Musicians reconsider value of touring as competition soars and prices rise

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Audiences flock to shows and more musicians are on the road than venues can schedule. At first glance, it might seem like the live music scene is booming for everyone.

“It’s not,” says music director Sheri Jones. “It’s much more difficult to sell tickets.”

With nearly three years of postponed shows backed up and many musicians promoting pandemic-era albums, Jones says the market is flooded with “a ton of options” for the ticket buyer.

But industry players say the world’s biggest touring names are cannibalizing ticket sales for everyone, especially artists without the promotional weight of a major label and sponsorship deals.

Jones recalls a recent hometown show for Halifax folksinger Willie Stratton tipping over that uncertainty as he was booked around the same time powerful legacy acts came to town.

“I was freaking out about ticket sales because James Taylor was here one night, and three nights later it was ZZ Top,” she says.

“Two days later, Willie Stratton was playing. Who are you going to spend your money on? You’re going to see the artists you may never see again.

Stratton ended up attracting a satisfying crowd, she says, but similar worries plague managers across the country.

Soaring inflation has put pressure on finances, as there is an imminent threat that COVID-19 illness among the crew could lead to show cancellations. With no album sales to fall back on, some say the financial stakes of mounting a tour are high.

It has left managers throwing away the pre-pandemic playbook while some musicians wonder if touring is even worth the mental and physical cost.

“It’s kind of a Wild West,” said Sarah Fenton of Watchdog Management, which represents Mother Mother and Peach Pit.

“I wouldn’t even hazard a guess when things will get back ‘to normal’. I don’t know if they will.

Liam Killeen, who manages Tea Party and Classified at Coalition Music, said he got off on an adrenaline rush delivered over the summer. Audiences returned to the shows, many of them outdoors, giving the impression that the concert industry was quickly getting back on its feet.

“We got the incredible Roaring 20s feel we were all promised,” he says. “And now the reality of where we are (really) has crept in.”

Added to the precariousness is the rising cost of basic necessities, leaving less money for entertainment, he said.

“Every fan has a limited amount of money and when they go out to shop it’s $20 or $30 more,” he says.

“Does it take two or three gigs that they would normally go to out of the equation?”

He says some touring groups that were reliable draws a few years ago are now struggling to sell tickets. Management and record labels are debating whether this is a temporary COVID hiccup or a permanent change in who comes to shows.

“It’s going to take the next six to eight months to see how healthy we really are as a year-round touring business,” he added.

“We’re going to see a lot of artists who don’t need to come out, maybe take a back seat for a minute and watch things unfold.”

Some musicians have already concluded that this was the smartest business decision.

International artists Santigold, Animal Collective and Little Simz are among artists who have canceled tours, saying the business model – which often leaves the artist to bear the financial risk – is fundamentally broken.

Edmonton-raised Cadence Weapon predicted on Twitter that “small to mid-sized ‘get in the van’ music tours will become a thing of the past” because the margins are too thin, while the singer-songwriter Montrealer Tess Roby said she couldn’t see herself on tour for the foreseeable future.

Alternative rock band And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead took a different route when they launched a US$12,000 crowdfunding campaign in September because they were “struggling with current touring costs”. . They exceeded the goal of $3,000.

Loreena McKennitt factored in the uncertainties of the pandemic and the financial risk when she planned a small Ontario tour in December to promote her holiday album. The band and crew will return home around Stratford, Ontario. almost every night, a move that will save you on soaring hotel costs.

Ryan Gullen, bassist for the Sheepdogs, says the Saskatoon-based rock band considered his mental health when setting dates for his latest tour. The band will play shorter legs with nearly two-week breaks between each set.

He says that after the pandemic forced them to stop touring, the Sheepdogs found they weren’t ready to spend “months at a time” traveling by bus.

“We wanted to relax, keep everyone’s spirits up and make everyone feel good,” he said.

“You have to be smarter about how you do things at this point.”

Some musicians have found that with the unpredictability of modern road life comes a whirlwind of emotions.

East Coast folk singer-songwriter David Myles learned of it in early October as he prepared for a series of dates in several provinces that he assumed would be his last. He feared that tighter profit margins would make the prospect of mounting another tour impossible.

But a month later, he says his attitude towards touring has changed. The sales at his merchandise table helped erase the “pessimism” he felt a few weeks earlier.

“I thought it was going to be super hard, but it was great,” he wrote via text message while on the road.

“It’s been a positive and reassuring experience in many ways, oddly.”

—David Friend, The Canadian Press

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