Thursday, August 11, 2022 | Back issues
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Rising gas prices are playing the wrong chords for Tennessee’s music scene

The Russian invasion of Ukraine spiked prices at pumps across the world, affecting every corner of culture, down to local music scenes in the South.

(CN) — Nashville, Tennessee, has been a mecca for professional musicians for decades; artists of every genre are drawn to the Music City. But rising gas prices are stifling up-and-coming acts.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates the Nashville area employed 1,010 musicians and singers last year — not including self-employed or emerging musicians — placing the metro area at fourth in the nation for musicians’ employment.

The Volunteer State has given the world Dolly Parton, Miley Cyrus, Dustin Lynch and more. Even Taylor Swift moved from her home state of Pennsylvania to Hendersonville, Tennessee, to be closer to Nashville and pursue a career in country music.

For two years, Covid-19 canceled concerts and kept venues from hosting shows at full capacity, but 2022 seemed promising for Tennessee’s emerging musicians. Now, the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine presents a new obstacle.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, President Joe Biden signed an executive order banning the import of Russian crude oil, which has led to higher energy and gas prices all over the U.S.

On March 11, AAA reported that Tennessee’s average gas prices hit their highest in history, reaching $4.12 for unleaded gas and $5.08 for diesel. Tennesseans have seen gas prices jump several cents throughout the day; prices since dropped, but people don’t know if they should be hopeful.

“When gas prices are elevated, it affects road travel, flights, rental car, van and bus rates and freight expenses related to gear and merchandise,” said Michelle Conceison, a music business professor at Middle Tennessee State University. “But remember, the shows artists are playing right now were booked six months to two years ago. When these shows were booked, most of our industry’s primary concern was how to ensure artist, audience, crew, and staff safety in light of the pandemic. So, gas prices now might affect decisions artists are making about tour dates six to 12 months from now. Unfortunately, they are being experienced as unexpected sunk costs for artists on the road this spring.”

Nate McDaniel, lead singer and drummer of the Chattanooga-based trio, Good Grief, witnessed first-hand the impact of the gas prices. On March 11, his band had a show in Huntsville, Alabama — the day with the highest gas prices seen in Tennessee since the 2008 recession. 

“We tour across the South in cities like Birmingham and Nashville. We have big dates coming up, so these gas prices makes it harder for us,” McDaniel said.  “Around this time last year, we did a show in Charleston, South Carolina, and paid about $2.50 for gas and this year we paid $4.00. … It’s hard for local musicians, especially if you’re going farther away.”

Good Grief encounters several obstacles when performing in big venues and cities outside their five-hour drive radius.  They must transport more equipment and crew members and with the looks of the economy right now, they must make tougher decisions. 

“For out-of-town shows, we’re bringing tech members who help with the sound and acoustics. The farther we go, we need a van trailer, and with that, we’re spending more than the average consumer on gas,” McDaniel said. “We booked a couple gigs in Kentucky. Now we’re not sure if we can afford to bring anyone else for the upcoming shows.”  

McDaniel added that expenses have risen since last year.

“It’s been a decent rebound in terms of what the pandemic did. But anytime we have to buy something, everything is more expensive. When I buy drumsticks or guitar strings, is coming out of my pocket so, everything across the board is more expensive, and it really hurts us as local musicians,” McDaniel said.

Bryan Scott continued working on his music over the Covid-19 pandemic. After playing at a few open mics, his friends encouraged him to advertise and release his demos to the public. In the fall fall of 2021 he began sharing his new musical project, Cold Hands. Scott was able to book some gigs and enjoyed some radio play, so he thought 2022 would go smoothly and bring more opportunities for his music.

But rising gas prices have Scott questioning whether he should go to farther-away cities, even if he would get more exposure.

“I took a weekender to Atlanta to play a house show at the Masquerade, and the gas prices really affected me. I felt I needed to ask for compensation for my set in to order to break even for the trip,” Scott says. “Instead of gigging in a four- to five-hour radius, I’m going to have to cut it back to two or three hours.” 

If being an upcoming musician trying to break into the music industry was not hard enough, the pandemic left upcoming musicians dismayed, trying to make ends meet to follow their dreams. 

“It really hurts because, as a musician, my least favorite part of booking a gig is asking for compensation,” Scott says. “You like to think of your art as a gift to the world. If everyone could listen to my music for free, I’d love it. But we have bills to pay, including gas.” 

Hoping to lower the cost of gas prices, two Democratic Tennessee lawmakers called in early March for Governor Bill Lee to declare a 90-day moratorium on the state’s gas tax. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed a similar law on March 18 suspending Georgia’s motor fuel tax to relieve drivers from high gas prices.

Lee has not announced updates on the proposal and has not signaled that he’s working on providing different relief for Tennesseans, and his office did not reply to a request for interview. 

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