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Live shows are back. But the economics behind them aren’t great.

Justin Ho Oct 28, 2022
Heard on:
L7 performs in Los Angeles in January 2020. This year, the band is selling a pre-show experience to defray costs of the tour. Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for The Art of Elysium

Live shows are back. But the economics behind them aren’t great.

Justin Ho Oct 28, 2022
Heard on:
L7 performs in Los Angeles in January 2020. This year, the band is selling a pre-show experience to defray costs of the tour. Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for The Art of Elysium

While a lot of industries took hits during the first couple of years of the pandemic, only a few shut down completely. One of them was live music: Concerts and shows were pretty much nonexistent.

This year, lots of musicians have been hitting the road again — or trying to, anyway. A lot of musicians have been running into a lot of familiar economic problems: inflation, high shipping and transportation costs, and weaker overseas currencies.

That litany of issues prompted the band Animal Collective to cancel plans for a European tour. Santigold canceled her tour altogether. Not only are her costs rising, she wrote, but if she ever had to cancel a show because someone on her tour came down with COVID-19, she’d face “devastating financial consequences.”

Problem is, a lot of musicians rely on the revenue they earn from touring because other forms of revenue often don’t bring in much at all.

Let’s say you go to your music streaming service and listen to the song “June,” by Rozzi, from her album “Hymn for Tomorrow.”

Streaming a song might be one way to experience a musician’s work. But, Rozzi said, don’t think that by doing that you’re helping her pay her bills.

“The money I make from streams is laughable,” Rozzi said. “Like, sometimes I’m lucky to break out of the cents. Like, literally cents of money, not dollars.”

Rozzi said the real way she pays her bills is by going on tour and selling tickets and merchandise. 

“Live shows is kind of the biggest thing,” Rozzi said. “And it concerns me that it’s so expensive to play a live show at the moment. Because I’m not the only artist of my size that depends on it.”

Another artist, Karly Hartzman, the lead singer of the band Wednesday, started keeping track when the band went on tour earlier this year.

“I had a little note on my phone in the Notes app,” Hartzman said. “Anytime we would spend money on gas, I would write ‘minus $70, gas.’ And then we would get paid for a show, I’d say ‘plus $350, New Orleans show’.”

At the end of the day, the band was losing money. To top it off, one of her bandmates got COVID.

“Just the guilt they had in their voice, being like, ‘Y’all, it’s over. We have to go home,’” Hartzman said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Yeah, it’s totally OK.’ But it’s just another piece of context for how things are working right now.”

Part of the issue is that COVID backed up the touring supply chain. As a result, the supply of touring musicians is unusually high.

Taja Cheek, who performs under the name L’Rain, said that it’s hard to even find venues to play at right now.

“Calendars are booked pretty far in advance because everyone that was writing music during the peak moments of the pandemic are releasing albums,” Cheek said.

It’s also hard to find tour buses and vans, Cheek said. Even the vinyl that gets pressed into records is in short supply.

“If a major-label artist has a record that’s coming out, they’ll kind of shut down all the plants and kind of take over, ” she said.

Many of these problems go back a lot further than COVID. 

“The way it used to work back in the day is that you’d go on tour to promote your album,” said Andrew Leff, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and a former artist manager.

But now, he said musicians have to basically give away their albums. The hope is that someone will hear it, like it and buy a ticket to a show. As a result, Leff said recorded music has become devalued.

“More and more artists find it necessary to tour,” he said. “And that oversaturates the market.”

That’s also forcing artists to make some tough decisions.

“It’s kind of an existential crisis going on — with me, anyway — regarding being a touring musician,” said Donita Sparks, singer and guitarist with the band L7.

Short of getting a song featured in a movie or a TV show — or taking up dog walking — touring is all musicians can do, she said.

This year is the 30th anniversary of L7’s biggest album, “Bricks Are Heavy. As a result, Sparks said they don’t have much of a choice but to go on tour.

“There’s only one year to milk that cow,” Sparks said.

To cover their higher costs, the band is selling a pre-show experience, where fans can watch their sound check, ask questions and get a bag of merchandise.

“It’s almost like an insurance policy for us,” Sparks said. “Because if we do have to cancel a show or two, that can help supplement that loss.”

Next year, Sparks said L7’s been asked to tour the world. But given high costs and health risks, she’s not sure if they’ll be able to swing it.

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