Touring was a minefield before COVID; the pandemic just threw a few thousand more mines onto the field. Anyone within spitting distance of live music over the past two years — from road-warrior musicians to anxious ticket-holders and every behind-the-scenes toiler in between — has been plenty aware of the precariousness surrounding tour schedules in general. All it takes is a positive rapid test on an artist’s team, or travel-prohibitive supply-chain issues, or a mental-health crisis, or a straight-up lack of funding to derail an entire run of shows.
Ever since “things opened up” again (was anything ever really closed to begin with?), showgoers and entertainers alike have practically grown numb to intermittent waves of gig cancellations. So when U.K. rap sensation Little Simz announced that she was nixing her U.S. tour this past April, the news initially resembled a drop in an increasingly miserable and disappointment-filled bucket. But Simz’s statement explaining the canceled dates gestured to even tougher struggles for touring artists on the horizon. “Being an independent artist, I pay for everything encompassing my live performances out of my own pocket and touring the U.S. for a month would leave me in a huge deficit,” she said at the time. “As much as this pains me to not see you at this time, I’m just not able to put myself through that mental stress.”
For casual music fans unaware of the music industry’s financial, perpetually rusty nuts and bolts, the news that Simz lacked the scratch for an 11-city tour — a decently substantial run of dates, if not quite a full country-spanning schedule — had to have been shocking. The 28-year-old phenom’s fourth full-length, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, was her most critically and commercially successful album yet, marking the first time she appeared on multiple Billboard albums charts alongside year-end-list-topping accolades and a Mercury Music Prize nomination. She even appeared as herself in the delightfully silly global smash Venom 2: Let There Be Carnage. Simz is closer to being a global household name than ever before — so why can’t she afford to hit the road and engage in, paradoxically, one of the only professional rituals through which musicians can even make money at this point?
As 2022 has worn on, it’s clear that she’s not the only one who faces this predicament. Last week, pop scion Santigold, who recently released her first album in six years and was name-checked by Beyoncé as a generational icon on the Madonna-fied remix of “Break My Soul,” revealed that she was pulling the plug on the entirety of her North American tour — citing unsustainable costs due to inflation, as well as the increasingly untenable situation of post-COVID touring life in general. “I think it’s important for people to know the truth of what it’s like out here for artists,” she said in a lengthy statement explaining the cancellation, “and I don’t believe enough of us are talking about it publicly.”
Santi’s statement actually came at a time in which artists are increasingly getting real about the cost-prohibitive aspect of touring. Supply-chain issues and inflation — two of the most major and deeply felt financial disruptors of post-COVID life in North America — have hit the live industry hard, as veteran rock acts like Anthrax and Stryker have had to cancel dates due to tour-bus shortages and subsequent rising travel fees. Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab, whose critically acclaimed album Vulture Prince recently nabbed her a Grammy for Best Global Music Performance, revealed that she was “tens of thousands” of dollars in debt despite “massive turnouts” and typically lucrative headlining slots. (If you think that’s bad, just ask any support-slot artist their per-show take-home — and that’s before the venue tries to take a cut of your merch.)
“Shaming artists when they advocate for themselves and for better fees is one of the worst socially normalized things in the industry,” she also wrote — a sad and bizarre truth that played out in real time earlier this year, when buzzy indie rockers Wednesday went viral while detailing the financial hardships of playing Austin’s annual industry-palooza festival SXSW, only to be met with derision by “shut up and sing” types as well as fellow struggling under-the-radar acts.
Such skirmishes over obvious truths — specifically, that the music industry has failed to provide a viable and safe method for artists to perform live without bringing themselves to financial ruin — are frustrating but, when taking a wide-scale view of the general societal landscape, understandable. Tensions across the general fabric of society have been running high for a few years now, and the pandemic only further laid bare the common truth that many people are struggling when it comes to mental health. Amidst the misery of the pandemic’s peak, there were hopes that the effective shutdown of the touring industry would allow for the music business itself to work out the myriad issues that musicians face while trying to make a living on the road. That obviously didn’t happen, and as artists continue to struggle in all echelons of the touring ecosystem, there’s a general questioning as to whether all of this — being on the road for months, the physical and mental toll it takes, the increasingly all-encompassing expectations of fame in general — is even worth it.
After postponing a few weeks of shows this past July, Shawn Mendes pulled the plug entirely on a cross-continental tour, citing the need to “put my health as my first priority.” Last month, Mercury Prize-winning singer-songwriter Arlo Parks did the same, citing “debilitating” mental health issues and stating simply, “I am broken.” After resuming his Justice Tour following a battle with Ramsey-Hunt syndrome, Justin Bieber cancelled all of his dates to “prioritize” his own well-being. In the midst of kicking off the North American leg of her tour supporting her latest album Holy Fvck, Demi Lovato declared that she was retiring from the touring grind after completing her obligations: “I can’t do this anymore,” she wrote on her Instagram Stories. “This next tour will be my last. I love and thank you guys.”
The music industry has a long and continuing tradition of squeezing artists dry until they face dire and occasionally fatal ends. This recent history has been recapitulated through the ongoing narrative surrounding Britney Spears’s since-dissolved conservatorship as well as in Baz Luhrmann’s fabulous and fast-with-the-truth Elvis biopic. In the face of the sordid past, as well as more extra-musical demands than ever thanks to the endless promotional cycles that social media affords, it makes sense that artists from Little Simz and Santigold to Mendes and Lovato are choosing to drop out of touring obligations entirely, when and while they still can. The impulse is to applaud these public gestures of self-care, and we do — but, where are the solutions when it comes to fixing what is obviously a functionally and spiritually broken industry?
As ever, the lone emerging one seems to benefit only the most powerful. The concept of extended and city-specific “residencies” is starting to appear in earnest, from Harry Styles’s recent and wildly successful run of dates at NYC’s Madison Square Garden venue to LCD Soundsystem’s seemingly now annual monthlong Brooklyn stints. The roots of this approach lie in the long history of Vegas residencies (shades of Elvis yet again, for better and worse) and although it has yet to truly take hold and fully supplant the existing model of wide-scale touring, the benefits are apparent. The costs of being a road warrior, both financially and holistically, are greatly lessened; on a larger scale, the approach turns performances into practical destination events, doubtlessly benefiting tourism revenue for whichever city is blessed to be hosting such a residency.
There are plenty of drawbacks, though. Most artists simply do not have the massive audience that Harry Styles or LCD Soundsystem — who, yes, exist on different tiers of fame, but nonetheless retain a gargantuan amount of passionate fans — are able to command, so the option is available to a very limited number of acts as it stands. Such residencies also create more clogs in an already-jammed touring ecosystem, taking up venue space at a time in which scores of musicians are practically piling on top of each other to try and book shows. The consumer hardly benefits from this approach either, since few can afford the expenses incurred from traveling to see your favorite band — meaning that the days of having your favorite act hit your part of the country may be a thing of the past.
Of course, it is more than worth considering how the consumer is faring amidst what could be accurately described as a touring industry in perilous flux. Ticket prices keep climbing for shows of all sizes, especially as the practice of dynamic pricing continues to take hold for large-scale shows; the post-COVID proliferation of cashless food-beverage-merch sales points can be its own headache, as well as potentially discriminatory when it comes to concertgoers’ technological abilities. Festivals — which have long served as destination events for consumers looking to see their favorite acts all at once in idyllic settings — have been an absolute disaster in 2022 with everything from cancellations to unsafe conditions wrecking the overall landscape.
Let’s linger on that last bit for a minute. This November will mark the one-year anniversary of the Astroworld tragedy, in which ten people died from a fatal crowd crush that occurred during Travis Scott’s set at the 2021 edition of the festival. The incident was devastating and, in the minds of countless concertgoers who have once found themselves in the midst of a massive crowd or plan to do so in the future, absolutely terrifying. Across social media and the online pages of entertainment publications, there was digital hand-wringing about the “rage music” Travis Scott’s known for, false reports of attacks on police, and celebrations of artists who stopped their own performances when it was clear that things were getting unsafe in the crowd — everything but a sense of accountability when it comes to the live music industry’s role in providing a safe environment for concertgoers.
Post-Astroworld, the only certain course of action that’s been taken is that, for the moment, that festival is no more — an effective burying of the past, as the touring industry continues on unabated and in a state of perpetual collapse, crossing their fingers that such a terrible tragedy doesn’t occur again and not visibly doing much else otherwise. When an entire industry shows such a level of disregard for the human lives that keep it alive, how can anyone feel truly safe while attending shows? Can you even blame musicians for wondering whether it’s worth continuing to play them?