"This is so easy, since you gals don't really sing."
That's Kevin, the sound guy. He's a dick, but on the upside, he also doesn't know what he's doing. We'll get back to him.
The road will always find a way to test your patience. Sometimes, as everyone found out tonight, it won't even wait that long to do so. We are one day onto the road, a literal stone's throw from our home state, and a solid nap in the back seat away from our actual homes. And yet...
Omaha is a fine town. I've been to some really good shows here, and there has always been a genuinely solid music scene, thanks in no small part to the bands that helped established the Saddle Creek sound back in the early '90s. But I don't care where you find yourself in this world, nothing is perfect.
Aromas Coffeehouse is an OK place. They make coffee, as the name suggests, and they seem to do it well. The place is also home to something called the 402 Arts Collective, which maintains a stage inside the coffeehouse, and puts on a regular schedule of music lessons and performances. Set up to seat a maximum of probably 60 people, the stage carries a sound system that is way too big for the space, including four monitors and two full stacks of speakers, but the lighting is excellent and the space is clean and free of visual obstruction. In short, it looks great, and sounds complicated.
The booker has added a local act to the bill as an afterthought. They're a five-piece, christian rock act that is populated by musicians just young and enthusiastic enough to still mistake volume for talent. The lead singer especially is working the mic with her lungs in full clip.
They are set to play last, but since they are the only full band on the bill, they're soundchecking first and backlining their gear. They are fully set up and in the middle of check when we walk in, and the process lasts another 20 minutes after we arrive. There is feedback. Wild volume variations. The band plays three full songs as Kevin The Sound Guy muddles his way through setting everyone at what he thinks is an acceptable level.
Once he's satisfied that everyone sounds good (they don't), he shuttles the youngsters off the stage and announces that he's ready for the openers. Davis gets up, plugs her guitar in, and starts to sing. three minutes later, Kevin says he's done with her. Routh's turn. Again, plug in, sing a song, all done. Before she unplugs, Routh looks back to the sound booth and asks if that's it.
"Yeah," he replies. "This is so easy, since you gals don't really sing."
There is a pregnant beat of silence. Then the three of us kind of collectively nod, and go back about the business of setting up merch. But the slight is not forgotten. As Fehring is in the middle of her set, and reaches the point when the artist thanks everyone for coming out, she gestures towards the back of the room.
"And thank you, Kevin, for all your hard work. Good sound people are really hard to come by." Beat. "And nice ones are ever rarer. So. OK!"
Davis finishes her set, Routh takes over, and proceeds--intentionally or not--to deliver one of the most vocally on point performances I've heard from her. Complex, yet in perfect control, she's taking these kids to school, and tossing some skat into the middle of "Black Sheep" just because she can.
Point made, Routh ends her set, the young'uns hop on stage, and the place proceeds to get loud. Once the show is done, Davis and Routh chat with friends who have made the trip to see the show. A group decides to head across the street for a beer, and Routh stays behind to wait for the venue to settle up the door.
That wait goes past 10 minutes. Past 20. There were no more than 35 people in paid attendance, and yet it takes the show operator more than half an hour to make their way from the backroom, and hand Routh a thin envelope.
"So, we gave you $20, because you're the touring act," the kid apparently in charge says. "So here's the rest of the door, which was $24."
For a moment, Routh is confused. "$24 each? Is that after their cut?" she asks, gesturing towards the Christian children packing up their merch. The kid shrugs.
"I...this is all of it. It's up to you how much you want to give them."
The venue has taken $200 off the top of the door for themselves; a total neither Routh nor Davis are happy with, because neither of them feels like the venue earned it. On top of that, they have taken a 20% cut of the rest, minus the $20 "touring cut," leaving the $24 total. After a moment's consideration, Routh shrugs, pockets $4, and approaches the local band with the $20 bill.
The lead singer is having none of it. "Absolutely not," she says, pushing the bill back towards Routh. "It literally cost us nothing to get here. You're the ones on the road, you take it."
There may not be honor among thieves, but there usually is amongst musicians.
This is, of course, the unspoken pitfall of the indie, self-funded tour: there is no money in it. Every time you book a show outside of your hometown, it kicks off a delicate ballet, where venue and artist try to find a sweet spot in revenue sharing that makes everyone happy. Some deals are more equitable than others, but this balance never ends up in the artist's favor.
And so, at the end of the day, Routh and Davis--and thousands of musicians just like them--will do tours just like this, where the idea of success is to sell a couple CD's, make a few new fans, and come home in one piece with no red in the checkbook.
But when a venue takes the lion's share of the door money in exchange for doing absolutely no promotion for your event, it can be hard to stomach. Of the 35 or so people at tonight's show, 5 may have not been personally invited by Routh or Davis themselves. It can be hard to watch a place walk away with everything you've earned, simply because they had a roof you could play under.
But do you know what makes it worthwhile? Doug.
On this given night, Doug is a slightly awkward young man in his early 20's, wearing a Superman hoodie and Punisher t-shirt. Comics are, he says the the surprise of nobody, kind of an obsession for him.
He came out to this show on a whim. A friend told him about it, and he decided what the hell. But, he admits, it's not normally his thing.
"I'm more of a metal head," he says to Routh and Davis. "I don't normally go too far out of my own comfort zones with music."
He then proceeds to buy all three of Davis' CD's. And both of Routh's.
So at the end of the night, Routh and Davis walk away having been insulted by the venue employees, and feeling more than slightly robbed by the venue itself. But they met Doug.
As Routh steps out into the Omaha night to rejoin her friends in the bar across the street, she smiles. It's been a good night.
Miles traveled: 140