'One day at a time': what it's like for Ontario band Whoop-Szo to tour during COVID-19
Out of a nearly 6-week, 40-date tour, the London, Ont., band may only end up playing 2 shows
"It's been kind of a rigmarole ... not even a day-by-day consequence, but minute-by-minute, hour-to-hour kind of shifts," says Adam Sturgeon of Whoop-Szo, as he and his bandmates drive their way from Cleveland to New York City in a newly bought van.
Just over a week ago, the London, Ont., band's schedule for the next six weeks was full. The psych-rock band released its critically acclaimed second album, Warrior Down, in November 2019, and was set to head out on tour mid-March with a small-venue route booked for their drive down to Austin's South by Southwest festival through Side Door (an organization co-founded by Dan Mangan and Laura Simpson that matches artists with venue hosts). Three shows at the Treefort Music Festival in Boise, Idaho, would follow, and a whole slew of Canadian dates would take them from the West Coast back to Ontario for Record Store Day on April 20.
Now, that tour schedule gets emptier by the hour. On March 6, South by Southwest cancelled all its events due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and then everything else started to drop. All of Whoop-Szo's previously planned American tour dates through to the end of March have been cancelled and, as Sturgeon was talking to CBC Music midday on March 13, Record Store Day was postponed to June 20. Sturgeon says he isn't hopeful that the April dates — of what would've been a nearly 40-date tour — will still exist soon.
"Those now are, I would say, probably on the chopping block," he says.
But Whoop-Szo is still on the road for two reasons: the bandmates had to get their visas in the States anyway, and they picked up two show dates in New York City this weekend, at the New Colossus Festival in the Lower East Side. (Both shows are at the Bowery Electric, with a capacity of 200 people. As of March 12, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had announced a ban on gatherings of 500 people or more. On the same day, N.Y.C. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that venues with less than a 500-person capacity would be capped at 50 per cent occupancy.) The band was added to the bill with fellow Canadian Begonia, who was also headed to South by Southwest.
It's an ever-changing situation for artists everywhere. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing governments to adapt their policies in what feels like hourly increments, bands, promoters and venues alike are cancelling for the foreseeable future.
On March 12, Montreal-based event promoter Evenko cancelled all Quebec events for the next 30 days, just after Quebec Premier François Legault announced that the province would ban all indoor events with more than 250 people in attendance. Event promoter and venue operator Live Nation is also reportedly cancelling all its shows — in North America and internationally — through to the end of March, which would affect tours for artists like Billie Eilish, Elton John, Mandy Moore and Post Malone.
"As far as losses are concerned, we bought a new van, but we had to do that anyway," says Sturgeon. "So we're not really looking at that as a problem. But, you know, we haven't had too many cancellation fees or anything like that. So we're basically fine."
He is being optimistic. The bandmates are also adjusting for the future, deciding not to do another pressing of Warrior Down because now they won't have the money. And while they're not losing money from the cancellations, they're not making it, either. The costs that Sturgeon sees most plainly are less visible.
"Where I see the losses though is in our personal lives, right?" he adds. (As a teacher, Sturgeon's also returning home to a suspended job.) "So people have taken the time off work. Each one of us has a different scenario. So each one of us is feeling that in different ways."
The band members live in different cities, so there are plenty of expenses to get everyone together to rehearse in preparation for a six-week tour. The five members booked their time off, left their families and set off for that planned six weeks. Now they have two definite tour dates, a new van and nowhere to go but home after New York City.
"Thankfully we've been a band for so long that we can kind of work that out," says Sturgeon.
"But I imagine that maybe some other bands might have some challenges dealing with that stuff, right? I mean, we're definitely in a challenged position."
In a similar situation, Ben Cook, member of Toronto hardcore band F--ked Up and leader of Young Guv, posted a GoFundMe page to get everyone back home after the Young Guv tour had been cancelled.
"We were depending on this tour to pay our way through our travels," Cook wrote. "The mounting costs related to touring, gas, accommodations, and musician's fees have driven me deep into the red financially. To make things worse, I, along with every member of my band, currently have no place to go, as we have all sublet our rooms for the month of March."
On the flip side, plenty of artists are cancelling or postponing their own tours, including Sarah Harmer, Avril Lavigne, Michael Bublé and Wolf Parade. Sturgeon says he and bandmates Kirsten Kurvink Palm, Joe Thorner, Andrew Lennox and Eric Lourenco talked about just staying home, and they're still evaluating that decision day by day.
Asked why he didn't cancel entirely, considering the health risks, Sturgeon pauses.
"I don't know," he answers. "We're just kind of waiting, you know? We're not the type to be playing in too much to the narratives. We're thinking of our safety and all that, of course, and we're being mindful of that and taking precautions. But also, you know, if we had a show in London right now, it would probably take place … but we're just being mindful, we're really washing our hands and taking better care and doing all those small things.
"One day at a time."