The headlights wink on around 3 a.m. and the van roars to life. The gig has been played, the applause has faded, the gear has been packed and all's quiet, save for the rumble of the engine. Enough money has been made for gas, but probably not a whole lot more. It doesn't matter though; they've got to keep moving, either to crash on a friend's couch or push on to the next town. The headlights point the way down a lonely strip of asphalt, bound for whatever comes next.
Sure, painters have to travel to galleries and authors go on book tours, but among artists, musicians find themselves most dependent on the road for their meal ticket. There's a romance to it, but when times are tough, that already hard life gets even harder.
"We've been trying to keep it pretty steady, trying to make a living. But it's a tight living," said Jeff Crosby, frontman for four-piece Boise funk-pop amalgam Equaleyes. "Times are changing."
Equaleyes, which has been together in some form for about four years, just finished a spring tour starting in Utah with a big swing through Colorado, back to Boise, then on to Portland, Ore. The band had been on the road since February and tries to fit in a similar-sized tour every season.
Crosby said he and bandmates Will Prescott, Daniel "the Hawk" Blumenfeld and new addition Tom Borda have seen the recession take its toll on everyone from bands to venue owners to live music patrons.
"It seems people are always going to be starving for music, but we've definitely noticed a decrease of merchandise sales and a lot of the bars, we've noticed, are just really struggling," Crosby said. "We work hand-in-hand, and when they struggle, we struggle."
In Boise, Crosby said things are a little easier. Venues know the band and are still willing to give some guarantees. But even in Northwest music Meccas like Seattle and Portland, the recession has made clubs more risk-averse.
"It's kind of a different relationship with every bar, and you have to guarantee your own crowd in some cases," Crosby said. "In Idaho, we can get a guarantee in most bars we play. In Denver or Portland, you've got to bring that business."
More disturbing, he added, is the gradual dying out of a lot of the small venues Equaleyes used to hit on their way to larger gigs.
"The mom-and-pop deal seems to be kind of disappearing, but if that happens you just have to start over again," he said.
Chris Bock, who fronts three-year-old punk-infused rock trio RevoltRevolt, echoed Crosby, adding that band-venue relationships have taken on a deeper importance during the downturn.
"A lot of bands go in and sometimes play a show and they're like, 'OK, my job's done.' They take their money and run," he said. "We like to get to know the staff and the people and the bar--see what it's all about."
RevoltRevolt, which includes Jasin Serna and Ben Brunn, also recently finished a big spring tour, hitting Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, California, Oregon and Washington--more than 6,000 miles in total. The band is gearing up for another run this month into Oregon, with stops in Portland, Salem, Waldport and Ashland, then on to California for Eureka, Oakland, San Diego and Bakersfield before hitting Las Vegas and heading back home to Boise.
Like Equaleyes, RevoltRevolt tries to hit the road for a wide-ranging tour once a season.
"We're kind of in the rhythm," said Bock. "On Nov. 17, our album came out, and we did California, then Washington. The whole idea is to go out, and in a month or two, go out again."
With so much road time over the past couple of years, Bock said RevoltRevolt has been in a position to notice a lot of changes in the already tough economics of touring. They've also learned a lot of cost-saving tricks.
"I've been touring in bands for quite a while, and a new thing that I've found out in the last few years is that some places are willing to pay a percentage of the till, and some places are only willing to pay you the door," he said. "That puts a lot of pressure back on the band, so you've got to promote a lot more on your own."
On top of gassing up a '96 Dodge van and feeding and lodging three guys, marketing and promotion just adds to the cost and decreases already thin margins. Accommodations are one area where the band has really had to get creative. For instance, Bock said, after a show in Pocatello, RevoltRevolt was heading to Salt Lake City and realized they'd have to book some rooms for a few hours of shut-eye before the next gig.
"We figured out that if we play a show and have, say, a three-hour drive, it pays for us to call ahead, check in at 6 a.m., sleep 'til 2, play the show, then check out the next day at 6 a.m. Then you've basically paid $50 for two nights of sleep," he said. "For a band that plays and is up 'til 3 in the morning, doing it that way really makes it easier to stay in hotels."
The alternative, of course, is spending the night in the van. In that case, Bock said the band will whip out a little cook stove and rely on groceries purchased in advance of the tour. On the last tour, Bock said $150 in groceries bought in Boise lasted all the way to Texas.
"Things are definitely different out there," said Bock, adding that in the past, band members put a sizable amount of their own money into touring. "If we were to go for three days, it's a little different; then a little more of your own money can come into play. But when you're going out for three weeks, you really have to balance and look ahead."
Ned Evett, virtuosic pioneer of the fretless guitar and a longtime staple of Boise's music scene, has been at the touring game for more than a decade. In his time, he's gone from playing local bars to regional gigs to international shows with living legends like Joe Satriani. One of the biggest trends he's seen during the course of recent tours is the difficulty in landing "anchor gigs," or big money shows on which the tour is based.
"There's much more competition for anchor gigs--festivals, colleges. Because of the economic situation, what used to take three or four months to set up, now you have to set up eight months out," said Evett, who recently returned from a swing through Utah and Colorado, including university shows in Cedar City, Utah, and Fort Collins, Colo.
"And as far as entry into the industry, you need to not really care at the end of the week if you come back with 50 bucks," he added. "You're playing for the door, what used to be called the 'neck bone circuit.' The days of the flat rate are not necessarily gone, but it's harder to come by."
Evett agreed with Bock and Crosby that the proliferation of door deals is pinching bands, especially as bar patrons look to their own cash-strapped wallets and venues shift more of the burden of marketing onto the bands themselves.
"People have always been hesitant to pay cover charges going into a bar. They'll balk at $2 or $3," he said.
The key is doing some research beforehand--something made easier by online tools like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.
"The clubs are definitely, when they can, putting marketing and promotion entirely on the musician ... So finding a healthy club, finding the musicians who are really out there doing this well and where they like to play, that's key," Evett said. "There's a lot of bullshit clubs out there; it's never been a loving, nurturing relationship. It's always been adversarial. This [economy] just makes it more so."
Matt Hopper has a foot in both worlds. His band, Matt Hopper and the Roman Candles, is a sometimes rockin', sometimes bluesy, sometimes solo, sometimes trio act gearing up to release its new album in June. Hopper said he's been banging around Idaho, Arizona and California during the past couple of months, but beyond his life as a touring musician, Hopper is also booking manager at the Bouquet in downtown Boise. He agreed that bands hitting the road these days better prepare themselves for some time on that "neck bone circuit" Evett mentioned.
"It's been a lot of door deals, which puts the pressure back on the musicians," Hopper said. "I've tried to purposely keep cover charges really low at our bar, but I got to a certain point where it's like, you know what, I've got to charge at least $5. Especially if these bands are relying on that."
Therein lies the Catch-22: Venues want live music to boost business, but don't necessarily want to risk guaranteeing the band. They can charge a cover and give the band a cut--relying on booze sales to make their margins--but finding a door price that people will pay is a tricky proposition. Sharing a portion of the till with the band is an option, but that cuts directly into a venue's nightly revenue.
"There's so many times when you can be down to a $3 cover and people will walk in and ask if there's a cover and just walk out," Hopper said. "We've had some nights when we've guaranteed bands and didn't make anything near close to that ... We're not really making money off the bands, we're just making money off the beer. If the band can't bring in the people, why are we paying this much?"
Hopper said he has faced this dilemma on his own tours. With gas topping $50 a day, he came home with a couple hundred bucks after nearly a week's worth of shows. Not bad, but not that great, either.
"You're basically breaking even to travel from town to town," he said. "But it's like any other job, you've got to drive to your job."
That's another problem in itself. Tight times keep local bands in a close orbit around Idaho, playing shows in Spokane, Wash., Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Colorado, Salt Lake City and Missoula, Mont.
Evett, who plays a good portion of his anchor gigs on the East Coast, said relying on far-flung dates in the expansive West can keep bands on a slow-moving treadmill.
"Playing in markets that are two or three hours apart [like in the East], your fuel costs go down and your averages go up. There's a lot more college towns," Evett said. "The West Coast is extraordinarily difficult to tour--the Intermountain West in particular. When you have to drive to Salt Lake from Boise, and from Salt Lake to Vegas--those are really long drives. You burn a lot of fuel."
Finn Riggins, the post-punk/indie/progressive rock trio of Cameron Bouiss, Eric Gilbert and Lisa Simpson, isn't afraid of leaving the Northwest nest for points east. The band has been a touring machine since 2007, hitting 35 states for 200 shows in 2008 alone. Mid way through 2010, Finn Riggins is finishing off a massive nationwide run that, when finished, will have kept them moving for 80 straight days.
Eric Gilbert, the man on the keys and Finn Riggins' booking manager, agreed wholeheartedly that touring back East is a breeze compared to the long hauls of the Northwest.
"That's one of the reasons we're on such a long tour right now," he said. "Once you get across the Mississippi, everything's so much closer together. But there's a huge gap to cross getting there."
While shorter drive times help keep costs down, the same recessionary trends are in play East of Ol' Miss. Gilbert echoed the feeling that venues are mostly offering door deals, and that audiences aren't as free with their cash as they once were.
"You definitely sense people are a little more hesitant to pay a cover, they have less cash for merch ... [and] people are definitely seeking out free shows a lot more," he said.
To make ends meet in a tight market, many more established bands are also hitting the road with smaller acts in tow. But the practice isn't without its drawbacks--especially for the openers.
"I have noticed an increase in package tours," said Allen Ireland, owner of local music institutions Neurolux and Pengilly's Saloon. "The booking agents are adding the developing artists as opening acts for the major artists instead of sending them out on their own. This increases the price of the show for us and limits the opportunities for the local bands to share the stage with the majors."
With so much stacked against them, bands--especially those in remote markets like Boise--have to be far more entrepreneurial, Evett said. And that's a good thing.
"Merchandise can be your fuel for getting to that [larger] market; if you don't do those things then you just go into the hole more slowly," he said. "Music revenue is interesting. Think of it like the Mississippi Delta: There's different little channels of your income. Maybe playing live is one of those channels, your publishing channel, your merchandise sales channel ... you have to have different channels, or you can't really make it."
Gilbert agreed with that idea, too, and if Finn Riggins is a touring machine, it's also a master of merch.
"We have a lot of merch and lot of varieties of merch," he said, ticking off a list that includes screen-printed T-shirts, posters, stickers and handmade tote bags. "Lots of times we won't be making hardly any money on the door, but we're more than making up for it with merch. Others times, it's the other way around. Having both of those options is definitely great."
Scheduled to be back in Boise on May 15, Gilbert said the band is going to take a short breather, play some local and regional shows, work on new material and catch up on finances. The next big nationwide tour will come after the next album--most likely in 2011. Recession or no recession.
"I feel like a part of these economic times is that people need and want music, a reason to celebrate, gather and have community," Gilbert said. "It's not necessarily the time to be scrambling for the most money."
Rico Hood, lead guitarist and vocalist for Sun Valley-based Old Death Whisper--formerly the Damphools--thinks tough times make for good music.
"I'm all for it not being easy ... that is the beauty of the art form," he said. "And that's why the songs wrench your heart out."
Equaleyes is equally undaunted by tight times. They'll be back in Boise for a May 22 album release show at the Knitting Factory, then it's another Colorado run with a stop in Moab, Utah, then on to Montana for the Love Your Mother Earth Festival and some dates in Seattle and Portland. An East Coast tour has been discussed, but, "times being tight, we've got to figure out how to afford it," Crosby said. "We're just kind of riding the wave for a while."