STORY: Luke Jaxon
Right now, Big D And The Kids Table are driving from Boston to Los Angeles and back again on tour, managing to keep the eight people in the van and the gas tank fed along the way. They even found the scratch to transport their support band, England’s Sonic Boom Six, across the Atlantic. But two days before they were to play in Salt Lake City, Utah, the show they’d booked there two months in advance was called off. The promoter cited a “family emergency”–and maybe it really was–but this sort of last-minute bailout is becoming more and more common due to lagging ticket sales. Promoters can’t fill shows, so they’re canceling days before scheduled shows, leaving bands like Big D in the lurch and shutting out all the fans who were planning on buying tickets at the door.
Big D bassist Steve Foote was disappointed by the way the promoter handled this particular cancellation. “As far as I know, he didn’t try to get the club to cover the show or find a co-worker or friend or someone to promote the show for him. He didn’t try to do anything to save the show.” While the production company failed to respond for this story, many in the industry are beginning to notice that incidents like this–promoters backing out at the last minute due to poor advance ticket sales–are becoming more and more common. Big D’s booking agent, John Pantle, suggests that an itchy trigger finger among nervous promoters doesn’t work while fewer fans are seemingly purchasing tickets in advance less than they used to. “Our fan base is primarily a walk-up fan base,” says Pantle. “The night before, we sold more than 500 tickets in Denver.” Pantle has seen both sides of this story. He got his start as an independent promoter in Orange County, California, working with bands like Sublime, No Doubt and Reel Big Fish. “At times it was a very difficult endeavor,” Pantle remembers. “There were times when I paid a deposit for a concert instead of paying my rent.” But Foote says the old days may be over and that instead of pounding the pavement, promoters are instead relying on a band’s name to sell a show. “If this is what touring is going to be like in the current economic times, every single band is going to need to reevaluate how they tour.”
St. Louis, Missouri, promoter Robert McClimans has seen the ugly financial side of booking shows, but he also considers a lot of desperate measures to take before canceling a show. “[When advance ticket sales are grim], start pulling out major last-second promotional efforts like pursuing in-store performances and radio interviews,” he says. “A lot of the time you can get lucky and pull it off. [Promoters also] have to start hoarding money so they don’t end up hosing bands.” But honorable intentions only get you so far in this business, and McClimans eventually succumbed to the fate of many promoters–he spread himself too thin and had to dip into his own pocket for shows, losing upwards of $20,000 along with his business. But the process helped him see a possible solution to the changing industry climate: a more DIY approach to touring. McClimans eventually offered his contacts to the Firebird, a small local venue where most of his shows were booked at, and was later offered a position as promotions manager and co-buyer. “The whole idea of [the Firebird] is to give rad bands a sweet room to play,” says McClimans. “We’re like an oasis in the middle of nowhere.”
There are a growing number of independent show spaces all across the country that have seen success in a dwindling economy-which helps promoters and bands alike. Venues like the Trunk Space in Phoenix, Arizona, Skull Alley in Louisville, Kentucky, Transitions Art Gallery in Tampa, Florida, and Rhino’s in Bloomington, Indiana, have taken the idea of setting up a basement show for your friends and taken it to the next level with real sound equipment, stages and people collecting reasonable prices at the door. As a result, they’ve become institutions in their cities with the ability to host bands that may have previously played at more traditional, corporate venues.
One success story is Death By Audio in Brooklyn, New York. During the past two years, the venue has expanded from a party space to a 300-person capacity room hosting a cavalcade of bands from No Age to Defiance, Ohio. Promoter Edan Wilber has been booking shows at the venue for two years and sees it as a haven from what is an increasingly depressing reality. “Do you wanna sit at home and think about [the economy]?” he says. “Or would you prefer to drop seven bucks, hang out with like-minded people, hear some good music and forget about the bad shit?” The idea of providing a friendly environment has attracted bands to play Death By Audio instead of larger venues. Recently, the Oh Sees played a show at a larger venue in New York City before venturing to Brooklyn to play the smaller room. “[Bands] know how stupid it is [to play corporate venues],” says Wilber. “No one there is dancing–it’s just a roomful of stiffs that read about you on some blog. So bands pack up their van, drive over to my place and tear the roof off because it’s just a huge group of friends sweating all over each other.”
As more personal venues have been sprouting up, bands have also been finding success with more familial touring practices. Folk-punk outfit Andrew Jackson Jihad recently returned to Phoenix from their most successful tour ever: trek that took them across the entire country, playing everywhere from large venues to backyards. Vocalist/guitarist Sean Bonnette says the tour was made possible “by good, old-fashioned human contact” that stemmed from hosting shows in Phoenix for other bands. “We started out by setting up shows for touring bands, letting them eat our food and crash on their couches,” he says. “Then one day, we had enough homies around the country to help us out when we came to their town. They hooked us up just like we hooked them up.”
Of course, not everything is cupcakes and ice cream in the world of DIY touring. Andrew Jackson Jihad still deal with promoters who don’t give the band their fair cut of the door. Even with a guarantee in place, there isn’t a whole lot a smaller band can do. “Bands are going to have to think more about doing percentage deals than guarantees going forward,” says McClimans. “Promoters have to realize that bands are trying to be helpful and take less money, and they need to shave the expenses so they can get paid. The key is always to find new, innovative ways to promote and get people into the room.”
For established touring bands like Big D And The Kids Table, the answer may lie in the hands of fans–the same ones who made the band successful in the first place. “I think a street team is our strongest bet for future tours,” says Foote. “I’ll make flyers, they’ll print that shit out and hand them out in exchange for [getting on the] guest list and some merch. Even if you have 10 kids do it in their high schools, it could make a huge difference.” But regardless of the size of the venue and the corporate structure (or lack thereof), AJJ frontman Bonnette offers one piece of invaluable advice. “Talk things out beforehand,” he says. “Because motherfuckers are going to be motherfuckers, regardless of what the Dow Jones says.” alt
STORY: Luke Jaxon