Musicians reconsider value of touring as competition soars, prices surge

Concert-goers are rushing back to the show, more musicians are on the way, and venues can’t make arrangements. At first glance, live music seems to be booming for everyone.

“That’s not the case,” said music manager Sheri Jones. “It’s much harder to sell tickets.”

With nearly three years of delayed performances bolstered by many musicians promoting their pandemic-era albums, the market is flooded with “a plethora of options” for ticket buyers, Jones said.

But industry insiders say the world’s biggest touring artists are cannibalizing ticket sales for everyone else, especially artists without the hype of big labels and sponsorship deals.

Jones recalled a recent hometown gig for Halifax folk singer Willie Stratton, which teetered on the uncertainty as it was booked around the same time the strong traditional show was coming into town.

“I was furious with the ticket sales because James Taylor stayed here one night and three nights later it was ZZ Top,” she said.

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

Stratton ended up attracting a satisfying crowd, but similar anxiety was rampant among managers across the country, she said.

Soaring inflation has weighed on finances, and the looming threat of a COVID-19 illness among the crew that could result in show cancellations. Without album sales to fall back on, some say touring is financially risky.

That has managers ditching pre-pandemic playbooks, while some musicians wonder if the tour is worth the mental and physical cost.

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

“I can’t even guess when things will be ‘back to normal’. I don’t know if they will.”

Liam Killeen, who manages Tea Party and Classified at Coalition Music, said he was recovering from the adrenaline injections he had given in the summer. The crowds, many of them performing outdoors, made the concert industry appear to be recovering quickly.

“We had an unbelievable ’20s roaring feeling that we were all promised,” he said. “Now the reality we’re (really) in has crept in.”

Adding to the instability, he said, was the rising cost of necessities, which left less money for entertainment.

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

“Does that require that they usually go to two or three concerts?”

Some tours that were reliably drawn a few years ago are now having a hard time selling tickets, he said. Both management and the record company wondered if this was a temporary COVID hiccup or a permanent shift in the people who came to the show.

“The next six to eight months will see how healthy we really are as a year-round touring company,” he added.

“We’re going to see a lot of artists who don’t have to go out and who might step back for a minute and see how things go.”

Some musicians have come to the conclusion that this is the most reasonable business decision.

International performers Santigold, Animal Collective and Little Simz were among the canceled tours, saying the business model that typically puts artists at financial risk is fundamentally broken.

Edmonton-raised Cadence Weapon predicts on Twitter that “small and medium ‘hitchhiking’ music tours will be a thing of the past” as profits are so thin, while Montreal singer-songwriter Tess Roby says she doesn’t see herself in the foreseeable future future tour.

Alternative rock group And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead took a different route when they launched a $12,000 crowdfunding campaign in September as they “struggle with current tour expenses.” They beat the target by $3,000.

Loreena McKennitt took into account the uncertainty and financial risks of the pandemic when she planned a small Ontario tour in December to promote her holiday album. The band and crew will return to their home near Stratford, Ontario. Almost every night, the move will save soaring hotel costs.

The Sheepdogs bassist Ryan Gullen said the Saskatoon-founded rock group had their mental health in mind when setting their latest tour date. The band will play the shorter legs, with nearly two weeks of rest between each run.

After the pandemic forced them to stop touring, the Collies found they weren’t ready to travel by bus “for months on end,” he said.

“We want to relax, to lift everyone’s spirits, to make everyone feel good,” he said.

“At this point, you have to be smarter about how you do things.”

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

East Coast folk singer-songwriter David Myles learned of this in early October as he prepared for what he thought would be his last date in multiple provinces. He worries that tighter profit margins will make the prospect of another tour impossible.

But a month later, he said his attitude towards the tour had changed. The sale on his merchandise desk helped remove the “doom and blues” he felt a few weeks ago.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult, but it feels great,” he wrote via text message on the way.

“Oddly enough, it was a positive experience and reassuring in many ways.”

—David Friend, Canadian Media

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