On the grand scale of rock-band gimmicks, the move by The Shins to give away their old van to a deserving up-and-coming artist is pretty noble, despite the fact that, well, James Mercer is the only current member of the band that actually rode in it when it was in regular use.
The band, which is giving its freshly refurbished 1990 Ford 350 Clubwagon to the band that records the best cover of a song on the indie pop act’s new album Heartworms, has the best intentions in mind for this van, which has probably seen a lot of big cities and small towns over the years.
“It ought to be passed on to a band that uses it to get out there and play shows and spread their music,” Mercer explained.
But does it make sense to own a van, if you’re a rock band? David Combs, a punk rocker best known for his band The Max Levine Ensemble, wrote about this very issue back in 2015 for the public radio station WAMU, in a piece about DIY touring. Per Combs:
You can cut out rental expenses if you own your vehicle, but the liability is a real gamble. Say a deer runs into your car on the highway, knocks a part in your radiator loose and that leads to a busted transmission. There goes your tour fund, and probably a good portion of your savings. (Not that this happened to me. OK, it did.) Plus, the cost of maintaining a van driven tens of thousands of miles a year adds up.
Fuel-efficient vehicles, alternative fuel, driving shorter distances between shows — they’re all useful tricks to cut costs. But paying for gas adds up no matter what.
There are always other options if you want to be a touring troubadour. You can always rent a van, whether from a pal (which Combs notes is nearly as dicey as owning your own) or a company.
And if you even want to tour on the cheap, it’s not unheard of to plot out a tour using a Greyhound bus or an Amtrak train—something suggested in the above tongue-in-cheek Greyhound ad. But it’s not really a joke if you don’t treat it as one: The gig-finding company Sonicbids says that if you’re willing to pack light, you can even save a ton of money by touring on a Greyhound.
But then you have to be willing to live on a Greyhound. Talk about chutes too narrow.