For Whom the Road Tolls
By Andy Langer
DECEMBER 8, 1997: That 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."
photograph by Todd V. Wolfson
What has risen -- if not recently -- is the drinking age for most states, which, surprisingly, clubowners say is just now becoming a factor in their receipts. "The drinking age issue and drunk driving laws are themselves good," says Benson, "but they've definitely contributed to the demise of the circuit. Half our gigs are corporate or private, because a lot of the places we used to play don't exist anymore because people aren't out to drink anymore. Routing is a bitch. Just try to get from here to Los Angeles. There used to be a dozen stops. And the biggest problem is that those kind of long trips built musicians and bands you don't see anymore. A lot happens over years and miles."
Storyville's David Grissom has seen a lot of both years and miles, but the local guitarist says crowds don't seem as interested in searching out new music. "I think a lot of the mystery is gone," he says. "People see live music every night on Leno and Letterman, not to mention MTV and VH1. Any band that has any buzz is going to be playing one of those shows, so now people know what kind of guitars they play and whether they can pull it off live. What curiosity factor is left that's great enough to get somebody out at 11:30pm on a Monday night when they have to get up to work the next morning?"
The upside of the shrinking market, say some of the more optimistic booking agents, is that the bands that work the hardest on developing a regional or national circuit stand to leave a greater impact on talent buyers if they begin drawing respectable crowds after just a couple of visits.
"Even in a market where the live music mentality seems to be diminishing, a great band that's personable may only have to go to a venue once to leave an impression," says Brian Swanson, an agent for the Minneapolis-based Hello! Booking, which handles Dale Watson and the Derailers. "Somebody like Dale or the Derailers will, at the very least, win over the buyer or the bar staff. There may only be a dozen people at that first gig, but they'll play for that audience until everyone is dedicated to bringing them back again. Those kind of bands have no aversion to becoming the jukebox and playing three sets if that's what it takes."
In fact, the Mustang agency's Angelo says that asking for repeat booking in advance isn't uncommon now, because clubs that are still interested in roadshows are obviously looking for bands that will develop into consistent draws. It's also become common for artists with debut records to forgo full tours in favor of residencies -- playing once a week for four to six weeks in several different east or west coast cities.
"For a band like Breedlove, who's touring constantly but doesn't yet have a label to support them, we'll try booking a January and a February gig together," Angelo says. "That tells the buyer this is a band interested in developing the market. And more often than not, the buyer not only figures that out, they also go out of their way to make one of those bookings an opening slot for a well-known local band that will put them in front of an audience their first time through."
According to Grissom, talent buyers and bar staff aren't the only ones who appreciate long-term commitment and a band's willingness to play for small crowds. "It's easy to think the fans don't understand how frustrating touring can be, but a lot of them do realize it's an endurance test," says Grissom. "Especially with the really small crowds -- they seem to appreciate the fact that not only didn't you cancel, but you're there playing hard."
Tour of Duty If merely showing up and playing the gigs were enough to develop crowds, less Austin musicians would be complaining about their roadwork. More often than not, however, the success of a tour hinges on the commitment from a band's label. "If you're busting your ass and other people aren't keeping their end of the bargain, it gets a lot more frustrating," says Grissom. "To drive 500 miles and play for 20 people is one thing, but to do it and find out the record company hasn't made sure the local retailers are making your album available in their town is another."
While many local bands with major label deals start off with some tour support, there typically comes a point where slow sales and radio reaction force a decision from the band as to whether to continue touring without their label's financial support.
"Theoretically, you can go out and sleep on people's floors and make a tour without support," says Fastball's Miles Zuniga. "But if the label has stopped promoting the record to retail and radio, is there any reason to put yourself through that? My theory is that if you're going to tour and ostensibly make money for the label by promoting a record they should be helping you do that."
Because so many labels do help with initial tours -- while at the same time releasing more albums than ever with a throw-it-against-the-wall attitude -- there are some local artists and booking agents who say the influx of bands on the road with major label tour support may actually be hurting the chances of unsigned acts looking to develop their fanbases through regional tours.
"It's getting harder for unsigned bands, because there are more bands with deals and tour support that are now willing to fight for $200 gigs," says Angelo. "Those are shows the unsigned bands need to survive and the shows the major label bands couldn't afford to do if they didn't have tour support to cut their losses."
Since bands realize their tour support may be a limited resource, there's even more pressure to play as often as possible on tour, giving the label evidence that they're getting the most promotional bang for their buck. Not only are most bands attempting to play six or seven gigs a week, they're also trying to line up radio and retail appearances in each market. Add a couple of local press interviews, and a round of phone interviews before or after sound check, and there isn't much time for sight-seeing. It's a workload that's supposed to drive up attendance figures, but Grissom says he believes a lot of today's touring is actually geared more towards simply showing your face than it is about actually counting faces in the crowd.
"The radio station stops have almost become as important as the gig," he says. "These days they want you to show up, meet them, and play for them. And I'm constantly amazed at how often they'll say something like, 'Sting is going to be up here tomorrow.' People you would have never dreamed would be heading over to the local radio station with an acoustic guitar are realizing how important it is they put a face to their album."
Although similar stops at non-commercial or college stations may reach a better defined audience, a general lack of commercial radio play is just another factor compounding touring troubles for Austin bands on both indie and major labels. Not only can't the former compete with the latter in terms of tour support or promotional opportunities, they also hold less clout with talent buyers, who, given the same night and asking price, would typically rather gamble on a major label act rather than a rising indie hopeful. And because so many Austin artists signed to local independents have artistic respect within the industry but limited sales potential, they've often been approached by admiring bands asking them out on tours they can't afford to take.
"I'm fortunate," says Alejandro Escovedo, "because I've established a circuit that will allow me to make enough money on the weekends to send me through. But gas and hotels have gotten so expensive that there are tours I can't do without tour support. When I was on Watermelon, Los Lobos offered us an East Coast tour that would have been great, only we couldn't make it work with the expenses of the orchestra. And with Buick MacKane, it was the tour support that allowed us to tour with Son Volt, because the reality is that the money allotted for openers is barely enough to cover hotel expenses."
If the average opening slot on a tour with someone like Son Volt typically yields
$150-250 a night, then why do it? In a word, exposure. "If they take to you, they'll buy your CD's and T-shirts and help make it worthwhile," says Escovedo. "But the gamble is really about the exposure. You have to bet you'll be playing for people that wouldn't go out to the local punk rock or roots-rock club, but would go to see Son Volt and buy the opener's record if they like them. When you're playing in front of 1,500 or 2,000 people a night, that can mean more people seeing you in one week than you can do in a few months on your own."
Ironically, proof of what a band can do on its own may be the most common angle used to secure some of the best high-profile opening slots. Take Ian Moore, for instance. While the local guitarist has nothing approaching a gold record, it no doubt surprised many locals that he was offered and performed gigs with the Rolling Stones in 1994, ZZ Top in 1995, and Bob Dylan in 1996. Turns out that Moore draws so well in Texas and Colorado that both the Stones and Dylan saw him as opportunity to strengthen their Southwest ticket sales with relatively little risk.
"Clearly, these are bands savvy enough to look at the regional markets and see regional artists that will add some incentive to the bill and ultimately mean something to their bottom line ticket sales," says Angelo. "But hopefully you don't just wind up with the markets you've already developed. You have to attempt a trade-off for exposure in a couple of extra markets you haven't yet worked as well."
On the other hand, because tour support is often limited -- in addition to there being so few tours available with groups that are musically compatible -- more and more booking agents and labels are recommending their clients focus solely on building a profitable regional club circuit. Some of the more cautious locals, like Kacy Crowley, are not only opting away from marginal opening slots, they're also touring less in order to concentrate on making radio station appearances that allow the radio department to build a buzz that will hopefully create a live demand.
"There are a lot of artists waiting around right now, because if Son Volt or Wilco took out every band that wanted to tour with them for just a week, they'd be on the road for the next 10 years," says Swanson. "In my mind, the only way to do it is to get out there, especially if you want any kind of longevity. Look at modern rock, where a hit this year is no guarantee of a hit next year. Grassroots may take longer, but it lasts longer too."
One for the Road By solely concentrating on Texas, many local artists have proven there's a solid live market for their music. What's still unclear, however, is to what degree a grassroots approach is simply a recipe for running in circles. If an ever-tightening live music market means fewer venues and fewer concertgoers, does that mean grassroots bands will be the only ones left standing -- or will the live music market still be dictated by people who want to see artists they recognize from the radio? Obviously, that answer is difficult to come by, but some local artists and booking agents contend this is the hardest period ever for drafting a blueprint to live success. Even Abra Moore, arguably 1997's touring success story, says she's remaining cautious.
"The idea for me is to tour now with the higher-profile MTV-driven bands like Third Eye Blind or Collective Soul so their fans can connect me to 'Four Leaf Clover,' a song they're somewhat familiar with from the radio," says Moore. "And by touring with a band like Big Head Todd, who can sell out a hall without radio, I can be introduced to a different set of potentially loyal fans. I've been lucky enough to taste the fruit of radio airplay, but hopefully it can get to the point where if I don't get anymore right away I'll have developed a tour-driven fanbase that's seen me come through a couple of times and will come back regardless of radio."
Early indications seem to be that Moore is on to something. While she recently proved she has a draw of her own by headlining a radio show in Phoenix that sold-out a 1,000-seat hall, she'll return to the role of opener for two December Sara McLachlan dates and a New Year's bill in Chicago with Matthew Sweet. "Phoenix blew my mind, to know I had fans," says Moore, "but I also know I could have never attempted to tour on my own all along, even with my airplay."
If Moore's airplay isn't enough, what about all the Austin acts that haven't been as lucky on the radio? Many, like Escovedo or Asleep at the Wheel, will likely survive regardless. In fact, Ray Benson says touring has been the single biggest key to his band's independence. Having spent a quarter century developing a fanbase, Austin's swing embassadors to the world are at the rare junction where they don't need a new record as an excuse to tour. Instead, when Asleep at the Wheel does negotiate one-off deals like their recent arrangement with High Street Records for the release of Merry Texas Christmas Y'all, they can ask for larger video, radio promotion, and marketing budgets rather than haggling over tour support.
Other local musicians with less miles under their hoods will no doubt try and wait out this spell of touring trouble. In fact, many say they'll simply renew their focus on the Texas tour circuit, working as both weekend warriors and hometown heroes. Some aren't so sure that's such a good idea.
"Not only would it be really dangerous creatively to just try and stay here," says Grissom, "it's almost impossible to stay in one place and constantly cultivate a strong fanbase anyway -- even in Austin.
"Realistically, you have to go out and play. There is no big magical answer you can put a finger on. More likely, it's about whether you can stick it out...
"There have been times we've all asked why we should go back to some city just to lose money and play for a handful of people. Why? Because each time you show up, you're going to play for new people, sell records, and maybe make inroads at radio. As tough as it is, you just have to be out there."
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