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Alliz Espi, tour manager for Los Angeles-based singer and multi-instrumentalist Louis Cole and a handful of other artists, said they couldn’t always use the airline credits they’d held onto after shows were postponed if tour routes ended up changing.

“With rebooking new flights, flight prices increased, which meant we sometimes spent more than the original ticket vouchered,” she said.

And in 2022, any foray through Europe — Cole had one this year — has had to contend with a string of airline strikes. Even if you show up at an airport four to five hours early, you can still miss your flight if only two or three security checkpoints are open, Espi said.

‘Thousands of dollars to sit in a room’

Meanwhile, thousands of people are still getting COVID-19 every day. William Tyler, a Nashville musician who has played guitar for bands like Lambchop and the Silver Jews and who works as a solo artist, said he got hit with a breakthrough infection from the Delta variant last year. The week-plus quarantine, spent in a hotel in New York, forced him to cancel a tour.

“I was spending thousands of dollars to sit in a room, basically,” he said. He added: “I never really have felt cavalier or confident, even, about touring since then.”

On a good night for a solo concert, he said, he can make up to $2,000. But he said some tours he’d signed on for this year required him to fly to one city, rent a car and return it to a different city.

“Factor in hotels and gas and all of that, and just realizing that what I was going to net was, frankly, break-even, at this point in my career, I just sort of don’t want to do stuff like that,” he said.

Spencer Peppet, who sings and plays guitar for the Ophelias, an indie-folk band that formed in Cincinnati, said the band was still asking people to wear masks at shows. Fans largely have done so, she said, even though most venues don’t require it.

“The touring climate has changed a lot,” she said. “I feel more of a responsibility to keep my bandmates safe, and it can be overwhelming when most things are completely out of our control.”

‘The hardest thing of this tour’

Meanwhile, experienced crew members are in short supply and have hiked what they charge to keep up with their own cost of living. Freedman, the manager for Snarky Puppy, said less experienced crews are more common.

“It’s been the hardest thing of this tour,” said Freedman. “Local crew who tell me it’s their first day on the job, and no one to show them what to do.”

Concert venues, meanwhile, are trying to dig themselves out from the lockdowns of 2020 and are sometimes struggling to pay more to attract workers. Nailing down show schedules has become more difficult.

“The trouble we now have is guarantees need to be much higher than they were, in order to cover additional travel,” Hall said. “But people aren’t paying higher guarantees because they can’t afford crew.”

Dayna Frank, the board president of the National Independent Venue Association and the chief executive of a company that runs venues and promotes shows in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., said costs across the board at those venues had jumped between 25% and 30% compared with pre-COVID levels. In September, she said the company, First Avenue Productions — whose venues include the First Avenue Mainroom and 7th St Entry — had canceled 17 shows.

With cancellations more common, she said, local music and events that aren’t as dependent on touring, like dance nights, could become more important heading into next year. But she said even with those adjustments, the explosion of the secondary-ticket market is siphoning money away from the people doing the work to put on shows. So-called “speculative” ticket scams have led to confusion at the door.

“It hurts the venue and the artists and the local economy,” Frank said. “We rely, especially as a small business, on people going to a lot of shows and making live music and live events a part of their culture. So anytime somebody pays more for that, and especially when it’s not going to benefit the artist, it’s damaging. So it’s a huge priority to help fans find tickets at face value.”

More musicians are trying to organize in an effort to secure greater protections. Peppet, of the Ophelias, said she joined the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers in 2020, not long after it formed, in an effort to secure pandemic unemployment aid for musicians. She said she’s pushing for things like healthcare, artist grants and gear libraries, and for abolishing merch cuts — or the slice many venues take from merchandise sales. Marc Ribot, a guitarist and acting chair for the Music Workers Alliance, said tech platforms, labels and live-music presenters were exploiting artists’ work.

“The real question isn’t (only?) why the flight to the gig was expensive: It’s why the gig didn’t pay enough to cover it even though ticket prices have gone through the roof,” he said over email.

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The MWA, founded in 2019, helped secure pandemic-related aid for artists in the New York state budget. But Ribot said arts policy, and funding, has focused on venues, and that governments at all levels failed to understand the importance of touring to a vibrant arts ecosystem. He said no tour insurance currently covers cancellations related to COVID.

“Often, the incredible risks of this environment have outweighed the benefits,” Ribot said. “Inflation is just one more weight on the negative scale.”

Lost luggage, staying home

For artists with years of touring under their belt, the backdrop has also played a role in changing how they think about touring altogether. Lateef Daumont, a rapper in Oakland, Calif., better known as Lateef the Truthspeaker, said artists eventually face the question of whether touring — in cities that know you and cities that don’t — is worth the time. The answer, he said, is different for everyone.

“Does it make more sense for me to be spinning my wheels in Mississippi or Memphis than it does right here in my backyard, with people that I love that can come out and see it, create something that’s artistic that’s a real example of my stuff?” he said.

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Daumont, who has also taken on responsibility for his crew’s Quannum music label, said that more recently, he’s been helping put together more events. But he said artists could be asking for more than what they’re used to, and that more money was flowing into new venues than people thought.

“I feel like artists entered into this after the pandemic and, understandably, after not working, coming back and being like ‘Hey, let me just get that $5,000 I was getting paid beforehand,'” he said. “Meanwhile, on the corporate side, they’re more than willing to shell out more money” to open and support new clubs and other investments.

For those who are still touring, the benefits are sometimes inadvertent. Espi, the tour manager for Cole, said that when they arrived on the Italian island of Sardinia during their tour this summer, their luggage didn’t make it, leaving them without clothing or equipment. For the next seven days, she said, they squeezed in trips between shows to buy clothes at whatever shops they could find, including a beach shop in Fano where they found pink shorts, sailor hats and other beachwear that they wore onstage. As for the luggage, it got back to everyone nearly a month later.

“They did look absolutely awesome, though,” she said.

-Bill Peters


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