This summer’s Warped Tour isn’t a gas for cash-strapped bands

[18 July 2008]

By Steve Knopper

Newsday (MCT)

If the reflective Los Angeles punk band Say Anything had toured in a bus for two months last summer, gas prices would have cost roughly $12,000 to $14,000. This year, as one of the 50 or so acts playing the two-month Warped Tour, Say Anything expects to spend $20,000 to $24,000 on gas.

“It’s crazy, how much gas has gone up in the past little while,” says guitarist Jake Turner, by phone from a tour stop in St. Petersburg, Fla. “We actually had to cut down. We used to get a crew room and a band room (at hotels). Just this tour, we’ve only gotten one room every day. Usually there’s a line waiting: ‘Next shower!’ It’s kind of sucky, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to save some money.”

Of the hundreds of concert tours sputtering around the United States this summer, the 13-year-old Warped Tour has felt $4-a-gallon gas perhaps most acutely. Some of the top acts, such as Gym Class Heroes, Angels and Airwaves and Motion City Soundtrack, are more established and can adapt more easily to higher expenses. Others need help. Singer-songwriter Charlotte Sometimes and her band are among many on the Warped bill sharing buses with other acts (in her case, Evergreen Terrace). Some acts are renting out their unused bus bunks to food and merchandise vendors for $100 a day. With the help of sponsors and promoters, the tour also gives out free-gas cards to bands who drum up fan support online - Say Anything, in particular, has won hundreds of dollars that way.

“Three years ago, it would take us $50 to fill up a tank for a big 15-passenger van with a trailer. Now, it takes that much to fill up my car,” says Matt McGinley, drummer for Gym Class Heroes, in a phone interview. “I can’t imagine what it’s costing some of the hardworking, hustling bands that are on Warped Tour this year that are doing it in a van.”

For years, the way for a band to make a living in the music business has been through relentless touring. That’s especially true today, given an eight-year decline in CD sales and low profit margins on iTunes Music Store-style song downloads. So more musicians are touring than ever - but skyrocketing gas prices have shocked them in recent months. Warped officials say the tour is doing OK at the box office, maybe even a little better than usual, but acts are having a harder time making a living on the tour. According to Say Anything’s Turner, one Warped act paid for a bus before the tour began, but fuel prices forced the band to downsize to a minivan and try to rent the bus to someone else.

“It’s definitely way more expensive to be in a bus than it is to be in a van,” Turner says. “You don’t want to go back to the van, but a lot of bands are having to go back.”

Gas prices rose too abruptly this summer for the tour itself to make many changes. Producer Kevin Lyman says he wishes he’d eliminated two or three buses and a couple of trucks, and hired local crews and equipment for lighting and sound in certain cities. But at this point, for the tour that continues through Aug. 17, it’s too late.

“I’m committed to what we’re doing this year. I had an accountant saying maybe we should drop a stage. I said no - what, we’re going to make someone stay home now? Hopefully we’re working every angle, so a band doesn’t have to drop off the tour,” Lyman says, recalling the early days of Warped, when bands were less known and had fewer resources. “I’m traveling with a lot of broke bands right now. We’re a hard-working tour this year. In the long run, there are some positives to it.”

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