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✘ Too broke to play: how touring is turning musicians (and us) penniless
And: IMPALA's #WeMeasureTogether for climate action; UK music industry to implement anti-racism code of conduct; Bluetooth overtakes FM Radio for US car buyers
The announcement hit attentive concert-goers’ radar like a rock; although artists pulling the plug on touring for financial reasons has become commonplace on music news lately, nobody expected a group of Animal Collective’s caliber to be next in line.
“Friends, we are absolutely gutted to announce today that we are making the decision to cancel our UK/EU dates for this November.”
So began Animal Collective’s statement about their upcoming tour dates’ cancellation, posted to the band’s Instagram last month.
“Preparing for this tour we were looking at an economic reality that simply does not work and is not sustainable”,
they continued. The group went on to name inflation, shipping and transportation costs, currency devaluation, and more why.
“We simply could not make a budget for this tour that did not lose money even if everything went as well as it could”,
the band sadly lamented.
In April, Brit Award-winning UK rap sensation Little Simz chose to postpone her North American tour, also citing financial difficulties.
“Being an independent artist, I pay for everything encompassing my live performances out of my own pocket, and touring the US for a month would leave me in a huge deficit”,
she told fans. Her announcement was met with disbelief by the music community as well. Many questioned themselves, how is it possible that the name behind one of last year’s most talked-about albums cannot get a tour - an essential component of a music career in the post-streaming age - off the ground?
Over the course of the past few months, we have seen more and more touring musicians, ranging from rising stars to household names, finding it difficult or even impossible to promote their music the old-fashioned way, given a swarm of novel financial constraints. Each of their cancellation announcements packs a new punch to the much-spoiled touring ecosystem. After longing for the so-called return of live music following an industry-wide blackout, concertgoers and concert-doers alike are discovering the sector might not be ready for a comeback just yet - at least not the same way it left.
This should not be normalized
The list of musicians driven to cancel tours for financial reasons continues to grow past names such as Little Simz and Animal Collective. Even many of those who have chosen to hit the road anyway now find themselves treading precarious ground, in ways that may surprise those unschooled on the costs of touring - which, let’s face it, is a large sum of concert attendees. Currently, the direct-to-fan music business model allows musicians to now share with their fans what those costs are, why they are rising so fast, and how they have grown to become simply unsustainable.
Only a month before Animal Collective’s tour cancellation announcement, US-based Pakistani singer, composer, and producer Arooj Aftab published an enlightening thread on Twitter discussing the dire financial situation she had run into touring post-pandemic. “Touring has been amazing”, started the critically-acclaimed artist, citing “massive turnouts”.
“Yet still, running 10s of thousands in debt from the tour and I’m being told that it’s ‘normal’. Why is this normal. This should not be normalized.”
There are many reasons why touring musicians like Arooj Aftab experience such financially draining tours, and why acts like Animal Collective and Little Simz are foregoing them altogether. For one, there is the unavoidable factor looming over all in the live music sector since 2020; COVID. Not only is the pandemic’s legacy and its destructive effect on the economy a force to be reckoned with, but so is its lingering presence. Lest we forget, the risk of infection is still there for audiences and musicians alike. On the audience’s side, the residual fear to go out and get sick, as cited by Aftab, can still be a turnover killer. For musicians, one positive test could sink a tour. Overall, COVID safety brought new logistic and financial challenges for those touring which are theirs to navigate, as support from governments or the industry is minimal. The increased health and financial risks still weighing on live music nearly three years on could warrant their own article - and they have. Besides, the immensurable pressure artists face to return is tearing them down too and impeding them from safely getting back to business, as we wrote about last week.
Touring musicians are also having to grapple with post-pandemic inflation, exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine this February. Globally, inflation is making all money matters harder, and, for musicians, this includes touring. Mounting travel fees and supply-chain issues add fuel to fire. On account of those, US singer Santigold canceled her upcoming tour. She cited inflation as one of the reasons why in a lengthy note posted on her website. The cost-prohibitive nature of touring also led veteran heavy metal acts Anthrax and Stryker to cancel dates.
How about merchandising? Even before financial drain became routine on the road, many touring musicians had to rely on selling merch to break even. But many, now touring for the first time, are met with the unpleasant surprise that venues charge a tax (which can go up to 25%) on any merch sold, slashing their hopes to turn a profit.
The exasperation on Arooj Aftab’s thread is palpable and understandable. It is especially exhausting, she underlines, for artists to have to be the ones breaking the story.
“Not you guys asking the artist to do even more work now wanting us to explain in detail how broken the system is.”
In her conclusion, she invites those who write about music to take their piece to venues, promoters, business managers, labels, and artist management first - instead of tugging at the already chagrined touring musicians for a headline. Indeed, Aftab’s words cause us to ask ourselves whether the responsibility of doubling as reporters should really be on the artists. Recently, that is the case - it is the detailed outlining of the unsustainable cost of touring by the likes of Animal Collective, Little Simz, Santigold, and others keeping the story alive. But should outlets be, instead of recycling their statements, finding a way to will the far more powerful, but often invisible, leading industry voices to do more to help?
These days, the unfortunate course for many musicians - no matter the size - appears to be to tour until they are broke, and then become too broke to tour. But, on the consumer end, things are not looking good either. Under the current cost of living crisis felt the world over, can anyone even afford to see them play live anymore?
Live music is escapism - people need that escapism
Music fans had long fantasized about the return of live music, one of the most anticipated features of post-pandemic life (whatever that has come to mean). However, in a crisis-ridden world, many are finding, after two years thirsted for live music, they can’t afford to go back. As the price for everything from butter to heating continues surging, the prospect of shelling out money for tickets is not only not enticing anymore, but, for many, simply unrealistic. And it is not only our collective recession-skewed perspective - tickets have become more expensive along the way.
But why? In the UK comes the predictable, one-letter response: Brexit. Perhaps it is only now that live music is (apparently) back in full swing post-pandemic that the industry is fully grasping the tremendous effect of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union on the touring sector. According to LIVE - the voice of the UK's live music and entertainment business -, this is mostly due to the “introduction of visas” and “punitive regulations on the trucks and vehicles that make touring possible”. They have called on the UK government to offer the industry more support, suggesting that VAT should be discounted or lifted on concert tickets. This would, LIVE hopes, offset any rising price increases, and maybe help cushion Brexit’s blow.
As for the rest of us, Brexit aside, we have to grapple with covering for an industry crippled by rising costs, like the ones outlined by Animal Collective, Little Simz, Arooj Aftab, Santigold, and others. Prices are also worsened by the rise of surge or dynamic pricing. Via this method, prices temporarily increase as a reaction to increased demand and mostly limited supply. This additional revenue has proven a safeguard for venues, now weary of fickle, COVID-struck concert-goers and needing to cancel last minute. According to TicketIQ founder Jesse Lawrence, promoters (whose cut has gone down as tour-relying artists now take a bigger piece of the revenue pie) are the main force behind the evolution in concert ticket pricing.
“Promoters have more tools at their disposal to maximize revenue (...) and now they have a much more precise way to understand what demand looks like and adjust prices on the fly,
he explained to Billboard.
And where does this leave concert-goers? Many of them, in the dust. With little to no government help when it comes to shielding concert-goers from skyrocketing ticket prices, even if touring musicians can play, fewer people can afford to go see them in the current economic landscape. For Archie Blagden, half of the London duo Sad Night Dynamite, the cultural void growing between the haves and the have-nots is unacceptable.
“We want our shows to be as mad and theatrical as possible. But we also want as many people as possible, from all types of backgrounds, to come and see us”,
he told The Face over the summer. For him, the balm live music can be for people in these trying times is crucial. ‘Music is escapism’, he said. “It’s so important, because people need that escapism’”.
Conditions are set for a touring ecosystem in which, soon enough, no one can take part anymore. For audiences, as concert-starved as they may be, the rising cost of concert tickets may not fit in with their new cost of living crisis-struck lives. For musicians, particularly the ones starting out, the news that not even a group as established as Animal Collective, an act as renowned as Santigold, or a new star rising as high as Little Simz can make touring worthwhile is concerning. Not having reached the level of notoriety these names have, starting musicians may wonder how they can make touring work for themselves - when touring is all they have left.
If the pandemic has taught us one thing among many it is that culture matters, and live music is fundamental - not only for career musicians but for everyone else, too. As the world plunges further into economic depression and people’s lives grow bleaker, we all desperately crave the escapism Blagden cited; and musicians need it, too, even if only to be able to make a living from their art. So, how many more abrupt cancellations or opt-outs will it take for the industry to change? Once again, all these stories end where they began; the touring sector’s dire need for an overhaul.
🏳️🌈 UK music industry to implement anti-racism code of conduct from 2023 (Safi Bugel)
“Supported by the Independent Standards Authority, the code will stand for all those working in music in the UK, from freelance technical staff to artists working for large companies. Labels and organisations will commit to creating a safe working environment for all, to strive for inclusion over diversity and to undertake mandatory training, data collection and accountability processes.”
🟢 Ahead of COP27 IMPALA launches #WeMeasureTogether, and seeks support for sector transition & role of culture in climate action (IMPALA)
“IMPALA is now calling on all interested members to join the #WeMeasureTogether campaign and use the calculator to produce carbon reports. This will allow IMPALA to create an overview of the sector and develop a carbon baseline. From this understanding it will be possible to develop more targeted pathways for action that will benefit the whole independent music sector. IMPALA members can join the campaign by publishing the visual below and their carbon report, with the #WeMeasureTogether hashtag.”
🚗 Did AM Radio Just Get Hit By “Lightning?” (Fred Jacobs)
“Even core radio fans are no longer sold on AM radio. In this year’s Techsurvey, we ask new car buyers (9% of the total sample) about the most important features they want in their next vehicle. The headline tells an important story. For the first time, Bluetooth is a stronger must-have feature, edging out FM radio. That’s disturbing, of course. But look down the list, and you come to AM radio. And only one-third of these new car customers list it as a “most important” feature.”
Can you say you are truly from somewhere before you you know its scene? I may have been calling the Netherlands my home since 2019, but only recently have I discovered a Dutch band that has made it feel that way. Amsterdam rockers Personal Trainer can rub elbows with the best of them - and I can proudly recommend their delightful sound to all the music-loving friends I left back home. Actually, I live in Rotterdam, but… They don’t need to know that.