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The price of touring: How an essential tradition threatens to kill music

I think it’s safe to say that being a musician is no longer what it was. With the proliferation of the internet at the turn of the millennium, things started to change markedly and rapidly for the music industry. Physical copies of music such as CDs and vinyl became all but obsolete as streaming and online piracy took over, meaning that artists and labels were now dealing with a completely different landscape. For the first time in history, the ball was booted out of the musician’s court, and it landed with a thud in the consumer’s. 

This shift to the internet led many to believe that the last bastion of commercial viability for the artist was the live circuit. It was on the road across our towns and cities that the money lost to streaming would be recouped, and for some, this was just fine; if you’re not in it to perform live, then what are you really in it for? 

However, this was not the case. Pretty much since the early hours of January 1st, 2000, musicians have been faced with an increasingly hazardous challenge. Of course, the biggest selling acts on the planet were left practically unscathed by this change, having already made their money from physical sales, but what about everybody else?

Over the past 22 years, musicians, particularly independent ones, have faced something of an existential crisis. They need their music on streaming services such as Spotify in order to reach the maximum amount of listeners possible, but because they’re not paid adequately, with Spotify paying a measly $0.0033 per stream, there is even more impetus to head out on the road, but there’s one major catch. 

The expenses of touring are at an all-time high, leading to an extensive swathe of our favourite musicians being waterboarded with a yard of grimly ironic ale. From skyrocketing fuel and food costs to venues taking a 25% cut of merchandise sales, the ever-expanding pot that musicians once had to support themselves is now dwindling, to say the least. 

Touring is becoming invariably financially draining, and this is having adverse effects on music as a whole. Added to this is that outside of music, the rising costs of living are starting to have an effect on the personal lives of musicians, and surely this is where the line has to be drawn. 

You may be thinking that this affects only artists who have reached a level and want to take a step up to academy sized venues, but it doesn’t. Some of the most prominent contemporary artists, those who have chosen to remain independent, are also affected by the costs of tours, which is lowering the ceiling for them, affecting the overall chances of greater commercial success in the future. It’s a catch-22 situation and one that’s been left ignored for too long. 

Just last week, rapper Little Simz, one of the UK’s most exciting artists, who has nearly three million Spotify listeners a month, and 89 million streams on her track ‘Venom’, shocked fans when she cancelled her US tour, citing her financial woes as an independent artist. “I take my live shows seriously and would only want to give you guys nothing but the best of me,” she tweeted. “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. 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.”

If Little Simz, who released the critically acclaimed Brit Award-nominated album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert just last September cannot afford to embark on an 11-date tour of the US, it is clear that music is in grave danger. 

Does this mean that independent artists should bite the glittering hand of the major labels? No. Little Simz released Sometimes partly through AWAL, Sony Music’s subsidiary that serves as an alternative to the ‘traditional’ music label, offering deal structures to artists and independent labels without them giving up ownership or control. So in many ways, she’s had the best of both worlds and still can’t afford to embark on a relatively small run in the US. 

What Little Simz is experiencing is just one flashpoint in musicians’ battle to keep their endeavours commercially viable. Whilst cancelling her tour in America isn’t enough to make her pack it in altogether, it does indicate that to tour in a different country, let alone America, you need to be a Grammy Award-winning A-lister with the backing of a major label. It also asks the question of where artists such as Little Simz go from here, but that’s a story for another day.

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Wanting to reflect on the struggle faced by musicians of artistic credibility and commercial potential, I reached out to an old friend. Jordan Smith is the bassist/synth player of Hull’s finest export, Bdrmm, and he had a lot to say on the matter. Without a doubt, Bdrmm are one of the UK’s most exciting outfits, and they’ve been almost constantly on the road since 2017, dazzling everyone with their hypnotic blend of shoegaze, post-punk and electronic. 

The quartet are currently out on tour with Oxford legends Ride and are set to join Mogwai on their European run at the end of this month, including a show at London’s iconic Alexandra Palace. With over 250,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, and three tracks with over a million streams, the boys are in no way small fry, and like Little Simz, they are at the mouth of the river, with the endless blue expanse in front of them looking incredibly promising. 

Despite the shimmering promise of the future, touring provides many challenges. Although they have managed to successfully dodge all that has come their way so far, it has not been easy, and unsurprisingly, the cost of touring has had an effect on how they approach it, forcing the band to spilt into their lives outside of the van. 

I asked Jordan how his experience of touring has been affected by how expensive it is. Outlining just how costly it is, he said: “As our live shows are starting to require full-back lines and more and more equipment, we need to hire bigger vans, ideally with places to sleep too. Pairing this with the growing prices for fuel, and the general cost of living, makes touring life become a Sophie’s choice of whether to feed ourselves with money we make on merch or use it to get to the next venue.”

“I think we’ve become more economical with how we go about our work now. I work part-time in hospitality and specifically save money so that I can eat on tour, missing meals so I can fund one big one after we play, or just eating the rider that has been provided. The idea of us laying down the cash to do these shows before getting paid, in say, a month post-show brings a level of financial conflict into touring that maybe wasn’t so inconvenient before 2020,” Smith continued. 

Whilst the prospect of missing meals or one meal a day may seem incredibly bleak, this hasn’t deterred Bdrmm, and if anything, it’s made them more determined than ever to succeed. 

(Credit: Bdrmm)

Offering up some positive words of encouragement to any artist trying to make it but are weary of the economic pressures, he maintained: “You’ll be surprised at what you can make happen when you’re surrounded by like-minded individuals who all want the same outcome as you. We’ve managed to play insane venues turning up in a Dacia Duster with me and Ry (Smith, Bdrmm) sharing a seat, so we can fit a full drum kit in too. I’d say don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t feel like it’s viable. If you’re passionate about music and this is what you want to do, then do it!”

Jordan’s candid outline of life on the road for a band in 2022 tells us many things, including the sacrifices that musicians have to make. It may seem overblown, but it’s not. Without these kinds of sacrifices, the global touring circuit would be barren, and we’d be without the wealth of shows that we’re so lucky for and take for granted. In fact, culture as a whole would be devoid of one of its most colourful and welcoming facets, which like environmental collapse, is a grim prospect we need to stop from becoming a reality.

So how do we move on from here? Well, it’s clear that there are three ways things are going to improve for musicians, even if they seem slightly out of reach at this moment in time. 

The first is that streaming companies, namely Spotify, pay artists what they are owed, and with pressure being increased on Daniel Ek’s company daily, one day, we hope that they change the quite frankly criminal amount they pay artists in royalties. 

The second is that venues stop taking 25% cuts of the merchandise, and with pressure now mounting on major companies such as the Academy Music Group to revoke this practice, thanks to the likes of Tim Burgess and Dry Cleaning taking action, one day, this too might change. 

The third is only a pipedream, but we can only hope. The cost of living needs to fall drastically, but only the opposite is a certainty given global events. We all know how to fix this, but without getting bogged down in a political and philosophical morass, I’ll finish the point with this: It’s not just the price of food that’s affected by the global economic system. It’s the price of music, the price of entertainment, the price of enjoying life as we know it. Musicians are standing on the edge of the precipice right now, and it’s up to us as consumers to save them. Buy the physical copy, the merch where possible, and more importantly, go to as many live shows as possible. 

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