Going Down the Road Feeling Bad: Touring in the Current Economy
With the the stock indexes in the first bear market in almost six years and gas prices that have hit lifetime highs, we are all feeling the proverbial tightening of the belt. Obviously I am not a columnist for the Wall Street Journal but I try and keep close tabs on the live music industry and this economic environment affects some in the industry very seriously. Although the live music scene is certainly seeing an apex in its influence and marketability within the greater music industry — notice the glut of festivals, Live Nation’s constant news making or this NYT article for example — smaller acts are finding it harder and harder to do what they love and bring us the art we crave.
A large majority of the artists that keep the live music scene moving are being hindered seriously by the current cost of travel. On top of this, the overwhelming number of festivals this summer will probably not stand up to diminishing discretionary spending, especially those in distant locations. Bonnaroo just missed a sell-out — according to their own numbers — and Coachella was 17,000 under their 2007 record crowd. It will be interesting to see what happened at Rothbury but Lollapalooza, a city festival, seemed to do quite well. By far the most serious consequence from the current economy falls on the thousands of bands that criss-cross the country in big white vans.
Just to get a perspective on what bands are managing while on the road, here’s a quick run down. If a Chicago based band tours the west coast taking the northernly route out to Seattle and down to LA then drives back to Chicago the group is looking at a 5,000 mile trip. That could be upwards of $2000 in gas costs alone. If the group plays a dozen dates and makes $200 a show on average, there is less than $500 for all other expenses — making fast food a luxury good. The point of the above helps to highlight what seem to be the major issues with the current economic situation.
First is the effect on the supply side of the live music scene or more simply, the bands. Touring from city to city in a beat up van is a rite of passage in rock and roll and in my opinion makes for more profound, experiential music. Take My Morning Jacket as a perfect example: ten years of touring has turned the Louisville natives into the powerhouse they are today. But now bands are going to have to reexamine the way they manage tours or worst case scenario, be very choosey about where to tour.
If bands still need the live medium to close the margins from dropping album sales then one option will be to combine efforts of label-mates or even just like minded bands. A sort of touring car pool system may come to be the norm rather than the sparing treat. Combined bills like Umphreys McGee and STS9 have done this summer may allow for larger venues and in turn larger box office grosses. The aforementioned tour has allowed both bands to step into the pavilion circuit rather than playing theaters.
Our friend Jared Bell from Lymbyc Systym explains that this approach works when bands share a commonality, “We have a split album coming out in the Fall with This Will Destroy You, and we’ll be doing a US/Canada tour in support of that. We’re going to share a van and some of the gear to cut the cost of gas in half.” Its this type of sacrifice and creativity that’ll keep heavy touring bands like Lymbyc Systym on the road.
Another outcome from the squeeze may be the resurgence of the residency. Bands may choose to play a few nights in one city at a smaller than normal venue rather than trudge through a intermediate market. This may be good for the Chicago’s and New York’s of the world but less so for the smaller media markets. The Houston Press touts this solution for the older more seasoned groups who can draw a couple hundred a night for a week or so. That means many bands out on the road building a fan base do not have this option.
By far the worst change we may see is the regionalization of smaller bands, some of which may never reach far outside their home city. This is already occurring with groups from Europe and Canada, according to the Chicago Tribune. In the summer months, many bands may begin to festival hop. With the number of festivals and solid paydays this is a logical solution to the cost of touring. Why not play to 5000 and make more money? The problem is festivals rarely convey the truest virtues of live music — unless you’re Daft Punk.
In the example I used above, if that same Chicago act decided to make a east coast tour and even included Toronto and Montreal they lose almost 3,000 miles in comparison. The hypothetical group would hit more media markets on the east coast increasing revenues. Numbers alone could force this group east rather than west. I am seriously hoping that creative minds prevail and regional biases do not become the norm within touring bands but until the price at the pump budges this could be a reality and the left coast could be out of luck.
For those of us on the other side of the fence things may be changing as well. Ticket prices, limited touring and smaller bands not even stepping into the ring may become more prevalent. Obviously all of the effects listed above change the live music scene in our respective cities but these are changes that we have no control over. There’s nothing we can do about band A not coming to our favorite venue and that’s why it kills us when it happens. But there are certain things we as fans can do that will help the bands we love and make it easier to stop in the Omaha’s or Eugene’s.
The first thing fans can do is decide what bands matter to them. I know full well the cost of a music addiction and try my best to budget when I can but there are a few bands whose work I will always purchase. Its a small show of support but it matters. Falling album sales are as much a product of the changes in live music as gas prices if not more and if you really love a band, one of the best things you can do for them is go to the record store and spend a little love.
A offshoot of this is the effect of merchandise sales. For many DIY bands this is the bread and butter of their revenues. I know its a bit of the chicken and the egg to help promote a band coming to your town by buying a tee when they are in your town but merch is a life saver for many groups. A lot of smaller acts make a living of that little table in the back of the room and when they mention that their CD is, “available for purchase” they are trying to fund their next meal.
A last step we as fans can take costs us nothing but our time. If and when a favorite of yours has a tour date in your city, help promote. Email the band for fliers and posters or get on you favorite social networking site and blab about this hip new band coming through town. Overall though just keep supporting live music by going to shows and having a good time; if bands keep seeing the joy they bring they’ll bike to the concerts.
I know all of this seems a little gloomy but it is serious a hell and its on the minds of everyone in the music industry from the bottom to the top. I’m not sure this will seriously hurt the major recording artists who play with huge balance sheets but medium to smaller acts will definitely begin to slim down. I am hoping that the trend in DIY groups begins to take hold where vertically integrating all the pieces of a band’s business becomes the norm. String Cheese Incident was a frontrunner in this move years back with SCI Fidelity and now groups like STS9 and MMJ are taking the reigns. All in all though, live music will find a way through and we as fans can only do our best to support the music we love.
Here are a few articles that I used as references for my own thoughts if you have any further interest.
Gas prices thwart indie band tours – CNN.com
Bands on the run — from high gas prices – Oregonlive.com
Road grows rocky for bands — chicagotribune.com
High Gas Prices Still Hurting Touring Bands – Houston Press
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