High Gas Prices Still Hurting Touring Bands
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.
Carter thinks that the best way for baby bands and mid-listers to build their followings is still through club dates.
He also has one idea about how they could continue to take place. "With all the bad press that gas companies get, you'd think that one of them would want to invest in some sort of publicity campaign where they could give touring artists gas cards to help them underwrite their tours. It would be such a drop in the bucket for them, and then you think about their bullshit commercials. When was the last time you decided to buy a brand of gas based on a Chevron commercial or Exxon commercial? You'd think they'd be able to give Indian Jewelry a couple of hundred dollars worth of gas cards, and that would make a real difference for bands like that."
Of course, there's the matter of taking money from the man. Would Indian Jewelry's Tex Kerschen take money from Exxon or BP, especially when those companies would likely insist that his band trumpet that fact somehow? Maybe given Tex Kerschen's politics, Indian Jewelry is a bad example, but it's easy to imagine a couple hundred other bands that would form-tackle their own grandmothers to get at Exxon's lucre.
Here are a couple more ideas: Pete Gordon from the Continental Club thinks that the old-school package tour is due a comeback. Put two, three or four bands out on the road together in one very crowded RV. This would not be the same ol', same ol' multi-band bill, but something more like the R&B revues of yore, in which singers and dancers and musicians would conspire to put together a cohesive show culminating in the appearance of the headliner. James Brown was trotting out a revue like this as late as 1999, when I saw him at the Verizon, and even at his advanced age, it was still one of the best shows I've ever seen.
Another idea is the reestablishment of the long-term residency for touring bands. Back in the pre-rock, pre-interstate travel days and beyond, it was not uncommon for touring acts to set up shop in town for a week or more. I know Texas-bred, L.A.-based T-Bone Walker did a three-month run in Chicago's Rhumboogie Club. I have an old copy of Space City News in my office somewhere that touts Cannonball Adderley's month at La Bastille on Market Square. Dale Soffar's introduction of Townes Van Zandt's Live at the Old Quarter reveals that the latter was nearing the end of a week-long engagement at that club. And the practice is not unknown today — Gordon says that Southern Culture on the Skids always plays two nights in Houston and five in Austin.
I think for a certain type of act, it could work again. First off, it would mainly work for older, more established acts. Second, it wouldn't work for hipster indie bands, no matter their age. Carter contends, and I agree, that clubs are booked too far in advance, and in today's Pitchfork-fueled instant gratification nation, today's No Age is yesterday's Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! or Tapes N' Tapes. A club or promoter would be insane to commit to a week of shows six months down the line from a blog band that is hot right now.
Where I think this would work better is outside Hipster Nation, at places like the Continental Club and the Mucky Duck, and with classic rock and other oldies acts.
Here's how it would work. The musicians and their gear would be flown into Houston, where they would rent a van or bus, and then play in a smaller room than the one they are currently accustomed to playing. But instead of playing one night, they would play two, three or more. Then, those bands could repeat that in Dallas and Austin. After a couple of weeks in Texas, they could fly home, and then repeat the process in California or the Midwest.
Instead of one long-ass, marriage-wrecking tour, bands could hop around throughout the year, a week or two at a time, interspersed with full months at home. The schedule would be less grueling, fans would be treated to more intimate shows, a wider cross-section of fans would have a chance to make one or more of the shows, word of mouth could get around, different local bands could open on different nights of each residency and, since the overhead is lower in smaller rooms, bands and clubs alike could make as much or more money. No more wasting multiple tanks of gas on the drive from Austin to Phoenix, or wherever the next stop is west on I-10.
Crazy talk? Maybe. But no crazier than predicting ten years ago that gas would be four bucks a gallon today.
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