Hurricanes And OPEC To Bands: Don’t Tour

Lucas Jensen | September 25, 2008 10:00 am

Getting 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) =$204

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.