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It's a Gas

Pump pains constrain some musicians and inspire others

Unless you've been living in that same dark, clueless and ignorant place where the Texans cook up their draft strategy, you've probably heard something about gas prices.

But if you haven't, take our word for it: They're high. And if you're driving a fully loaded cargo van with five other people from Houston to Austin and then out to Phoenix, San Diego and L.A. -- if, in other words, you're in a touring band -- they are downright astronomical.

"Basically, if you're in the music business to make money right now, you're a fool," opines raspy-voiced El Orbits drummer-singer David Beebe. "If you're in it for something other than that, maybe you're in it for the right reasons, but goddamn, dude, there's so many X-factors working against you."

Beebe says that the price at the pump has already curtailed and/or altered some of his summer plans. He plans to rent a minivan instead of a full-size for an upcoming Midwest mini-tour with Andre Williams, and his normal summer California tour is canceled, as is all other out-of-state touring.

"I looked at my QuickBooks program yesterday, and I compared last year's gas expenditure to this year," he continues. "Last year we had already done a tour to Chicago, St. Louis, Springfield, Minneapolis, Green Bay, et ceteraÉI'm already up 25 percent over last year without even having done a tour."

Club owners and fans are also feeling the heat. As the proprietor of local show promotion company Super Unison, Ryan Chavez books a lot of what are called baby bands -- groups that just got signed to a label and don't have a record yet but want to establish themselves at touring hot spots. "They don't draw much yet, but they could build that, and so you want to help them out," Chavez says. And now these bands cost 50 percent more than they did a year ago. "The going rate for those bands used to be 100 bucks," Chavez says. "But in the last few months, with gas going up so high, it's now 150. Fifty bucks will feed the band, 50 bucks will pay the crew for the day, and the last 50 will get them to the show. Before, they could probably get to the show for 20 bucks."

And even as prices are rising for baby bands, ticket sales are dropping -- and Chavez believes fuel woes are at least partially to blame. "Houston's a huge town with atrocious public transport, and I would estimate that about 50 or 60 percent of the people coming to these shows live well outside of the Loop, and probably outside of Beltway 8, in places like Katy and The Woodlands. And I think a lot of them are just like, 'You know what? I'm just gonna get a six-pack and rent a movie instead of going to a show, which will cost me ten or 15 bucks in gas alone.'"

Carpooling and sharing gas money are the obvious, if hassle-ridden, solutions to that problem, but what of those touring bands? How can they make, among others, the Houston-Austin run without taking a bath?

Since Austin is his second home, Beebe has given the problem much thought. On the one hand, he plans to raise his fee. After that, he'll get creative. "I have to do a bunch of gigs in Austin with the Conrads at Threadgill's on Tuesdays, so I'm gonna take an amp, a guitar and a Farfisa [organ] up to Austin and leave them at [fellow El Orbit] Landis Armstrong's house, and after that I'll be taking the Greyhound to Austin," he says. "It's $42.50 round trip. Cheaper than driving, plus I can read and sleep."

Unfortunately for most bands, bussing to gigs is only viable under particular conditions. "The problem with Greyhound is that you can take bags but not gear," Beebe says. "They charge you a separate shipping fee for that, and that fee is as expensive as your ticket."

Still, it's working for Beebe, and if you have a return engagement in some other city and can cache some gear there, or if you are the sort of act who travels light -- a rapper or DJ, perhaps -- it can work for you too, sometimes in ways that aren't always immediately apparent. "There's a comedian in Austin who was lamenting to my buddy Landis there that he needed a car," Beebe says. "He had a West Coast tour comin' up and he didn't have a car 'cause his girlfriend just left him and got the car and he didn't have any credit, so he wanted Landis to co-sign a fucking note for a new Honda Civic. I was like, 'Landis, don't do this. This guy's a grown man. Why doesn't he just take the fuckin' bus? He's on a fucking comedy tour. Imagine how much fucking material he would get from riding the Greyhound.' The people you see on those things, man...If you don't get stories from seeing these people actually acting this shit out, you could just make 'em up by lookin' at 'em."

But Beebe is as empathetic to bands that aren't as regionally popular as his as he is remorseless to car-fiend comedians. "We have this Austin-Houston-San Antonio circuit where we can always count on selling some merchandise to cover our gas, so we're not taking a big hit on whatever we take at the door or out of our guarantee," he says. "But still, it's turned what was a slightly moneymaking operation into a slightly money-losing operation. But that doesn't mean I'm gonna stop. I've just got to be smarter."

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