Last week Animal Collective cancelled a European tour that was due in. “Preparing for this tour we were looking at an economic reality that simply does not work and is not sustainable,” the band explained in a statement. “From inflation, to currency devaluation, to bloated shipping and transportation costs, and much much more, we simply could not make a budget for this tour that did not lose money even if everything went as well as it could.” They are the latest in a long line of successful artists who have been faced to cancel their tours recently as the touring industry is in a deep state of crisis.
As artists rushed back on the road post lockdown, they found a confluence of factors that have pushed the touring industry to breaking point.
Cost of touring
The uncertainties brought by still stubborn levels of COVID, particularly in the U.S., which mean shows can be cancelled at a moment’s notice plus the nightmarish snarl of Brexit, currency devaluation, insurance rises, tax, inflation and a cost of living crisis impacting a touring circuit barely recovering from two years of pandemic shut down, have all combined to make it financially prohibitive for many acts to fully tour the UK, the US and Europe right now.
Rising inflation in the UK is a particularly crushing blow to a live circuit that’s already struggling to recover from currency devaluation coupled with spiralling energy bills and venue hire, raising costs even further, especially for touring artists like Animal Collective. Field Music posted on twitter “Imagine working out a tour budget knowing you’ll get £X in fees, only to then find that £X is now worth 30-40% less once you turn it back into $. The margins on live music don’t allow for that. Brexit and Covid put the whole sector on a tightrope and incompetence keeps pinging it.”
That one of the most respected experimental bands of our era can’t tour here speaks to a deeper crisis at the heart of not only live music, but a broken record industry that works for only a small percentage of artists and major record labels, while an entire eco-system below scrambles for the scraps off the table, bands struggle to make it work. It’s unsustainable and it must change if we want to protect the existence of our music sector in this country!
Producer Nick Zanca tweeted that he was “completely baffled that we have reached the point where one of the most successful experimental music acts of our generation have to cancel a tour because they can’t afford it. If they can’t make it work, it’s hard to imagine who can. Is it so much to ask for people to buy music? I often wonder why we are not putting more energy and emphasis on promoting equity in the context of recorded music instead of rolling the rock up the live music hill amidst inflation and continuous plague like an industry Sisyphus.”
The last show I ever promoted on my own in Cardiff was for the Texas buzz band Love Inks , with six members of the band staying in my flat for the night. They explained they had lost £2000 just from touring the UK. Unless you are Harry Styles, Ed Sheeran or Adele, it’s fair to say that this is a common story.
But artists at all levels face issues of different types. U.S. artist L’Rain tweeted “popular bands have BIG expenses, smaller bands are given bad rates to open ($250 is the starting rate and it has not increased in forever). But, booking agents aren’t making much and indie venues aren’t either—they’re counting on precarious bar $.
“New music”/ “jazz” has slightly more infrastructure for grants/residencies. Musicians in other genres mostly tour and record. I was sceptical about how important touring is to a musician trying to find an audience but I was wrong. It’s essential work but has become a privilege.”
“To make $ on tour musicians sometimes rely on merch. Sustainability aside, it’s precarious and ridiculous. Musicians really get $ from corporations and by finding proximity to other industries w/ more accessible allocations of money: fashion, booze, the art world, tech, etc.”
Damian Morgan manager of rising band The Orielles agrees and the cost on records and merchandise have eaten into one of the few ways acts could make a return on touring, at the merch table. “The issues with touring the UK go back to the the cost of living, the cost of fuel and go right back to the customer and who is buying the tickets, they are being more careful of what they are spending their money on”.
“The venues are under pressure to sell shows and the cost of drinks, it feeds into everything and onto everyone.” He explains “As a touring band you’ve got fuel costs, you’ve got van hire and the costs of crew. I know next year the crew will want to put their prices up to cover the cost of living. So you are in a position where making money is tight.”
“Buying Merch at cost has gone up, we usually buy a stock of albums to sell on tour and the cost of those albums has gone up because of the cost of raw materials and COVID over the last few years, everyone knows there’s been problems with delivery of vinyl. We sell a lot of vinyl on tour and the cost of the vinyl and what we can sell it for on a merch table haven’t kept pace because there’s an expected cost of an album that hasn’t budged for a while. So if you are selling an album for twenty six quid you might be only making seven quid on it when you might have been making ten or twelve quid previously, so that’s changed. So with all these bits everything is so much tighter, so what could have been an earner for the band that could make them just break even, to not really making the tour worthwhile. I remember there was a quote I forget from who, that said “you used to do a tour to sell records now you make a record to sell a tour” and I think there’s a truth in that that’s where the money is.”
4AD recording Sohn was the latest artist to cancel his tour this week in a post on Instagram he offered “after a couple of years of no live music so many acts are touring at the same time, I think in the boom years tickets became disrespectfully expensive, I think Covid got us used to staying at home, a lot of my audience probably became new parents (including me) and there is financial instability everywhere. When tickets don’t sell everybody down the chain loses money- Artists, Promoters, Live Music Venues and staff. Tours at this level are under huge pressure to break even, only becoming profitable when the majority of venues are close to sold out, which is not the case with these UK dates. It becomes a huge risk for the promoters who booked the shows, and it’s a risk I’m sadly unable to take.”
A few weeks ago Santigold announced that she had cancelled her tour of the U.S. and Canada, “I can’t make it work,” she offered starkly in a message on social media.
She explained the new reality for artists post lockdown: “Every musician that could, rushed back out immediately when it was deemed safe to do shows. We were met with the height of inflation—gas, tour buses, hotels, and flight costs skyrocketed—many of our tried-and-true venues unavailable due to a flooded market of artists trying to book shows in the same cities, and positive test results constantly halting schedules with devastating financial consequences,” she wrote.
“All of that on top of the already-tapped mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional resources of just having made it through the past few years. Some of us are finding ourselves simply unable to make it work.”
She was met with a mixed response, some ridiculously claiming she should carry on anyway, others understanding her post, speaks to the unworkable situation for many artists and the mental and physical toll of the treadmill demands of constant recording schedule, social media promotion, and touring can take. A long list of acts including Yard Act, Arlo Parks, Wet Leg to Disclosure, Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Gang of Youths have all cancelled tours recently due to the toll touring was taking on their mental health. We need to look at the care for artists who are pushed to ever more extremes, of touring, promotion and release schedules in order to keep it going, we need to look at the welfare of artists and how the touring industry supports and safeguards its talent. Burnout is a very real issue. Without artists we have no industry and we need to look at how this can work for everyone.
As Larry Fitzmaurice wrote last week in Vulture: “Tensions across the general fabric of society have been running high for a few years now, and the pandemic only further laid bare the common truth that many people are struggling when it comes to mental health. Amidst the misery of the pandemic’s peak, there were hopes that the effective shutdown of the touring industry would allow for the music business itself to work out the myriad issues that musicians face while trying to make a living on the road. That obviously didn’t happen, and as artists continue to struggle in all echelons of the touring ecosystem, there’s a generation questioning as to whether all of this — being on the road for months, the physical and mental toll it takes, the increasingly all-encompassing expectations of fame in general — is even worth it.”
Undoubtedly there is an element of greed from some promoters of large bands or certain corporate sponsored events, see the obscene ticket prices for the newly reformed Blink 182‘s stadium dates. Recently Paul Heaton spoke of “greed” in the industry as he capped his ticket prices at £30, but such sweeping claims disregard the cost of touring in many instances, and the fact that streaming has devalued music, coupled with the decline of physical formats, means that musicians are forced to tour longer and harder to make anything or make it work. Often relying on ticket sales and merch sales to carry on, in some cases ridiculous cuts demanded from some bigger venues on merch has made that even harder. But the costs of organising shows, crew costs, venue hire and inflation all add to how ticket prices are increasing for practical reasons beyond greed.
Manchester artist LoneLady responded on twitter: “Paul Heaton made real money in an era when you could actually make money out of music. The costs that go into touring are an endless money pit; it’s almost impossible as a low-to-middling profile artist – working class artist that is – to make money out of music. “
“Ticket prices have absolutely not risen in line with inflation/the cost of living. For an artist of considerable stature, whose albums you love, whose very existence enriches your own, you SHOULD pay a decent amount to see them. Not only because the costs of touring are many, but because such artists are worth your hard-earned money. Just like, say, a football season ticket, car, family holiday etc. I don’t begrudge Heaton any of his success whatsoever, but to describe supposedly ‘high’ ticket prices as ‘greed’ is I feel, unhelpful to the general conversation/perception around music and value“.
“Ticket touts and inflated/insane prices is obviously despicable, but any ticket pricing in the region of say, £50-£150 for an artist of stature is absolutely fair enough. I paid £70 to see Prince in 2016.
“If it had been twice that I’d’ve considered it cheap. For my own humble upcoming tour, tickets cost £12. Twelve pounds isn’t enough to cover my costs and earn any money: plain and simple as that. I’m killing myself to make it work.”
“You should pay for artists you value, and it should be in line with inflation/costs of living. But some weird blindness persists; its rock n roll, right? No. Its hard work and everything costs money. The real greed lies with rent charged for arts spaces, which should be in public ownership. Landlords are the problem.”
With the gentrification of city centres such as Cardiff, Manchester and London we see cultural spaces and grassroots venues squeezed out due to noise legislation and high rents, in favour of high rise blocks of flats and corporate chains; can we invest in the future of cultural spaces? How do we foster the next generation of artists? Or will they only come from one section of society who have the privilege of parents wealth? Does that narrowing of the voices in our culture make it blander? Less diverse? More narrow?
One report last year claimed a third of people working in the music industry have left since the pandemic and the current situation with touring and streaming rates is only increasing that number. Egyptian sound engineer Heba Kadry posted on Instagram “Touring for middle class artists is simply no longer sustainable. All artists I absolutely love are slowly getting off the stage. How depressing.”
“I’m sorry I don’t want to witness an industry that is only financially feasible to a tiny segment of artists (top 40 and mega DJs) fuck that to hell and back. Forget diversity, getting visas is the most ridiculous nonsense artists have to go through especially if they’re from Africa or the Middle East for example. What kind of industry is this turning into?”
Mark Davyd of the Music Venue Trust sees tax as a huge issue for spiralling ticket prices, venue hire costs and the inability of grass roots venues to pay artists “The basic tax regime leaves insufficient money available to venues and promoters to pay the acts.”
He told me “VAT is at 20% on tickets – highest level of any major music economy, equal second highest in Europe, behind only Denmark and Lithuania. Rate in France – 5.5%, rate in Germany 7%, rate in Sweden 0%.”
He also points to Business rates as a reason for increasing ticket prices “Business Rates – highest premises rates in Europe. Combined, VAT and Business Rates alone take 24.6% of the face value of every ticket. That although they are facing challenges they still have a basic ‘gig economy that works because they aren’t being taxed to extinction. ”
Independent record label Damnably sees unpredictable ticket sales in the UK “with Brexit destroying businesses and Tories tanking the economy and no masking so people are sick all the time.”
Touring overseas is also currently unworkable for many UK acts too, with the cost of flights, the currency devaluation, tax, Covid and uncertainty in the U.S, it’s become very difficult and financially too impactful in many cases for artists to tour the States.
Back in April, Little Simz cancelled a U.S. tour stating that. “Being an independent artist, I pay for everything encompassing my live performances out of my own pocket and touring the U.S. for a month would leave me in a huge deficit,” she explained. “As much as this pains me to not see you at this time, I’m just not able to put myself through that mental stress.”
Metronomy also recently posted that the costs and health pressures meant they were reluctantly cancelling their upcoming U.S. tour. The band’s Joseph Mount explaining “touring America is one of the most exhausting and expensive things a band can do, it’s a very big country and you can easily spend months and muchos $’s just playing a handful of the major cities.“
Damnably explained the many barriers faced by UK artists touring America:
“Our experience of USA tours is the visa is a huge cost & takes months of work. International acts pay 30% tax then state tax on top up to 9% unless they have a tax withholding agreement that’s also a lot of work and costs a lot and there’s delays at both the visa and tax offices.”
“Tours that got postponed saw fees drop because people didn’t buy tickets either because there was a lockdown or they feared losing the ticket fee as many companies won’t reimburse that if a tour postpones. It is a Catch 22 situation.
This meant some shows had lower fees than the cost of van hire/staff/backline etc so we dropped some shows. Fans moan but if they don’t buy the fee drops.”
“The cost of van hire, hotels, flights, fuel, shipping stock, making merch went up but fees dropped and it’s very hard to manage plus the chances of getting infected are high meaning the 30k spent can turn to debt and I guess for the bigger bands with buses and more staff it’s too much risk that could be 100’s of thousands.”
It also feels like these bigger bands have seen a massive drop in ticket sales and major label acts.
“We currently have Otoboke Beaver on the road in North America on 14 out of 18 sold out dates but the tax is crazy and venues can take 20% of merch too. If they are lucky and don’t get sick they’ll make a profit but that’s a lot of 500-750 cap venues. It’s really hard to make it work in USA in smaller venues and Americans mostly don’t know their country is like that.”
European tours too are difficult, whether its carnets, shipping and visas post Brexit or costs to tour Europe. Damian Morgan explains his experience arranging a European tour with The Orielles. “At the moment we are considering our European plans for 2023, we have got a few dates at the moment we are trying to tie up more. As its not like hopping from Manchester to Sheffield to Leeds, the distances and difficulties are much greater. The fees can be all over the place depending on the profile of the band in each territory, its quite difficult to budget for with all the travel expenses on top. The band make money on gig fees but also on merch but as there are a limits to how much merch you can carry from country to country we try to keep merch to a minimum to minimize duty on VAT and stuff, that pays for extra bits on tour having those merch profits so that can get stripped away. So without the help of a label and good tour support, its pretty impossible at the moment unless you have that support. On top of that you also need a team that can help you with press and radio in those territories, that is crucial. I would say at the moment if you don’t have a point for doing (a European tour) and unless you have a good tour support and are getting paid, it’s a tough gig at the moment. “
While despite the Brexit issues Damnably says touring there is a contrast to the UK in some ways: “Europe seems better as they can pay decent fees and include accommodation and some countries are masking sensibly.”
The devaluation of music
The devaluation of recorded music fuelled by a decline in physical record sales and an increase in streaming with a broken model of payments has grown the inequalities. Some fans mistakenly believe artists to be greedy or to be millionaires when the reality is, there are very few lucky enough to make a living from music let alone millions because it’s so damn expensive to tour and recorded music no longer has the value and due to streaming inequalities, that’s only getting worse. Everything in music costs money especially for the DIY or working-class artist without a label or management, instruments, studio time, producers, rents, travel, shipping, PR campaigns, everything, yet the rewards at the end of it for most are scant. A few years ago, Nadine Shah talked movingly about not being able to pay her rent at a Broken Record parliamentary enquiry session. Shah is a Mercury-nominated artist. We want new legislation that returns value back to music and reforms streaming royalties to invest in artists at every level and in every region.
“We work tirelessly on recordings only to pray the dice fall where they may and make the Indie Dinner Chillout playlist so that we can have a remote chance at being properly compensated for our labour. This counters creativity and is just as unsustainable.” Zanca points out.
“Music is the best human abstraction available to human beings and we all know it deserves a better fate than being whittled down by Big Tech. don’t forget that six months into COVID, Daniel Ek stated that it’s no longer enough to take a few years break between releases. At this rate we either collectively evade touring or properly take streaming services to task and fight for long-overdue equity. this system is not working for anyone anymore. it’s time to make recorded music economically viable again.”
Despite great efforts on the part of the Broken record campaigners Kevin Brennan MP and Tom Gray who brought bills before parliament, we are still waiting for badly need streaming legislation to address some of the underlying issues. Tom Gray agrees the crisis in the touring circuit is inextricably linked to the Broken record arguments “because the industry has built its poor remuneration of recorded music on the fact that touring could allow musicians to subsist. That subsistence is gone and so now what? The problems facing touring are not limited to Brexit-associated costs. Fuel, insurance, lack of technical crew, the long terms cultural effects of Covid, before we even talk about the ethics of travel in the face of climate change. Online experiences need to get better and the financial outcomes need to be rebalanced. Too much risk is sitting with artists and it’s like many parts of the industry simply haven’t noticed.”
Damien Morgan agrees asking “Where do bands get their income? It can’t all be on touring anymore; we saw that with COVID that was all of their income gone. What about all the streaming? There’s been no impact on that even though there’s been multiple campaigns, the Broken Record being the most high-profile campaign why is that not changing? I wouldn’t put that pressure on venues and promoters they are under more pressure than anyone else and they’ve got physical spaces to fill I have a massive amount of sympathy for venue owners who are trying to keep the live industry going. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to change it, apart from a change of government with a more realistic economic policy that isn’t pursuing this austerity on steroids that the current Tory government are pursuing”.
“The only way we can change this is if albums are profitable again. Recorded music is devalued to such a staggering degree, it enrages me.” posted Hebda Kadry “This cannot be done without implementing proper streaming legislation that forces labels and tech bros to pay the artist. There’s a whole eco system here. no more middle-class artists making music. No more affordable studios, venues, live engineers, live techs etc there’s a domino effect”
Musicians Union of America say:“The only people benefitting from the current music industry are the tech billionaires and major labels. No money flowing to artists, even well-established, popular acts. Touring has become unsustainable for even the biggest artists. Artists are expected to suffer- it must change!”
Ultimately the crisis in live music mirrors the deep inequalities at the heart of our failing capitalist society, the cost of living crisis means people make decisions and when the choice is between heating and eating, entertainment is one of the first things to be cut off budgets, we have seen a decline in subscriptions for streaming services like Netflix, but also a decline in ticket sales apart from for big shows, these are issues that go to the heart of whether music plays a central role in most people’s lives anymore, and how celebrity and the internet sucks up attention. Our Conservative government’s ten years of austerity coupled with Brexit have also decimated the cultural sector.
With every advantage only given to the top one percent of artists, they are the only artists making anything out of this broken system with touring and the myopia of streaming platforms that reinforce the big-name artists, with everyone else struggling for attention and existence below. Tech giants continue to make profits but the artists who create the music are told to “work harder”.
Britain has always punched beyond its weight culturally, our music scene is always producing so much exciting talent every year. But the very future of the grassroots and independent music scene is at stake, like lower league football that feeds the elite levels, we need to invest in and treasure the grassroots of music that fosters the next generation of artists. If we don’t demand change, legislation that puts value on streaming, investment in venues and cultural spaces, recording studios, funding and mentorship of new artists. The artists we love might not exist in future, there will be nowhere for them to play, nowhere for them to record, the echo system of music will be extinct and our lives much poorer for it!
So if you can buy records, tickets and merchandise that’s one way we can support artists directly, buying music on bandcamp and subscribing via Patreon are two ways I support artists. Even If you can’t afford that, just liking and sharing your favourite artists posts and music on social media can help in some small way. I’ll leave it to Shirley Manson of Garbage to sum up the situation. “If the live scene fails, the whole ship goes down entirely. All you will be left with is the mainstream no alternative perspectives. Nothing loud. Nothing dangerous. Nothing weird. Little lasts beyond one album cycle. That strikes me as a great sorrow for our culture as a whole.”
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God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.
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