Independent and small-label bands have to tour to cover the costs of recording, and with CD sales declining, major acts rely more on touring for revenue than ever before. But as these stories in the Chicago Tribune and Portland Oregonian make clear, the steep rise in the price of gasoline over the last couple of years has changed the equation drastically.
Example: two years ago, a band I was in was invitated to play a small festival in San Francisco, an 800-mile drive from Seattle. Back then, gas cost an average of $3.13 per gallon on the West coast. The van we were driving averaged about 20 miles per gallon. That's about $250 in gas. The guarantee for the festival was $200, and we were able to patch together a couple other shows. Between the door, collections, and CD sales, we managed to cover costs. Today, at $4.45 per gallon? We'd need to take in an extra $106 just to cover gas.
Clubs aren't willing to pay larger guarantees--if anything, it's the opposite, given how the economy has affected discretionary spending. So we would have had to book a couple more shows with decent guarantees and fans who were willing to buy CDs. That's tough: there just aren't that many smaller towns with lots of fans willing to take a risk on original live music. Eugene, Oregon, has a large university and is right off the interstate. Some folks have talked up Chico, also home of a university and relatively close to the interstate. Eureka's reportedly a great music town, but way over on the coast, which adds another few hundred miles. Sacramento, maybe. Davis, possibly.
So what's a touring act to do, especially out west where the cities are few and far between? This story in the Houston Press has some interesting ideas how touring could evolve. Oil companies could sponsor gas cards for touring acts as a marketing trick. Multi-date residences may become common again--instead of one show at a bigger club, an act could play five or six days at a much smaller venue.
Other ideas? Look for unconventional venues between bigger gigs: think colleges, high schools, local bars, art spaces with an event you could latch on to. Think about how to book private parties--it could be a basement in your biggest MySpace fan's rental house, or something more corporate. Tour with more bands on the same bill (and more people sharing the ride). Flying and renting gear might be cheaper than long drives with long stretches of no (or very small) shows. One band's even bicycling down the West coast.