Illustration: Franco Égalité
Tours are being announced again and the music industry is generally being cautiously optimistic.
Yet, depending on the act’s level and whether music is their full-time job, the return to touring is staggered. At this moment, over 63% of adults in the U.S. have received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 12 states have passed the 70% mark. Those numbers will be even better by the time you read this. But with variants on the rise and other regions of the world still experiencing outbreaks, safety is still on the minds of the industry.
Some career musicians are jumping right into it with tours as early as September of this year. Others are waiting until spring 2022 to hit the road. Some aren’t thinking about it at all, while others have embarked on short regional runs. Many musicians are rethinking what tour looks like and if things really need to be done the way they always were. Groups like The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers have posed this question and are advocating for better artist pay and support across the industry from streaming to touring and beyond.
We spoke with Joe Smyth of Nine Mile Touring and Michelle Cable of Panache Booking to learn about how their artists have responded to the return of touring and the change they hope to see in the future.
Expect longer lead times for planning a tour
At Panache, Michelle Cable books for career musicians who make their living creating and performing music. She also manages Mac Demarco, Ty Segall, and Rodrigo Amarante, among others—all of who have successful careers and a significant following. She says, “I’m used to booking and scheduling tours a year or more out and getting our artists to think that far ahead. Now it’s necessary to do that because even if they’re touring in 2021, everyone is thinking about 2022 and even 2023.”
She continues, “So you’re looking at things that are 18 months out with venues holding the same date for 10 or 15 acts. Most of those shows will clear out. I think people are holding everything because we don’t really know what’s happening; everyone is guessing.”
Joe Smyth of Mile Nine Touring represents mostly small and emerging acts who have other day jobs. He’s had a different experience than Michelle. If he tried to book a cross-country tour for his artists today, the venue talent buyers would tell him that they can’t have that conversation right now with so much uncertainty. Yet, if a bigger act wanted to play a bigger venue or a major festival, the powers at be will make that happen ASAP. He says, “Big names can book a year out right now, but everything else is still in a bit of a limbo.”
Joe shares that for the level of artists he books, you used to be able to get away with planning a tour four to six months in advance, but now it’s a good nine to twelve months. Although promoters won’t confirm dates for his bands for next spring, he says, “I at least need to start having conversations with promoters to get them on their radar and to know what it’s going to take to get them to confirm this show.”
Challenges in long-term planning for creativity
Michelle points out that planning 18 months in advance is difficult for any artist, especially for developing or emerging ones. She says, “If you’re not sure what your album is going to sound like, or if you really even have an album, it’s hard to plan 18 months to two years out. Maybe that will change and things will relax a little and people won’t be planning two years ahead for booking.”
You also don’t know if the venues you have relationships with will be open in two years. Some have closed and many have been able to sustain themselves; they’ve all taken a huge hit and uncertainty remains. If a venue does close, it requires a bit of scrambling to find an alternative. It’s best to at least have a backup in mind, or maybe even a hold elsewhere.
Low-risk regional tours
Some artists have announced national tours for the fall of this year (I’ve purchased tickets to two touring shows in September). It looks like they’ll happen, but we really won’t know until we get closer. Other artists are holding out until 2022.
Every city, state, and venue has its own approach to safety measures. If you were to set out on tour right now, you’d have to figure out how restricted capacity is at each venue, and if you’d even break financially. There’s no telling if you’d have to cancel halfway through, though that’s looking less likely. Due to all of this, Joe has suggested that his artists start with small weekend regional tours. It’s a low-risk way to get themselves out there.
Michelle adds, “Most artists—especially developing artists—rely on their ticket sales to financially sustain themselves. If they expect $5,000 from a 500 cap room at a $10 ticket and have to reduce that to $2,500 for 250 tickets, that has to be spread around between the venue to cover fees and the band’s fee. Plus, a lot of the venues on the route might not actually be open. You could raise the ticket price for a more intimate show, but for certain artists who are at a certain point in their career, you can’t have the ticket price be too high.”
She continues, “We decided to postpone most of our tours until early 2022. Most of the artists I work with tour one to three times a year so we already had a lot of those 2022 dates booked. Postponing until then and focusing on more regional shows for 2021 felt safer for the bands and their fans. We’re following what each individual artist feels comfortable with instead of pressuring them. It’s exhausting rebooking tours four or five times over, and it would be terrible to have to reschedule a tour last minute again this year. There’s a lot of gambling involved right now with booking tours and putting artists on the road.”
Venues are in recovery mode too
Artists aren’t the only ones who’ve felt the strain during the pandemic. Venues and promoters were also hit hard. As a result, they’re not in a position to offer better deals to artists. They simply can’t afford to right now, even if they wanted to.
Joe says, “Venues are the ones counting down the days until they can open and start bringing more money in. If they put up a big guarantee and the show underperforms or they have to limit capacity, it’s a big loss. And that loss matters a lot more right now than it did pre-pandemic. Some venues used to be able to weather some of those underperforming shows; they balanced out with the ones that did well. But right now, venues are being as risk-averse as possible.”
As a result, a lot of smaller capacity venues, clubs, and promoters continue to offer door deals rather than guarantees. When some of these venues know a show will perform well, they’ll offer more generous door deals. That way all parties are taking a little risk together.
Venues should diversify for more sustained income
Joe suggests that in order to sustain and survive in the future, venues should “diversify what you’re doing to cast a wider net of people.” He continues, “If you’re just doing rock shows, you’re going to have trouble keeping that crowd coming back all the time and paying more than they were before. There are definitely artistic communities and markets that are severely underserved and underexposed. I want to see venues and promoters dedicating effort to building that community. They’ll be a stronger business for it.”
He adds, “I’ve been booking podcasts and stand-up comedians in rock clubs for years, and it makes total sense. I’d also ask, how do you get creative with the space itself? There’s no reason to put so much pressure on 9:00 PM to 1:00 AM for that space to make money. You could and should utilize the space in other ways. Things like a pop-up record shop or art gallery. Here’s this space where you can build a community, and it’s not just a rock club.”
How the industry and fans value live music needs to change
There’s a general consensus that artists would rather be paid more for a gig than receive drink tickets. Too often, developing artists aren’t paid at all. In an ideal future, an artist is provided a warm meal or even accommodations. This is expensive but could be a matter of a mindset shift. Maybe tickets need to cost a little more to trickle down into these expenses.
Joe says this responsibility is also on the artists and the fans. “Everyone needs to do a little bit better. There are a lot of things venues and promoters can do to offer better working conditions and pay to artists. Meanwhile, artists need to promote their shows. There’s a lot of noise out there; it’s a true team effort to get the word out. Finally, fans need to be willing to spend a little more money on tickets. In the same way that Bandcamp Friday has prompted people to say, ‘Oh yeah, I should pay people for their music that they spend time and energy creating,’ I think we need to have a similar reckoning for performances.”
He adds, “It’s especially problematic in Austin. People will pay $5 to attend a showcase where four acts are splitting not much money, but they won’t pay $16 to see a touring artist they like. It’s this mindset of, ‘I can see music for free, why would I pay for it?’ And that needs to change.”
The current investor-backed business structure of most venues and promotion companies prioritizes those stakeholders: the investors. What if more businesses in the music industry took a cooperative business model approach where the workers, artists, and members have a stake? That way, decisions are made and priorities are set to benefit those who are actually engaging with the business. When there’s money to be had, it either goes back into the business or is distributed among everyone.
Joe is leading the charge of starting a promotions co-op called Nicely Done that I’m a founding member of. We’re in the early stages of planning and getting the business running, but our vision is clear: create safe, fun, and inclusive experiences that highlight a diverse range of artists and performers with a strong focus on marginalized communities. Co-ops are certainly having a moment right now. I think it’ll take some time for the industry as a whole to see their value as a sustainable solution, but I believe it can happen. I like to think of co-ops as the grown-up version of DIY culture.
Looking into the future of live shows and touring
Throughout the pandemic, many artists have turned to writing and recording. Many others found themselves unable to work or be creative. Others have left the industry altogether to pursue another career or go back to school. Some have found new revenue streams within their musical brands, connecting directly with their fans online in different ways.
Expanding into creative projects and new revenue streams
Michelle shares, “A lot of the artists I work with have been able to utilize this in a positive way and kind of hit reset to rethink and rework how they do things. We’ve restructured the whole way King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard do business. They started their own record label and a global merch store that they run. It’s refreshing to work with artists on different ideas. Everyone I work with has been able to sustain themselves by working on other projects, selling merchandise, doing livestreams, accessing grants, etc. We’ve had to get a little creative, but it’s been fun to brainstorm and think outside the box.”
Focusing on writing and other areas of life
Michelle continues, “Most of the artists I work with have used this time to be creative, get into the studio, finish projects that have been in the works or on the back burner, or maybe elaborate on their record and recording ideas. I think certain artists have enjoyed being off the road—like Mac DeMarco, who has toured non-stop for almost the last decade. It’s the first time he’s been able to be home for a long period of time and enjoy being in LA with his partner. I hope that in the future, there doesn’t have to be this hamster wheel of touring and doing press—all the nonstop activity.”
Rethinking how a record is promoted and festivals are booked
Michelle says she hopes that people can take a step back and see how much can be done remotely. There doesn’t have to be so much travel. There can be more flexibility in how a record is promoted. She adds, “It’s pretty non-stop for most artists once they get out there. Go on this tour, do this festival circuit, travel for this press run, and then do it all over again. There’s not a lot of room to breathe. The artists are all eager to get out there and perform in front of their fans and have that sort of engagement and connection. I think we’ve all been missing that human interaction—even the most basic interactions with small talk. But now they can do that in this new creative headspace.”
With vinyl manufacturers backed up for months, people in the industry are also hoping to see a change in how festivals book artists. Will they consider artists even if they haven’t released an album this year? Does everything have to revolve around a new release, or can we revisit and enjoy older works? How can we support artists without them having to constantly be releasing creative output?
Less travel, more residencies
Both Joe and Michelle shared that they’ve heard artists say they want to play more residencies, meaning they’d travel to fewer cities and play more shows in each. That way, they aren’t as stressed getting to each place and can enjoy getting to know a city. Of course, this only works for artists with a following, as venues will want to know an act will sell out each night. However, if the act has different openers every night, they can help elevate the careers of local and developing artists.
The role of livestreams
According to thezone.fm, Bandsintown surveyed just under 7,700 users and found that 86% have watched at least one music livestream during the past 12 months and 55% will continue to tune in for livestreams even after in-person concerts return. The survey also revealed that 22,000 artists have promoted more than 79,000 livestreams via Bandsintown. 85% of those artists indicated that they’ll continue to make livestreams a permanent part of their performing plans after in-person shows return.
This Time article indicates that major artists like Sofi Tukker, Timbaland and Swizz Beatz, Dua Lipa, and BTS will continue to incorporate livestream performances into their routine. The article notes, “For major sponsored livestream programs, the reach is well beyond a normal event: about 17 million people tuned in to Bud Light Seltzer’s New Year’s Eve show, featuring artists like Post Malone, Steve Aoki, and Saweetie. And every one of those online viewers is a potential future ticket buyer, easily retargeted when live shows return.”
Livestream concerts are significant revenue generators for artists too. Dot.LA reports, “Twitch said the number of musicians expected to earn more than $25,000 per year on its platform grew 1,635% from January 2020 to February 2021. And these artists are monetizing a fairly small fanbase: as of late October, the median followership for musicians making over $50,000 on the platform was just 183.”
Michelle said some of their artists plan to do livestreams for album release shows that can be streamed globally while things are still slowly coming back to normal. She’s not sure if that will continue into 2022 or not.
My personal (unfounded) prediction is that some bigger acts will focus on performing in the cities they make the most money in and utilize sponsored livestreams to reach their fans across the globe. Or perhaps they’ll alternate cities with each touring cycle rather than hitting them all in one go. On the other hand, I think smaller acts will use livestreaming as a marketing supplement for extensive tours. That’s just a theory, though. We’ll see how things unfold.
Will we see a true change in how artists are treated?
It’s competitive out there. No one has toured for 16 months, and now everyone’s trying to tour at the same time. Hopefully, as we navigate our way into a new normal, venues and promoters can find ways to make artists safer and more comfortable. And hopefully, artists find the space and creative solutions to take care of themselves and each other.
Will you be hitting the road this year? Leave your plans in the comments below.
June 25, 2021