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So this is living the dream.

You’re insane with sleep deprivation and barely functioning on the internal fumes surviving from the greasy truck-stop burger and fries you forced down in Prince Albert nine hours ago. You want to kill the sleeping figure, once your closest friend but now something of an adversary, slouched and snoring at superhuman volume next to you in the cramped rear end of a mid-’80s Econoline van that reeks of burning oil and unwashed bodies and that may or may not deliver you back to Toronto in a couple of weeks’ time, let alone stagger on westward to the next destination still another five hours away on your itinerary.

You’re not speaking to the driver or his shotgun since the Supertramp-vs.-Steely Dan argument, which is stupid but a point of pride since Famous Last Words is amazing and they’re idiots, anyway. You have no idea, for the fourth night in a row, where you’re going to sleep tonight, nor much confidence that the $100 promised to you and the three other passengers with whom you’ll have to split it by that shady promoter in Edmonton will actually materialize at the end of today’s drive. You miss your girlfriend so much it physically hurts, although your last, strained telephone conversation led you to believe that she won’t actually be your girlfriend anymore when you roll back home three weeks from now.

You’ve already run out of clean clothes. You’re debilitatingly hung over from all those free Jager shots the cute bartender at Amigo’s kept thrusting your way in Saskatoon last night. You can feel the stirrings of a cold coming on in the back of your throat. Your iPod’s been out of juice for hours and the tape deck’s been out of commission, taking the radio down with it, since you insisted upon kicking off the tour with a 28-year-old copy of Duran Duran’s Rio you found under a radiator at your mother’s place.

In hindsight, the $14 you spent on another stupid “list” issue of Q magazine because it had Kurt Cobain on the cover (again) probably would have been better invested in a fistful of second-hand Tolstoy paperbacks because the Prairies really are as boring as everyone says once the novelties of “flat” and “empty” and grain elevators wear off. Christ, you’d read a Danielle Steele novel right now to pass the time. It’s come to that. And, oh my God, is that Darryl producing those vile smells in his sleep? “What the hell does that guy eat, anyway?” you ask yourself. “There’s no way a healthy human being could produce odours like this.”

Welcome to the reality of life on the road, mythologized onscreen and in rock ‘n’ roll journalism and often in song by artists who have lived it, survived it and occasionally even loved it but who all, with very rare exceptions, started at the unromantic bottom.

More artists than ever, too, are cluttering that bottom right now. The internet, the bogeyman blamed for all the music industry’s ills, has actually presented musicians who know how to work it creatively — or who sometimes just have an undeniably awesome song or sound to share — with opportunities for exposure well beyond the geographical confines of their own scenes that were unheard of even a decade ago.

MySpace, YouTube and the simple, contentious act of passing around MP3s both legally and illegally acquired, along with hot blog praise from a trendsetting online outlet such as Pitchfork.com, can now foment the kind of word of mouth that fills clubs and concert halls in other cities with a speed the founders of Rolling Stone couldn’t possibly have imagined.

The Arctic Monkeys, who arrived to a sold-out Lee’s Palace a few years ago with no album to their name after circulating songs free for months online, were standard-bearers for the new reality. Now, it’s not unusual to watch a bill featuring, say, Brooklyn hipster favourites Sleigh Bells and South African hip-hop crew Die Antwoord to 1,000 people at the Phoenix on a Tuesday night based upon nothing more than their shared Internet notoriety. If you play live and you’re halfway decent, chances are there’s an audience out there for you these days.

“It used to be you didn’t go on the road unless you had hits,” observes booking agent Jack Ross, one of the co-founders of Toronto’s Agency Group. “And hits were defined as getting a lot of airplay at radio and maybe video. When the digital revolution happened, cult scenes in cities spread and they became so much bigger. Bands don’t tour now on the strength of a hit. Everybody tours now.

“People have so much more access. The word spreads around different communities. A new indie-rock band emerges out of some city and as soon as there’s some kind of national champion — Pitchfork writes about a new band out of Portland and, the next thing you know, that band from Portland can come to Toronto and sell 300 tickets.”

There are, thus, more acts on the road than ever before, often sooner in their careers than ever before and, consequently, in this city for sure and the country at large in general, more places for them to set up their gear and play.

Talk to any booking agent and he or she will tell you that a 1,000-seat venue that used to book bands three months out is now working nine months ahead, even a year ahead, in some cities. On a more prosaic level, though, one has but to observe how the number of pages devoted to club listings in, say, NOW magazine has expanded during the past couple of years to have laid bare the sheer volume of acts getting in the van — and it’s definitely not a tour bus, by the way, unless you’ve got $1,500 a day to fritter away — and struggling to get noticed in the clubs these days.

“In the last decade, you’ve heard and seen countless articles about the death of the music business. None of that is true,” says Ralph James, Ross’s partner in the Agency Group and a man who put in some time of his own on the road as the frontman for Winnipeg’s Harlequin during the 1970s. “The opposite is true. There are, perhaps, less superstars and less corporate jets and less perks but I haven’t really noticed that there are a lot less really big tours.

“There’s a lot more of is mid-range tours. A club the size of Kool Haus or Sound Academy — they’re approximately the same — 10 years ago there was only one of them and there were three or four shows a month in that building. Now, there’s a dozen shows a month that fit into that size building.”

“It’s the same. It’s the same,” says James. “First of all, the physical geography hasn’t changed . . . Being in Canada, you have to deal with our climate and that’s never changed; the weather is the weather is whatever the weather is. And the expectations of what the artists are expected to do on tour, regardless of the level they’re at, with respect to press, TV and radio — certainly the pressure is on from the labels to get the artists to do more stuff, to get more attention, to get on the various internet options to talk to your fans. I think the days have gotten more complicated because of this. But the essential nuts and bolts are: play here, travel to here by whatever method and play again.”

The global drop in record sales hasn’t really affected musicians toiling at the normal, modest level of notoriety. Contrary to popular belief, only the biggest stars ever reaped a stable income from record sales. And publishing royalties, the other traditionally lucrative avenue of income for the musician who happened to write his or her own material, were usually surrendered to the record label in a traditional recording contract.

Touring has, thus, dependably brought in some much-needed cash and “solidified your exposure,” as LiveNation Canada head Riley O’Connor puts it, as well as granted younger bands a path to upward mobility as their onstage chops were whipped further into shape, gig by gig, and their audiences expanded.

“It wasn’t until we came into the ’80s — the blockbuster era, the Baby Boom bulge, as it were — that all of a sudden new opportunities for revenue streams opened up for artists,” says O’Connor. “And I think there was kind of a laissez-faire attitude about it. You had what I call the hardest-working band in rock ’n’ roll, Iron Maiden, who would go out there literally 365 days a year and then you had other bands who had a great single, made a great video and had revenue streams coming from record sales, video play, radio play, publishing and a smattering of live performance. So they became millionaires without really having to get out and do a lot.

“I think that bubble existed and then burst, and now we’re getting back to ‘How do I hone my skill and get my craft better and make an improved product going out there and doing live performance?’ It’s almost like we’ve come 360 degrees around on how you make your money.”

Noticeably more clutter on the touring trail has, perhaps, perpetuated the illusion that, all of a sudden, hordes of previously sheltered musicians are flocking to the road out of panicked necessity.

Really, though, as the recording industry’s traditional emphasis on the album — on selling recorded product to consumers on the accepted format of the moment — has eroded in the face of digital downloading and other paradigm-smashing technological trends, the music business at large has just beaten a hasty retreat to live music, the medium that has always been its bread and butter. The medium that was its original reason for being, well before anyone had the notion of making it his or her bread and butter, let alone the cultural context in which such a notion could even arise.

“These bands don’t play as much as they used to. There’s not as much money coming in,” says veteran Canadian music journalist Larry Leblanc. “Equipment is no cheaper, practice space is no cheaper, travel is no cheaper, getting a car is no cheaper and if you’re a solo act and you’ve gotta hire a band – that ain’t cheap. All of those things make it really difficult.”

Touring is also, as Terry McBride — the founder of Nettwerk Records and the manager who ushered the Barenaked Ladies, Sum 41 and Avril Lavigne to international stardom — puts it, “a total grind.”

When artists come to Nettwerk Management looking for a shot at the big time, he makes sure they understand what’s going to be required of them: a minimum of 200 and probably 250 appearances a year, which basically means the total abandonment of every non-musical aspect of their lives.

“It’s a total grind,” he stresses again. “You don’t go back to the same room. You don’t have your friends and your family. You have no real downtime. Just because you have a day off on the road, it’s not really a day off. It can be very disjointing.

“I don’t take on a client unless there’s a few key things. One is if they really want this more than anything in their life . . . It’s about work, believing in yourself, about having a passion to make it and being authentic. That’s what it’s about. It’s not rocket science. You’ve gotta have the talent and you’ve gotta have the work ethic to back it up.”

Former Rheostatic Dave Bidini — who started his secondary career as an author collecting several decades’ worth of touring yarns from Canadian rockers of all stripes in 1998’s On a Cold Road — developed enough of a taste for the constant flux of the touring lifestyle during more than a dozen slogs back and forth across the country with the Rheos from their Etobicoke birthplace that he’s continued to play the “wanderer” in a number of subsequent sports-and-travel memoirs.

He relishes the experiences and the inspirational effects of the thousands of kilometres he’s covered, but he also understands why so many can’t handle it. He’s probably correct in arguing that touring Canada prepares you for touring anywhere else in the world, and when he invokes fellow CanCon musician Matthew Good’s comment that one has to be a “gladiator” to tour this country it comes with a trustworthy ring of seasoned authority.

“I know bands who’ve broken up in Vancouver,” he says. “They’ve got to Vancouver, they’ve made it, they’re out, they’ve hit the coast and, in most cases, that should be a victory lap, but they’re, like, ‘That’s it’ and they fly home . . .

“Everything’s changed and nothing’s changed. It’s pretty much the same zigzag that you have to do across the country. It’s the same. When you get into town you have to make your own friends, you have to make your own audience, you have to go to the record store and meet the cool person who sells the cool records in that town, you have to go to the college radio station and do your interview. That sorta thing. And ultimately, when the light goes on, you’ve gotta be good. Those things haven’t changed at all.”

Those things are the same everywhere. Those things are the reason musicians both love and dread the road. Those things are standard to the experience of every musician intent on making a go of it above the amateur level. And now, more than ever in popular music’s history, artists must submit to those things if they want to eke out even the barest of livings. What follows, we hope, will illuminate the work that musicians put into living what rock mythology has taught us is a dream, a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy, but which in reality is often a job as gruelling as working in a salt mine.