• Mon. Nov 28th, 2022

With Devastating Costs and COVID Risks, Many Musicians Can’t Make Touring Work

Oct 13, 2022

This past spring, as the omicron wave subsided and the world began a ready-or-not return to something resembling normal, the floodgates opened and thousands of musicians returned to the road. Audiences flocked to arenas and big theaters see Harry Styles, Olivia Rodrigo, Elton John and many others. Coachella launched the festival season with a bang, and smaller clubs began to cautiously figure out how to put on shows in tight spaces.

It was a bumpy start — many acts (even Sir Elton and Bon Jovi) had to cancel or postpone shows because of positive Covid tests — but a start, nonetheless. Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino says ticket sales are on their way to a record year.

But for non-superstar musicians, it’s a different story. Touring is how most of them make a living — royalties from streaming are a pittance compared to the old CD or vinyl model — and they’ve returned to a world very different from the one they knew pre-pandemic.

On Sept. 26, independent alt-R&B artist Santigold, who has performed on tracks with Jay-Z, Drake, David Byrne and others, became one of the first to publicly say she’s “simply unable to make it work” can’t do it in this environment. She explained why in an impassioned Instagram post announcing the cancelation of her fall tour in support of her self-released new album, “Spirituals.”  

“As a touring musician, I don’t think anyone anticipated the new reality that awaited us,” she wrote. “After sitting idle for the past couple years, [musicians] rushed back out immediately when it was deemed safe to do shows. We were met with the height of inflation, many of our tried-and-true venues unavailable due to a flooded market of artists trying to book shows in the same cities, and positive [Covid] test results constantly halting schedules, with devastating financial consequences. All of that, on top of the already-tapped mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional resources of just having made it through the past few years. Some of us are finding ourselves simply unable to make it work.”

The post struck a nerve with fellow musicians. “I feel you and I feel exactly the same,” Swedish singer Lykke Li responded. “Fucking hell, it’s so brutal out there,” British singer Lily Allen replied, adding, “You’re right, we don’t talk about it enough.”

Earlier this week, veteran alt-rock group Animal Collective essentially said the same thing when calling off their European tour scheduled for next month.

“Preparing for this tour, we were looking at an economic reality that simply does not work and is not sustainable,” they wrote in an emotional apology to fans. “From inflation, to currency devaluation, to bloated shipping and transportation costs, and much much more, we simply could not make a budget for this tour that did not lose money even if everything went as well as it could.”

This is a situation that literally thousands of musicians have confronted in 2022.

Santigold (real name: Santi White) explains to Variety that touring “has never been great” for her. “At my level, even before COVID, it was only profitable when you could anchor your tours with festivals and some private gigs,” she says, because those pay better than ordinary headlining concerts. “And even if you get a tour support from a label or other company — which I never have — then you’re even more in debt, because that’s a loan.”

While touring was easier when she was young and had relatively few expenses, as a 46-year-old mother of three, it’s a drastically different situation. “In 2018, I was onstage four months after I had twins. Why? Because there’s not really another option: If you don’t do it, you’re going to be out of the public eye for too long and lose relevance. And that’s where the mental health [reasons] come in. It’s not just the money; it’s the relentless expectations of this industry, where you have to constantly put out music and content, making TikToks and engaging on social media and being always accessible — instead of making art! I didn’t sign up for that.

“If art is becoming a side note, then maybe this isn’t what I need to be doing.”

But some artists are finding ways to make it work. When long-running alt-rock band … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead found themselves in a similar predicament in September, they reluctantly launched a GoFundMe to help finance their European fall tour in support of their new album, “Bleed Here Now.” The campaign exceeded its target goal of $12,000 and the tour is going well, packing many 500-to-1,000-capacity venues and doing strong merchandise business.

“We were worried that it would make us look desperate,” band cofounder Jason Reece tells Variety over the phone from Germany, “but I think it really made people realize how hard touring is: It’s not [the rock stereotype of] piles of cocaine and hookers,” he laughs, “it’s a little more working class.” Although he recommends GoFundMe as a way to help some touring artists make ends meet, he’s also the first to admit, “This is not a normal business model — I don’t think we could count on it” going forward.

The situation can be different for up-and-coming acts. Island Recording artist Remi Wolf, 26, has been on tour for most of this year and faced similar logistical challenges — buses suitable for a tour have been in short supply, and Wolf says that some rental companies are “straight up lying” about their supplies. In Europe, that led her and her group to fly to many of the festival appearances they’d booked, but for her U.S. tour, she says she and her crew ended up with a “bus made in 1999 instead of the 2009” model they were told they’d be getting, along with a driver who’d brought along his wife and a friend, with no notice — making for extremely cramped conditions for her 13-member band and crew in a bus with 12 sleeping compartments. Yet they found ways to make it work — “My drummer kind of likes sleeping in the communal area in the back,” she laughs — and her tours this year have been a success.

Wolf says her touring group has been lucky enough to avoid the dreaded positive Covid tests, although she adds, “I think a lot of artists are testing positive and not telling anyone and playing shows anyway, because it’s thousands of dollars if they cancel. I think a lot more people are doing that than we night be hearing about.”

She also says she has had fewer issues with the mental-health aspect of touring, which has led artists ranging from Justin Bieber and Shawn Mendes to 22-year-old British Mercury Prize winner Arlo Parks to postpone or cancel tours.

“I’m lucky because I love my band, and my crew is mostly my friends — my brother is on tour with us too,” she says. She adds that engaging on social media is easier for her, as well. “I was about 15 when Instagram started so it comes naturally to me,” although she admits that TikTok is more challenging. “We figured out a way to film my shows and make TikToks out of that,” she says. “I think my manager is handling it, sometimes without me knowing,” she laughs.

Yet many younger artists are facing a much tougher climb. Santigold says, “Some of my friends work with a lot of really young artists, and they’re getting into debt right away. They’ve heard that you can only make money on the road as a musician, so they hit the road — and they coming home in debt.”

Up-and-coming artists are the lifeblood of the music world, and although they adapted to the streaming-economy model — where they would not make much money from recordings, but those recordings bring people to their shows — if they can’t make money from touring, how can they sustain a career?

“Everyone is asking that exact question,” Santigold says. “People are really struggling: They’re telling me, ‘I’m putting myself in debt trying to do shows.’” She has a book deal in the works and a podcast as well as other projects, but admits, “I don’t have the answer, and I don’t think there is a quick fix. I mean, I canceled my tour, but not because I know what I’m doing next.”

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