Music for fuel: It's harder than ever to jam econo

| July 09, 2008
Click for larger image • And you thought microphone static could be painful ...
- Illustration by Brian Walsby
Click for larger image • And you thought microphone static could be painful ...

It's harder than ever to jam econo. Mike Watt of The Minutemen coined that phrase—"We jam econo"—in the '80s to mean rocking, especially on the road, in the most efficient, thrifty way possible. But as the numbers at gas pumps continue to rise without signs of improvement, several local bands and their national counterparts are trying to keep touring on the cheap. Some may not be able to keep up or, worse still, get started.

"Last year, I was worried about getting out to the West Coast with gas at $3.20 a gallon," says Dan McGee, the frontman for heavy-touring Chapel Hill band Spider Bags, "and this year, I'm worried about getting to work."

As record sales decline, bands look more and more to touring to make money and to spread their music. But as increased gas prices cut into whatever profit bands can earn on the road, some wonder if they'll be able to tour. Forecasting where this crisis may lead for bands often feels a little like driving cross-country without a map. But, overall, most bands agree that they'll continue to compromise—be it by consolidating gear, riding in a different van, or taking only one day off a month—to stay on the road. After all, how else should they spread their music?

"Most dedicated bands understand that touring is such an important thing for a band to do to become established," says Chris Hnat of 230 Publicity, a Portland, Ore., and New York-based company that promotes bands like Stereolab, Thurston Moore and—closer to home—Birds of Avalon.

Meanwhile, somewhere in southern Virginia, Cheetie Kumar, one of Birds of Avalon's two guitarists, praises one gas station in south Jersey. On its way out of New York City, the band paid only $3.80 per gallon to fill its 1997 Dodge van—a bargain, she says, especially compared to the $4.50-plus bands are now paying on the West Coast. Birds of Avalon has toured constantly since March 8—so long that it's been paying the prices now on the East Coast that it paid on the West Coast in April. This was expected to be a small five-week jaunt, including a hop to England (where drivers now pay $10 a gallon). But the band was subsequently offered an opening slot on the Raconteurs tour, which took them to the West Coast again, and later stints with Mudhoney and Polvo on the East Coast. Along the way, Birds of Avalon learned several patterns of gas prices and when to fuel the van to save the most money.

"Back when we did Boston and New York," says Kumar, the whipping wind of the road behind her on her cell phone, "we made sure to add a whole tank in New Jersey before we got up there. ... We are definitely driving slower. ... Sometimes, we draft behind trucks if they are going roughly the same speed as us. It's debatable if this helps, but it makes us feel like we're saving gas."

These sorts of strategies are invaluable for small bands. Fuel costs don't figure much for the top tier of touring bands, say, a classic rock juggernaut like Aerosmith or arena alt-rockers R.E.M. It's more like an overhead cost that comes in a little higher, like the backstage caterer raising their salad plate prep costs for the show's rider. But rising fuel costs may slowly start to cut into the ability of mid-sized bands—a renowned indie rock band on a relatively large label, for instance—to tour as well.

Just not yet: "Been busy over here," says Jim Romeo, the co-owner of Ground Control Touring, a national tour booking company based in New York and Carrboro that books Cat Power and Grizzly Bear, as well as local bands like The Rosebuds and the recently reunited Polvo. "It really hasn't come up in a major way so far. Some bands have mentioned it but not in a way that they've considered not touring." But most of those bands started out on a smaller level, and Romeo says those young bands—"smaller bands making $50 to $100"—are the ones who may suffer. To survive—or to get a strong start on the road at all—they'll have to make adjustments in the future.

Spider Bags is a perfect example. "We had a 15-passenger van that we sold," McGee says. "That thing was comfortable. We took it on a bunch of small trips and across the country twice. The second time, last fall, we were spending around $200 a day. That's nearly impossible for a band our size."

Click for larger image • George Bush wants your guitar for kindling. - ILLUSTRATION BY BRIAN WALSBY

So the band got rid of the guzzler and bought a more colorful option: a 1983 diesel Chevy Suburban, painted purple, that it's going to convert to run on vegetable oil. McGee says he's trying to sell his own car to pay for the conversion. "We like to drive, that's why we got that five-ton tank," he says. For McGee, it's a personal choice, too. "I want to get off oil entirely, not just for the band but for my own conscience."

Birds of Avalon has discussed changing over to some sort of diesel conversion. "Dodge Sprinters, what we rent in Europe, are great, but out of our price range," says Kumar. "Unfortunately, it is rare to find a diesel powered van in the U.S. Though it would take some effort to find used vegetable oil, filter it and store it on the road, it would be so worth it."

Birds of Avalon has been touring relentlessly for a year and, before that, two of its members played with infamous road warriors The Cherry Valence. They're used to pinching pennies and hitting the road hard. It's just that, these days, cutting a corner or putting in a little extra may make all the difference for a sucessful tour.

Durham band Megafaun, for instance, shares a minivan, not a conversion van, which saves some gas money because of increased mileage per gallon. And, as it planned its current journey to the West Coast, it chose to make use of every day, playing all but one out of 31 on the road. Band member Brad Cook says Megafaun takes snacks and sandwiches for sustenance, too: "We consistently stay with people in every city and we buy fruit, oatmeal and peanut butter. We tend to tour with a bottle of Jameson to compensate for the nights without drink tickets."

"Yeah, it just makes it that much harder," says Birds of Avalon's Kumar. The band heads to grocery stores instead of fast food joints. It's not like they're cutting back on a "lavish" lifestyle, exactly. "I mean, what. We'll buy less yogurt at the grocery store?"

Fortunately, these changes don't seem to be keeping the resilient down. Spider Bags just returned from "one of the best tours we've ever been on," says McGee, with The Golden Boys from Austin. The bands shared gear, expenses and "even a couple band members."

"A lot of the bands I know are doing the same thing," says McGee. "You're also going to see three or four dudes showing up at shows in a Japanese four door with only guitars and a kick pedal looking to borrow everything else."

Each bands situation and priorities are different, though. Kumar says Birds of Avalon will never be one of those bands. "Oh no! Oh my God no! We put a lot of time and effort into how we sound, ya know?" she says. "We're kind of nerds about that ... I mean, I'm particular about my cables." But they have loaned gear to tourmates in order to make multi-band treks possible. The Fucking Champs and Drunk Horse, both West Coast bands, flew out to do an East Coast tour, shared gas costs and rented a car instead of a van in exchange for using the Birds' backline.

Kumar's concerns make sense. After all, bands tour so their cultivated sound can be heard. And if you're not satisfied with the sound you're spending several hundred dollars to cart around, why bother?

Hnat of 230 Publicity doesn't think gas prices have significantly cut into the number of touring bands quite yet, but he does think those costs could mean cuts in the entire industry. "I'm sure gas prices effect postage and shipping rates, which put a hurting on smaller labels, print zines and distributors, so I'm guessing there are plenty of related price increases across the board that we don't really think about."

Fall, high season for touring, may be the first real test for how much fuel costs deter bands on the road, or those considering their first run. Megafaun's Cook sees a shift in how bands, and everyone else involved, view touring. "Well, it certainly is scary. I think promoters have to start raising tickets and door prices to help bands compensate," he says. "Touring will be more reflective of record sales. The top 1 percent will be making all the money all around. Everyone else is more or less screwed." Survival of the fittest seems to be the mantra. "It's something we've committed to," Kumar says. "Maybe it will reduce the glut of the too many bands out there."

Taking to the road, with all its vibrant rock romance, is colored a bit more gasoline gray now. "Americans have always equated freedom with their vehicles," McGee says. "I'm definitely feeling less free these days." He also sees it as a cultural bump in the road. Musicians, after all, aren't inherently used to scrutinizing their every move. "It used to be real easy to go on tour," he says. "Now it takes all this planning and coordinating. Shit. I didn't end up in a rock and roll band because I'm a good planner."

Long commute

Birds of Avalon
  • Birds of Avalon

For a rock band, the drive to the office each day while on tour can quickly get expensive. Bands are often guaranteed either a set amount of money or a cut of a club's door earnings for a gig. The goal, of course, is to make more playing than you spend driving. As fuel prices continue to rise, that's the part that's getting harder.

When Birds of Avalon went on a tour leg with Mudhoney and Polvo, members recorded the band's daily gas expenses, as they do every tour.

"If it had been our tour, we likely would have routed it differently," says guitarist Cheetie Kumar. "We probably wouldn't have opted to go to Florida in June in our non-air-conditioned van." Comfort can be an issue related to fuel, of course. "Our van gets 11 to 12 miles to the gallon ... imagine if we did have air-conditioning!"

BIRDS OF AVALON
Date Route Total cost (Price per gallon)
6/10 Raleigh to Chapel Hill to Raleigh $30 ($3.89/gal)
6/11 Raleigh to Atlanta $160 ($3.79 and $4.09/gal)
6/12 Atlanta to Gainesville, Fla. $160 ($4.07-$4.12/gal)
6/13 Gainesville, Fla., to Miami $150 ($4.02/gal)
6/14 Miami to Orlando, Fla. $100 ($4.08/gal)
6/15 Orlando, Fla., to Pensacola, Fla. $190 ($4.07 avg)
6/16 Pensacola, Fla., to New Orleans $100 ($3.99/gal)
6/17 New Orleans to Raleigh $350 (avg. $3.89/gal)
 
POLVO
Date Route Total cost (Price per gallon)
6/19-20 Raleigh to Boston $360 (avg. $4.08/gal)
6/21 Boston to New York $120 ($4.13/gal)
6/22 New York to Hoboken, N.J. $0
6/23 Hoboken, N.J., to Raleigh $215 (avg $3.89/gal)

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