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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  Overcast
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The gas-price blues
Local musicians adapt as touring costs soar

Few Madison bands log more touring miles than Sunspot.

"After we graduated from UW-Madison, we just decided we wanted to get out there and get our music heard by as many people as we could," says bassist Mike Huberty.

From 2002 through 2006, the rock trio played more than 100 out-of-town gigs per year. Their 1993 Ford Econoline E150 van logged 31,000 miles in 2004 alone.

Then in 2007, Sunspot started limiting their road-warrior habits.

"We had to truncate it because of gas prices," says Huberty. "We're just not as willing to take chances on shows now, given the expense. We're basically sticking to the markets we already know work for us."

As gas prices approach $4 per gallon, local touring musicians are being forced to adapt. Some say they're cutting back on travel. Others are compensating by trimming what they spend on hotels, marketing and CD production.

But everyone interviewed for this story agrees that the business of music has become less profitable and more difficult to sustain due to rising fuel costs.

"When we schedule tours, we have to look at the economics of it a little more closely," says Jon Hain, whose local music enterprises include Uvulittle Records and Mother Fool's Coffeehouse. "The cost of gas raises the bar a little and requires better-paying gigs."

Hain also helps his wife, the local songwriter and pianist Stephanie Rearick, arrange her tours.

"Stephanie's tour out to New York City last fall was planned to be very close to the I-80 corridor to reduce travel costs," says Hain. "The tour managed to end up in the black, but a couple of hundred more miles would have erased that margin."

The cargo van, long an emblem of rock 'n' roll's open-road mystique, is quickly becoming as unaffordable for local musicians as airplane tickets.

"We're looking into some alternatives to using our van, like using a trailer with a more fuel-efficient vehicle or sharing gear whenever we can at out-of-town shows," says Brad Van of Droids Attack.

Sunspot's Ford Econoline gets 10 miles to the gallon if they're not hauling a trailer. "In an active month we spend $800 to $900 just on gas," Huberty says.

To combat the expense, Sunspot has come up with a new strategy. Instead of reaching out to faraway clubs and hoping an audience will follow, Huberty says the band is reaching out to fans to agree on a location for a show.

"It gives our fans a sense of ownership over the show. We may even get a fan or group of fans to sponsor the show, and then we put their name on the show flyer."

Club agents say the price of gas is having an impact on incoming touring as well.

"At Mother Fool's, I'm seeing some of our regular performers less as the price of gas increases," says Hain. "It doesn't seem to be at a point yet where the cost is so high that it isn't worth it, but it is certainly more of a factor than it was a couple of years ago."

Adds Darwin Sampson, ex-booking agent at the Annex, "I have seen bands drop from tours and cancel shows because of the cost of touring. Live music is one of the few industries where the costs of production have gone up but covers have remained the same for years."

While many longtime bands are finding ways to adapt, Huberty wonders about younger bands that, as Sunspot once did, dream of getting on the road.

"I don't see as many bands out there now willing to chance it," he says.

"It's gotten to the point where I don't even know how much it costs to fill up our Econoline because all the pumps cut you off at $75. And we always get cut off."

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