing
KINGFISHER, Cooper Landing
DOWN EAST, Homer
LINWOOD BAR AND GRILL, Seldovia
KLONDIKE MIKE’S Palmer
MOUNTAIN HIGH PIZZA PIE Talkeetna
FAIRVIEW INN Talkeetna
MALEMUTE SALOON Ester (Fairbanks)
HOWLING DOG SALOON Fairbanks
There are a lot more bars & coffee shops, but you’ve got to start somewhere. If you booked shows at half of these places you would be looking at one of the most adventurous tours of your life. All of these venues are going to be on the somewhat rowdier side of Alaskan touring experiences. These are not what I would call “listening rooms,” but you can have a good time playing at these places. If you have some songs that can get people to dance, then you will be alright. Another way to do this is to look at the bands who played these rooms through research on line, then look at that band’s tour schedule to FIND OTHER NAMES OF BARS/VENUES that book live music, and contact them yourself.
THE PAY, THE FOOD, THE DRINKS, THE LODGING:
Most of these places will offer between $250 and $400 per show depending on if it’s a weekend or not. You must remember that TIP JARS are a part of the job up North, and Alaskans will let you know if they like you through the jar. You may be playing three sets, so be prepared to work. More often than not, food and drinks are covered at these locations. Lodging is only covered at a few of these places, but if you keep your ear to the ground and play well with others, Alaska will take care of you. In the meantime, I’d bring a tent and some warm clothes. If you do well, house concerts will appear in your future, and the pay will increase for you. Bring plenty of merch and have your PayPal and Venmo signs ready.
THE FLIGHTS: This is the most costly part of doing this, and if you are going to commit to a time window then you had better get on with it. Often times, I will book a show or two, then book the flight, then work to cover the rest of the dates, but also remember to leave some dates open, because Alaska is exhausting in the Summer when the sun does not go down. Also, you will need some travel time in between shows.
TRANSPORT: This is another costly thing. Rental cars are expensive in Alaska. You may look to rent from Alaskans themselves through sites such as turo.com or use kayak.com or rent direct from Midnight Sun Car & Van Rentals in Anchorage. I am known for hitchhiking around the State but the fact is mostly I stand there for a few minutes before somebody pulls up and says “okay Tim, get in the car.” I have a lot of friends who travel the same paths, so I am lucky that way, but you will most likely have to rent a vehicle. If you are the hitchhiking type, then I say ego for it and write me a story to let me know how it went. You may spend a lot of money getting your flights and transportation situated, so now it’s time to get all the gigs you can!
GEAR: Anchorage has a Guitar Center, and I am willing to provide backline rental contact info if this is something you are interested in. I would bring plenty of strings, of course, and one microphone and one cable that was yours and all yours. Most of these bars have their own sound systems and mic stands in various shapes, but having your own microphone & cable would be a good move. Bring an extra quarter inch cable, because instrument cables tend to take a beating up North.
Definitely bring a full layer of thermal undergarments, not cotton, but the good stuff. Once it gets cold at night and you don’t have a fire, it could get challenging for you. Definitely bring a full rain suit, and a warm hat. Alaskans don’t stop their activities just because it’s raining. Alaskans also don’t really care for the latest fashion, and they are more interested in those who invent their own. Everyone looks the same in rain gear. I would bring the kind of shoes that you can hike in and also wear on stage. Nobody really cares what you are wearing, but of course you can have all the fun you want with your accessories, just remember you have to carry all of this plus your instruments and your merchandise. A recyclable water bottle is important too. Carrying a bag of snacks/trail mixfor when you are in between meals is a smart move. A sun hat or ball cap of some kind plus sunglasses may also save you on a few occasions. The weather is simply unpredictable, and it’s different all over the State. There will be rain, sun, wind, hot in the day, then really cold after midnight when the sun goes down. Be prepared for all of it.
I really hope that you take Alaska up on this offer and go up there and have a blast. If, for whatever reason, you are reading this and just want to go up to Alaska and work as a waiter or get a job on a fishing boat or work some job in the tourist economy, but also happen to play guitar and write songs, then by all means just save up the money to buy your flight and get moving. Alaska will be the best thing that ever happen to your young self, or even your middle aged self. Let me know how it goes, and I’m sure we’ll have many friends in common before long.