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Ticket to Ride

Faced with soaring gas prices, true road warriors like musician Allison Crowe are finding cool ways to cut their traveling costs...

by Kevin Chong ~ The Globe and Mail, Report on Business July 6, 2007

Allison Crowe - Ticket to Ride

When it comes to saving money on gas, you can learn a lot from musicians like Allison Crowe

As summer hits full swing, there seems to be no cooling off on prices at the pump. In Vancouver, the average price of gas, which peaked at $1.29 per litre in May, now sits around $1.10 per litre, according to price-tracking website GasBuddy.com. Just four years ago, by comparison, prices hovered around the $0.70 a litre.

While these increased prices affect all Canadians, few have been hit harder than those who directly rely on their cars for their livelihood. Some of these business-people have begun to pass on their costs. B.C. dump-truck drivers are being paid a fuel surcharge of 12-percent over their existing wages after staging protests in 2005 that hobbled traffic and stopped construction work in Lower Mainland. Many owners of pizza parlours are charging delivery fees to customers ranging from three to five dollars, depending on the distance.

While these charges help reduce the pain, some small businesses might also have to act creatively to save money and survive. Perhaps then they should take a page from the ultimate road warriors-the touring musician. Some innovative young musicians- who earn low-three-figure sums from clubs and sales of merchandise at each show-have saved cash and have attracted publicity by finding new ways to get from one dark club to another.

Nowhere is the car and the highway more entrenched in the culture than the United States. It wasn't surprising then that when the Austin-based act Peter & the Wolf decided to abandon their gas-guzzling van and stage a two-week tour by sailboat last summer, they earned write-ups in Playboy and Los Angleles Times and appearances on NPR and VH1 News.

"We were doing it for the experience," says Red Hunter, Peter & the Wolf's front man, who boarded a sailboat with two other band members and traveled along the Intracoastal Waterway from North Carolina to Maine. By living and eating on the boat, using gas only when there was no wind, Hunter estimates he saved about a thousand dollars.

"We had ten shows planned," adds Hunter, "but we crashed into a buoy at 4 a.m. after 7 shows and had to do the last few by bus, car, and taxi."

While big-name touring acts this summer like Norah Jones and Arcade Fire make healthy profits even after increased fuel costs, many fledgling acts hope, at best, to break even on their tours. The point of their shows aren't about generating income but building a fan base.

"I certainly wouldn't raise ticket or merch prices in order to pass on the cost," says 24-year-old singer-songwriter Allison Crowe, "because there's less of a chance that people will be able to enjoy your concert or buy your CD."

Last summer, Crowe, who was raised in Nanaimo B.C. but currently resides in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, embarked on a nine-city solo tour from one end of Canada to the other. Crowe's manager, Adrian du Plessis, came up with the idea to stage the tour as a "Rock 'n Rail Revue."

Approaching Via Rail for sponsorship, Crowe received tickets for sleeper cars and free meals for her manager, tech guy, and herself from Vancouver to Halifax. (The last leg of the tour to Newfoundland was conducted by ferry and car.) Crowe, who says her concert earnings range from hundreds to several thousands of dollars depending on the type of show, estimates that she saved about $4000-about $1000 in gas and $3,000 in meals and accomodation.

"VIA asked us to do our best to tell people about the tour and the experience of train travel which was a lot of fun," says Crowe about the sponsorship deal. "I would do it again, for sure."

The Ditty Bops, a group with swing and folk influences, also found sponsorship when it staged a 7,500-kilometre tour from New York to Los Angeles, including sets of touring bikes, energy bars, and creams for sore legs.

The publicity received by California-based duo-whose backing piano player followed them in a support van powered by biodiesel, an environmentally-friendly fuel-may have also boosted attendance at their shows. "I definitely think that the bicycle community was well represented at our shows," says singer Amanda Barrett, who's embarking on a summer tour of farms and more traditional venues to raise money for Farm Aid organization. "Lots of people found out about our band through bike mags and sites."

While a boat or train tour can be a great one-off adventure, it's still impossible to be a touring musician without some kind of automobile. For many rockers, fuel prices mean making smart choices like avoiding faraway tour stops (like much of Western Canada) or carpooling with other bands.

The rising cost of gas "is a form of natural selection," says Hunter of Peter & the Wolf, who perform in Toronto on August 10th (and are getting there by van). "It forces you to work harder, put on better shows, and create more music and merchandise or you simply can't tour."



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