By Clair Devers
(LSM Aug/Sept 2010/vol. 3 – Issue 5)
“Never sell your publishing … and never buy a bus.”
Over the last decade I’ve heard this phrase repeated to what seems like hundreds of musicians who have asked my husband for advice. He always answers with this because he feels a sense of duty to pass along the best music business advice he ever received himself. The origin of that advice was Lloyd Maines, who through his early years with the Maines Brothers Band and their purchase of a Silver Eagle tour bus in 1985 learned what not to do the hard way. Or as Maines says, “We paid the price … we should have leased.”
Now, there’s no denying the fact that when it comes to hitting the road, riding the bus is riding in style. Some of our favorite artists keep their second house on the road: Willie Nelson, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Jack Ingram, the Randy Rogers Band, Roger Creager, Wade Bowen and more. And who can blame them? Nothing quite beats the comforts of home, but touring can be a lot more bearable when you’re rolling down the highway with satellite TV (and Internet), multiple stereo and video game systems, private bunks, kitchenette, bathroom and room to store enough beer and liquor to get even the hardest drinking band clear across Texas … or at least all the way back to New Braunfels from Billy Bob’s.
“My favorite road ‘house’ was the Reckless bus,” enthuses Texas music sideman and seasoned recording engineer Adam Odor, fondly recalling his time on the road with Reckless Kelly. “Mainly because it was my first tour bus and I was with family. I spent four months out with those guys, and it truly becomes your world. It’s really the only place you can feel normal, even for five minutes. And everyday you step out of your front door; you’re in a new city! It’s pretty spectacular — especially when the new city involves lobster dinners for $2.50/lb.”
Sounds like fun, right? Of course it is. But keep in mind, Odor wasn’t the one footing the bill. Paying for a tour bus can be far more expensive than paying for a house. A band can expect to pay anywhere from $200K on up to a million bucks to travel in style. And that figure doesn’t even include the regular maintenance and operating costs that are involved in owning a bus. Even leasing a bus (and driver) can be a hefty burden that starts around $1,500 a day (depending on the band’s needs). Oh, and if you think a trip to the gas pump hurts when you’re filling up your pickup, wait until you see how much these bad boys can drink!
“Paying for a bus can bury a band financially,” warns Maines. “So unless you are working enough good paying shows around the country to warrant such an investment, I would say the answer [to ‘should we get a bus?’] is no. My recommendation is to think about when you really need a bus, and then lease one. It’s still expensive, but when you’re done with it, you return it and you’re really done with it. Let someone else deal with maintaining it, storing it, preventing it from being vandalized, etc. Unless all your band members are living off a trust fund, profit has to enter in the equation at some point.”
Nevertheless, some artists maintain that the extra expense is worth it. And not necessarily just to boost the ego or have a place to party. These days, Matt Martindale promotes his 2009 release, Big Sign, by playing a few times a month without traveling too far from his Panhandle home. But if you skip back a few years ago, he was the frontman for the revered Texas band Cooder Graw, and touring was his life. Cooder Graw traveled by bus, and when the band broke up in 2006, rumors swirled that it was due at least in part to expense-related stress of keeping the old roadhouse in running order. But Martindale says this wasn’t the case … or at least, not entirely.
“We would’ve had a lot more moolah if we had not had a bus, but we never would have lasted as long as we did,” he says. “I think every band is different. We were too old to sleep in vans and travel in cars, sleep on friends’ and fans’ floors. We needed space to stretch and a place to express our bladders. We needed a place to bring our music back to after the show. In some ways we sacrificed a lot just to have a bus. We took a hit financially at times because we had to replace a $5,000 generator or fix a transmission. Those financial woes created by having the bus may have contributed to our demise, but I think it helped more than hurt in the end.”
In other words, it’s a give and take deal. And if the pros outweigh the cons when applied to your own band’s situation, a bus may indeed be worth your while (and a huge chunk of your business bank account). But there’s a lot to be said for the alternatives. For a lot of bands, success is the day they are able to graduate to a van or SUV and trailer, instead of shoving as much gear (and as many bodies) as possible into separate cars. “The Trishas just got a van — hooray!” enthuses group member Jamie Wilson. “Before that, we were pretty much every man for herself, trying to borrow here and there for big trips. But since the beginning of May or so, we’ve been riding around in a ’98 Ford Econoline. It’s very high class, complete with vinyl floor and seats, a suspension problem, ‘La Petit Academy’ on the hood, and a cassette player.”
Color Austin Collins envious. “Jason Isbell was quoted as saying that the Ford Econoline van [around $30K new] is the greatest automobile ever made,” says the singer-songwriter, whose own band tours via a Suburban pulling a trailer full of gear. “The Suburban has been great for us, but a 15-passenger van would be ideal, because then we wouldn’t even need a trailer and everybody would have a seat.” He’s got no such interest in a bus, though. “Honestly,” Collins adds, “even if you’re making a ton of cash, a bus doesn’t seem economically sound.”
But the aforementioned Adam Odor, who has seen just about every kind of band vehicle there is, maintains that there’s always room for upgrading — at least in daydreams. “Pick-up becomes Suburban, Suburban becomes the van, van becomes bus, and no matter what, you wish you had something better,” he says. One of the original members of Dub Miller’s band, Odor is currently the bass player for 11 Bones (featuring Miller, Matt Skinner, John Silva and more). The band plays everywhere from Texas to Italy — which means, he says with a laugh, that “the Bones travel two ways — Suburban or jet, with no in between.”
One thing’s for sure: You can never really judge a band or artist by their ride. If the singer, guitar player, bassist and drummer all arrive at a venue in separate cars, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re just starting out. They could all have different travel schedules or, especially within a scene like ours, all be coming from different parts of the same town or state. That band arriving in a van could very well have a hit on the charts, but also a smart accountant or manager. On the other hand, just because a band has a badass bus doesn’t mean they are raking it in. In fact, you might need to buy the band a drink: they are paying out the nose for that thing.
Oh, and even though it may be true that there’s an undeniable level of prestige when a band rolls up to a venue in a sleek bus rather than a beat-up van that could just as easily be delivering furniture, nobody’s going to be impressed with your ride if your band sucks. So take it from Maines, who does most of his Texas touring these days in duo partner Terri Hendrix’s Honda Element or, when out of state, in a rental car: Keep your priorities in focus.
“A bus will surely impress your friends and fans for the short term,” says the famed producer and guitarist. “But I would suggest getting better on your instrument and your vocals and your writing — that will impress folks for the long term.
“And besides,” he adds, “if you have a bus, everybody just wants to come on board and drink all your beer.”