It’s often regarded as a hallmark of “making it” in the music scene, but for some musicians, touring has become less about making a buck and more about breaking even – or in some cases, accepting financial loss.
Inflation eats up budgets. The risk of COVID-19 infection looms. Despite this, venues have opened their doors. But as with most industries impacted by temporary closures in the past two years, it’s not entirely back to business as usual.
“Smaller bands are either losing money or breaking even when they go on a tour, and a lot of the time that’s including any kind of tour funding they may get from their provincial or federal government,” Adam Soloway, who co-owns First Date Touring, says. “I don’t think touring is as sustainable as it used to be 20-plus years ago.”
In a recent Toronto Life article, Polaris Music Prize-winning musician Rollie Pemberton argues that the financial burden of touring has made it increasingly inaccessible for musicians.
As Pemberton writes, “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.”
Stephen Carroll, the director of music programs at Manitoba Film and Music (MFM), says there’s been a noticeable dip in the number of applications for the MFM’s Recording Artist Touring Support Fund. Generally, the MFM funds around 100 tours a year. This year, that number dropped to 70.
Carroll believes this is indicative of two effects: the challenges of planning tours when a COVID-19 case could throw a wrench in itineraries and the financial barriers to touring.
“We’re seeing a bit of a trend that younger, emerging artists are having more difficulty planning tours and executing them,” Carroll says.
Additionally, the monopoly of streaming services has indelibly changed the industry. “If you look at the way streaming services work, it’s a fairly crowded space,” he says. “Imagine going into a store where every product in the world is for sale ... how do you choose as a customer?”
Still, while challenges persist, Soloway maintains optimism about the state of touring, particularly at smaller venues.
“Most of our artists had been waiting years to go back on the road, so everyone wanted to tour at the same time. We’ve basically just been working more than we ever had this year just to get back running and kind of make up for lost time,” he says.
“The more that people go out to shows and spend their money on cover and stuff like that, the more venues and artists will be able to bounce back from this.”
While streaming has made it possible for artists to seamlessly share music with listeners across the globe, Carroll believes there’s an intimacy in live performance that cannot be replicated through Spotify or Apple Music soundwaves.
“Live performances bond the artist and the music fan in a way that’s hard to do in any other fashion,” he says. “That link can stay with the fan and the artist and ideally carry them over to pick up those streams and start playing the music, perhaps sharing the music.”
“That is how they stand out in the great big store that is streaming now.”
Published in Volume 77, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 17, 2022)