‘You’re doing it purely for the exposure’: why many musicians can no longer afford to tour

Artists are cancelling live dates owing to soaring costs, venue bottlenecks, Brexit and the pandemic. Can touring ever be viable again?

The received wisdom directed at musicians was simple: streaming means you’re not earning from recordings any more? Make it up on the road! Get out there and tour, like musicians used to, then you’ll be fine! That has proven to be a myth. In recent months, an increasing number of acts have announced that they are cancelling tours, or scaling down their live commitments because they simply can’t afford to play.

Animal Collective recently put the kibosh on their November tour of the UK and Europe. “From inflation, to currency devaluation, to bloated shipping and transportation costs … we simply could not make a budget for this tour that did not lose money even if everything went as well as it could,” they told fans. Santigold also cancelled her autumn US tour, saying: “I will not continue to sacrifice myself for an industry that has become unsustainable for, and uninterested in, the welfare of the artists it is built upon.” Okkervil River’s Will Sheff estimated he would have lost about $20,000 had he fulfilled his US and European tours. Metronomy cancelled a US tour, citing costs, while earlier this year, Little Simz said it made no financial sense for her to play the US.

There was no single last straw that caused Santigold to pull the dates behind her new album, Spirituals. “It was a buildup of factors over the last 10 years,” she says. The rise of streaming was a key issue: a stressor that forced musicians to find other ways to make money. “All of a sudden you constantly had to do social media to keep marketing yourself, find out what you can sell, get branding deals, do private gigs,” she says. “It’s almost undoable.”

Then came the pandemic, which stopped gigs and heightened the demand for artists to self-promote. Once restrictions lifted, musicians resumed touring rabidly. “You rush back out and everyone’s rushing out,” says Santigold. “So I had a tour that had me making no profit – and possibly a loss – and the only incentive was to stay in the public eye. And that’s the biggest fear for any musician: if you are not constantly in people’s faces you will not last.”

The Anchoress at the Mayflower theatre, Southampton. She says performance fees are being cut.
The Anchoress at the Mayflower theatre, Southampton. She says performance fees are being cut. Photograph: Harry Herd/Redferns

For years it has been apparent that stresses in the live music industry needed to be addressed. The constant gripes about ticket prices suggested the finances were not working for anyone: from fans feeling they were being taken advantage of, especially with the introduction of dynamic pricing, to artists seeing ticket spend lining the pockets of touts and resellers. During the pandemic, some promoters I spoke to hoped that the pause in live performance might lead to a conversation about lowering artists’ fees. No one is winning.

The situation now is even grimmer, given the lifting of restrictions and the current economic crisis. British acts are facing the costs of Brexit on European touring, while Britain, always the short straw of the international touring circuit, with its low fees and mediocre artist support, is less appealing than ever for visiting acts. Audiences are feeling the pinch and the cost of touring utilities and infrastructure has risen.

“The supply is much more limited because so many people went out of business during the pandemic,” says Sumit Bothra, managing director of ATC Management, Europe, which has PJ Harvey and Katie Melua among its roster. “On top of that, a lot of venues closed, and a lot of promoters went out of business, so there’s increased demand there. A 20-date tour might now have to be a 10-date tour. And you need talented crew to put a show together, and a lot of crew left the business during the pandemic.” (It’s impossible to overstate how deep the effects of the pandemic run: earlier this year, the head of one arena show production business told me there was a real problem with finding the correct-sized bolts to construct a stage.)

The bottleneck of artists returning to the road has also made it challenging to route tours sensibly, one key way to keep a tour viable. It’s not just about the geography making sense – driving from London to Glasgow via Manchester rather than Southampton – but ensuring that days off are minimal since the crew still have to be paid and the artists still need per diems. With venues booked up, that is much harder now, says Mike Malak, an agent with Wasserman Music, who books Billie Eilish, Kelis and Pusha T, among others. “If you’re trying to put together a tour in Europe, if you don’t plan a year in advance, you can’t get the beautiful routing you want. A lot of artists are now accepting they might have to go a couple of days off or go longer distances between shows, which might mean two drivers – another cost.”

Artists’ fees, meanwhile, have remained the same, or worse. Catherine Anne Davies, who tours and records as the Anchoress, says she has had offers that were half the pre-pandemic level, despite acclaim for her 2021 album The Art of Losing. “When I toured my first album, every show made a loss,” she says, “but you’re building something and you think, next year we might do better. We’re not even starting from zero now, though. We’re starting from minus 20.” Maybe she could make it up by working her merch table harder, she says, but then she exposes herself to an increased risk of catching Covid – which would mean cancelling more shows, with no insurance to make up the shortfall.

Animal Collective at Pitchfork festival in Chicago, 2021. Their upcoming tour of the UK and Europe was nixed.
Animal Collective at Pitchfork festival in Chicago, 2021. Their upcoming tour of the UK and Europe was nixed. Photograph: Annie Lesser/SPACE/REX/Shutterstock

And Covid remains an ever-present threat. It can derail a tour in a heartbeat and it doesn’t just affect the artist. “Short-notice cancellations frequently leave grassroots music venues picking up the full costs of an event with no income and no compensation,” says Mark Davyd of Music Venue Trust, a campaigning group for grassroots venues. “The basic financial model of presenting small-scale shows means it simply isn’t possible for the venue to absorb these costs. Something has to give and we fear the direct consequence will be the closure of venues.”

But venues – beyond the grassroots – need to do their bit, too. Bothra reports some prestige venues massively upping rental fees since the pandemic, while many of those interviewed complained about new charges imposed by venues – for merch tables, mic stands and video recording of shows. Last weekend, the Lancaster indie duo the Lovely Eggs went viral after calling out Manchester’s O2 Apollo for taking a 30% cut of their merch fees, which is standard at O2 venues; earlier this year, Dry Cleaning rebelled against the policy by setting up their own pop-up merch shop outside the O2 Forum Kentish Town.

Davies ended up receiving a grant from Help Musicians to help get her on the road after the charity launched a £250,000 fund to aid touring artists. “It’s already oversubscribed and gone to over £300,000,” says James Ainscough, the organisation’s chief executive. He says their research shows that touring in and beyond the EU had become British musicians’ biggest worry, with the administrative and financial costs resulting from Brexit increasing the financial and emotional burden. He points out that touring further afield is not just about money: “There’s a circuit around Europe where you build up a fanbase and spread the word, and if you are unable to do that, you are unable to build a sustainable career in the long term. The outcome will be lots of musicians will give up and lots of amazing music will never be heard.”

Even so, says Katy J Pearson, who recently completed a sold-out UK tour: “You know you’re touring purely for the exposure.”

Many in the industry suspect this crisis is hitting artists in the middle ranks hardest – the kinds who play big clubs and small theatres, or who may be in a later stage of their career. But David Martin, chief executive of artists’ trade group Featured Artists Coalition, says that is not the whole story. “Some of the very biggest artists are struggling to make shows work for them – and they sustain a lot of careers within the industry. The idea that the top 5% to 10% of artists are OK is coming under threat as well.” Martin suggests that we’ll really see the effects of what is happening now in five to seven years, when artists who should have been emerging now would expect to be making a mark.

One solution, Martin suggests, is ending VAT on ticket sales, which would put money straight back into the live ecosystem. Others talk about redirecting the many and varied “service fees” on tickets from the seller to the artist.

For Santigold, what is happening in music mirrors what is happening in society – big corporations are stripping music of its financial value and leaving creators impoverished, and have persuaded music fans to collude in this. She wonders what will happen when the kids who have got used to streaming being free on the family account grow up – will they switch to paid accounts?

Whatever the answer, no one thinks we can carry on like this. “There need to be systemic and structural changes,” Santigold says. “But I also think you’ve got to change the notion that art should be free. Somebody has to say: ‘We value art.’”


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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