Soaring gas prices leave Canadian touring musicians in dire straits
When Josh and Katie Pascoe planned their multi-province summer concert tour earlier this year, they hadn’t anticipated how expensive it would be to fill up their pickup truck’s gas tank.
Most of their energy was focused on securing shows for their alternative folk band Fresh Breath after more than two years of pandemic shutdowns leaving them without income. With over 30 gigs booked for their We’re Driving Everywhere tour, they plan to travel from Ontario to Alberta and back.
Now, weeks into their tour, fuel prices are hovering around $2 a liter and the husband-wife duo tip each other a jar at shows to avoid running empty.
Thousands of people fill Church Street in Toronto for Pride weekend festivities
“We take our profits and put them straight back into the gas tank,” Katie said.
“What are you doing? Am I not going to cancel the tour because of gas prices? We kind of have no choice at this point but to just eat it.
Fresh Breath is hoping to book additional shows at pubs and beer halls to help cover unexpected costs, Josh said. The couple have also reduced their dining out, which means a lot less meeting local music industry players to bond.
“Now it’s like, take your broccoli head and spice up your Mr. Noodles — that’s what we eat,” Josh said.
“You have to make the dollar stretch so far.”
They are not alone. Thanks to high gas prices, skyrocketing inflation, and other repercussions of the pandemic, few corners of the live music industry have been untouched by the financial woes.
Some artists talk about their difficulties on social networks. Country-folk singer Donovan Woods said he was shocked by the shortage of rental cars while other independent artists noted higher costs for those who could get one. Folk couple Madison Violet pointed to a spike in hotel rates.
Singer-songwriter “Stompa” Serena Ryder worries about the impact rising costs will have on emerging Canadian artists who can’t afford the new reality.
“How are we going to create a space for them to tour and get their name out there?” she says.
“It’s not just the price of gas, it’s people’s livelihood.”
READ MORE: Pride Toronto to conduct weapons checks after ‘increase’ in security risks
Danno O’Shea knows the noose gripping his wallet. The musician leads the brass-funk ensemble My Son the Hurricane and is responsible for ensuring that the 13 musicians and four technicians can survive the more than 70 shows they have booked this year.
The group travels together in two large vehicles, which means fuel costs can be “intense”, but O’Shea said the group has an established reputation that allows them to negotiate guaranteed payments, rather than rely on a door cut.
“The frustrating thing is that this was our year to replenish accounts that were hurt during COVID,” he said.
“We are now at a point where our band members should live off our band. And the gas is the thing that keeps that from happening.
At times, O’Shea recalls that even his audience is aware of the mounting pressures of a traveling musical group. At a recent concert, a fan approached the merchandise table and handed the band a gas station gift card.
“I thought, ‘What a nice thing that is,’ he said, noting that anything helps ease the expense. “We have a ton of members and it’s very important that they get paid for their time, effort and talents.”
O’Shea fears that these small gestures are not enough on a large scale.
“I think you’re going to see smaller tours in smaller geographies,” he said.
“I feel bad for the people of the prairie provinces. I could imagine bands skipping it just because they’re going to lose too hard.
For some musicians, gas prices are just the tip of the iceberg of the problems ahead.
Folk artist Eamon McGrath said he had played around 200 shows since June last year. Between January and May, he says his expenses quadrupled.
“Last year was tough for all (a list) of other financial reasons, but at least I was making money. And now it’s pretty much zero,” he said.
McGrath cut costs. His group of four men is now a trio. He once had a tour manager and driver, but lately he’s been driving around the country himself. He also doubled his performance fee, which means some venues can’t afford it.
“The idea of doing a show for $500 now is unthinkable because there’s just no way to convert that into profit,” he said.
“I’m now at the point where this summer and fall might be the last time in a very long time that I can afford to take a band on the road.”
McGrath worries about the potentially devastating impact of gas prices for some musicians who may be just weeks away from their first real tour in years.
“If only the other components of the machine worked properly, you would be able to keep up with gas prices,” he said.
“But we’re okay because I mean, what are you going to do?” It’s not like musicians haven’t taken on challenges before. It’s just that it seems to be a lot more complicated to try to find a solution.
Jenna Walker, one half of sister country duo the Reklaws, retains her fighting spirit and a healthy dose of optimism.
She said that while refilling the tour bus’s gas tank was the biggest expense this year, they also faced increased costs from hiring backing musicians and paying rehearsal space.
“We are spending the money that needs to be spent,” Walker added.
“Our fans are important to us. Our show is important to us. Whatever the cost will end up being, I hope it comes back to us with the work that we do.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 26, 2022.
© 2022 The Canadian Press