Missing the Bus: High Gas Prices Cause Many Acts to Fly or Stay Home

Filter-Down Miseries for Some Festival Promoters and Vendors

While the high price of fuel isn’t even close yet to bringing the live concert scene to a standstill, it is inhibiting the mobility of small and mid-level acts, causing attendance drops at some festivals and reducing the amount of disposable money fans have to spend while they’re at the shows.

“It’s killing the smaller bands out there,” says Keith Case, whose Keith Case & Associates books such acts as Alison Krauss & Union Station, Ralph Stanley and the Dan Tyminski Band.

Case says the terrain is especially tough for bands that fly to the areas in which they’re performing.

“We’re having more trouble scheduling the flights,” he reports, “and we’re paying probably anywhere from 50 to 100 percent more than we were a year ago for flights. That part’s dreadful.

“Rental car rates are up close to 50 percent. If the bands have got any kind of a hard drive — like we’ll fly them into an airport and they’ll drive to three dates in rental vans — the gas bills are just extraordinary. And, of course, anybody in a coach [bus] is just getting chewed up by the diesel prices.”

The enormous and fancy coaches that have become the trademark of country’s touring fraternity each hold from 225 to 250 gallons of diesel fuel — which is currently in the $4.70-a-gallon range, according to the Tennessee Trucking Association. And these imposing vehicles get only six to seven miles a gallon.

To illustrate the situation touring artists now face, Case recalls a recent Ralph Stanley swing into Texas. “It was just a straight run, not a lot of geography,” he explains. “He went from home [in southwest Virginia], played three dates that were all closely routed in Texas. He came back and his [roundtrip] fuel bill was almost $2,000.”

Acts can’t simply charge more to compensate for higher fuel costs since they’re generally working dates that were booked months ago or longer.

“We’re really struggling with how to deal with it,” Case continues, “because we’ve got a sense that it ain’t gonna go backwards from here. So going into ’09, we don’t know what to allow for. But we’re trying anywhere we can to push for more premium money, just to hopefully have enough that people will be able to operate next year.”

Bluegrass acts, which are Case’s specialty, rely on album sales at their concerts for a significant slice of their income.

“That’s a big deal for a lot of midrange bands,” Case says, “and they’re finding that [those sales are] dramatically down. What it feels like to them — at least what they’re reporting to me — is that people are spending so much to go to festivals, as far as fuel costs go, that they are not spending as much at the festivals.”

Gil Cunningham, president of Neste Event Marketing in Brentwood, Tenn., knows a thing or two about festivals since his company produces some of the biggest ones in country music. He reports that ticket sales were “soft” this year for both the Country Thunder Festival in Florence, Ariz., and the Marion Country MusicFest in Marion, S.C.

“Arizona has gone through a really tough housing problem,” Cunningham points out, which, when combined with high gas prices, he thinks may explain Country Thunder’s drop in attendance.

“Marion this year did OK,” Cunningham says, “but their numbers were kind of soft. It was the first year, so it was kind of hard to judge. [Festival organizers] seemed to think that gas prices, particularly in the market they were in, probably had an impact on attendance.”

Attendance was actually up at Country Stampede in Manhattan, Kan., he noted. Rascal Flatts and Taylor Swift headlined that extravaganza. “The organizers of this event tell me that the people they’ve talked to [made the festival] their vacation of the year,” Cunningham said.

Still, Country Stampede wasn’t entirely immune to escalating gas prices, Cunningham explains. “The vendors they buy services from, a lot of them have raised their prices due to fuel. Beer prices — anything that has transportation involved, which is just about everything — they’ve seen increases in those areas.”

Jason Humphrey, a leasing agent for Music City Coach in Gallatin, Tenn., judges that rising gas prices are “affecting those small independent bands that don’t really have a major label [behind them]. They’re not touring as much. So that does affect the coach leasing industry, too.”

Big acts continue to lease buses, according to Humphrey. But he adds that some of them have cut back on the number of trucks they take on the road. Music City Coach has not increased its lease prices this year, Humphrey says.

Ricky Skaggs says he and his band have increasingly turned to flying.

“Thank goodness, we can fly cheaper than we can take the bus out for three or four days to get to a date in California or Texas,” Skaggs said. “Of course, now American [Airlines] is charging for every piece of luggage you bring, and it’ll probably just be a matter of time until the other airlines will follow suit. It’s just a pain. We’re getting squeezed from both ends.”

“We haven’t seen an impact,” says Lisa Harless, senior vice president of client services at Regions Bank in Nashville. “But, of course, we hear artists talking about it. … Thus far, we haven’t had to subsidize [touring] with any lending or that kind of thing. … One artist’s wife came in, and she was so excited [because] she had just traded in their SUV for a hybrid SUV.”

Sharon K. McGraw, managing editor of Bluegrass Unlimited, which keeps an eye on festivals, says festival promoters are not yet complaining about the impact of gasoline prices. “So far everybody’s sort of been surprised that it hasn’t trickled down. I think people have been a little more selective in how far they’ve gone [to attend festivals]. But attendance-wise, from what I’ve seen, it seems to be steady.

“But I am hearing from a lot of the bands how much it’s costing them … especially if they’re [using a bus and] doing a show in Missouri on Friday night and they’re in Vermont on Saturday.” She noted, for example, that on a recent weekend, the Dailey & Vincent bluegrass duo played shows in three different states.

“I think next year is when it’s all going to trickle down,” says McGraw, “when artists will say, ’Well, we were just going to bite the bullet. Now we’ve bitten it, and it’s biting us.’ That may be where some of it comes apart.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.