Column 41 — Have you seen the price of gas these days?; The Tremula, McCarthy Trenching tonight

Category: Blog — @ 12:32 pm September 8, 2005

It cost me $41 to fill up my little car yesterday. $41. And while I have no room to gripe (I can afford it and my living room isn’t filled with toxic waste), I found the gas-pump experience to be rather disturbing. Another reason not to gripe — my living doesn’t involve filling up my tank multiple times to get to work, as it does for your typical touring indie band, which may be squeezed right out of playing distant, isolated markets like Omaha because it just cost too much to drive here from Chicago, Denver, Kansas City or Minneapolis. For those who say “Don’t worry, the price will drop back down to the mid-$2s after the Gulf Coast pipeline problems are resolved” I say “Fie.” I’m skeptical. Someone’s making a lot of money off these prices. Too many “someones” for the price to ever drop back down significantly. Get used to $3 a gallon, folks, and thank your lucky stars you don’t have to drive a 12-mile-per-gallon van to Denver tomorrow, then Seattle, then L.A., only to play a string of non-guarantee gigs that might get you $50 each. Chasing the rock and roll dream has never been so expensive.

Column 41: Brother, Can You Spare $3.30?
Gas prices slowing down bands on the road
So I’m talking to rock guy Matt Whipkey and he tells me he’s flying to Chicago for his next gig. Flying? Since when did Whipkey become such a big-ass rock star? Who does he think he is? Springsteen?

“Flying will cost me half as much as driving to Chicago,” Whipkey said. What’s the matter? Hadn’t I seen the price of gas lately?

Ripples from the disaster known as Hurricane Katrina has made it all the way to the gas pumps, where for the first time we’re seeing $3 per gallon gasoline. As shocking as that is to drivers of gas-guzzling ego-machines like Escalades, Expeditions and Hummers, it’s a painful reality to touring bands. As if driving around the country in a metal furnace called a van isn’t bad enough, now bands will pay for the torture in something more substantial than sweat.

Whipkey gave me the easy numbers. Driving to Chicago for his gig would have cost him $170 if he rented a car. If he drove his van, it would have cost $270. Meanwhile, a round-trip ticket on Southwest was a mere $80. “When my band (Anonymous American) played Madison and Milwaukee, it cost us $180 in gas. Touring has never been a money-making prospect, but this is hilarious.”

It’s not just the little guy who’ll feel it says Eric Dimenstein of Ground Control Touring, the company that books fish both big and small, including Statistics, Bright Eyes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Sonic Youth. “I’ve heard some of the smaller bands mentioning it can be tough,” Dimenstein said of gas prices. “(I) would guess it hits them harder for the obvious reason there is less money coming in and more money going out. But it’s an added expense end of day for bus tours as well.”

Dimenstein, who deals with local promoters like Omaha’s One Percent Productions, says he hasn’t worked the cost of extra gas money into any bookings yet, “but who knows.”

One Percent Production’s Marc Leibowitz says he hasn’t seen the impact of high gas prices on his costs. “I think it would affect the smallest bands the most,” he said. “That means bands playing places like O’Leaver’s have an even harder time making it to the next town with $60 or whatever.”

So what can bands do to combat high gas prices? Not much, said Criteria frontman Stephen Pedersen. His band is poised to head out in their van on a 40-day tour in a few days realizing that they’re going to take the cost of touring right in the shorts.

“Our guarantees (the amount they’re paid for performances) are set in stone,” he said. “We’re not getting any extra money because the price of gas is going up. We just eat peanut butter more often.”

Passing on the extra expense to promoters in the form of a fuel surcharge isn’t even a consideration. “Promoters will just pass the cost onto the kids in the form of higher ticket prices,” he said. “As a band that’s looking to build a fan base, the last thing you want to do is increase the cost of shows.”

Pedersen says Criteria’s GMC Sierra 15-passenger van gets about five to six hours of travel time per 31-gallon tank — that’s about 13 miles per gallon. Their last tour — a brief five-day jaunt — cost them $200 in gas, and that was at pre-Katrina prices of around $2.29 per gallon. A dollar more per gallon equates to about $70 per day more for gas, which means Criteria will spend anywhere between $1,800 and $3,000 on gas for their upcoming tour, Pedersen said.

“Typically, for us, our guarantee is used for gas and food,” he said. “There’s also merch money, a percentage of which goes back to Saddle Creek (their record label). We use the remainder to pay rent and bills. Hopefully in a month, when we’re two weeks into the tour, gas prices will go down. I think we’ll be safe from operating at a loss, but beyond that, I don’t know what to expect.”

At the end of the day, however, Pedersen realizes the costs are nothing compared what New Orleans is facing. “The price of gas is relative to what’s happening in New Orleans,” he said. “One situation is a nuisance, the other is a tragedy.”

Tonight at O’Leavers: Angry art/math rock band ensemble The Tremula with The New Trust and McCarthy Trenching. A fine, fine line-up for only $5.

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