Brian Coughlin plays guitar for Phoenix rock band Kinch, and he's also the group's self-appointed financial planner.
He keeps detailed logs of where the band's modest cash revenue is spent: T-shirts, gas, mechanical service, you name it. As he calculated potential costs for Kinch's upcoming 19-day tour through the West and parts of the Midwest, the red ink was spilling uncontrollably before the four members of Kinch had even piled into their 1995 GMC Vandura.
"We know we're going to lose money on this tour," Coughlin says, without flinching. "It becomes a matter of how can we lose the least amount as possible."
Welcome to the reality of $4-a-gallon gas prices. Please, pay for that CD.
Soaring gas costs are hitting indie musicians where it hurts most: in the pockets of their tattered jeans, where they'd be lucky just to find a guitar pick or book of matches. Even as bands seek alternative solutions — biodiesel, equipment/van sharing, tighter routing — there's an inevitable sense of dread at the pump, forcing some musicians to pit their wallets against their art. And it's had a residual impact on local promoters and music fans.
"You've got to [pay for gas]," says Stephen Chilton, the man behind local promotion company Psyko Steve Presents, who has also acted as a tour manager for bands. "There's no way around it. But I think what's going to have to happen is these smaller bands cannot expect to make money touring anymore."
Touring never was a highly profitable proposition for smaller bands, anyway. Making enough money to get to the next city and selling a few T-shirts along the way would be considered a success. Getting your name out to the masses is the payout. But unheard-of gas prices are making everyone pause, and it's especially painful for Valley bands that have longer drives in the spacious West as compared to those that tour the dense East Coast.
Emerging Tempe quintet What Laura Says Thinks and Feels, in the midst of a tour with fellow local favorites Dear and the Headlights, traveled through Los Angeles and up the coast earlier in July. Bassist Mitch Freedom says the band saw gas prices as high as $4.79 per gallon in Orange County. ("California is definitely the worst," he said.)
Although the band has some financial backing on this tour since signing with small North Carolina label Terpsikhore, What Laura Says still is considering more cost-effective methods to save money, including alternative fuel, finding friends with a place to crash, and more precise city-to-city routing. The band's manager estimated a tab of $2,500 for gas alone for the band's 12-day tour in July, which traveled no farther east than Dallas. The band's Ford conversion van gets (gulp) 10 miles to the gallon.
"It's becoming difficult for your average DIY musician to get themselves out there in front of different audiences," Freedom says. "You see so much progress in every other aspect of the industry as far as DIY goes . . . But this is probably the one thing that separates people. It's a shame because it's the most important thing."
Rising gas prices have far-reaching implications, and not just for bands. Consider the trickle-down effect: Bands want more money because it's more expensive to tour; promoters pass on their costs by increasing ticket costs; high ticket prices hurt fans, who are less inclined to come out to a show because, hey, they're spending $4 a gallon on gas, too.
Charlie Levy, promoter of Stateside Presents, calls it a lose-lose situation. "The profit margin is zilch," he says. "It's hurting to where a lot of promoters are starting to back off on a lot of club shows. People have less money, and I think a lot of (promoters) are passing on more shows and just being pickier. Everyone's passing on a lot of things because it's too much of a risk."
When asked if high gas prices are to blame, Levy says: "Completely. It just costs a lot more to tour. It doesn't make a difference who you are." But smaller to mid-level bands are feeling pinched the most — to the point where touring, once a necessity to build a fan base, might be considered a luxury.
If high gas prices haven't weeded out every Tom, Dick, and Harry MySpace band from touring, they've at least forced some musicians to get creative to prove their intentions. Take Red Hunter, for example. In 2006 (in the good ol' days of $3 per gallon), Hunter and his band, Peter and the Wolf, did a two-week tour of the East Coast by sailboat.
Other alternative solutions aren't so extreme. Boston rock band Piebald converted its camper to run on vegetable oil, a cheaper and more environmentally friendly method than traditional gas. Chad Sundin, singer/songwriter of local indie-folk band The Via Maris, used a family road trip to Michigan earlier this summer as a chance to book shows along the way. Traveling in a minivan with his family and guitarist Zachary James Dodds, Sundin noticed a 20-cent difference in prices between stations just a mile or so apart. "We consistently found gas between $3.85 and $3.95," he says. "But a mile down the road, there'd be a station selling gas for $4.20. You just have to be really smart about it."
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In that regard, some bands are sharing gear on the road so they can carpool instead of taking out two vans. "I've seen more bands try to share vans or at least they're talking about it," Chilton says. "But I think in the next year, you're going to have to start touring with smaller setups — touring with gear in a van, which is always a pain. Using a trailer adds five miles per gallon. But some bands can't do that. If you've got six members and four cabinets, you can't tour in a band without a trailer."
The guys in Kinch modified their van to fit five people and their equipment. Still, the 1995 GMC Vandura gets about 350 miles per tank and costs roughly $100 to fill. Coughlin estimates that, between food and gas expenses, his band spends around $250 a day on the road. Most times, though, food money doesn't come from the band account. "We gotta feed the van first," he says.
As a preemptive measure to offset costs for its upcoming August venture, Kinch booked a few local shows (including an August 12 gig at Modified Arts) before taking off and will sell limited-edition T-shirts designed by famous Phoenix pizza chef/music lover Chris Bianco.
Whatever the solution, it's clear many bands won't let the financial hit deter them from what they love to do. The bottom line: Gas, expensive though it may be, is just a means to a more important end. "There's no substitute for face-to-face interaction," Sundin, of The Via Maris, says. "MySpace is great, but there's no substitute for getting out in front of people and shaking their hand and making that connection."