Wednesday, May 28, 2008

High gas prices hit touring bands hard...

Traveling from town to town and playing for an audience is the lifeblood of any musician. It's a calling that has transcended centuries, generations and styles. But it's imperiled by the rising price of gasoline.

"We drove from Omaha to Madison to play a show and it cost us $240," said Matt Maginn, bassist for the Omaha indie-rock band Cursive. "My jaw just about hit the floor. That's double what it cost us before. If you're a new band driving cross-country in a van pulling a trailer of equipment that's getting 6 miles a gallon, and you're getting paid 50 or 75 bucks to play a gig, I don't know how you survive."

With CD sales down 25 percent since 2000, touring income is more essential than ever to bands trying to make a living. The Redwalls' latest album, "The Redwalls," has sold only 6,000 copies, a steep drop from the 40,000 figure reached by their previous release, "De Nova." So the band's primary source of revenue is concerts, but their profit margin has taken a hit.

"It costs the band $100 to fill up their van each time," said the Chicago quartet's manager, Mitch Marlow. "Traveling around the country for shows, that adds up. The Redwalls are lucky that they have a big enough fan base where they can still do it and make money. But plenty of bands are at the threshold where they have to consider whether it's worth doing."

Bands often strive to broaden their audience by playing shows out-of-town for minimal guarantees. Their goal is a modest one: to make enough to pay for fuel to get to the next gig. But with the price of gas topping $4 a gallon, that's becoming more difficult.

Ray Quinn, owner of the Lincoln Avenue club Martyrs, says it's even more prohibitive for overseas bands to tour the U.S.

"It doesn't make [economic] sense for a lot of bands to come over from Europe or Canada because the value of the dollar is so low," Quinn said.

Nick Miller, vice president of Jam Productions, says the summer season is always slow going for clubs, but the staggering economy will have a major impact in the fall, when the clubs are usually busiest.

"It's going to be the good, the bad and the ugly," he said.

Nan Warshaw, owner of Chicago indie label Bloodshot Records, says her bands are feeling the pinch on the road. And the label is facing rising costs for postage even as CD sales are flattening out. She said the label spends $2,000 a month on postage, up 10 percent from last year. The market for vinyl records is increasing, but it costs Bloodshot $4.80 to mail one vinyl record plus an additional 20 cents for a mailer, up 25 percent from last year.

"The industry is in peril," she said. "We're doing fine, but I don't know how much longer it'll continue."

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