Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Tour Van Break-Ins Have St. Louis in Music-Industry Crosshairs

Posted By on Wed, Nov 12, 2014 at 6:00 AM

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Mike Cracchiolo: "I've talked to booking agents who've said, 'I just got told by a band: Don't book me in St. Louis.'" - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • Mike Cracchiolo: "I've talked to booking agents who've said, 'I just got told by a band: Don't book me in St. Louis.'"

Last month, venue owners and talent bookers representing some ten St. Louis music clubs gathered at KDHX's (88.1 FM) new midtown studios to address what they believe has become an epidemic. Among those in attendance were Cracchiolo, McCormac, Brett Underwood of the Schlafly Tap Room, Steve Pohlman of Off Broadway, Jill Cherkas of Plush, Joshua Loyal of 2720 Cherokee and Beverly Hacker of KDHX.

Standing before the group in his navy blue uniform was Dan Schulte, a community outreach officer with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Schulte leaned over a countertop railing that served as a makeshift podium and told the audience what he could about the van break-ins. The department believes a single group is behind almost all of the thefts, said Schulte, and it has "very, very, very strong, solid leads" on the people behind the break-ins. Schulte hoped this meeting at KDHX would create a dialogue between police and the music clubs.

See also: Police Say They Have "Strong, Solid Leads" On Tour Van Robbers

After the cop concluded his short speech, the venue owners and talent bookers turned to each other and began trading info on their own break-in woes.

"We've had it happen in the middle of the afternoon at three o'clock. We've had it happen at night. It's been different ranges of hours," said Erica Durbin, booking and promotions coordinator at the Old Rock House. "These are band vehicles..."

"...never trailers, never buses," Cracchiolo chimed in.

"It's always vans, yeah," Durbin continued. "They're looking for those white vans or [Dodge] Sprinter vans, usually when they have a trailer, but.... They're looking for laptops, GPSs and phones. They're not looking for guitars and amps."

What they're stealing is part of the problem, said Schulte. Unlike musical instruments, which often have identifying features, stolen electronics can be difficult to track down without the victims knowing the items' serial numbers. "The reports are loaded with laptops and cell phones and cash being taken out," Schulte said, gesturing to a stack of reports a couple inches high that sat on the counter next to him.

Several venues have now begun telling bands to bring all of the gear inside, and several clubs now staff an extra person every night specifically to watch the tour vans. Yet club owners can only do so much to protect the property of touring musicians. Both Spose and Mineral, for instance, had their vans broken into after they left the Firebird.

"I can't send a door guy with the band the entire time they're in the city," Cracchiolo told Schulte at the meeting. "These [thieves] are still finding ways around what we're able to control."

Moreover, having a guard on duty is not foolproof. Bob Fancher, owner of Fubar, didn't attend the meeting at KDHX, but he's all too familiar with the cat-and-mouse game the thieves play with venues and police. His club had an outside attendant on duty on October 2 when thieves broke into vans belonging to Michigan-based metalcore group For the Fallen Dreams and Atlanta-based rock band Favorite Weapon. Fancher says Fubar's guard had stepped into the club for three minutes to use the bathroom when the crimes occurred.

Fancher adds that "it's insanely difficult" for Fubar to afford staffing another employee every night to watch their vans. "We're a small venue," he says. "We do small bands that are just trying to get gas money to get to the next town. We're already over budget on 70 percent of the shows we do, so to throw another person on there, it's like I'm losing money every show."

In addition to battling the bottom line, Fancher is also fighting bad PR thanks to the thefts. Florida metal outfit Traitors was playing Fubar on August 20 when someone stole thousands of dollars worth of personal items from its Mercedes-Benz tour van. The band immediately took to Facebook to blame Fancher and Fubar for the incident. The post was shared nearly 200 times on Facebook, and the story got picked up by metal news site Lambgoat.

"Our van was just broken into at Fubar in St. Louis after we were promised security for our van by the promoter. Lost a ton of our personals & instruments. Not sure if we can finish this tour..." the band wrote in the caption to a photo of its broken van window. Traitors reported to police a stolen laptop, PlayStation 3, television, e-cigarettes and a debit card.

But Fancher disputes Traitors' claim that van security was promised. Moreover, he says, the band ignored his warning to not park where it did that night.

"It's not in front of our property. It's adjacent, on the other side of the street, a parking lot that has a sign that says 'No parking, permit only,'" Fancher says. "They made an adult decision and took it upon themselves to park there, and then someone throws a brick through their window and steals their PlayStation 3, and they want to cry on the Internet about it."

In his seventeen years of working in music clubs in St. Louis — eleven years at the now-shuttered Creepy Crawl and six at Fubar — Fancher says he can't remember a time when tour vans have been targeted like this.

For what it's worth, St. Louis isn't the only town getting a bad rap with touring musicians. This spring Chicago's RedEye published a story on that city's reputation as "the Bermuda Triangle of band gear" after several bands had their vans broken into. RedEye reported that between January and April, "more than four musicians and bands have had property — from guitars to vans — stolen while touring through Chicago, leading some to urge extra precautions to those traveling around the city. This March, heavy metal rocker Zakk Wylde said his $10,000 guitar was stolen from his tour bus outside the Chicago Theatre — the first time he had had an instrument stolen on the road in close to 25 years."

Back at the KDHX meeting on October 23, Steve Pohlman of Off Broadway suggested that it didn't matter whether St. Louis actually presents a greater risk for touring bands than cities such as Chicago. What's more important is how St. Louis is being portrayed.

"The perception doesn't have to be real," said the south St. Louis venue owner. "If their perception is, 'If I play St. Louis, my shit's going to get stolen,' it doesn't matter whether it's real or not."

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