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Off the Road Again: A Tour Bus Shortage Is Pricing Some Acts Out of Touring

"Buses are raising their prices, and bands have to either pay it or lose the bus," says Stryper frontman Michael Sweet.

The day after veteran alt-metal rockers Cold announced their fall tour back in July, something went horribly wrong. The tour bus company they were working with informed them that they no longer had an available vehicle for their trek. The band scrambled to find alternative transportation, but, according to bassist Lindsay Manfredi, companies that had once charged $800 a day suddenly hiked the price to $1,500.

“We literally had to just pull it, because it wasn’t feasible for us,” she says of the band’s canceled U.S. tour of clubs, festivals and small auditoriums. “That’s how it is for lots of touring bands.”

Demand for tour buses has been unusually high since early last year, when artists returned to the road after nearly a year of pandemic lockdown — and this year, top promoters report more touring stars and higher attendance than in pre-COVID 2019. Yet bus supply remains low. Experienced drivers have left the concert business for more stable trucking jobs, and tour bus companies have to wait longer than ever for repair parts due to international supply-chain problems. So many top bus companies, like restaurants and grocery stores, have raised their rates.

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“It’s worse than ever before. There’s just a shortage all the way around,” says Jamie Streetman, operations manager for Nashville-based Coach Quarters, which leases 20 buses, adding that industry prices have recently increased from $550 a day to $750 or $800. “There are tours being canceled left and right, because they simply have no way to get there.”

Top acts can absorb the higher costs, or pass them along to consumers by raising ticket prices, but club-level acts often have no means to do so. Gas prices – although they’ve come down recently – have added to artists’ budgetary stresses all year. Buses are “much more expensive than prior to Covid,” says Lahteefah “Lah” Parramore, a partner with business-management firm Prager Metis, adding that artists are cutting budgets elsewhere to make up the difference.

“Buses are raising their prices, and bands have to either pay it or lose the bus,” says singer-guitarist Michael Sweet of hard rockers Stryper, who recently postponed half their fall dates due to bus prices. “You budgeted $15,000-20,000 for fuel, and you look at the potential of that being doubled.”

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Some bands have downgraded to RVs or vans pulling trailers, but Stryper, which tours with four musicians and six crew members, is unwilling to do so. “We’ve been there and done that and prefer to ride in some sort of comfort. It’s very important to have a bus that’s reliable, with a reliable driver,” Sweet says. “When we’re getting $10,000 a night as a guarantee, and you get all these bills, you’re in the red instead of the black. You can’t afford to tour like that.”

Similarly, Anthrax canceled most of its European dates earlier this month, citing “ongoing logistical issues and 2022 costs that are out of control.” The thrash-metal band added on Facebook: “Rest assured, there were zero issues with sales. . . . “It doesn’t work . . . when tour buses double and triple in cost.” (Anthrax didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Cold and Stryper plan to make up the dates next spring, when they hope bus prices, and the concert industry’s supply-chain problems, have settled down. Some tour bus companies are optimistic. “I think we’re going to get there — by next year, everything is running along pretty smoothly,” says Trent Hemphill, co-owner and co-founder of Nashville-based Hemphill Brothers Coach Company, which leases a fleet of 120 buses. “We’ll try our best.”

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For now, the supply-and-demand issues have been harder on artists than the bus companies, at least financially. Hemphill says 2022 has been “a record year — but it’s not without some headaches.” Doug Oliver, general manager of 60-bus Pioneer Coach in Nashville, adds that he’s “thankful” for high demand after a grueling pandemic year of zero business.

“We’re trying to make sure all our requests have been fulfilled — sometimes we’ll have buses leased, but they may not be rolling, so those drivers might be available for other tours. It’s really just a juggle,” Oliver says. “We have little pockets of availability. It depends on timing. They could get lucky. Or, if they were hoping to get lucky, they might not get lucky, too.”

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