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Bands on the road deal with costs of gas, food and lodging, plus the time spent together

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Summer time is touring season for bands, large and small. Robert Baldwin, left, Seth Gibbs, William Gosup, Chris Balcom, Sabrina Ellis, Adam Harlow and Mark Stoney are members of two bands, Bobby Jealousy and the Shivery Shakes, going on tour together next week. They'll load themselves and their instruments into a van and hit the road to New Jersey.

Austin garage band A Giant Dog, which regularly packs clubs around town, traveled to Tulsa for a show a couple years ago. When they arrived at the venue, the band's five members — who had taken time off from their day jobs, poured a lot of money into gas for their van and pretty much put the rest of their lives on hold — faced the reality of the situation. They would be playing to a crowd of three.

Not 300, but three. The small turnout didn't stop the band from playing, though, and those three people enjoyed the show, according to A Giant Dog's lead vocalist Sabrina Ellis.

"It's awkward, but I kind of enjoy shows like that on tour," Ellis says. "Because if you can put on a good show for a room of nobody and you can still have a good time and care about what you're singing even though no one is going to hear it, that makes you really examine yourself as an artist."

Like scores of other musicians at this time of year, Ellis is about to head out on tour once again, this time with her other band, Bobby Jealousy, who are sharing a tour up the East Coast with another Austin band, Shivery Shakes. It's a necessity for bands that want to eventually make some money and build a fan base outside their hometowns, but it can also be an extremely difficult enterprise on both financial and personal levels.

Markets in lieu of fast food

One Austin musician with extensive knowledge of the perils of touring is percussionist Thor Harris, who spent several years touring with Shearwater and is gearing up for a long run with New York band Swans, which is about to release a new album.

While on tour with Shearwater a few years ago, Harris started documenting what he deemed annoying behavior from his tour mates in his sketchbook. Rather than take offense, his band mates began to help him craft a list that would turn into "How to Tour in a Band or Whatever," a list of 21 do's and (mostly) don'ts for bands planning to hit the road (many of the suggestions are good advice for anyone traveling with others).

The list was posted and re-posted around the Internet. Several print publications published it as well. Soon, strangers would approach Harris thanking him for putting it together. More than anything, it focused on treating yourself and others with respect.

No. 5: "If you feel like (expletive) all the time, drink less beer at the gig. You will play better & feel better. What are you ... a child? Some have the endurance for self-abuse. Most don't."

"I have depression, but it makes even fairly healthy people somewhat bipolar to be on tour," Harris says. "The highs are pretty cool. It's pretty great to be on a ferry in Denmark looking at fjords, the travel is beautiful, playing is great, but the lows can feel pretty low, because you're far away from your loved ones for a long time. It makes you more moody. When you're home you have so much familiarity that stabilizes you, and on tour you don't have that."

Rule No. 19 on Harris' list: "Fast food is poison."

When Harris, who is a vegetarian, first started touring with Shearwater, he and his band mates would search for a Whole Foods Market or comparable store in each new town so that they didn't have to eat fast food, which doesn't offer the same energy boost required to travel long distances and play shows nightly. Similarly, Swans includes a healthy spread of fruit and vegetables on their tour rider.

"It's definitely not food," Harris says of fast food. "The Taco Bell seven-layer burrito, I'm glad that exists — it's a vegetarian delight — but you don't want to eat that very often. It's a stopgap."

Ellis agrees. As a rule, she doesn't stop for fast food on tour, but she concedes that it's difficult if you're not making money. Her go-to tour snack? "The little Goudas that come individually wrapped in wax, the Babybels, and salami, because they'll keep for a couple days in the van."

Then there is the issue of paying for food, which bands approach in different ways. On one tour, the members of A Giant Dog agreed to each pay for their own food, resulting in not a whole lot of eating. The next time, more guarantees from venues had them using band money to eat, which led them to sit down for too many meals at restaurants where the band members would eat large portions.

"That shouldn't happen," Ellis says. "It's not a good way to tour."

Networking for gigs

When Austin indie pop band the Sour Notes prepared for their last tour, bassist Amarah Ulghani found venues and bands to share bills with much in the same way one might search for a place to eat: social networking sites like Yelp. From there, she moved to venue and band websites and then to email to construct bills.

"Sometimes it takes emails to 50 bands before someone says ‘yes,' " Ulghani says. Persistence paid off with a show in Richmond, Va., that was among the band's most successful in terms of turnout.

Once relationships with others bands are established, a sort of exchange develops. During this year's South by Southwest, the Sour Notes booked an all-day, 30-band show at Cheer Up Charlies with many of the bands they had shared bills with in other cities. It's hoped many of those bands will offer the same opportunity the next time the Sour Notes hit the road.

"It gets a little bit easier every time," Ulghani says. "There are more people that come out, but it's still a lot of work, because you want it to be better every time."

Building relationships with other bands and getting people to shows are not only essential to developing a fanbase, they are key to making money on the road. Given the cost of gas, actually getting paid to play is a big plus, but something that often doesn't come until an out-of-town venue booker or owner knows the people will show to see a band.

Even when a club will guarantee a payment, it's not huge, usually $100 to $300, according to the musicians interviewed for this story. With the cost of renting a van, which can run around $1,000 a week, breaking even becomes a reasonable goal.

Bobby Jealousy is saving money on a van by renting one from a friend at a discounted rate. They also plan to boost income on their tour by selling T-shirts they made with a stencil and spray paint for $5. Shirts, stickers, buttons and the like will often sell well on tours if they are inexpensive.

"Bring plenty of merch, and don't sell out of it," Ellis says. "If you have one really crowded show, and you make your $100 or $200, but you also sell $200 worth of merch, it will make up for the shows where you don't make any money."

Another expense bands have to consider is lodging, something that many musicians, even fairly successful ones, will avoid by asking fans or other bands for a place to stay. Though it's a way to save money, it's also a potentially hazardous (or annoying) situation.

"Sometimes the people want to party with you," Harris says. "I have a strict work ethic when I'm on tour, so that could be a bummer if you just want to go to sleep, but usually it worked out all right."

Sometimes the kindness of strangers doesn't work out as planned. Quin Galavis, who plays in several bands including Nazi Gold (with Harris) and the Dead Space, was offered a place to stay in Memphis while on tour. It was pouring rain, the owner of the home wasn't clear on where to sleep, and people were awake in the next room.

"I put in the earplugs I had already been wearing all night and slept on the floor in my wet clothes," Galavis says.

Although being broke and sleeping in wet clothes doesn't sound terribly appealing, even unprofitable tours produce benefits. "When your band gets back from tour you sound more professional, because you play every night," Ellis says. "You get a lot of time to get into each other's heads, you bond, so it's very therapeutic as well."

Contact Peter Mongillo at 445-3696