Music

Live Music Is Back, but There’s One Big Problem

Fans are flocking to festivals like Coachella, but the artists often can’t make it to the stage.

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 16: Singer/guitarist Britt Daniel of Spoon performs during the Spoon SXSW Residency 2017 SXSW Conference and Festivals on March 16, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SXSW)
Spoon is one of several bands on tour right now that have been forced to reschedule or cancel shows due to COVID diagnoses. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SXSW and Getty Images Plus.

This article is originally from Dada Drummer Almanach, a newsletter about music and art.

Coachella took place this past weekend and will again this coming one, at full capacity of 125,000 per day, and without any masking or vaccination requirements. Back to “normal” for its promoters, Goldenvoice, and AEG—as well as similar companies like Live Nation, which the New York Times reported “had already sold 50 million tickets for its concerts this year, about half its total for all of 2019.”

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But whether those concerts are actually happening is another story. My social media feed is filled with positive COVID test results from musicians on the road. They are cancelling shows, abandoning tours, sick and/or stuck in quarantine far from home. In just the last two weeks, I’ve spotted cancellation or postponement announcements from the bands Bartees Strange, Car Seat Headrest, Low, Superchunk, Circuit des Yeux, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Spoon, Jon Spencer, Sea Power, and Bob Mould.

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These are just some bold-face names from my indie-heavy social media feed. There are clearly many, many more musicians out there experiencing the same. How could they not be? As Anton Newcombe wrote, after contracting his third case of COVID: “I am seriously skeptical that anyone can tour without 1 of 2 things happening: a) catching Covid b) ignoring it and creating super spreader events with the band.”

Consider what catching COVID on the road means for a touring musician. Aside from the health risks we are all familiar with, there is lost income and potentially very heavy debts. All the committed expenses of a tour remain: travel bookings, visas, vehicles, band, crew, equipment, merch, etc. But without the shows themselves, there aren’t any earnings to offset them. Bands can’t get insurance against cancelled shows.

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This—plus the frustration and disappointment of missed performances—is why you might see artists cancelling only a few dates at first, with the hopeful plan that tour will pick up again a bit further down the road. Unfortunately, if you check back later, you’ll often find that those cancellations have continued, or that the tour has been abandoned. At best, there are shows rescheduled for months in the future. But no matter what, you can assume it is a mess for all involved.

The contrast of what I know these musicians are going through, and how AEG and Live Nation are boisterously proclaiming a successful and profitable return of live music, is stark. I know there have always been iniquities in the music business. But this is extreme.

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It’s so extreme, that it seems to ignore the fact of musicians themselves. How can this situation be close to a “normal pace and cadence” of touring, as Live Nation told the Times? You would have to see touring as something separate from the musicians who do it to find this in any way normal. Maybe, if your business is really about tickets sold, food and drink and additional customer services sold, advertising and branding sold, capital investment attracted, musicians don’t have that much of a role to play.

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After all—this is key to that cold calculation—there are always more musicians.

One of the reasons festivals might flourish in this seemingly impossible touring environment is that a festival can absorb most any cancellation from a given artist. At Coachella this year, one of the three main headliners changed after all tickets had already sold, and there didn’t seem to be much if any interruption to business.

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This is related to a harsh lesson I absorbed fairly early in my music career, thanks to a few debacles in quick succession like a band breakup and record label insolvency. Some of the responses I got at the time from people in the music business made me realize they had always seen our relationship as short term. Their long-term allegiances were not with us, the unpredictable “talent” that comes and goes, but with the other non-musicians in the room: the lawyers, record label execs, booking agencies, and promoters. All the professionals who would continue, regardless of my or any band’s particular history, to work with one another into the future.

AEG and Live Nation are built to withstand the comings and goings of musicians, like many aspects of the industry. But this instance seems particularly cruel. It’s hard to believe, but I think an executive that could look gleefully at spreadsheets for this year’s live music must figure if it’s not from one thing, it’s another. COVID is just the latest hazard that will inevitably take some artists down.

The masks are off, indeed.

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