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Pumping The Brakes: Rising gas prices making impact on touring bands

Credit: Michael Marotta for Vanyaland

Before Weakened Friends embarked on their current North American tour, they did their research. They downloaded gas station rewards apps. They signed up for Costo and Sam’s Club memberships, where they could pinch pennies while keeping their touring van’s tank full. They even started using GasBuddy, an app that can locate the cheapest gas in the surrounding area.

Yet still, the rising prices at the pump seem to thwart the Portland group’s careful planning. Just three years ago, it cost Weakened Friends $87 to fill their van’s gas tank. This spring, it’s closer to $160.

The steady and sharp increase in gas costs means that touring bands’ biggest expense just got even more massive. As prices creep (or leap) higher every day, merchandise and ticket sales become increasingly vital to a band making a profit — or simply surviving — while on the road.

In the context of world affairs, many bands acknowledge that the fuel situation is a small price to pay to end a war overseas. But that doesn’t mean the mushrooming expense won’t alter their livelihoods — the same livelihoods that have been on hold for the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Weakened Friends have even had to raise their merchandise prices to make up for the increased cost of fuel.

“Merch is how bands stay alive on tour,” guitarist and vocalist Sonia Sturino tells Vanyaland. “The reality is we need to pay the bills and the amazing artists that design stuff also need to be paid, so we need to take that into account when setting prices… As someone who goes to a lot of shows and buys a lot of merch I’ve never had $5 sway my choice.”

Fortunately for the band, their fans don’t seem to be swayed by the increase either. 

“We have seriously seen so much love and support on the road and I think most people who have decided to buy a record or a shirt don’t even bat a lash at a couple more dollars since they know what they’re doing helps us out,” she adds. “I still think we price everything super fairly. We’ve actually always tried to keep it on the low side no matter what, even now.” 

Other bands, such as Boston folk outfit Honeysuckle, aren’t so sure how fans would feel about higher prices. When the group embarks on a North American tour at the end of March, they want to be sure that guests can still afford a ticket to their shows — which hopefully will translate to better attendance, more tickets sold, and more money poured back into their budget.

“I think this will be a temporary problem and since everyone is feeling the same economic stress I don’t think concertgoers will be very willing or excited to pay more to go out to things like concerts,” shares vocalist and instrumentalist Holly McGarry. 

That doesn’t mean that Honeysuckle is immune to the pressure, though. McGarry says a three-week tour previously came with a gas bill between $550 and $650, although if they’re touring with another group, that number can vary. If the band books a tour without many guarantees, she goes the extra mile and crunches numbers using an estimate of how many miles they’ll drive, their car’s average miles per gallon, and the average gas price, “just to make sure I know more accurately the financial risk we’re taking.”

There’s another variable, too: Without being able to tour for the past two years, Honeysuckle doesn’t have a firm idea of their draw in 2022, which creates another unknown value when trying to budget for a tour.

“My only concern is that many bands, ourselves included, haven’t been able to tour much since the pandemic began so I’m not as confident about our current draw as I would’ve been touring in 2019, which makes any added expense that much more stressful and uncertain,” McGarry explains. 

Boston blues staple GA-20 have been tearing through shows since last September, and have watched gas prices jump and drop as they move across different parts of the United States. Guitarist Matt Stubbs says the current prices on the East Coast are similar to what the band experienced on the West Coast earlier in the tour, which helps minimize the sticker shock. Next month, they’ll depart for a small tour of Europe, where the drives in between cities are shorter, and should hopefully burn through less fuel.

“You need to average it out with a healthy buffer to make sure you can make it work. It’s an enormous expense,” Stubbs tells Vanyaland. “When bands joke to buy a t-shirt because they have to fill the gas tank, they’re not joking at all. . .People may not realize that such high gas prices really do make touring flat out impossible for some. Sometimes we’re driving five hours to the next show, or 10 to 12 hours on a drive day.”

Stubbs says that the band’s sheer number of shows helped them recoup some of the profits lost to filling the gas tank, although occasionally choosing less expensive lodging and meals has lessened the burden as well. The band even travels with a cooler for storing fresh groceries if they need to cut back on costs for certain portions of the tour. 

“We want everything to remain as accessible as possible, and we try to use volume [of shows] to make up for that,” he explains. “Whether we can continue to do so remains to be seen, but we’ve got a pretty tight operation so we’re still making it work financially.”

Still, Stubbs echoes the importance of fans quite literally showing up for their favorite touring bands as gas prices continue to reach cringe-worthy highs. Snagging a record, bandana, or sticker pack at a performance might just be the difference between an artist continuing a tour and pumping the breaks on their long-awaited return to the road.

“If there’s a band you love and want to support, and especially if they are on the road, buy a ticket to their show, and/or buy some merch,” Stubbs emphasizes. “Especially at a time like this, it makes all the difference in the world.”