Hurricanes And OPEC To Bands: Don’t Tour

OMG_gas.jpgGetting gas in the Atlanta region has gotten difficult after hurricanes affected the production of refineries in Louisiana and Texas. Actually, much of the Southeast is affected, and maybe the governor of Georgia is right in saying the current shortage is nothing more than a “self-inflicted” panic, but I’m not so sure. I know that I searched for plain ol’ Regular (this was admittedly a small search) a couple of days ago to no avail before finally finding some elsewhere in the city (Plus and Supreme were out there, albeit at $4/gallon).

It got me thinking about the whole “touring equals profit” bit of Conventional Band Wisdom, and how, more and more, it seems to be something of a lie.

Never mind the fact that this idea is extremely rock-centric; smaller hip-hop, R&B, and pop acts don’t really have the network of smaller venues where they can rake in this alleged money. With gas prices still pretty darned high, the economy doing its best late-period Ottoman Empire impersonation, and a general lack of importance placed on the procurement of music via the exchange of goods and services, this whole gas shortage just seems like piling on.

Having been a publicist, I’ve dealt with a lot of bands on the road, and I remember back in 2004 that bands would go on tour with glee. Back then, gas prices were higher than they’d ever been; the national average was around $1.74 in August 2004. Oh, to be young again! My band was pretty new at the time and just starting touring, and I distinctly remembering the total gas cost of taking my car to Louisville and back from Athens, Ga., being around $100. And keep in mind that people were still buying CDs then! There was still a chance of making a profit.

Now, it’s doubtful. More and more of my artists were telling me that they had to work a day job and couldn’t hit the road. At first, I thought they were missing out on golden opportunities. Hit the road! Make new fans! Do it the way our indie forefathers did it! But these days, a day job seems like a way to go. Unless someone provides me with a statistic that people are going out to shows more, I’m gonna assume that they aren’t. Going out costs more for music consumers: ticket prices are higher, traveling costs are higher… hell, beer costs are higher. Bands have to ask more from clubs. Clubs have to charge customers more to cover the bands, etc., etc. It’s a downhill slide that ends with the music consumer eating a load of crap.

Let’s crunch some numbers:

• My band, Wilson Phillips Milk of Magnesia, is playing a show in Charleston, S.C., a little weekend jaunt. It’s 267 miles from Athens. We’ll round that up to 275 counting stops, etc, so the total round-trip distance is 550 miles.
• Our van gets 15 mpg going downhill at 55 mph, but let’s just be charitable and say it gets that because South Carolina is flat.
• WPMoM has a guarantee of $150 at the 350-capacity Club XXX, which is an OK guarantee, truth be told.
• There’s some good local press running before the show, we have two local bands on the bill with WPMoM, and about 100 people turn up at five bucks a head.
• After taking out production costs ($150), the club splits the door ($350) between the three bands. In fact, one of the bands is nice enough to round our cut up to $150 because we’re the out-of-towners!
• We sell 10 CDs at $10 a head for a profit of $100 (not taking into consideration what we already paid for these). Wow!

That’s a pretty good night in the indie world by any measure: solid guarantee, triple-digit merch sales, and a good cut of the door. But let’s look at how much gas cost sucks out of that.

+$100 for the $100 guarantee
-$146 for 550 mile round trip ÷ 15 mpg x $4/gallon gas
+$150 for the door
+$100 for merch sales (not counting the investment that already went into this)

Now, this is without anybody eating or drinking anything, nothing breaking down, and everyone crashing somewhere for free. Most bands I know would consider this a successful show, but remember that taking this band on the road is supposed to be how the members make money. WPMoM has four members, so each person’s cut is $51. And keep in mind that this is a good night. A really good night!

It’s easy to make this kind of argument with a hypothetical, so let’s look at a real band on the road! Athens’ band Hope For Agoldensummer (disclosure: friends of mine) conducted a short tour in the spring of this year, and made it “open book,” so to speak; they put up a handy dandy little spreadsheet of their expenses for us to look at.

The average gas price when they went on tour was around $3.60 a gallon. The band traveled, over the course of two weeks, as far away as Michigan in a journey that went up the East Coast, over to Chicago, and back down to the South. They are a drumless trio that can travel a little bit cheaper (check out the lack of food costs?!). They paid themselves each $500 for two weeks worth of work (to make up for not having a job). In the end, with some good door money along the way and solid merch sales, they still came out in the hole. Yes, they did have to repair their van for $885. But take that out and they still clear $353! And repairs are the kinds of expenses that seem unexpected, but often are the rule rather than the exception when touring in a van. $1030 for fuel costs. Just four years ago, that cost would be halved! The band would have at least broken even! Now, they are $500 in the hole. And what can $500 buy a band? A whole lot, actually. How about two weeks of non-commercial/college radio promotion? Or another small pressing of CDs? Or a lot more t-shirts? Or further repairs of the van? Or a couple of days in the studio? Or an amp?

And there are so many bands just like this out there, toiling away under the notion that it’s a meritocracy, that just one more town and one more show will make all of the difference while bands that haven’t played 10 shows (but happen to live in Brooklyn) become Bands To Watch and are magically whisked away to Best New Musicdom and record deals, and, ironically, the tour support that fake bands like WPMoM or real bands like, er, HFAGS need.

I fully admit that touring is still the best way to put one’s music out there into the public, and that it’s still the most effective way to make money for bands when it’s truly successful. I just don’t believe, given the current economic climate, that it’s the fiduciary panacea that people think it is. Not to mention that right now, it’s a pain to find gas in one quarter of the country.

Think I’m a Negative Nellie? Think I’m taking a small sample? We’d love to hear from bands, labels, and more as to whether touring is actually effective.

  • Ned Raggett

    Can we make this post mandatory reading for, say, everyone?

  • Audif Jackson Winters III

    Yeah, I had to laugh when I saw Governor Perdue’s quote this morning in the AJC. I guess he hasn’t driven a few miles north of the Governor’s mansion to Roswell Road in the last few days.

  • Anonymous

    @Ned Raggett:

    Definitely should be.

    Great post Lucas!

  • Reidicus

    Excellently done, and +10 for it all being in my backyard. So can we unpack the implications of this? Does this mean that local music scenes will inevitably get less vital outside the media centers of NY, LA and (perhaps) Nashville, as the good acts realize that they need to be playing “local” shows in those places to get noticed? Are distant ‘hoods such as East New York, Brooklyn and Middle Village, Queens about to get mobbed with starving musicians looking for cheap places to live within transit-striking-distance of the action? It’s all rather staggering to ponder.

  • Chris Molanphy

    Just chiming in to say this is the best all-around breakdown of touring I’ve yet seen. Props, Lucas.

  • Lucas Jensen

    Thanks, everybody, for the input! By the way, The Independent did a great, similar piece on Birds of Avalon and Polvo. Check it out: []

  • Anonymous

    ah the power of numbers. great post, really puts things in to perspective for everyone involved in this industry. now if only the “public” was in on the secret…

  • fogsnob

    i believe the “touring = money” applies very well to big and developed bands who have probably had a lot of time and money invested both personally and via record labels.

    not to be crass, but if you’re a band playing music for $150 a night, you better be doing it for the love of playing in front of people and not for a career. in fact, if you start a band with the primary goal of making it into a career, you’re in it for the wrong reasons.

  • Lucas Jensen

    @fogsnob: Well, maybe you are in it for the wrong reasons, but it’s not cheap to do things with quality and export your art to an audience. Even lo-fi bands have to buy equipment, vans, etc. Those $150-a-nighters are maybe just trying to sustain their art a little more. The Greeks only let land-owners vote because those were the only people in Greek society with the free time to pursue art, philosophy, politics…things of beauty to them. It’s harder to make art when you have to have a low-paying job that’s flexible enough to let you hit the road OR an inflexible high-paying gig that allows them to hit the studio but not the road. It’s an expensive hobby, and it’s a crappy-paying job for 95% of the bands out there.

  • silkyjumbo

    well, this explains why show prices are altering my Rocktober schedule.

    and since i can’t find gas in atlanta either, i’m going to the austin city limits music festival. one stop (show) shopping!

  • Lucas Jensen

    @Lucas Jensen: I meant “they” not “you” in the first sentence.

  • Lucas Jensen

    @silkyjumbo: I think this is a good point about the recent rise of festivals. The one-stop shopping aspect of it all probably has a lot to do with it. It’s a lot cheaper than driving to multiple big shows at crazy prices.

  • Mike Barthel

    This is a great post, Lucas, but for the record, I think an equal proportion of bands in Athens and Brooklyn become hype bands. There are a LOT of bands in Brooklyn. And, coming from the label side, I’m not sure if a newly-signed band would be able to pry too much tour support out of their label.

    Point being that it sucks all over.

  • mike a

    Fortunately St. Louis will not feel the pinch, since bands rarely if ever play here anyway.

    But otherwise? A sobering look at an ailing industry. A 2008 version of “Some Of Your Friends Are Already This Fucked.”

  • Lucas Jensen

    @Mike Barthel: I was kinda joking around with the Brooklyn dig.

  • Lucas Jensen

    @mike a: Thanks, man! That is the highest compliment I have ever been paid!

    I will continue to examine this if I get more data. Better to be empirical about it all.

  • Anonymous

    That article is killer and its the dang truth. You should get the Flagpole to print it.

    You mentioned that our spreadsheet shows a lack of food costs. When I was making it I thought that some people might see that and wonder if we fasted on tour or something. Nope. Before we leave town we buy about $150 worth of food at the Trader Joes in ATL. If we have lucrative days on tour, then the band will buy everyone lunch or dinner. Otherwise, we either eat from our groceries or spend our personal money to buy food. Maybe I’ll reconfigure the spreadsheet to accurately represent our food expenses. Nah, fuck it.

    Today I borrowed Page’s car and she asked me to put some gas in it and I couldn’t because THERE AIN’T NONE. So, I left her a ten dollar bill, and as I was riding away on my bike I realized that $10 ain’t shit no mo.

    You feel me?

    Claire M. Campbell

  • science vs romance

    Seeing the numbers like this is great, if not arresting. Talking to friends in a fairly successful, biggish label indie band, I was shocked to hear what a financial loss touring can be and how few CDs are really sold at shows.

  • Janice Curleyhair

    Great quality lots of variety