This year was to be the triumphant return of concerts. In some ways, this has come to fruition. Live Nation, the live music juggernaut, said in August it sold more than 100 million concert tickets this year, more than all of 2019. After a few years of silence, many artists have returned to the stage and fans show up with joy. to see them.
But there are also strong signals that at this late stage of the pandemic, the live music industry is still in flux.
Some of the most ambitious tours, like that of Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber, have been canceled – destroying months of meticulous planning and hundreds of millions of dollars in lost ticket sales. Adele postponed a Las Vegas residency in January, citing delays related to Covid-19. Arlo Parks, Santigold, Wet Leg, Disclosure and others also made the dramatic decision to cancel their entire tours, while others like the Strokes and Ringo Starr canceled individual shows.
There are many explanations for this, but in simple terms: musicians have returned from hibernation to a much more precarious landscape. The coronavirus still poses a threat, at least financially, and inflation has driven up the prices of everything from flights to snacks and gasoline.
Insurers cover visits in the event of disruption due to illnesses such as the flu, but do not compensate for unforeseen expenses due to the coronavirus.
Bill Zysblat, who has handled tours this year for Lady Gaga, the Rolling Stones, Sting, Steely Dan and Shania Twain, said the costs of canceling even one or two shows because of someone contracting coronavirus can be “huge”.
“If one of our stadium actors loses a show, it can be $3 million, $4 million, $5 million in expenses, because of everything from renting the stadium to having taken the plane and spent five days building the set, refunding the tickets,” the longtime music manager said.
He should know. In June, the Rolling Stones postponed a show in Amsterdam after Mick Jagger tested positive for coronavirus, while Sting earlier in the year had to cancel a series of performances due to an outbreak of coronavirus. “Any tour that loses a week or two because a musician has had Covid, from a financial point of view, it’s very dangerous,” Zysblat said.
These losses are significant because, for the past two decades, touring has been the financial lifeline of musicians. Sales of CDs have evaporated, and their replacement – streaming on Spotify – earns musicians relatively few royalties. As a result, musicians from all walks of life, from pop superstars to middle-aged songwriters, toured tirelessly, sometimes for years without a break.
Organizing a concert is physically demanding, and doing it for months has always been difficult from a mental health perspective. The pandemic has compounded these pressures.
Singer Santigold summed up on Tuesday what some musicians are going through. “After being inactive (not being able to perform) for the past two years, many of us, like everyone else, earning little or no income during this time, every musician who could, is rushed immediately when it has been deemed safe to do shows,” she said on Instagram, announcing the cancellation of her fall tour.
“We faced the peak of inflation – petrol, tour buses, hotels and flight costs soared – many of our hard hitting places were unavailable due to a flooded market of artists trying to book shows in the same cities, and positive test results constantly interrupt schedules with devastating financial consequences.
One potential solution is more “residencies” — stays in which artists play many shows back-to-back at the same location.
Las Vegas has long been home to residencies, which can be hugely profitable, but also carry the stigma of being a place for older acts that have reached their peak.
However, some young stars are increasingly open to residencies. Harry Styles recently performed 15 times in a row in New York, which allowed him to stay in one place for a month and save on travel expenses. He made similar stints in Austin, Chicago and Los Angeles.
“I don’t think enough of us are talking about it publicly,” Santigold said. “Where the music industry is, I feel like I’ve been hanging on, trying to reach the ever-further finish line, but my vehicle has collapsed all time.”