The live music industry is in big trouble. Here’s why

Shawn Mendes fans were disappointed last summer when the singer announced he was canceling some shows for the second time in 18 months to focus on his mental health. He broke the news via Instagram.

“I’ve been touring since I was 15 and to be honest it’s always been difficult to be on the road without friends and family. After a few years off the road I felt like I was ready to dive back in but that decision was premature and unfortunately the toll of the road and the pressure caught up with me and I’ve reached a breaking point. After speaking to my team and healthcare professionals, I need to take some time to heal and take care of myself and my mental health first and foremost.”

Mendes wasn’t the only one. Justin Bieber, Santigold, Lindsey Buckingham, Sam Fender, Wet Leg, Lady A, Disclosure and Arlo Parks have also canceled tours, all citing burnout and mental health issues.

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A British band called the Yard Act were waiting at Stansted Airport to set off on a European tour when vocalist James Smith decided he just couldn’t go on. When he raised concerns, he found that the rest of the group, along with their crew, felt the same way. So they went home.

There’s more. What’s happening? A lot, it turns out.

Live Nation, the world’s largest promoter, predicts that 2023 will be a massive year for live music. After two years of being sidelined by COVID-19, artists are recreating postponed dates from 2020 and 2021. Meanwhile, new tours are underway as the music industry tries to get back to normal. The stresses were so enormous that things seem to be bursting at the seams.

Here are the problems.

Inflation is crazy

This is the root cause of almost everything. As everywhere, inflation hammers on tour. With so many artists on the road, it’s harder to rent gear, so prices have gone up. So many roadies and technicians have left the business that there is a labor shortage. When you find someone for your tour, ask for more. Gasoline for the van and truck costs more. Booking flights is difficult and expensive. Hotels are more expensive. In the UK, crushing energy prices are leading to venues asking for government help. Many of them may not survive the winter. This could be worse than COVID.

Animal Collective, a successful medium-sized American band with a solid following, decided to cancel a European tour due to “inflation, currency devaluation, inflated shipping and transportation costs, and much, much more.”

Some artists who have played makeup dates did so with budgets that were in place in 2019. The prices, meanwhile, have risen so much that when they got home they found that this was indeed the case lost Money plays a series of sold-out dates. Arooj Aftab, a Grammy winner, had a big headlining tour with big crowds nevertheless returned home with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

Then we have the case of Cassandra Jenkins, a singer-songwriter who tried to cut costs by touring with just two other musicians instead of a full band. When her plan reached a promoter, he threatened to cut her fee. At the same time, we must remember that the promoter had its own problems with inflation.

COVID is not over yet

While we want to pretend that COVID is behind us, it is not. Acts are still getting sick, forcing them to cancel shows.

With margins so tight and costs so high, canceling a few shows can put an entire tour in the red.

Too many shows and tickets are too expensive

It’s not your imagination. The average price for a concert ticket is higher this year. Promoters and venues hit by higher costs are passing things along to fans. Insurance coverage increased after last year’s Astroworld disaster. People have to decide if they want to spend that kind of money in an environment where the artist could cancel the gig.

Higher ticket prices also mean people can’t afford fewer shows. Stories about Ticketmaster’s “dynamic pricing” model don’t help either. (Here is an example.)

The strong US dollar

The more the US Federal Reserve raises interest rates and the more economic and political uncertainty arises, the higher the US dollar rises.

With much of the concert industry running on US dollars, non-US acts often face higher foreign taxes. For example, Canadian acts wishing to tour America must pay a number of fees before they are allowed to cross the border. Every time the loonie ticks down, more costs and stress are added.

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This is a typically British problem. Before the UK left the EU, acts were free to travel the continent without having to worry about customs and visas.

No longer.

Between the time spent crossing to Europe and the money spent on paperwork, British acts are being smashed. And the pound’s recent plunge hasn’t helped either.

The need to keep touring to survive leads to exhaustion and despair

For many artists, streaming doesn’t pay the bills, so playing live has become the main source of income. There’s increasing pressure on cast members to play more and more dates just to pay the bills.

The result? burnout and breakdown.

Something has to change. Garbage’s Shirley Manson went public with concerns that sounded more like a cry for help for artists everywhere. She points out that when the live music scene collapses, everything falls apart. If a band with a history and profile of Garbage struggles, I can’t imagine what it’s like for artists who haven’t been as successful.

The best news at this point is that we’re heading into the Christmas break, a three or four week period when almost everyone goes home to rest.

Will it be enough for artists to come back to this in 2023? If inflation isn’t tamed, the US dollar falls, Brexit gets resolved, Putin admits defeat in Ukraine, and everyone starts making more from streaming, probably not.

Be scared. Be very, very afraid.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster on Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe now to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast on Apple Podcast or Google Play

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