Bands Go Sailing, Avoid Gas Prices

People across the country have felt their budgets squeezed as gas prices soared to near record highs over the past month. It's been a particular problem for small businesses and consumers who drive extensively for their livelihoods.

The gas gouge has had ripple effects across a wide swath of industries, and has put pressure on a somewhat unlikely band of laborers: musicians.

High gas prices probably don't pressure the big boys like Coldplay or U2, whose multimillion-selling albums and rich record deals ensure luxury travel and accommodations all across the world. But for fledgling and developing midlevel musicians, the expense of traversing the country to play local venues for money and exposure has skyrocketed during the past several months.

Now some are getting creative with their travel plans.

One group of bands has planned a two-week August tour by sailboat, traveling along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, which runs along the East Coast between Cape Cod, Mass., and Miami. The plan was hatched by musicians Red Hunter, lead singer of the indie-rock band Peter and the Wolf, and indie musician Jana Hunter.

"It sort of started as a joke -- we were playing pool and drinking beer and talking about how cool it would be ... but then Jana e-mailed me and told me she thought she'd found a sailboat," said Red Hunter.

The two plan to play 12 to 14 shows on the two-week tour along with Ray Raposa, lead singer of a third band, the Castanets.

Red Hunter puts out music under his own label and drives himself when he tours in the luxury of his Toyota Corolla. He estimates that an average tour up the East Coast, traveling more than 1,000 miles over several weeks to play 10 to 15 venues, would cost him around $900 to $1,000 for gas alone. And that expense has become crushing during the last several months, when gas prices climbed to an average of $2.92 a gallon, about 31 percent higher than the price a year ago ($2.24).

"I did the math for the last several months of touring, and just with the recent gas price hikes it already cost me like $600 to $800 extra for gas," Hunter said. "For someone like me, who is super independent and doesn't have a label, that's a lot of money."

Small Money Eaten Up By Gas Costs

Midlevel acts like Peter and the Wolf and Jana Hunter are not accustomed to raking in big money. They play gigs at smaller venues, sometimes opening for the main act, and can make anywhere from $75 to $250 per show. For multiple-person acts, that's not much.

It's not uncommon for lower-profile acts to spend a portion of those earnings and whatever they make on CD and T-shirt sales directly on gas to get to the next venue. It's a dollar crunch that may keep some startup acts from touring at all.

"For us as a label it's a big deal, because our tour expenses have gone up. But it's a really big deal for developing bands and midlevel bands who are really trying to make a go of this full-time. For them, the gas expense is a big issue," said Mike Kaufmann, spokesman for Asthmatic Kitty Records, the label for the Castanets.

Inflated expenses are a particular problem for bands touring the United States, though not because of the prices -- prices in Europe can be twice as high. But tour stops tend to be much farther apart in the United States, making longer drives necessary.

"A two-month European tour can be half the cost of a one-month U.S. tour just because of the long distance you have to travel to get from place to place," Kaufman said.

Leaving the Driving to Greyhound

Another musician, a DJ artist known as Bizzart, will tour via Greyhound bus later this summer to avoid the high gas prices. Because most of his mixing equipment can be stored in a couple of bags, he doesn't need the space that other bands require to move multiple instruments and sound equipment. So he'll hunker down for long hours in the bus right alongside tourists. So much for the notion of the rowdy rock 'n' roll tour bus.

"I know a lot of people in the music business, and that's pretty unusual," Kauffman said. "But the expense of renting a car and paying for the gas has become impossible for some people, unless they want to go into debt and fund it all on credit cards."

Red Hunter said he hopes to save enough money on the sailboat tour to make the trip worthwhile. And the unique plan has had the added effect of putting a small spotlight on a tour that might otherwise not get much media attention.

"The fact that it'll be cheaper and the fact that it seems to be getting a lot of exposure are the two biggest reasons I'm doing it. Hopefully, I'm going to be able to pay for the rest of my tour on the money I save," he said.