A Van is a Band's Best Friend...Treat It That Way
[Editor's Note: Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist, and is the author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her -- confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.]
By: Jessica Hopper
Dear Fan, Some perplexing tour questions for you. Where can we play in between Spokane and Denver? Should we even bother playing small towns? What kind of vehicle do you recommend for four guys on a 1500-mile tour? Buy a cheap van? Rent a van? Thoughts on veggie oil?
A band Dear A Band,
A question for you first, and it is rhetorical, really--why are you playing Spokane? Do you have a hot ex there? Every touring band I was in just did a long-haul from Denver or Boulder to Seattle, so I called in an expert opinion from Sam Hunt, who is booking agent at The Windish Agency, where he represents Girl Talk and Animal Collective, amongst others, and he had some suggestions. "Missoula, Bozeman, Boise and Salt Lake City are all options, but those are difficult cities to play, even if you are popular."
Hunt too was perplexed by the inclusion of Spokane, "It's even worse than Missoula. I'm not sure what anyone is doing there in the first place." He also warned that school being in or out seems to make little difference, and what really seems to determine is more the genre. "What's cool in New York or L.A. isn't necessarily cool there. Hip hop and jam bands are really the bread and butter of the region." So, perhaps if you are on some Yoko-as-shaman-fronting-a-disco-Coco-Rosie trip, you should just pull on through to Seattle.
Given that your band is on the West Coast, anytime you head out for anything beyond California-regional swing, it's going to be a 1500- mile tour--so that's not even saying much.
The main thing to consider is how often and how far are you going to tour? Does you band have momentum and enough going on (and coming up) where making the commitment to buying a good van is going to be something that helps move your career forward? Secondly, you have to buy a good van. Getting a deal on a so-so van is going to end up costing you twice as much.
The considerations for buying a good van (a used Sprinter or Econoline is what I am shorthanding here) need to be beyond whether it is simply useful to your career. Will it help you make money to pay it off, if you cannot afford the purchase outright? Do you live in a city where it is reasonable to own, park and insure a van? If not, is there a familial driveway in the burbs where it can hang between gigs and tours? Is there someone in the band who is truly responsible enough to keep up on the tags, insurance, Triple AAA, maintenance, city stickers and moving it for street cleaning? Bands and their vans also tend to run into trouble when one or more band members do not have vehicles or transportation otherwise, or are in other bands; suddenly someone needs to borrow it, it's getting used by friends to move, getting towed because someone got drunk and parked in front of a hydrant. Band vans purchased by the band should principally band use, not someone's primary vehicle.
If you are in a total road-dog band, if you have the money to go towards a fuel efficient van or convert a diesel vehicle to bio-diesel, you are going to wind up saving a lot of money in the long run, as your typical passenger van is going to top out at like, 12 MPG if it's loaded with people and gear. (Also, maybe it was already on your to-do list, but please build a loft with a lockable cage underneath, for your gear, for safety's sake. You don't want your arm crushed by flying gear in case of an accident. We will cover tour safety in depth at a later date.) If you are doing sporadic touring--a few weeks here and there, maybe a month in summer--renting is the way to go. There are some places and some bands that rent tour vehicles--ask around to see what people's experiences have been.
If you are going to rent from another band, only do so based on others positive experiences. If the van breaks down or gets stolen weirdness will ensue because there is no back up or contingency in place, unlike when you rent from Hertz or wherever. You will pay more for corporate-backed safety, but if you return the van with puke crusted in the doorframe they are just going to charge you a cleaning fee, not badmouth you to the whole scene.
Have a safe tour and good luck in Spokane!
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