Gigs and Gas Prices Aren't Playing Well Together

On the road, members of the band Johnny Action Figure (from left, Chris Fullam, Chris Sheehan and Brad Rittle) are feeling pain at the pump.
On the road, members of the band Johnny Action Figure (from left, Chris Fullam, Chris Sheehan and Brad Rittle) are feeling pain at the pump. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Laura Yao
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2008

"Cello dude, you're awesome!" someone screamed at Dan Carlin.

The audience was small but excited at the Red & the Black, a cozy bar in Northeast Washington where Carlin was doing his part on cello and keyboard for Luego, a North Carolina folk-rock band with a Southern twang. The four musicians were having a great time doing what they love -- but they might not be able to do it for long.

Barely two weeks into a 30-city summer tour, Luego was already hurting. The quartet's 1992 Chevy G20 broke down in Virginia the week before their June 24 show at the Red & the Black, and cost $750 to repair. A few days later in Maryland, someone broke into the van and stole an iPod and a GPS.

But the real, ongoing crisis for Luego -- and for a lot of small independent bands who take their music on the road -- is the price of gas. These days it often costs more for a band to drive to a city than it earns performing there.

On the group's month-long tour through the Southeast last spring, "we came out in the black, miraculously," guitarist and vocalist Patrick Phelan said. "Some nights we had to eat tuna out of cans. That wasn't too fun, but you gotta do what you gotta do." But he doesn't think even StarKist can save them this time.

"I'm at a time when I'm disenchanted by everything," said Phelan, 23, who quit both of his part-time jobs in May to promote the band's new album, "Impatience." "This is my dream, being a rock star, but I'm already thinking about what full-time job I can do. I can't do this anymore."

It's hard for a new band to make it big. Touring, for most, has become the only road to fame. Scoring a record deal in no way guarantees success, as listeners have been grabbing music for free since the age of Napster.

Bands are thus hard-pressed to make a living and earn a following by bringing their music to new cities. They have to be willing to sleep on strangers' floors, to drive through the night and to go into debt along the way. But with gas spiking past $4 per gallon across the nation, the romantic notion of hopping in the van and going -- just driving and playing music -- is more elusive than ever.

Even bands that have already made a name for themselves are having to scale back. The daily cost of running a tour bus that's on the road for six or seven hours has jumped from $1,000 to $1,250, estimated Lucas Keller, artist manager at Upper Cut Management. So instead of taking two buses, one for the band and one for the equipment and crew, some have consolidated.

But these better-known bands can still afford to go on the road and make a small profit. Not so for everyone. "New bands can develop some regional following," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar. "The problem is that, to develop beyond that region, they have to travel to places where they're not worth as much money." The best that new bands can hope for is to break even on tours, and that's often too much to ask.

"All we're trying to do is make some gas money," said Jacob Seaton, of the seven-person Baltimore band Sawhorse. Usually, bands are paid a percentage of the cover charge, but Sawhorse needs a guarantee before it will agree to play. The musicians are asking as much as $300 for a show two hours away (less if the venue is closer to home). "It seems a bit ridiculous," Seaton admitted, "but it's the only way we can get to and from."

As Sawhorse has found, most clubs won't guarantee payment. After all, clubs are feeling the ripple effects, too. "A lot of kids can't drive out to shows anymore because gas is too expensive," Seaton said.

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