‘You’re either Beyoncé or you’re working class’: Concerts have a record year, but most musicians are struggling

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When tour and production manager Rosanna Freedman took the jazz collective Snarky Puppy on the road this year, she found logistical problems everywhere. To secure almost anything — from audio consoles to monitoring wedges to hotel rooms — the band had to compete with other artists, a crypto event, a Formula One competition and a resurgence in tourism. For one show in Europe, the band needed a Hammond organ, but nobody could find one. For another, the monitoring system they received was not the one they had ordered, requiring two hours to untangle the technical issues. 

And amid the clamor for basic tour supplies, costs — for trucks, crews, flights, equipment and textiles for printing shirts — have spiked 20% to 40% compared with prepandemic levels, she said.  

“It’s kind of every man for themselves this year,” she said. “Kind of odd, after we all came together to support each other in live events when we thought the world was ending.”

During the first two years of the pandemic, many artists weren’t able to tour, depriving them of their primary source of income in an industry where making a living is already difficult for all but the most popular artists. But when live concerts returned, a similar divide returned with them, with the biggest artists grossing hundreds of millions of dollars while everyone else fought for leftovers as they ran straight into the premium-priced dysfunction that has defined the pandemic-era economy.

Live Nation Entertainment Inc.
the Ticketmaster parent that is reportedly facing a Justice Department antitrust investigation after a snarled rollout of Taylor Swift concert tickets, put up record annual sales and profit through the first nine months of this year. Pollstar, a trade publication that tallies concert-industry data, recently described 2022 as “a historic, record-setting high-bar of a year returning with astronomical grosses, ticket sales and average prices.”

But those stratospheric gains haven’t filtered down to smaller artists who play in clubs and theaters. More bands out on tour have meant lower sales and income. And as both well-established and lesser-known artists head back out, the dislocation has put a finer point on their longstanding frustrations with an industry they say leaves them more vulnerable than others to inflation.

Pre-COVID, they say, tours were already difficult to plan and often lost money. Streaming micropayments had commoditized their work. And funding, labor-law and insurance protections, for COVID-related cancellations or anything else, were, and remain, weak.

Carsie Blanton, a singer-songwriter based near Philadelphia, said last month that she’d been touring since June of last year at venues that hold 100 to 400 people, playing more than 150 shows over that time. But after dealing with rising travel costs, flight and other COVID-related cancellations, as well as the theft of a laptop and some electronics, she said she would likely only net a few thousand dollars for those months of work.

“Most countries as wealthy as ours provide arts funding, and without it, the middle class has dropped out of our industry like so many others,” she said. “These days, you’re either Beyoncé or you’re working class.”

‘Literally everybody raised their prices but us’

Some bigger artists have canceled tour dates, prompted by the pandemic’s spiral of burnout, steeper costs and persistent shortages. Fuel prices have spiked. Flight delays and rescheduled shows are far more common. Hotels are harder to find. Backed-up vinyl presses have raised the risk of album delays and lost merchandise sales at shows. Many people on sound and touring crews left the industry in 2020 and didn’t come back. Venues are juggling their own higher costs following nearly two years on life support due to the pandemic. And the financial fallout of getting with COVID-19 can be devastating.

For the music industry’s biggest gatekeepers, who are better able to wield money and size to ride out the pandemic, the financial returns have been the exact opposite. Live Nation, carried by a wave of pent-up demand and ticket-price increases, last month reported record sales of $6.2 billion and record quarterly net income of $331 million for its third quarter, according to FactSet data. The company also booked record quarterly attendance — more than 44 million people across 11,000 events. 

“Momentum is strong with early signs pointing to continued growth in 2023 across our businesses,” executives said in the company’s earnings release. “Ticket sales for shows in 2023 are pacing even stronger than they were heading into 2022, up double-digits year-over-year, excluding sales from rescheduled shows.” 

As demand for premium tickets booms, Live Nation has leaned into VIP sales at amphitheaters and festivals, and fans are spending more at those venues. For the most popular artists who can fill those event spaces, the rebound has been a windfall. Reggaeton artist Bad Bunny brought in more than $393 million on his worldwide tour this year, according to Pollstar — by far the most of any artist. A distant second, by some $120 million, was Elton John, the publication said.

From 2019: Are concert tickets too cheap? Ticketmaster executives think so

The gains have been uneven amid lingering pandemic-related caution for smaller venues, Pollstar data suggests. Gross proceeds for larger outdoor amphitheaters and stadiums shot up 18% and 81% this year, respectively, when compared with 2019, the data shows. But for the indoor clubs that smaller acts depend on, the gains were more muted — at 5% — and for theaters and arenas, they fell compared with prepandemic levels. The number of tickets sold at clubs, theaters and arenas also fell this year compared with 2019.

And even as ticket prices balloon, artist pay hasn’t always risen in tandem.

“Literally everybody raised their prices but us,” said Ryan Wisler, a hip-hop producer and rapper who performs under the name Kno.

‘Going backwards

Wisler performed throughout the Western U.S. and Europe this year with members of his longtime group CunninLynguists and the rapper Sadistik, a tour that had initially been planned for 2020 but was postponed. When he and a pared-down crew returned to the road this year, he said some tickets were going for roughly double what the group might normally charge. But the terms of their pay, set prior to lockdown, stayed the same. 

For a normal short tour, he said, if his cut ends up being between $10,000 and $20,000, he considers it a win. This time around, he said he’d made about half what he might regularly take in. 

Wisler said options for cost cutting were limited. They opted not to bring along a dedicated merchandise salesperson, tour manager or DJ. In pre-COVID times, renting a van might cost up to $1,200 for less than a month, but renting a seven-passenger microbus in Germany for three weeks, he said, ran as high as $10,000. He eventually found a cheaper rental in Switzerland — $3,500 for around two weeks — but had to shuffle the group’s itinerary in the process. 

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And due to manufacturing hiccups, a 10th-anniversary vinyl edition of an album took roughly a year to ship, he said, and the group’s merch-fulfillment connection didn’t receive it until the week the group was leaving on tour, which meant they were unable to take the album with them. Not having that album to sell at shows, Wisler said, easily amounted to thousands of dollars in lost sales.

“I saw the vinyl for the first time because a fan had gotten it in the mail and brought it to the show,” he said.

For Taja Cheek, a Brooklyn-based experimental musician who performs under the name L’Rain, a broken foot meant she had to seek out hotels with elevators and ground-floor rooms during her European tour. Breakdowns and vehicle shortages, she said, have forced other musicians she knows to take trains and airplanes, which can be more expensive.     

“Major-label artists were reaching out to my tour manager to see if we had leads on Sprinters, which is pretty crazy,” she said. 

Cheek’s second album, “Fatigue,” drew a significant amount of critical acclaim following its release last year. But she said she’s been breaking even or losing money on tour — something she said she didn’t fault anyone for in an industry where tours commonly lose thousands of dollars before merchandise sales. She said she was still trying to find the right mix — of merch sales and bigger events — to make the costs work, while supporting everyone else on tour with her.   

“I’ve seen in some conversations, too, people are like ‘Oh, well you can always just tour with a smaller band,’ and that’s true,” she said. “But that’s also taking work away from people that are expecting it or needing it.” 

Artists have noticed cutbacks and complications elsewhere. The vehicles for rent in the U.S. are a bit older than usual. A hot meal at a venue or hotel in Europe, where touring support is typically more generous than in the U.S., might be replaced with a banana. Tour managers have done double duty as drivers, since rates for professional drivers have skyrocketed. Brexit has created heaps of paperwork and extra fees. Low-cost airlines in Europe aren’t as low-cost anymore. 

“We’re staying in slightly worse hotels than we would have been,” said Felicity Hall, who manages artists like Mark Lettieri, Public Service Broadcasting and Alabama 3, best known for writing the theme song for “The Sopranos.” “So it’s a downgrade of quality of experience as well, which is really sad, because it feels then to the band like they’re going backwards.” 

See also: Livestreamed performances are surging among musicians during coronavirus crisis

Alliz Espi, tour manager for Los Angeles-based singer and multi-instrumentalist Louis Cole and a handful of other artists, said they couldn’t always use the airline credits they’d held onto after shows were postponed if tour routes ended up changing. 

“With rebooking new flights, flight prices increased, which meant we sometimes spent more than the original ticket vouchered,” she said. 

And in 2022, any foray through Europe — Cole had one this year — has had to contend with a string of airline strikes. Even if you show up at an airport four to five hours early, you can still miss your flight if only two or three security checkpoints are open, Espi said.

‘Thousands of dollars to sit in a room’

Meanwhile, thousands of people are still getting COVID-19 every day. William Tyler, a Nashville musician who has played guitar for bands like Lambchop and the Silver Jews and who works as a solo artist, said he got hit with a breakthrough infection from the Delta variant last year. The week-plus quarantine, spent in a hotel in New York, forced him to cancel a tour.  

“I was spending thousands of dollars to sit in a room, basically,” he said. He added: “I never really have felt cavalier or confident, even, about touring since then.” 

On a good night for a solo concert, he said, he can make up to $2,000. But he said some tours he’d signed on for this year required him to fly to one city, rent a car and return it to a different city. 

“Factor in hotels and gas and all of that, and just realizing that what I was going to net was, frankly, break-even, at this point in my career, I just sort of don’t want to do stuff like that,” he said. 

Spencer Peppet, who sings and plays guitar for the Ophelias, an indie-folk band that formed in Cincinnati, said the band was still asking people to wear masks at shows. Fans largely have done so, she said, even though most venues don’t require it. 

“The touring climate has changed a lot,” she said. “I feel more of a responsibility to keep my bandmates safe, and it can be overwhelming when most things are completely out of our control.”

‘The hardest thing of this tour’

Meanwhile, experienced crew members are in short supply and have hiked what they charge to keep up with their own cost of living. Freedman, the manager for Snarky Puppy, said less experienced crews are more common.

“It’s been the hardest thing of this tour,” said Freedman. “Local crew who tell me it’s their first day on the job, and no one to show them what to do.”    

Concert venues, meanwhile, are trying to dig themselves out from the lockdowns of 2020 and are sometimes struggling to pay more to attract workers. Nailing down show schedules has become more difficult.

“The trouble we now have is guarantees need to be much higher than they were, in order to cover additional travel,” Hall said. “But people aren’t paying higher guarantees because they can’t afford crew.” 

Dayna Frank, the board president of the National Independent Venue Association and the chief executive of a company that runs venues and promotes shows in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., said costs across the board at those venues had jumped between 25% and 30% compared with pre-COVID levels. In September, she said the company, First Avenue Productions — whose venues include the First Avenue Mainroom and 7th St Entry — had canceled 17 shows. 

With cancellations more common, she said, local music and events that aren’t as dependent on touring, like dance nights, could become more important heading into next year. But she said even with those adjustments, the explosion of the secondary-ticket market is siphoning money away from the people doing the work to put on shows. So-called “speculative” ticket scams have led to confusion at the door. 

“It hurts the venue and the artists and the local economy,” Frank said. “We rely, especially as a small business, on people going to a lot of shows and making live music and live events a part of their culture. So anytime somebody pays more for that, and especially when it’s not going to benefit the artist, it’s damaging. So it’s a huge priority to help fans find tickets at face value.” 

More musicians are trying to organize in an effort to secure greater protections. Peppet, of the Ophelias, said she joined the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers in 2020, not long after it formed, in an effort to secure pandemic unemployment aid for musicians. She said she’s pushing for things like healthcare, artist grants and gear libraries, and for abolishing merch cuts — or the slice many venues take from merchandise sales. Marc Ribot, a guitarist and acting chair for the Music Workers Alliance, said tech platforms, labels and live-music presenters were exploiting artists’ work.

“The real question isn’t (only?) why the flight to the gig was expensive: It’s why the gig didn’t pay enough to cover it even though ticket prices have gone through the roof,” he said over email.

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The MWA, founded in 2019, helped secure pandemic-related aid for artists in the New York state budget. But Ribot said arts policy, and funding, has focused on venues, and that governments at all levels failed to understand the importance of touring to a vibrant arts ecosystem. He said no tour insurance currently covers cancellations related to COVID.

“Often, the incredible risks of this environment have outweighed the benefits,” Ribot said. “Inflation is just one more weight on the negative scale.”

Lost luggage, staying home

For artists with years of touring under their belt, the backdrop has also played a role in changing how they think about touring altogether. Lateef Daumont, a rapper in Oakland, Calif., better known as Lateef the Truthspeaker, said artists eventually face the question of whether touring — in cities that know you and cities that don’t — is worth the time. The answer, he said, is different for everyone.  

“Does it make more sense for me to be spinning my wheels in Mississippi or Memphis than it does right here in my backyard, with people that I love that can come out and see it, create something that’s artistic that’s a real example of my stuff?” he said. 

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Daumont, who has also taken on responsibility for his crew’s Quannum music label, said that more recently, he’s been helping put together more events. But he said artists could be asking for more than what they’re used to, and that more money was flowing into new venues than people thought.

“I feel like artists entered into this after the pandemic and, understandably, after not working, coming back and being like ‘Hey, let me just get that $5,000 I was getting paid beforehand,’” he said. “Meanwhile, on the corporate side, they’re more than willing to shell out more money” to open and support new clubs and other investments.  

For those who are still touring, the benefits are sometimes inadvertent. Espi, the tour manager for Cole, said that when they arrived on the Italian island of Sardinia during their tour this summer, their luggage didn’t make it, leaving them without clothing or equipment. For the next seven days, she said, they squeezed in trips between shows to buy clothes at whatever shops they could find, including a beach shop in Fano where they found pink shorts, sailor hats and other beachwear that they wore onstage. As for the luggage, it got back to everyone nearly a month later.  

“They did look absolutely awesome, though,” she said.


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