On a humid Friday night last week, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival returned to its Jericho Beach glory after two quiet years, presenting bands that survived the worst of the COVID years and made it to the West Coast in spite of it all.
“Thank you guys so much for coming. My god, it’s so nice to see your lovely faces,” Pascale Padilla, of the Toronto indie duo Housewife, told the crowd.
“All right, let’s do this. Wait, no, I have to tune first,” lead singer Brighid Fry added. “We will be doing a lot of tuning in this set.”
A lot of tuning, because the duo – who have rebranded from their former name, Moscow Apartment – doesn’t have its normal supply of guitars on hand. There are lots of reasons not to take instruments on airplanes these days – the cost, the justified fear of lost luggage, the cancellations and delays.
“It’s more expensive, more chaotic and more scary now,” Fry says of air travel. Scary because they don’t want to get COVID again, especially if they’re away from home. Especially if they’re preparing for a big gig.
Frazey Ford, a Vancouver musician who also played the festival, recently waited nearly five hours in a security line at the Amsterdam airport and almost didn’t make her flight. “Even for a domestic flight, we have to get to the airport three, four hours early. There’s this concern of, are you going to make these connections? The airlines will randomly reshuffle all of the tickets,” Ford said in an interview. Then there’s the worry of someone getting sick. “Everybody fronts all these costs for their tours and just hopes that their crew doesn’t go down.”
For Ford – like so many other acts – these are tours her manager has booked and rebooked multiple times, under duress, through waves of the ongoing pandemic. “I’m thankful she hasn’t thrown in the towel, because it’s just been exhausting.”
By all appearances, the live music business in Canada is booming this summer after two years of relative hibernation. The recent Winnipeg Folk Festival, for example, drew 74,000 attendees – just shy of the record 76,000 people who showed up three years ago.
Behind the scenes, however, the picture is troubling. Mid-level acts and working-class artists in particular are struggling with logistical issues and surging costs. Crew members are in short supply; people have left the business after two dry years. Bands can’t find crew vans, tour buses or even car rentals. West Coast alt-rocker Art d’Ecco was floored by a quote he recently received for a rental van – $14,000 for a single week. Even if bands locate a tour bus, drivers are in short supply and the price of fuel is elevated. “These things are giant gas guzzlers,” d’Ecco says. “And you’re driving maybe eight hours a day.”
On top of it all, many musicians are being paid performance fees initially negotiated in 2020 or 2021. Now, finally playing the postponed gigs, the inflated 2022 expenses have them hoping to break even at best. At worst? The pop band Stars tweeted that they were $20,000 in the hole after a sold-out West Coast tour of the U.S. in June.
“As long as we’re just getting over a hump, I think anyone can get through exceptionally difficult circumstances,” says Conner Molander of Montreal band Half Moon Run. “But if this is the new norm, it’s going to be a big problem.”
While glad to be back on stage, Molander and others who spoke to The Globe and Mail for this article characterized the logistical nightmare this summer as a perfect storm, caused, in part, by the stampede of bands and artists hitting the road all at once in support of the backlog of albums that have been released in the last two and a half years.
Over a six-week span this spring, indie-music publicity and media company Killbeat Music had more than 30 of its artists performing on stages in Toronto alone. “I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Killbeat’s Ken Beattie says. “Not even close.”
Though the pent-up demand for live music is being met, there are only so many shows music fans can afford to attend. “Outside of festivals, when you start going into indoor settings like bars, clubs and theatres, ticket sales aren’t what they were pre-pandemic, or even what they are for shows this fall,” says Toronto soul/roots-rock singer Samantha Martin.
On July 28, Martin and her band Delta Sugar are booked to play Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern. In the past, Martin would have sold upwards of 300 advance tickets by now, this close to the show. This summer, she’s sold half that. “People are going to the arena concerts instead,” Martin says. “They’re still holding onto tickets for all those postponed big tours from last year and the year before.”
In time, touring schedules will relax, the scarcity of touring necessities will recede and logistical issues will resolve. Some bands – especially emerging acts – might not make it until then. And the unsold tickets of today could have repercussions for years to come. “I have a serious concern that if I play somewhere this summer and the room is half empty, that reflects that the promoter paid too much for me,” says Juno-nominated singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards. “It might just be the circumstances of there being a backlog of artists who want to get back on the road and earn a living right now, but maybe my guaranteed fee will be cut in half when I tour next summer.”
Looking to merchandise sales to make up for some of the lost revenues, artists are dealing with supply chain issues – for vinyl, in particular. LPs are a popular item at many merch tables.
“It’s just a wild time, honestly,” Ford says. “I personally am finding the experience of being back in the world and the speed and the pace that we haven’t had for years – it just feels much harder, in a way. We’re kind of going to back to business as usual, but things aren’t as usual; they’re very different.”
Touring musicians are implementing solutions and workarounds to make summer touring possible. Here are some ways they’re making it work:
Trimming expenses: “I’m going back to festivals, telling them that I know I agreed to bring a 10-piece band, but it’s not possible right now, financially, so I’m bringing a seven-piece,” Martin says. “I just can’t afford to bring my beautiful horn section on the road.”
Have venue, will travel: Singer-songwriter Michael Bernard Fitzgerald bypasses traditional venues, dispenses with costly hotels and doesn’t bother with scarce tour vans. Instead, he rents a travel trailer and sets up a large tent in farm fields for his solo-acoustic performances across Canada. “It was a decision borne out of the pandemic in 2020, but now it just feels like there’s so much creative room with this kind of set-up.”
Find a friend: Art d’Ecco, after getting that “insane” quote and renting a substandard van for an East Coast tour (the “door open” chime would not stop pinging), will rent one “for peanuts” this summer from Vancouver band Said the Whale. “Really, they’re saving our tour.”
No-fly zones: Worried about cancelled flights and lost luggage, artists are avoiding airlines. “Instead of flying somebody back and forth from Toronto to Vancouver between shows, I’m going to have to put up some of my band in a Vancouver hotel for a week,” Kathleen Edwards says. “I don’t feel like I have any other choice.”
More merch: D’Ecco’s merchandise sales “skyrocketed” after changing the payment system from cash-and-carry to a more high-tech solution. With a QR code at the merch table, customers can buy stuff easily with their phones, with the cash going directly into the band’s PayPal (or Venmo, or Square). “It’s such a game-changer.”
Raising ticket prices As reported this month popular concert tickets are nearly 20-per-cent more expensive than they were pre-pandemic. “There’s a sticker shock going on right now with higher ticket prices,” Samantha Martin says. “Fans are worried they can’t afford it, but I can’t afford to play for less.”