Musicians like me can no longer afford to tour. Live music won’t survive unless the industry changes

Musicians like me can no longer afford to tour. Live music won’t survive unless the industry changes

“Bands don’t get in the tour van because they think they’re going to get rich—but lately most of us aren’t breaking even”

Polaris-winning artist Rollie Pemberton, who performs as Cadence Weapon. Photograph by Mat Dunlap

In March 2020, I flew home from a music residency at the Banff Centre to find Toronto in a state of total uncertainty. With impending lockdowns, quarantines and restrictions on large gatherings, things looked bleak. As a touring musician, live performance had long been my main source of income. I bubbled with my girlfriend and patiently waited for some good news. As the months crawled by, I mostly lived off CERB, royalty payments and a small artist relief grant. Finally, vaccines and public health measures brought hope of reopening.

I returned to the stage as Cadence Weapon in July 2021. Despite limited capacities and masked, seated audiences, I was thrilled to be playing for fans again. Since then, the live music landscape in Canada has mostly inched back to where it was pre-pandemic, and nearly all health and safety restrictions have been phased out. This past summer, I played to huge crowds at several festivals across the country. Performing songs from the album that I wrote at home during lockdown in front of loud, raucous audiences was incredibly cathartic.

Yet, despite shows seemingly returning to “normal” for audiences, the reality for musicians behind the scenes is fraught. As an unprecedented number of bands clamour to get back in front of people after a long absence, some artists are saying that touring just isn’t worth it. Well-known musicians like Santigold, Regina Spektor, Animal Collective and Metronomy have all cancelled tours in recent months due to a combination of concerns for their mental, physical and financial well-being. I postponed a gig in New York earlier this month for similar reasons, and I know I’m not the only Canadian musician who has had to change plans recently.

I’ve done more than a dozen tours, and hitting the road has always been a financially risky endeavour. A three-week journey can cost anywhere between $60,000 and $100,000. The expenses behind the average tour—which can include a tour manager, travel, work visas, backing musicians, and lighting and sound technicians—are mostly paid out of pocket by artists. The travel is excruciating, and the margins are incredibly thin. Bands don’t get in the van because they think they’re going to get rich; most of us hope to simply break even and gain a few new fans along the way.

Pemberton performing as Cadence Weapon. Photograph by Steph Montani

Last fall, after I won the 2021 Polaris Prize for my album Parallel World, I went on a 12-date US tour. I was on the road for nearly a month with another act’s touring party, and I decided not to hire any other musicians or crew to cut costs. I sold my own merch every night, coordinated with the production team and promoter at every venue and did my own press. I paid for the rental van, food, gas, flights, hotels, my phone bill and a $261.65 PCR test to get back into Canada. I also shelled out for a social media marketing campaign and Facebook ads to promote the shows. My overall expenses for a relatively bare-bones tour were $21,161.68.

I was emotionally and physically depleted. Our touring party conducted rapid tests constantly, praying that we wouldn’t have to cancel the remaining shows. Long drives, a poor diet, anxiety and a lack of sleep weighed on me. We had some successful shows with over a hundred engaged fans and a few where only a handful of people showed up. When I got home, I calculated how much I had made from merch sales and show fees. My booking agent takes 10 per cent from live shows, and I would have paid a manager an additional 15 per cent had I not been self-managed at the time. Even with the $7,000 in tour-support funding I’d received, I lost $2,098.86.

A tour like the one I did last fall wouldn’t be feasible today. Most venues and promoters have done nothing to improve health and safety regulations since the pandemic began. One positive case can sink an entire tour, leading to financial ruin. Breaking even has grown more unlikely in recent months as inflation has increased our expenses, causing bands to tour for a loss or downgrade our productions. Show fees are not rising at the same rate as inflation. The minuscule streaming income we do receive (currently $0.00318 per Spotify stream in Canada) isn’t enough to make up the shortfall.

Pemberton crowd-surfing

Fans are now more selective about what events they attend, both reluctant to risk their health and lacking the disposable income they had before the economic downturn. Legacy acts like Blink-182 demand exorbitant ticket prices (up to $5,197 for resale tickets), and this may mean that a stadium gig is the only show a music fan can afford all season. With 2023 tour announcements from Beyoncé, Rihanna and Taylor Swift, I expect music’s middle class to suffer.

Grimy, gruelling van tours and fans getting to see their favourite obscure band play a tiny club show increasingly look like things of the past. Midsize cultural venues are shuttering and will keep disappearing, but the effect on cities goes deeper than that. If cities aren’t able to support and maintain strong music ecosystems, they risk losing their cultural identities. Toronto has defined itself by the artists who have called it home, wanting to be known as a “music city.” How can it be a music city if venues are closing and musicians can’t afford to live here?

Perhaps the bravery of artists speaking up about their experiences will lead to some sorely needed reform. The government could mandate air filtration standards at venues just as it has rules around decibel levels. We may see a resurgence of DIY community spaces, where live events aren’t driven by profit or alcohol sales. Going forward, artists may focus on playing festivals, which pay higher guaranteed fees than independent shows and draw larger crowds. Festivals and venues that posted platitudes at the start of the pandemic about how much they care about artists could stop taking a 25 per cent cut of our merch sales, providing us with immediate relief.

What can music fans do to help? If you see that your favourite artist is coming to town, buy a presale ticket early. It sends a signal to promoters, venues and booking agencies that the show should go ahead as planned. Buy music directly from artists, at shows, from their Bandcamp pages or from their websites. Most importantly, don’t get upset or take it personally—as some fans do online—when an act cancels a show. There’s probably a lot more struggle behind their decision than you realize.