By Chris Gray
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Two years ago, when gas prices briefly topped three bucks a gallon for a few weeks, we wrote in this space that the tab for touring bands was downright astronomical. Touring musician David Beebe said then that anybody of his ilk who was in it for the money was a fool, and announced the cancellation of his then-planned California tour. Ryan Chavez of Super Unison show promoters bemoaned his razor-thin margin, as well as the fact that Houston's notoriously far-flung music fans could no longer afford the drive in to his shows.
And today, with gas a full 25 percent more, all that seems like the good old days. And unless the price of fuel drastically declines, the touring industry as we have known it the last few decades will have to utterly transform.
Hell, it is already changing. I've looked at what is coming up for Houston this summer, and it is not a pretty sight. Tom Waits notwithstanding, hot tickets are few and far between. This year, more than any of the seven I have been in the chair as music editor, it seems that "all the good shows" really are skipping Houston.
Erik Carter is an agent in the Texas office of the Kork Agency, a booking company with offices in Houston and in the San Francisco area. Kork handles dozens of mid-list indie bands from ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead and +- to Young People and Zion I, and including such national notables as the Gossip and Of Montreal and local heavy hitters Indian Jewelry and Fatal Flying Guilloteens.
He says more than just the high price of gas is at play. The Internet has put too many different bands on too many different people's radars, he says, and now that nobody's buying CDs, bands are having to tour twice as often to maintain their no-day-job-working lifestyles. The upshot of all of that is a constant logjam in the clubs, with too many of the shows drawing too few people to encourage other clubs to open.
What's more, Carter says that if you factor in the weak dollar, the recession and the gas prices on top of everything else, the touring industry is turning into a whole new ball of wax. Instead of getting in the van and heading from coast to coast or through a region or two, bands are simply flying from city to city in the so-called "hipster archipelago," island-hopping from New York to Chicago to Seattle and down to San Francisco and Los Angeles. That approach is hardly ideal, Carter says.
"If all you are doing is hitting a lot of the major markets where they can afford to cover your flights, it makes it a lot harder to hit a lot of the towns that are sort of 'on-the-way towns,'"he says.
And make no mistake: Houston is one of those "on-the-way towns," if even that. This year alone, bands playing Austin and not here include My Morning Jacket, Rilo Kiley, No Age, Swervedriver, Firewater, James Hunter, the Hold Steady and Stereolab, not even to mention all the bands coming to Austin City Limits Festival and not stopping here en route.
Carter is not saying touring in that manner is foolish in the short term. Over time, though, bypassing ugly ducklings like Houston again and again will bite you in the ass. "At some point, people forget about you in the smaller markets," he says, "and you end up with a bunch of bands that are strong in New York, L.A., San Francisco and Chicago and maybe Austin, and then there's a whole bunch of other towns that were the bulk of the CDs that you were supposed to be selling."
Neither is he sold on another current strategy. Today, many bands would rather their fans come to them at one of the steadily increasing summer festivals, from Bonnaroo, Voodoo and Langerado in the Southeast to Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits and Wakarusa in the central states to Coachella, Bumbershoot and Sasquatch in the West. Each year, more of these seem to pop up, but not all in the industry are sold on them as the ideal way to connect a band with fans old and new. (And apparently, fans might not be either, as Coachella's numbers were off 20 percent from last year's peak.)
"Let's face it. Playing Lollapalooza is not the same as playing your own club show for a ticket price that your fans are willing to pay to see your band," Carter says. "Yeah, you might have just played to 5,000 people, but you didn't play to the 500 important ones, the ones that actually like and follow your band and want to buy your music."
Or if you have found those 500, they are from ten different towns from around the area, and you have the same 50 fans in every town you did going in. Carter believes that a plurality of, if not most, festival attendees are there to see the headlining bands and are not all that open-minded about the others on the bill.