'Three people in a car, and we still lost money': was live music broken before Covid-19?

Musicians say touring was poorly paid and stressful. Can the chaos caused by the pandemic also be a moment of change?

As concert venues across the UK apply for emergency government aid, artists have been left to find creative ways to keep themselves afloat, turning to ticketed livestreams and supplementary jobs to fill the gap where gigs should be. But behind them all looms an ever-growing debate: what if the whole touring model was broken in the first place?

This month, New York musician Hannah Cohen said what many were secretly thinking. “I don’t miss touring,” she wrote on Twitter. “I am relieved. Touring with a band is a bottomless pit of expenses, emotionally & physically exhausting and I rarely break even … I will spend this break in touring slowly chipping away at my tour debt.” Other musicians chimed in on the thread, citing non-existent profits and gruelling schedules as a significant strain on their mental health.

This may be controversial but I don't miss touring. I am relieved.TOURING with a band is a bottomless pit of expenses, emotionally&physically exhausting& I rarely break even.Actually, I've never "broke even"! I will spend this break in touring slowly chipping away at my tour debt

— Hannah Cohen (@MissHannahCohen) August 9, 2020

“It’s possible to make money over a festival season, but with touring, most people I know are really lucky if they break even,” says Alexandra Denton, better known as Shura. After she released her second album, Forevher, in August 2019, her planned promotional campaign around a run of 2020 festivals “evaporated overnight”. With paltry royalties from streaming, touring is now seen as musicians’ primary income. But from the 30 tour dates Shura performed before lockdown, she estimates her overall profit at £2,300 – after takings had been chipped away by the expense of a live band, accommodation and staging, all paid at a fixed rate. “Genuinely, if you can finish a tour and say: ‘We didn’t lose any money’, it’s a real win,” she says. “But for 30 shows, as a single-entity musician, I’m making less than anyone else working on the tour.”

Tom Fleming, currently performing as One True Pairing, cites a similar experience. Previously a member of Wild Beasts – who had two Top 10 albums – his downsizing for solo work means significant live cutbacks. “Three people in a car, and it still lost money,” he says. “I’ve had to learn to deal with equipment when it says: ‘No, not today.’ In previous lives, having somebody to look after that was so helpful, because it meant we weren’t messing around with laptops when we should have been performing. It is tough, and I think the vanishingly small returns for 90% of artists on streaming makes touring life completely non-viable.”

Tom Fleming: ‘I think the vanishingly small returns for 90% of artists on streaming makes touring life completely non-viable.’
Tom Fleming: ‘I think the vanishingly small returns for 90% of artists on streaming makes touring life completely non-viable.’ Photograph: Jenna Foxton

For a Wild Beasts tour to be successful, Fleming recalls that the band had to be nominated for a Mercury prize, and benefit from the subsequent media exposure. “It’s a pretty high bar to hit. In some ways, I’m the 1% – I’ve got a label and the back catalogue of a fairly successful band – and it’s still hard. Starting from zero now would be incredibly difficult.”

A bad situation has been made worse by the pandemic. The UK government announced a £1.75bn fund for culture, but a lack of support for individual creatives beyond self-employment funds has pushed many artists into sourcing donations directly from fans. Experiments with outdoor, socially distanced gigs are rare, and even though venues can now reopen, few of them are able to because of the difficulty of social distancing. For Fleming, a day job as an online copywriter has provided a safety net while he works on new music, but the increasing commodification of virtual performance leaves him uneasy.

“It’s a disgraceful way to ask people to beg for scraps from the table,” he says. “Maybe I’m getting old, but that kind of constant engagement and bespoke interaction feels a bit dissonant with being an artist, with being able to take yourself away and have creative thoughts.”

Denton agrees. “We’re going to have to get good at doing other things, but I do think some people will just turn around and say ‘I’m a musician’, and fair enough.” Moreover, the pandemic isn’t conducive to creativity. “I find it difficult to write music when I’m incredibly stressed. The idea of sitting by the piano and writing a song about how I haven’t left the house in five months … not fun.”

The unpredictability of the health crisis in different countries also makes it difficult for artists to plan effective touring routes, compounded by possible post-Brexit visa complications. As festival organisers try to recoup 2020’s losses, Denton fears that appearance fees will grow leaner, stripping back the last reliable source of live profit.

The one upside, she suggests, is that this conversation might finally bring change. “There needs to be a real re-examination of necessity – do we need to be doing four dates in Germany when we know we only sell 50% of tickets? And it’s drilled into you from the early stages of your career that it’s important to project success, but when people are livestreaming from their bedrooms in their pyjamas, any mystique is fully gone.” She says artists need “transparency” – an increased willingness to speak up against disappointing fees and schedules, and to challenge the returns from streaming. “Being a musician is thought of as a privilege, but we’re already losing a lot of great artists. I just hope that I’m one of the ones who make it.”


Jenessa Williams

The GuardianTramp

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