It's a Gas
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.
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"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."
Other bands nationwide are thinking the same thing and coming up with some innovative solutions, as follows.
This summer, indie rockers Peter and the Wolf, Castanets and former Houstonian Jana Hunter plan to board a sailboat and ply the Intracoastal Waterway to a string of gigs from Key West to Boston.
Americana/rock songwriter Scott Miller has ridden Amtrak's rails from New Orleans to D.C., performing on the train and in the stations as well as the clubs along the way.
Willie Nelson, the entire Warped Tour, Piebald and many other bands are running all their newly modified touring vehicles on biodiesel -- vegetable grease obtainable for free from many restaurants.
Pop-folkers the Ditty Bops are pedaling bikes all the way from L.A. to New York. (Their gear will travel alongside them in a Prius.)
And so on -- there's probably some band out there customizing a stagecoach and buying a team of horses even as you read this. Beebe likes these kinds of ideas, from both an environmental and a promotional standpoint. "Basically anytime you can get attention for doing something that's different, you're winning," he says, adding that there are less exotic ways to control costs. "I'm thinking of buying a used Buick Park Avenue, some big car with a large trunk that gets 20 or so miles to the gallon, rather than the ten my Suburban gets with the trailer. I'll just sorta travel lighter, but still be able to drive to the gigs where we don't have to bring a PA."
Though cars are much more cramped, Beebe says there are other benefits. "Having a trunk is key. With the Suburban or a van, crackheads can break in. But they don't know what's in a trunk. You just look like a normal person."
And don't ever expect to get rich at this, he adds. "A national booking agent I occasionally work with told me that he thought touring was almost no longer worth doing, and that was in 2003," he says. "And that may be true at this point, unless you have already kicked ass on your Internet shit. Everything's changing. There's a lack of clubs, there's a lack of support, there's too much information coming over the wires -- you can't get an article in every magazine in the city the way you could back in 1991.
"And all of that might be good for musicians," he adds. "Because touring is not particularly safe or healthy. Maybe now is the time for musicians to start living responsibly."
David Beebe's Greyhound Tips
Jean-Paul Sartre was wrong about a lot of stuff, but he was on the money when he said, "Hell is other people." Some of the most hellish of all can be found aboard our nation's long-haul bus fleet. While most Greyhound riders are perfectly nice people, it is also the favored mode of transport for recent parolees, drunks, drug addicts and the mentally ill, which largely explains why most people prefer tiring car trips and/or the anxiety and hassle of modern-day air travel.
David Beebe knows all this by long experience, and so he's developed a few coping mechanisms, which we'll offer you here.
1. First of all, always wear a suit on the Greyhound. Nobody wants to be near you. They think you're a cop or dangerous. Or something.
2. Don't sit next to a window if you want to avoid people. Instead, put your carry-on bag next to the window, and sit in the aisle. Unless the bus is jam-packed, nobody will cross over you to take that window seat. It's counterintuitive, but it totally works. You sit in the aisle.
3. If the bus is really full and it looks like somebody wants to talk to you, put sunglasses on, stick out your lower jaw like you have some kind of bulldog underbite, and just sit there and scowl and read the paper. With a suit, sunglasses and an underbite, nobody's gonna say shit to you.
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