It is as grueling as it is satisfying to be in a band: I was the singer for The John Wilkes Kissing Booth many years ago, and I performed in every state. I loved the nights that turned electric when the audience was pumped and locked in, pogoing like engine pistons. I craved the stink of divey venues and appreciated the constant clawing up the steep hill of fame. It is an excellent way to get out of your routine hometown doldrums. Touring is a spiritual game to dare try and beat the odds, to grind on in an unloved, dying van to make your art known.
The free beer, the weed couches, and the nights making out by some milky dumpster are better than platinum, better than dying in a cubicle.
But the converse can crush your spirit: the van breakdowns, guitars stolen, venues giving in to Ticketmaster or turning into pay-to-play spots, COVID shutting it all down instantly is very real. Add up the costs of gas, motels, and food, and many find out that touring as a musical artist is risky business.
Starting a band during a pandemic seems like a pretty goofy idea, especially when most musicians make their money from touring and merch sales. Who can be sure if typical go-to venues have survived? It’s hard to rock when your travel budget is slashed, you haven’t slept, and everyone in the van is hungry.
In comes Taco Bell on a horse covered in Dorito dust to help save the day. Taco Bell has hired The Syndicate, a digital entertainment marketing company, to run the Feed The Beat program, which since 2006 has offered bands $500 no-strings-attached gift cards to feed themselves on the road and also supplies marketing and exposure. Applying for the “grant” is easy. However, the application is only open to U.S. touring bands, and at the time of this writing, submissions have yet to open up again in 2022.
I asked Syd Butler, the bassist for Les Savvy Fav, how they heard about the program.
“Another band suggested it to us when we were touring around a lot,” Butler said. “We were not making that much money per show and it was very helpful to know that you didn’t have to worry about eating. Plus, they were open late. We were pretty uptight about spending [the gift cards]. We were on tour for maybe a month, so we rationed them out. Maybe we would buy our host a taco, but we were pretty stingy.”
Taco Bell is great for touring bands, not just because it’s open late, but because its menu includes vegan-friendly swaps, such as subbing out meat for potatoes or beans. There’s also a vegetarian menu (Spicy Potato Soft Taco! Black Bean Crunchwrap Supreme! Veggie Power Menu Bowl!) and a gluten-free menu (Doritos Locos Taco Supreme), and it’s all customizable. The Power Menu, with high-protein meals under 500 calories, has a few gems for when you’re feeling like getting fully cheddar shredded.
Kaylen Krebsbach of the band Kississippi was grateful for the gift cards, too.
“When you’re on tour, every dollar counts,” said Krebsbach. “Having Feed the Beat took some of the pressure off. After the show, we knew if we could get to a Taco Bell, everyone could at least get a meal in their stomach, and it made a huge difference. Financially and for morale! Taco Bell is really accommodating of dietary restrictions, so it was a great option for the vegan and vegetarian band members too.”
I asked Kaylen if she knew why Taco Bell was doing this. “It was a pretty no-strings-attached situation,” she said. “The company just wanted to help support the arts. Which I think is very cool.”
A multitude of bands have won the $500 grant since its inception, including such well-known bands as:
- Twenty One Pilots
- Walk the Moon
- Portugal. The Man
- New Found Glory
- Bebe Rexha
- The All-American Rejects
- Andrew W.K.
- Imagine Dragons
- Pure Bathing Culture
- Ra Ra Riot
- Rival Sons
- Lord Huron
- Les Savvy Fav
- Trippie Redd
- Mannequin Pussy
Josh Terry of Vice magazine says, “The Syndicate said the program will come back in some form this year, with the expectation of going even bigger in 2022.”
Eric from Heart Attack Man out of Cleveland, Ohio, told me they won the gift cards years ago and really appreciated the ability to style out other hungry bands.
“Oh, we definitely shared the wealth on tour multiple times when we’d coordinate trips to Taco Bell with one or more of the bands we played with,” he said. When asked if he would recommend the program to other bands, he said he absolutely would.
“Don’t get me wrong, PepsiCo sucks and is destroying the earth, but we are also fans of free money, and anyone who says otherwise is either lying or hates themselves,” he said.