OUT IN the hardscrabble world of rock concert touring, promoter Sean Carlson has learned a thing or two about eateries. “Japanese restaurants are the best,” said Carlson, founder of the F Yeah Fest that’s hitting 27 cities in 27 days this month. He isn’t talking about where to find the best food, but the best source of grease to operate his tour bus, which runs on veggie oil and ferries some 26 people from city to city.
It’s grease that might be keeping the F Yeah Fest afloat, as soaring gas prices have made fossil-fueled travel all but unaffordable for bands on his tour, such as Monotonix, Matt and Kim, Team Robespierre, Crystal Antlers and the Death Set, groups that are struggling ever harder to expand their followings.
Still, Carlson said the tour’s winding up nearly $10,000 in the red, and he’s hardly alone when it comes to musicians feeling the pinch from escalating fuel prices and other ripples from a sluggish economy. Although acts at the top of the pop-music chain aren’t immune, it’s the emerging artists -- or “baby bands” -- who are unquestionably being hit the hardest.
“With developing artists, everyone always says that the key is touring,” said Jason Reynolds, manager of the British punk band Forward Russia, which might have to bypass a U.S. tour when its new album is released Friday. “But now all the money from your shows is just going to fill the gas tank.”
Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert-industry tracking publication Pollstar, added, “If you’re Kenny Chesney or Bon Jovi or Springsteen, your overhead is up, but you can still tour very profitably. Other acts could eat themselves alive.”
That’s because baby bands operate on shoestring margins. Few get significant tour support from record labels -- assuming they even have a record label -- and the price of fuel is cutting deeply into whatever slim profits they can eke out.
No cash for extras
Similarly, music fans’ budgets are being squeezed, meaning attendance at many concerts is dropping and those who do show up have less to spend on CDs, T-shirts and other merchandise that typically constitutes the major source of revenue for bands.
“Those are the things that help [bands] break even,” said Josh Legere, director of marketing for Anti- Records, an offshoot of the indie label Epitaph Records, which has several bands on the road with the Vans Warped Tour this summer. “My prediction is that at the end of the Warped Tour, a lot of our bands are going to be hitting us up for $5,000 in tour support.”
According to booking agents and promoters, some acts have started to drop out of tours because of costs. For that reason, AT&T, a Warped Tour sponsor, recently began giving away a $500 gas card each day to one of the bands on the tour, as an incentive for them to remain on board.
“Gas prices are definitely out of hand these days and . . . bands that are touring all the time are really taking a hit,” said Samara Fischer, part of the AT&T marketing team working on the tour.
Many of those who are sticking it out on the road are cutting back in other ways.
“We’re [concentrating] mostly on markets that we do well in, which basically are the major markets,” said Aaron Espinoza of the L.A.-based band Earlimart. “It’s a national tour in three weeks, where we used to do the country in four to five weeks. It’s just not economically feasible for us.”
Although major festivals such as Coachella, Bonnaroo and others have seen attendance dips this year, it’s difficult to draw any direct line between those drops and the price of travel. Many concertgoers look at those types of destination events as bargains because they can see dozens of acts over the course of several days.
Bonnaroo co-founder Rick Farman of Superfly Productions said part of his company’s strategy in launching the Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park next month is accessibility.
“As the festival market matures, we want to be in places that are strong city markets, where there isn’t the need to pull people from miles and miles away,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to feel it much with Outside Lands because there is great local transportation in San Francisco and that makes it easily accessible to a lot of people.”
There’s an upside
The spiraling cost of travel might have a silver lining: As bands stay closer to home, local music scenes are gaining energy. Still, in the age of YouTube and live music streaming on the Internet -- when someone in Minot, N.D., can watch a rising band from Norway perform at England’s Glastonbury Festival -- fans might not be content to restrict their live music diets to local acts.
“We’ve moved so far away from vibrant local and regional music scenes in this country that I don’t know if that’s possible,” said Legere. “People ultimately want to see those bands they’re hearing on the radio or on MySpace.”
And artists say it’s important for them to have the opportunity to play live in front of audiences across the country.
“The whole reason I picked up the bass in the first place was that I wanted to be Sid Vicious,” said Johnny Rioux of the Street Dogs, one of the bands on the Warped Tour. “I wanted to be Dee Dee Ramone and get on stage at CBGB. Sitting in a recording studio making a record is definitely rewarding, but nothing beats the live experience.”
Thus, bands and their crews are willing to resort to pulling up behind a Japanese restaurant in the middle of the night to pump 110 gallons of used oil into the tank of their old Bluebird tour bus.
“It’s a messy, dirty job, and you smell terrible for a week,” F Yeah promoter Carlson said. “But it really helps. It’s the only way we can do this.”