What comeback? For many indie acts, the Touring Rebound never came

When Live Nation reported $1.8 billion in revenue in the first quarter in May, CEO Michael Rapinoe told investors, “The artists are back on the road and fan demand has never been stronger.” But while the concert industry has largely returned to financial health in 2022 after a faltering recovery last year, a number of players eager to get back on the road and access their primary revenue stream have instead found prohibitive costs that would significantly eat into or eliminate profits. And it has left them frustrated, if not furious, that the bullish picture painted by promoters and venues has eluded them.

A confluence of devastating economic factors — gas prices, artists flooding venues to make up for lost revenue during the pandemic, airport chaos, shortage in the supply chain for tour buses, drivers, crew and equipment – has put an end to even the heartiest of touring acts, especially indie artists. “The smaller shows are getting wiped out,” he says Brian RossHead of Theft Corporation, Guerrilla throw and Forty feet tall. He estimates that net tour profits fell 10% to 15% in the spring and summer due to higher expenses.

Since Rapino’s rosy report this spring, several previously successful tours have canceled shows for a variety of reasons, from COVID-19 to mental health to expenses, among others. Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Ringo Starr, Jimmy Buffett and Animal collective. “It’s pretty bad out there,” says Tabout WindishThe Wasserman Agency’s head of A&R representing Billie Eilish, Tove laughed, Viagra Boys and others. “A lot of bands go on tour thinking they’re going to make money and they come home and lose money.” Before the pandemic, Windish adds, many artists paid for their homes with “the last 20% of the income — and now that 20% is disappearing.”

“It’s an extraordinarily challenging time,” he says Joady Harper, founder and CEO of Rocky Road Touring, agent for UK bands The Mission, The Chameleons and Theater of Hate, who postponed their 32-date triple bill club and theater tour to autumn 2023 due to exorbitant costs and difficulties in securing visa. “Everybody’s sitting at home twiddling their thumbs and counting their pennies because the income they thought they were going to have during that period just isn’t there.”

For Harper, whose company represents more than 50 acts, 2022 began on a “high note”, with artists eager to hit the stage after quarantine and fans snapping up tickets in droves. Then Russia invaded Ukraine, gas prices and airfares skyrocketed, and many tours were “no longer financially viable.”

“All of that on top of the mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional resources already used by just getting through the last few years,” Santigold posted on Facebook in September when she announced that she was to cancel her trip. “Some of us just find ourselves unable to make it work,” she wrote, lashing out at frustrated musicians.

With a greater number of acts booked into a pandemic-reduced number of venues, the supply and demand mechanics of the concert industry have also changed. An act that drew 1,000 fans to a show may now end up with 800 people, according to David T. ViecelliChicago agent for PavementJoanna Newsom, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Wire. “There’s too much going on and people aren’t going to four shows a week anymore,” he says.

Even for largely sold-out tours like Pavement, the number of no-shows due to illness or fear of it has increased, meaning a drop in merchandise sales, he adds. “It kind of hits you from all sides.”

To stay on the road, artists strategically cut costs. Ann Henningsenwho manages the singer-songwriter Chris Berardo, says he has performed more frequently with his acoustic trio than his preferred six-piece rock band. Ross says Guerilla Toss has cut back on hotels. Sam Luriathat governs New Zealand’s Breeder, says the duo’s lighting director remotely programs the technology instead of traveling with the crew. “You get a pretty similar result,” he says, “but save a good amount of money.”

One solution is for bands that might have been ready for headlining tours to pair up with others – Bodysnatcher opening for Hatebreed, for example. “Maybe you’re not going to sell the same level of merchandise that you wanted to, but eventually you will,” says Scott Givens, senior vice president of rock and metal at MNRK, the label representing Bodysnatcher. “You don’t want anyone to lose money.”

Givens is optimistic that the traveling economic storm will pass and hopes for a broader recovery in the world economy. “We’ll be fine,” he says. Jeff DeLiaHead of The Blind Boys of AlabamaAJ Croce and others acknowledge the financial pain, but adds that his clients remain optimistic, telling him, “We know this isn’t going to last and we just have to fight through these things.”

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