Can Indie Musicians Afford to Keep Their Shows on the Road?

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

The COVID-19 pandemic was so bad for RN Entertainment, a company that rents RVs to touring musicians, that its owner broke his office lease and moved his entire fleet to his house.

“My wife was going crazy,” says Steve Yarborough, who lives on a 20-acre property in Lebanon, Tennessee. “Our beautiful manicured lawn turned into a bus field. I remodeled my chicken coop into an office and just ran everything out of my backyard.”

But that was then. By the end of 2021, the vaccines were appearing to work and COVID fatigue set in hard. And musicians got antsy. At a time when record sales are at record lows and streams barely pay, concert tickets and merchandise have become the most dependable revenue stream for many artists. On top of that, lockdowns gave many of them time to experiment with their sound and make more music—and they wanted to play it. Suddenly, the roads were teeming with artists desperate to connect with their fans.

“This year, every bus we had was on the road,” Yarborough says.

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A high supply of restless artists has created a unique set of conditions in the world of music touring. Many of them want—sometimes need—to perform, but the pandemic has sent prices soaring higher than ever, with inflation now at 7.7 percent after leveling off over the past couple months. Audiences are still wary of COVID, and some of them have given up on live shows altogether. Meanwhile, the supplies needed to put together a good show—instruments, equipment, tour buses—are harder to find than ever.

“There are no tour buses, no trucks. All the equipment is rented, all the experienced personnel are out on every tour,” says Eboni Gentry, the owner of Gentry Touring, a boutique tour management agency. “Right now, it’s difficult to staff tours. And the cost of everything has gone up as well.”

It’s no wonder that headlines about tour cancellations have become almost as common as headlines announcing them. In April, British rapper and singer Little Simz rescheduled her U.S. tour due to mental health issues and rising costs, explaining, “Being an independent artist, I pay for everything encompassing my live performances out of my own pocket and touring the US for a month would leave me in a huge deficit.” Last month, the band Animal Collective axed its U.K. and European tour dates, citing “inflation, currency devaluation, bloated shipping and transportation costs, and much much more.” Also last month, British DJ Bonobo said his upcoming shows would probably be his “last live band tour” in the U.S. “Post pandemic the landscape of live touring with a large production with lots of moving parts and people has become financially unsustainable,” he told his fans in a Facebook post.

Then there’s Santigold, who in September canceled her fall tour, also citing inflation along with “a flooded market of artists trying to book shows in the same cities.” Her Instagram post was seconded by fellow mid-tier artists like Lily Allen and Lykke Li, who responded, “I feel you and I feel exactly the same.”

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Smaller and independent acts feel this pain more acutely. Australian singer-songwriter Hazel English, for example, says she was “disappointed” when she had to cancel her European dates scheduled for this month (she was supposed to open for Aly & AJ on their overseas tour).

“I just think it’s not the most sustainable thing, and I definitely don’t think anyone should have to pay to play or get into debt just to go on tour,” English wrote in an email to The Daily Beast, adding that stagnant ticket prices have made it harder to afford what she needs to put on a good show. As she sees it, “The main problem is that fees for artists have not gone up despite the growing costs of inflation, gas prices, increased flight prices, hotels, etc. So there’s even less money to go round now, when, let’s face it, there was not very much to begin with, but now the pie is even smaller.”

David Vieira, English’s guitarist, says there’s a huge gulf between bands like his and more popular acts that are “selling crazy” right now. The slices in the pie are shrinking, he says, backing up his bandmate’s figure of speech.

“It’s a really good metaphor,” he says. “Because everyone knows the music industry is kind of still trying to figure out how to do things since physical album sales have gone down.”

Smaller slices, smaller pies, and more voracious mouths to feed present a particularly difficult problem for artists with a precise creative vision who want to put on a memorable show.

“We see an influx in the costs of hotels, equipment, gas, all of these things which affect budgets and the ability to make money for certain artists on the road,” says Gentry, who has worked on tours for artists like Doja Cat, PinkPantheress, and Ice Spice. “For newer artists that are starting out, it’s way more expensive than it used to be, so it becomes a little harder to tour in the way you want to right away.”

And yet the highways are still packed.

Kylie Filiatreault, who owns the Kansas-based entertainment transportation company Village Coach, says he’s felt the impact of this year’s surge in touring. As of Monday, his full fleet of 22 entertainment coaches—which come outfitted with lounges, bunks, and a kitchenette—are completely booked.

It’s a 180-degree change from early pandemic times, when he started a trucking division to help Amazon deliver its packages as a way to make money. That division has now folded back into the entertainment side, with his fleet of semi-trucks hauling touring equipment for artists from city to city.

“Everyone is trying to tour,” Filiatreault says. “Everyone is trying to make up for lost time through touring by having as many shows as they can. It’s definitely put a lot on everybody’s plates. There’s more stress and fatigue. It’s constant.”

For transportation companies, there’s a wide array of factors driving their prices up. Gas is pricey, batteries and other vehicle parts are more expensive, and drivers are harder to find, with many of them having switched during the pandemic to package delivery, garbage pickup, or other trucking jobs with less interpersonal contact that don’t require them to leave their families for months at a time.

Village Coach rents out coaches starting at about $2,100 per day, which includes fuel and driver costs. That’s $350 more than in pre-COVID times, says Filliatreult, who works with artists putting together anything from national stadium tours to regional club gigs. A truck for transporting equipment can come out to $42,000 for a 36-day tour.

That’s a big ask for any artist, especially one who can’t guarantee their tickets will sell in a competitive marketplace.

“Costs are up for the artist. They have to pay for busing, they have to pay for gas, so factored into a tour, that’s making things a lot harder for them, and also we’re seeing ticket sale hesitancy,” says Elyse Aubert, who owns the tour booking agency Row Boat.

From her home office in southern Oregon, Aubert says she’s seen the effects of post-pandemic touring on her clients in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.

“There’s way less advance sales than normal. And I’m hearing this from everyone across the board,” she says. “[Fans] don’t wanna buy a ticket and get sick and have to eat it. So people are doing week-of, day-of [ticket purchases], which is tough for the venue and tough for us, because we obviously want to see advance sales.”

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Adam Hartke owns multiple independent music venues in Wichita, including a 2,000-person capacity ballroom called The Cotillion and WAVE, an indoor-outdoor venue. He agrees that things have gotten more bleak in the world of music touring, especially for independent venues, over the past year, though he’s careful to blame any one factor. He cites ticket hesitancy, scalpers, and COVID fears as reasons why his sales are down.

The flood of touring artists doesn’t do much to alleviate his worries.

“We have definitely seen more touring options, but we’ve also seen less consumers purchasing,” Hartke says. “So there’s more shows and less ticket buyers, which is definitely a problem.”

Once again, the problem is bigger for smaller artists. Hartke’s indie venues don’t put on many shows backed by big promoters like LiveNation, which reported that attendance at its shows was up by 20 percent in the second quarter of 2022 compared to the same time in 2019, before the pandemic. The company promoted 2,500 more concerts in that same period.

“We live in the world of developing artists and newer artists,” Hartke says of his venues. “And in that world, we’ve seen that downtick.”

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