When a band is onstage, the musicians are supposed to be focused on performing — or that cute girl (or boy) in the third row.
These days, a more mundane, but far more pressing, concern is likely to be cluttering the brain of the average working bandmember: Whether they'll have enough money to pay for the gas it will take to reach their next destination.
With gas prices in some parts of the U.S. soaring close to $4 a gallon, indie-rock bands — for whom touring and merchandise sales are often their key sources of income — are increasingly feeling the pinch and struggling to get from one city to the next. If you plan on going to shows this summer, you'll probably notice it too, as the price of everything from T-shirts and tickets to beer could be on the rise — assuming, of course, that your favorite band can make it to your town at all.
Mike Weibe, singer for the Texas-based punk group the Riverboat Gamblers, said he's definitely been hit in the wallet. "Before, it was like, 'Well, we'll do the gig as long as we get paid enough to get gas money.' It was never a big deal," he said. "Now, routing and how much we're getting paid is so much more of an issue."
Weibe said gas prices have forced his band to turn down some shows and have also forced them to raise ticket and merchandise prices, which their fans have noticed and initially complained about. "But when we tell them it's because of gas prices, they're like, 'Oh yeah, that's right,' " he said. It costs $80 to fill the tank of the band's 15-passenger Econoline van.
As the cost of gassing up the van rises, some bands are getting creative by turning to alternative fuels like biodiesel, scaling back their touring party or, believe it or not, touring by bicycle, Greyhound bus or sailboat.
Here are some tales from the road:
- Masked Detroit surf-punkers the Amino Acids had been looking forward to playing the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas — which is arguably the key festival for up-and-coming rock bands — earlier this year. But when they calculated that it would cost $700 in fuel alone to make it to Texas, and then couldn't book enough shows on the way to cover the cost of gas, they had to decline the invitation.
- Singer/songwriter Scott Miller has done two U.S. tours by train — both as an environmental statement and to help promote and preserve the country's rail systems during a time of an impending energy crisis.
- Los Angeles punk trio the Dollyrots have put more than 60,000 miles on their van in the last year, and said the cost of gas is often the difference between a night at a motel and sleeping in their van at a rest stop. As a result, guitarist Luis said they've started booking shorter tours and are focusing on the Northeast and Southern California, where the cities and thus the gigs are closer together. They also recently decided to take time off from touring this spring to play local shows and save up enough money to fill their tank later in the year.
- Bob Massey, singer of the Gena Rowlands Band, said that rather than book a tour and drive from California to Austin for SXSW, his band found that it was actually cheaper to fly down and borrow gear for their showcase.
- Giorgio Angelini, drummer of the Austin band 1986 and part-time member of the Rosebuds, said, "A lot of bands [who have the money] are buying Dodge Sprinters now because they are much more spacious and they run on a very efficient diesel engine that gets 25-30 miles per gallon." Angelini said it now costs about $214 to drive from Seattle to San Francisco, a nearly $75 increase from this time last year. He also mentioned that some bands are booking tours with friends, sharing equipment and traveling in a single van in order to pool gas money.
- Bands like bluegrass act the Duhks are looking into buying biodiesel vans to replace the ones they are renting now. And while pop duo Mates of State are also saving up money to get a biodiesel van, keyboardist/singer Kori Gardner has what she thinks is a simple solution to the problem: "If all the bands out there touring bonded together and decided to reject driving cars, we could put the oil companies out of business."
- The most innovative solution we heard came from little-known indie act Peter and the Wolf. Though it started as a lark aimed at playing offbeat venues, the band's upcoming tour is turning out to be a petrodollar-saving stroke of genius. The group, along with the Castanets and singer Jana Hunter, are about to board a sailboat (pirated by an eye-patch wearing DJ from New York, they swear) that will take them up the Intracoastal Waterway — which runs along the East Coast between Boston and Key West, Florida — on a two-week tour. "It will be nice because that will be two weeks when we're not spending $3 a gallon for our van," said singer Red Hunter. "We're going to go mostly gearless and get off the boat in each town and walk or take a cab to the nearest venue and perform."
It's not just indie bands that are feeling the crunch. Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman said the summer punk fest has been forced to tighten belts and look for new ways to get across the country. The tour decided six months ago to go all-biodiesel for its 19 buses and 14 semis, which, at the time, was going to cost 20 cents more a gallon, but now is coming out about even due to the rise in gas costs. "It's almost like we had to hire a road manager just to deal with the fueling," said Lyman of the vegetable oil/diesel mix, which burns 80 percent cleaner than regular diesel. "Supplies are not everywhere, so we'll be fueling on site and give the bands special instructions after every show where to go to get the fuel."
It's going to cost the tour $60,000 more to go biodiesel this summer, which meant that Warped had to cut one bus out of its entourage and eliminate 12 people from its payroll. "Unfortunately, that kid who I took a risk on in the past or that person we let tag along can't come this year," Lyman said. "But consumers are spending more to get to our shows, we're spending more to get to our shows and if anyone can make it, it's the bands on Warped, who are so creative in figuring out how to eat and stay on the road."
One person who isn't complaining is Phil Elverum from the bands Mt. Eerie and the Microphones, who thinks high gas prices are a good thing. "I think it should be so expensive," he said. "It is 2006 and we have gone way too far.
"I think 'independent' music bands are the last people who should be complaining about this. We young people should be the ones who recognize that new economies must be explored." Elverum said he's been touring on the cheap for nearly a decade and it's "long past the time when young people should reconsider getting in their massive van that guzzles gas and breaks down all the time."
While they didn't set out to combat gas prices with their tour, the Ditty Bops are sending a clear message by biking from Los Angeles to New York on their upcoming three-month outing in support of Moon Over the Freeway (due May 25). The folk-pop duo of Amanda Barrett and Abby DeWald are on a major label, but they're pedaling for their tour, which will hit large and small cities for shows in theaters, clubs, bike stores, houses and farms.
"We're not doing it to save gas money, because we'll be flying out band members and running a support vehicle — my hybrid Toyota Prius — with our gear," said Barrett. "We just love riding bikes and want to encourage people to do that. It's more for environmental reasons, but think of all the gas money we're saving by riding bikes!"
With some experts predicting that gas could hit an average of $4 a gallon this summer, the question is, are things really that bad? According to CNN, we have it pretty easy. In the Netherlands, gas costs $6.73 a gallon, while French drivers are ponying up $5.80 a gallon, with the average price per gallon across Europe around $6 a gallon. Then again, in the oil-producing countries of Iran and Venezuela gas is cheaper than some high-end bottled water at (respectively) 35 cents and 12 cents a gallon.