Just as Alt-J were hauling four trucks and four buses to arenas and theatres around the U.S., Russia invaded Ukraine, President Joe Biden banned Russian gas and oil imports and fuel prices went crazy — hitting record highs and, in some parts of the country, doubling.
“It’s out of control,” says Maarten Cobbaut, the indie-rock band’s tour manager. “It’s going to cost us an extra $30,000 to $40,000 in fuel. That is significant. That is something I’ve never seen before.”
The sudden spike in fuel costs, from an average of $3.40 per gallon in the U.S. in December to $4.33 last week, is another financial blow for artists who are just emerging from two years of disturbing pandemic inactivity. Superstars might be able to absorb the costs, simply taking the extra thousands out of their revenues, but just about everyone else has to make difficult cost-cutting decisions — from Alt-J, which is considering drastically changing its routing, to the Wrecks, an L.A. rock band that is no longer able to upgrade from a passenger van to a more comfortable tour bus.
For Alt-J, Cobbaut’s plan is to build in more overnight breaks between long drives, to avoid paying a second tour-bus driver to come in and spell the first one. Over four buses, that approach might save between $6,000 to $10,000. It’s complicated, but, he says, “Basically, that’s what you need to do — be creative. It’s a lot of work and a lot of puzzling.”
In normal times, fuel costs amount to about 1% of an artist’s income in a tour budget, concert-business sources say, and while that might be a blip for a stadium act, it can be crippling for those who travel in vans. Jason Leiss, an associate business manager for FBMM in Nashville, says one artist he represents had a “really slim profit margin,” which fuel increases reduced by 25 to 50%. “If you were thinking about a bigger production this year, you’re probably taking extra consideration,” he adds. “Could you make a couple changes to reduce the number of trucks? You might have wanted a larger lighting footprint and now you might be looking at something lower-profile.”
The Wrecks, who are planning an upcoming tour, had been traveling in a cramped 15-passenger van, plus a trailer, and the increase in fuel prices likely means they’ll have to settle for a bandwagon, rather than a bus. “We have to have that conversation with them,” says Peyton Marek, the band’s manager. “But I don’t think that response is going to be great.”
The band may have to cut costs and raise new revenues in other ways — using free parking at hotels rather than buying more convenient parking passes in advance, trying to find more college gigs that pay higher guarantees than small clubs and theatres. “We’re having to reconfigure tour dates. How many rehearsals can we do? Do we need to do rehearsals at somebody’s house?” Marek says. “Everything we do, we’re having to pivot.”
“Before crazy gas prices,” according to Marek, artists who spent 30 days on the road, performing 20 shows, might have budgeted $2,500 for fuel. The latest spikes mean “it’s probably going to be twice as much, if not triple,” she says. “Transportation for tours is kind of f—ed right now.”
Every small-to-medium-sized tour is cutting costs in some way. Billy Strings, the bluegrass guitarist and rising star on the jam-band circuit, tours with two buses and one truck, and the higher gas prices mean his band and crew might not be able to return home to Nashville for a few days off. “It’s just making sure we’re being the most efficient we can,” says Sameen Ahmad, Strings’ business manager, adding that reasonable fuel prices are “a luxury we all had to not think about so much before.”
If fuel costs haven’t prompted difficult cuts, they’ve at least reduced budgets’ margin for error. Caroline Rose, a pop-rock singer-songwriter playing clubs and theatres, built a conservative 5% cushion into her $2,600 fuel budget to “avoid any potential situations, whether it’s something like this or Caroline’s van breaking down on the road,” says her manager, Ari Fouriezos. But gas prices have already wiped out that 5%. “This is the first time I’ve actually reached the number on the fuel-cost budget,” says Fouriezos. “It’s never a good feeling to look at your padded budget and say, ‘We’re maxing out on this certain thing and hope nothing else happens.'”
Like every artist, Rose has had to evolve as the industry reemerges from the pandemic, spending two months developing an occasional solo show to reduce costs on band members and crew. “We’re all in this together and hopefully we’ll be out of it soon,” Fouriezos says.
Adds Leis: “We’re staying optimistic. Artists are still just feeling really happy to be able to tour.”