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Gigs and Gas Prices Aren't Playing Well Together

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.

"People are picking and choosing between shows because money's tighter for everyone," agreed Dante Ferrando, owner of the Black Cat on 14th Street NW. With everyone so sensitive to prices, clubs can't charge too much for tickets.

"There is definitely a limit to how much more you can raise ticket prices," Bongiovanni said. At the Black Cat, tickets have increased by a few dollars over the past few months. Even though Ferrando is committed to keeping them under $15, he said, "there's this weird [combination] of factors. . . . Both bands and customers end up paying more money for the same event."

Perfect Souvenir, a D.C. rock band, has experienced the conundrum firsthand. "We played a show in New York at a good club, there was great turnout and we got paid well," said drummer Vin Novara. "But we took a beating financially." They decided that the distance driving just wasn't worth it, and they no longer do any out-of-town shows.

Steve Lambert, who books shows for DC9, the Red & the Black, and Rock & Roll Hotel, said that bigger clubs (like the latter) haven't seen a decrease in the number of bands who want to play there. "During the summer especially there are more artists out touring than the market in the country could possibly handle," Bongiovanni said. "There are more artists than fans could possibly support."

It's clubs like the Red & the Black, which book smaller bands, that have seen effects of the adverse touring environment. "It definitely hurts the somewhat unknown touring bands," Lambert said. "They have no notable name, no record label or support. They're basically going out there on their own pockets, and when that money's gone, it's gone."

While musicians are getting discouraged, they haven't given up yet. "There will always be bands willing to do whatever they have to," Keller said. "The mentality of some of these musicians is so . . . live on the line, life takes Visa, you know? One of the kids in one of my bands always says, 'Ride or die.' "

Takka Takka, a Manhattan band that played at the Black Cat on Monday, is sketching out a nationwide tour to promote its album, which comes out in July. By most measures a successful band -- it toured in 2006 with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah as an opening band -- Takka Takka is still in debt. They sold their old Ford Windstar a year and a half ago, after a fifth member joined and they couldn't fit in the minivan anymore. Since then, they've been renting passenger vans for their occasional mini-tours. For their cross-country tour, they'll need a new van: "Those vegetable oil vans you hear about are becoming more and more attractive," joked drummer Conrad Doucette.

They're picking only the cities and shows they think will be worth traveling to on their upcoming tour -- instead of playing just any venue in Boston, for example, they'll wait for the best one to open up. "We're at a stage where we've invested a lot of our personal time and a lot of our personal money," Doucette said. "We're trying to do this as strategically as possible while doing what we love to do most."

There are other ways to cut corners. Some musicians aren't quitting their day jobs, and they're going on shorter tours, over weekends instead of months. The members of Johnny Action Figure, a Pennsylvania indie band, have written their parents' friends asking for donations to support their tours. Perfect Souvenir doesn't even use its van for local shows anymore, because it costs too much to drive from its rehearsal space in Kensington. Most of the time, Novara said, the band hops on the Metro, instruments in hand.

Sawhorse uses an Expedition with a 2,000-pound horse trailer attached to haul equipment; they're now saving up to trade it for something more fuel-efficient.

But Seaton doesn't dismiss the possibility that all their adjustments won't be enough to keep the band on the road. "I'm very concerned. The way the economy is going, if gas prices keep rising, we probably won't be playing any shows," he said. They'll have to rely on online networking sites to distribute songs and attract fans -- methods that get their music out there, but earn them no money.

"The best way to hear music is through a live show. But we want to make sure people like us for our music, and if the only way they hear it is through MySpace, that's cool," Seaton said. "No matter what, we'll always make music."

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