For Whom the Road Tolls
The Death of Touring
The Death of TouringFor Whom the Road Tolls
by Andy Langer
What does it say about a touring musician's life that Abra Moore would admit to the biggest surprise coming from her seven months on the road is that almost everywhere she goes there are actually Abra Moore fans? "It's amazing," says the local singer-songwriter. "It's not like I've been out there for years and years developing a touring base. And not only have I been surprised by how many people out there know me, in many cases they know the words to my songs, too."
Thanks to a "Four Leaf Clover," a cross-format radio hit that yielded her opening slots for Third Eye Blind, Collective Soul, Matthew Sweet, Big Head Todd, and the Lilith festival, Moore's fans are indeed singing her songs with her. And while those tours have kept Moore away from Austin for most of the year, she admits to living here long enough to appreciate a little touring and radio success -- something that has, for the most part, eluded many other local artists, both great and small.
Austin is a town full of horror stories about touring, stories about endlessly long drives to abundantly empty clubs. Even being a successful local draw is little guarantee there will be similar crowds in Dallas or Houston, let alone Nebraska or Iowa; bands like the Ugly Americans, Storyville, Sister 7, Ian Moore and Vallejo, will all tell you about cities where they're lucky to pull in a crowd that will fill the Hole in the Wall. This being the case, the plight of Austin's touring contingent is that much more difficult, and only compounds the long-discussed "Austin Curse" -- the relative commercial failure of Austin-based artists reaching for the national brass ring. On its own, the Austin Curse may be as cliché as it is a phenomenon, but regardless of the scene or city a band originates from, the ugly truth is that the vast majority of albums released each year fail to make money for their labels or establish viable long-term artists. Period.
Nevertheless, local musicians working major-label or major indie albums say the road is quickly becoming a proposition too expensive and risky to undertake without substantial financial support from their labels. And yet, if most local artists releasing national product already lack a history of radioplay and/or album sales, what incentive is there for a label to shell out tour support? And without a tour that will ultimately put these artists in front of each market's album-buying crowd, what chance is there to spur on sales and radio spins? Welcome to the chicken-and-egg equation that is national touring.
"The road has always been tough," says Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson, "and it looks like it's getting a lot tougher. "When we did our first tour, we traveled in a '56 Chevy and a pick-up, playing dinky ass clubs and sleeping on their floors or in the car. That's how you did it, but I suppose a lot of bands don't even have that opportunity anymore. We were making $300 a night back in 1973, and that's what I understand young bands are lucky to play for now. Needless to say, $300 went a lot further back then."
Because Benson has spent 25 years carefully cultivating a crowd, Asleep at the Wheel regularly plays 130 dates a year and can now substitute private parties and corporate events for smaller gigs in smaller cities. Like the Austin Lounge Lizards, Jerry Jeff Walker, or Calvin Russell, Asleep at the Wheel has established a time-developed niche that's profitable regardless of radio play or record sales. In essence, they, like the older, more established class of Austin musicians are immune to the Austin Curse.
Still, it's illuminating to learn from Benson that while his band's touring nets Bismeaux Productions nearly $1 million a year, they spend $1.2 million to get there. In the process, Asleep at the Wheel puts 100,000 miles a year on a 10-year old bus that costs around $2,500 a month to maintain -- and that's not accounting for gas, oil, or the driver. "That's just one bus," says Benson. "We also have a truck that has two crew members and equipment. And we're the experts at begging, borrowing, and stealing. Nobody does it more economically or efficiently, and it still costs a fortune."
Even if a good five-week theatre tour now costs upwards of $50,000, Asleep at the Wheel's "bread and butter" hasn't come without its share of what Benson calls "blood and guts reality." His band may play more convention centers than roadhouses these days, but a bus is still a bus and hotels will never feel like home. Still, even as he's watched touring costs rise at the expense of a shrinking circuit, Benson has obviously remained an advocate of touring advocate -- well versed in the modern tales of how Blues Traveler and Dave Matthews ultimately posted large enough live draws to have forced radio and MTV to come to them. And although Benson's general optimism doesn't quite seem to be catching on with other local musicians, there are still many who agree touring doesn't have to be a case of diminishing rewards.
"Sure, it's expensive for the young bands," says Lori Angelo, whose New York-based Mustang Booking handles Storyville, Ian Moore, Breedlove, and the Ugly Americans. "It's hard finding early live exposure and radio play to begin with, and now you're fighting with so many other bands for similar small gigs. But that's a national trend that any band willing to work can still manage to overcome. If you want to work, there are always gigs. But now, it's just that bands also have to be willing to be realistic in their expectations."
Middle of the Road
Being realistic is always good advice, but according to both local and national booking agents, the entire concert industry's expectations may need to be adjusted after 1997. Simply put, interest in concerts both big and small seems to be waning. Not only are smaller tours with tight bottom lines suffering losses, bigger and better-promoted outfits like H.O.R.D.E. and Lollapalooza are losing money. More importantly, say the local musicians, low ticket sales for major shows have made it increasingly difficult for smaller bands to find gigs Sunday through Wednesday. Because so many clubs nationwide are looking to book relatively safe local acts early in the week, or cutting back on gambling on roadshows altogether, many Austin bands and booking agents say routing a busy, let alone profitable, cross-country tour is virtually impossible for most artists.
Unlike the crowds themselves