- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

You think you feel pain at the pump these days?

Try working a job that requires you to log long hours on the road with little hope of mileage reimbursement or, to euphemize in the style of an economist, “passing on spiraling energy costs to the consumer.”

Such is the plight of small and midsize rock bands — the ones that can’t afford to employ craft services or charter 727s but, rather, haul their own gear, plop into white vans and, when they feel like splurging, check in at a Super 8.

Recounting his days on the road with the indie-rock band the Rugburns, singer-songwriter Steve Poltz once said a standard rock ‘n’ roll shower came courtesy of the garden hose.

Touring the country and playing clubs may or may not be a debaucherous blast, but it is undoubtedly a financial necessity: Most bands don’t earn fortunes in record royalties and, so, must continually perform live and sell merchandise to stay afloat.

And even when crude isn’t netting $70 a barrel, profit margins on the road are thin.

High gasoline prices make an already dicey business that much less remunerative.

Pump pain is not sudden and calamitous — not like the wholesale van-and-gear thefts that have befallen at least three bands, including San Francisco’s Film School, in Philadelphia recently.

It is more akin to soil erosion or Alzheimer’s disease: slow, cumulative, insidious.

Peter Wark co-manages Marah, a rock band that, despite consistently strong reviews and effusive support from such famous friends as novelist Stephen King, scratches out a modest living on tour.

Marah travels in a relatively efficient, European-style splitter van that runs on diesel. A tank of gas costs about $80 — a shrug-worthy sum to well-heeled sport utility vehicle owners who drive from home to work to Whole Foods and back, but potentially crippling when you burn as many tanks as Marah does. Immediately after a gig earlier this year at Arlington’s Iota Club & Cafe, for example, the group set out for an all-night-and-then-some drive to central Texas.

“It was painful at times — looking at the gas meter go and go,” Mr. Wark says of the most recent leg of Marah’s seemingly never-ending trek across the continental United States. “You just lose money.”

Here’s what a budget for a full-time, semifamous working band looks like:

Low.

Touring budgets depend on payout guarantees from club owners and tour promoters, which typically run in the neighborhood of between $500 and $1,000 per show. (Guarantees in Europe, where gas is significantly more expensive, tend to be higher, Mr. Wark says.) It’s customary for owners to offer a percentage of “the door,” that is ticket sales, if the band draws a healthy crowd — but that task becomes harder the farther the band travels from home, making touring costs even more prohibitive.

Add to the nightly take, say, $200 in T-shirt and CD sales.

And then start subtracting: hotel rooms, per diems for band members and the crew — and a cool $100 or more to fill up the V-8 Econoline guzzler.

Pretty soon, per diems start to look like dispensable luxuries.

Even unsigned bands that stick to a regional base are feeling the sting of gas prices that currently hover around $3 per gallon.

Brad Hodson, bassist for the Washington-area jam band Laid Back, says he and his band mates were delighted when they secured a touring van last year — until, that is, they realized how much it would cost to run.

Mr. Hodson says Laid Back hasn’t yet turned down an out-of-town show because of travel costs.

Still, gas prices have “put a large dent in our income,” he says. “We have been known on some occasions to pay out-of-pocket for a fill up. The price of gas really hurts, but we have to do what we have to do.”

Mr. Wark says he and Marah co-manager Paul Dickman considered petitioning promoters to pony up additional cash to offset the price of gas — a sort of cost-of-living adjustment for rock bands.

“It would be great if promoters could be more lenient with guarantees and offer an extra $100 to compensate for the price of gas,” he says. “It really does count for a band the size of Marah.”

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