Steven Garcia pulled into a Houston gas station recently to fill up the old Dodge van his punk band uses on summer tours.
For months, the 23-year-old singer-guitarist had been budgeting money and booking show dates for Something Fierce’s third tour — but skyrocketing gas prices have put the brakes on those plans.
“Once I ran the numbers it was a ‘There’s no (expletive) way’ kind of moment,” Garcia said. After much hand-wringing and grumbling from bookers who’d scheduled the band to play, Garcia canceled the tour.
Cramming into a rusty, creaky van and playing dive bars and house parties is a summer ritual for many young musicians and ambitious independent bands trying to get exposure, make a living and maybe build a solid future in music.
But like everything else that requires lengthy time on the road, filling up at $4 a gallon or more is taking a toll.
“There’s no way we can sustain a blow that big,” he said, adding that the band is lucky to break even on a tour even when gas prices are more moderate.
If they’re not canceling their tours, small acts are banding together, stuffing themselves into smaller vehicles or cutting short their tours.
“We do have two bands, The Revisions and The Estranged, out on tour together right now who have decided to share a van to save on gas costs,” said Ken Cheppaikode, who operates Dirtnap Records, a Portland, Ore., independent label and record shop.
Cheppaikode said that after putting seven band members and their equipment into a van, they didn’t have room for a roadie.
San Francisco’s LoveLikeFire, a young band that counts on touring to make money and increase its fan base, now tries to get to the East Coast more often because the cities are closer to each other than out west.
“It does screw up a lot of bands on the West Coast, ’cause ... there are very few cities to play in under seven-hour stretches, which can be costly,” Yu said.
Bigger groups cut back
The tough choices being made at the bottom of the music industry food chain are just one more hit to the business already reeling from declining album sales because of digital music.
Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar, a trade publication covering the concert business, said the cost of fuel is affecting all levels, but the “people being most affected are new bands touring on the subsistence level. They don’t have the popularity to charge higher ticket prices because of higher fuel costs.”
Weathering soaring prices for more famous bands sometimes means just cutting back. “Like big acts using eight trucks instead of 12 this time around,” Bongiovanni said.
Larger bands can also ask clubs for guaranteed money to play, meaning even if no one comes to the show, they’ll still get paid. And with the higher gas prices, they’re asking for more, said Romona Downey, who books bands at the Bottom of the Hill club in San Francisco, which is popular with midlevel touring bands.
Dirtnap’s Cheppaikode said the independent bands on his label don’t always have the leverage to ask for guaranteed money and therefore they swallow the extra costs. They also tend to play at very small venues that may not be able to offer guarantees.
“I always tell our bands to make sure they have lots of (merchandise) to sell on each tour,” he said.
Still, the groups have to get there to sell their goods. So for the little guy, there’s often no choice but to keep truckin’ and gas prices just become another hurdle on an already difficult road to stardom.
“What else can you do?” Yu said. “It’s just the battle scars of trying to get your music out there. And for every band that doesn’t or can’t do it, there are other ones that can and will.”