Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Touring into a vacuum
The Midwestern indie rock touring dilemma
One of the toughest questions any band faces is whether or not to take the show on the road.
The majority never really leave their own backyards, preferring to do shows at that bar down the road where they know the owner, know who books it and know every single person who will show up.
Sadly enough, this is what defines most music scenes. The bands that gave up, now staying home, desperately trying to control something in their favor so they feel useful and can create some semblance of power.
Then you have the rare bands that throw caution to the wind, pack up their shit and leave for months. How the hell can they do that? Is it just because they are young, in college and have no responsibilities? Do they live in their rich parent's basement? Are they intent being waiters their whole lives? Or is it just because they possess stronger convictions other musicians lack?
A year ago I started to write an article on the tours of unknown Midwest indie bands, because I noticed there were a scant few doing it. But these days it is even more interesting to me because there are more - even in the face of gas prices which have risen to just about $4 per gallon. Then I saw this article on band having problems touring in this economy.
Often times I hear about a band going out on tour across the United States and I have to wonder. Maybe the band is pretty new. Maybe they have some fans in their hometown. But how can they expect to make any money playing weeknights in towns when the local newspapers won't even review their CD?
It has to be rough spending more than $100 on gas in a few days, playing to five people and making barely enough to pay for food. I seriously wonder how bands do it. More importantly, I wonder WHY they do it. What drives this irrationality? It's takes a strong resilience. It's actually pretty masochistic.
It's also a Catch 22: You're never going to get more fans at out of town shows, if you never play out of town shows. So you show up with bells on, hoping you're not just playing to the other band and the bass player's girlfriend.
Columbus, Ohio's Psychedelic Horseshit is one band intent on getting out there no matter what the cost.
Thankfully, the group has endured more attention the past year than the normal band, after the rise of the shitpop media focus. But hype only goes so far. This band loves to perform and it shows on stage.
"I'm not sure how the recent 60 cent (gas) hike will fuck us," bandleader Matt Whitehurst said. "I don't know. I guess we tour to keep it going. If we stopped we'd be just another random bedroom/basement recording document #183; and don't get me wrong there's nothing wrong with that, but we like to play shows and we like to travel."
The group has been all over the country and is currently heading out for another tour of the west.
"Playing for the same assholes everytime in your hometown really takes the fun out of it. We usually just scrape by on tour and live relativley comfortably (food, beer, weed)," Whitehurst said. "But of course there is rough spots throughout the country. None of us have ever died or anything. You gotta be able to live like a homeless person and sleep on floors and plan for the fact that you might not make enough dough to buy weed or eat or drink tomorrow."
In other words, the group shares a sensibility of acceptance. It's a tone that I found other touring bands share as I did interviews for this article.
"It's exciting. And sure some bands definetely should not do it. But if your band is good then you will get your records put out or put them out yourself and people will read about them and buy them and you will have people at your shows," he said. "If you suck then you shouldn't be playing music anyway. I guess the nature of the game kinda weeds out the shit acts. Unless they happen to be silver spoon kids. But they'll never stop making shitty music."
So Darwinism and the romance of the road is what keeps Psychedelic Horseshit going. But what about a band that hasn't had the luxury of being amongst the "new wave" of punk?
Up in northern Ohio, Cleveland's Bears singer/guitarist Charlie McArthur said he has been thinking a lot about the very same topic lately. He is in the process of booking an East Coast tour for the band in August.
"In the past, we've toured because it's seemed like there is some demand - small though it is at this point - for us in certain cities. That was especially true on the West Coast," he said. "The best shows for us are always with bands who are our friends in other cities, or in cities where a college radio DJ has helped promote the music. Other than that, it is definitely a lot of playing to small audiences on off nights... and that can bring you down a little bit, but that's usually offset by having the opportunity to see the country and have fun with your friends on the road."
It is this shared love of travel and idealistic notion of joy in music that Bears - although drastically different in sound from Psychedelic Horseshit - share with other touring bands. But neither has really addressed the fact that it often costs more to drive to a gig than it does to get paid for performing.
"The last time we were out on the road was a year ago and gas was closer to $3.20 a gallon. I think it cost us about $80 to fill up the van each time, so it gets really expensive," McArthur said. "If the price of gas keeps going up like this, I don't think it will even be possible for us to travel very far again unless we start to get more popular. It's really a shame because playing in new towns for new kids all the time is great, but it won't be so good if we just end up losing money rather than breaking even like we have in the past."
I told him that I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I'm starting to worry that maybe the reason so many bands become so stuck in their hometowns, is because it may not be worth it to tour anymore until they get signed to some label that will promote them.
"Well, Debbie, I think you may be right about that," McArthur said. "I don't think it's only the price of gas that is making it difficult to tour these days. Lately, there are just so many bands out there that have reached a certain level of popularity and have label support, that it doesn't seem to leave much room for bands like us - without a label - to play at most clubs. It's not impossible to tour, by any means, but it does sometimes feel like it might not always be worth it … I'm glad to see that other people are noticing these same things."
I'm also wondering if more bands ay try to go the route of getting radio airplay. It often gives bands the options of finding out where their fans are BEFORE having to tour all over the world. I hope to talk about that more in another article sometime.
Meanwhile, other bands look at touring like they are laying out a business plan, complete with numbers and figures.
Fellow Cleveland band the Dreadful Yawns is about the kick off an east coast tour. The group thankfully has the luxury of having some help from its label Exit Stencil to help cover road costs.
"We figure this three week tour will cost us nearly $1,700 in gas alone. That means we have to make about $80 a night in merchandise and door just to cover gas," bandleader Eric Schulte said. "That's not good. This time around we'll be paying for everything out of pocket. (We) come home broke to no paycheck because we haven't worked in three weeks. It's gonna be rough, but you don't get anywhere in life if you don't put it on the line every once in while. Plus we've been lucky in that our record label, Exit Stencil Recordings, gave us some money for tour support. Any little bit helps. Not to sound all motivational speakery, but you can do anything you put your mind to. We have a bunch of cool merchandise products that we are trying out. We have a new album. Plus, we've been touring and releasing albums for a few years so we have at least a little fan base."
He said Cleveland is a great town for rock and roll, but it can make a band motivated to move around.
"You can only play to the same people so many times before you start to yearn for something more. Not many bands in Cleveland book their own tours, buy their own vans, and get out to spread the gospel of Cleveland rock. If, for no other reason, we do it to get people interested in what is happening in Cleveland," Schulte said.
He said not only is their goal to promote Cleveland's music scene, but to help spread the word about Exit Stencil.
"We're extremely lucky to be dealing with Exit Stencil as our label. There is a very symbiotic relationship going on. We tour to get our name out there obviously, but we also want to get the name of the label out there. As the label gets more and more attention we get more, and as we start to turn heads the label gets some recognition. There are too many bands sitting on their thumbs waiting to get that mythical record deal. We'd rather learn to book our own tours, figure out ways to pay for it, and sweat it out. Nothing is free in this game, and the DIY ethic is a part of our very being. Besides, when we are sitting around with the grandkids who doesn't want to be able to tell little suzie that grandpa got lost in Manhattan while tripping on acid while he was on tour with a rock band 40 years ago?" Schulte said.
He added that any band, from the smallest indie, to the local heroes or nationals, will tell the same story about touring woes.
"Tuesday nights in any midwestern town isn't gonna be pretty," he said. "All that you can hope for is that for every night you play to the bartender in Des Moines, you will play for a hundred people in Chicago. It's 20 percent planning, 5 percent promotion, and 75 percent luck. Plus, if you've been lucky enough to meet some really great bands in other cities then you are ahead of the curve."
Cincinnati's Buffalo Killers helped me out with an interview back in April 2007, in which they touched upon their ability to tour as an underground Midwestern indie band. Since then the group has skyrocketed to joining such luminaries as The Black Crows and The Black Keys on tour.
Perhaps this growth can set the example to lesser known bands that it is possible to move forward. Touring is not the dead-end road it may appear at times.
Member Zach Gabbard explained that it is all about focus.
"The band is our job. When I'm home from tour, I'm working. When I'm on the road, I'm working. It is the job you can't escape... it is with you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," he said. "It is as exhausting as running any business would be. I think the biggest mistake most bands make is they run their band like a hobby and if that's what it is, then you don't need to spend as much time with it, but if you want to make it all work, it has to be your job - that, and have plenty of merchandise to sell on the road."