When Matt Ladis entered 2021, he knew he wanted to expand further into artist management. He probably didn't know that before the year was over, he'd tour all 50 states in a whirlwind, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience with an indie rock band from Nashville called Walden.
Prior to joining the Walden camp, Ladis cut his industry teeth on the finance side, working at a music accounting firm where his first job involved doing tour accounting for an international artist pulling six-figure performance guarantees.
"I saw who paid whom, how, when, and got to the point where I actually paid those people," Ladis tells RootNote. "It was crazy seeing a million dollar advance come into an artist’s account. It’s not my money, it’s the artist's, but now I’m the one who has to figure out who we owed commissions on and how much we have to put away for taxes. I sort of considered that my master in music business."
Before he cold-called his way into a music accounting office, Ladis worked with a music-focused non-profit as a student at the University of Michigan, where he got experience putting on campus-wide music festivals and working with talent agencies to book major acts. He didn't know how much he'd be tapping into that experience years later while trying to book a last-minute show in the middle of a state he'd never been to. But more on that in a bit.
Take The Meeting
The pandemic caused massive disruption across the entertainment industry. But perhaps no corner of the industry felt it more than the live business, where virtually every company conducted massive layoffs and reduced their roster sizes. Like many bands, early in the pandemic, Walden found themselves without a dedicated team.
But the band's former booking agent also happened to be friends with Ladis. Knowing Ladis was interested in diving deeper into management, Walden's former agent reached out and eventually connected them.
In February, Ladis hopped on a Zoom call with Walden's Richard Becker (guitar, vocals) and Eric Hangartner (keys, vocals). The three spent hours getting to know each other and talking about music.
Ladis traveled to Nashville for his birthday in March and managed to mix in a little business, this time meeting with all four members of Walden for drinks the day after his birthday. Though everybody was comfortable with each other pretty much immediately, Ladis says the band seemed a bit down on themselves about not having a team in place or a game plan in motion.
"I was like, you guys are really legit performers. You’ve played over 200 concerts. You have a van. You have a PA. You have everything you need to put on a show except you don’t have an agent to book the show. Why don’t you guys just book your own tour?"
After years of being on a roster, the thought hadn't really crossed their mind at the time.
"So I run to the bathroom and I come back and Eric, the keyboard player, said, 'Hey Matt, we came up with an idea. We’re going to tour all 50 states. We’re going to take your idea and go a little crazy with it,'" Ladis says. "I had just met these guys 30 minutes prior and I was like, 'Ok, you guys are nuts and I love it.' So that’s where we meet. And that’s where the idea for the tour came from."
A few weeks later, Ladis caught up with the band via another Zoom call and they already had major pieces in place. They were calling it the "Where's Walden Tour." They had hired a Japanese art company to design a sprawling poster in the vein of old Where's Waldo artwork. And they had a starting date in Atlanta (their hometown prior to Nashville) and another date in New York City.
A Catchy Idea
So where did the concept of "50 states on $50" come from? It's not like the band actually only used $50 at any given point to make the tour happen. But besides being a very catchy idea, the slogan is rooted in where the band was at when they started — not where they wanted to be.
"Around the time they came up with this idea the band business bank account had like $50 in it," Ladis says. "They had no money in the account." But they did have assets — like a van, a PA, and some upcoming singles they just had recorded.
"It's not like we were starting from scratch," Ladis adds. "They had assets. We had a lot in place, given 9 years of history as a live band."
The band announced a bit of a crowdfund to get some initial capital from their supporters as they continued to book anchor dates. They also put their secondary skills to use in creating a website, some initial graphics, merchandise etc.
"It's not like we planned on trying to make it all work with $50, or like at any point in the tour we were down to just $50," Ladis says. "But we started with $50."
One Bite At A Time
When it came to planning the tour routing, Ladis says the team relied on a fairly common strategy. They started by booking some "anchor dates" in larger cities where they knew they could sell some tickets.
"Atlanta, New York, Nashville, Boston, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Michigan — which is where I went to school so I knew I could make a show happen — Los Angeles, Denver," Ladis says. "Those cities we booked like 3 or 4 months in advance."
The band figured they could probably sell about 150 tickets in those markets thanks to their previous touring and festival history. Then they turned to trip-planning website Furkot in order to make some hypothetical touring routes and figure out what made the most sense. They eventually turned the route into an interactive map on their website where each state also included a link to the show.
The band's dedicated "Where's Walden Tour" website proved to be a critical piece of digital real estate for the whole tour, but more on that in a bit.
The only problem with the tour booking?
The night of the first show — September 10 — Walden only had at most 14 shows of their necessary 50 booked. Seriously.
Philly Roll With The Punches
Most booking agents wouldn't recommend turning the keys in the ignition on a tour with a few question marks still on the calendar. None of them would recommend doing it with less than a third of a 3-month tour booked.
"We had a lot of conversations going and a lot of emails out," Ladis says. "But man, there were some tough times. There were some shows that got canceled with a couple days notice. So we went into emergency mode to find a brewery who would take us in or a venue. And some of our last-minute shows were actually our best shows."
Like during the first few weeks of the tour, when a private show in Philadelphia canceled a Friday performance on Tuesday. Ladis jumped on the computer and sent 20 emails to venues in the area with "URGENT BOOKING REQUEST." One venue got back to him with a two word response: "call me."
It turns out The Fire, a local rock club with a rich history, had a cancelation that Friday night.
"They said, 'Listen, we love what you’re doing; the show is yours under one condition: you need to find three support bands,'" Ladis says. "This was Tuesday at 1:30 in the morning. I said, 'I’ll have you those by tomorrow night.' So I jumped on the good old Instagram and the good old Spotify and I found us two local bands, the venue found a band, and by Wednesday night, we had a lineup. We called it 'LastMinutePalooza.' We printed fliers and handed them out at Temple University and at local restaurants, and in this hundred cap room we sold 85 tickets. You can ask the guys and they’ll tell you it was the most fun show they’ve ever played in their careers."
The local scene of young punks and alt rockers turned up. "I’m talking 16 to 21," Ladis says. "We had mosh pits, stage diving. Like it was the raucous show that came out of nothing."
Leaning On Fans and Strangers
Much of the Where's Walden Tour relied on a mix of excellent preparation, hard work, and the kindness of fans and strangers. The band built a website exclusively for the tour where they offered fans the opportunity to support them through merch and donations. They used dropshipping giant Printful to take care of print-on-demand merch orders since they wouldn't be able to ship anything while on the road (worse margins, but no up-front production costs) and also created a "Treat the band to a tank of gas" donation option for $40, which Ladis says was a popular option (though to state the obvious, $40 does not pay to completely fill up a 22 gallon-tank Ford Transit van).
Any time a fan chose the donation option, the band would shout them out in their Instagram story as they filled up. They also created a special bar code magnet which they attached to Vanny. Anybody could scan to read more about their story and help out with a donation.
"There were a couple times where we were just on the freeway and somebody scanned our bar code and donated money to us," Ladis says. "One time we were at a gas station. A woman came up to us, scanned it, and was like, 'You guys are a band and you’re touring all 50 states on a $50 starting budget? No way!' And gave us $20. Just handed us $20 and then bought a hat. And while that’s not the most money, to me that was the coolest thing ever. The fact that this woman trusted us and that we were legit and was like willing to give us her hard earned cash. Like, that really went a long way."
And that's just one of many examples. When the band needed to play in Alaska and they couldn't drive due to the Canadian border being closed, they turned to fans who helped buy them plane tickets.
Same thing for Hawaii — where the only venue to respond to the band also provided all the instruments, helped them get an affordable Airbnb, and promoted the event to the tune of 200 people showing up.
Ladis reconnected with a friend from college for what ended up being a fantastic private show in Phoenix. One night, one man bought $300 worth of merch. Another, someone handed the band $50 cash so they could eat "something better than Taco Bell" on the road. Breweries came in clutch, sometimes allowing the band to simply show up and play for tips.
The entire tour was an exercise in working hard and not being too proud to ask for help. "There were a lot of heroes who made this thing possible for us," Ladis says. "In hindsight, and we knew this all along, we couldn’t do this ourselves. If we didn’t have the network we had, the family members we had who took care of us, the friends who let us crash on their couches — sometimes begrudgingly — the families who cooked us dinner. There was a couple who had seen the band at a festival three years ago and been following ever since. They housed us in Houston, cooked us a homemade dinner, and said, 'If you ever need somewhere to stay, give us a call.' To me, those were some of the highlights of the tour."
Looking At The Tour From A Financial Perspective
Ladis says doing projections for the tour had its challenges, but with his background they were in a better position than a lot of bands their size. He says money is still coming in and they're still paying off expenses, but he feels confident the band will at least break even on the tour — something that just about any band will tell you is a big success on even a modest tour, much less something as ambitious as doing all 50 states.
But the point of the tour wasn't to make money. It was to revitalize a band and a fanbase that — like a lot of entertainers right now — needed something good. "The connection you have on stage with fans, for a lot of artists, is a lifeline," Ladis says. "And the pandemic stripped that from a lot of people. The number one goal was to get out there and have some fun. To be revitalized by their fans."
But they also prepared themselves to utilize the tour in the future. The band brought a photographer along for the whole tour, and now they're sitting on 10 terabytes worth of photo and video to use in the coming year. They released three song over the last quarter of the year and established their ticketing expectations in both new and returning markets.
Beyond the pure dollars and cents of the operation, the tour will yield a lot of positive results for the future. But none of that changes the fact that it just started for all the right reasons: connecting with people across the country.