Touring is a mess right now. Here's why artists are doing it anyway

The potential loss of income from 1 positive case of the coronavirus is making touring a big challenge.

The potential loss of income from 1 positive case of the coronavirus is making touring a big challenge

We talked to Tamara Lindeman of the Weather Station, Cadence Weapon and Savannah Ré about the challenges of touring during a pandemic. (Daniel Dorsa; Scott Pilgrim; Kylah Mah; design by CBC Music)

Artists across Canada find themselves asking one crucial question right now: is touring worth the risk? It's is a costly endeavour, but it's also the way bands and solo performers make the majority of their income. Add to that the anxiety and risk of travelling during a pandemic that shows no signs of waning, and things are bound to get complicated. 

For the past year and a half, touring as a revenue stream has been a non-option. Like most other people who felt trapped at home, artists like Toronto singer-songwriter Ralph experienced extreme cabin fever. 

"I realize that I've become someone who really craves and thrives in the autonomy of leaving home and leaving my life behind while on tour," she said in a phone interview. "It was hard to remind myself that 'I am a performer' when I was just sitting at home in my pyjamas."

Now, with vaccination rates rising and provinces reaching the final stages of their reopening plans, music venues are back in action (with restrictions). Some artists are requiring attendees to be double vaccinated or to provide proof of a negative test at the door, but that doesn't mean asymptomatic infections won't slip through. 

Artists are eager to tour so they can make a living, but they're also yearning to satisfy an itch: to play the music they created while holed up at home or in the studio. They're ready to give the songs they wrote during the pandemic a new life. 

But artists like Tamara Lindeman of the Weather Station, Cadence Weapon and Jacques Greene are hitting roadblock after roadblock. Lindeman has been unable to find any insurance companies selling COVID-related insurance, so she can ensure her bandmates get paid even if their upcoming tour gets cut short. 

"[Insurers are] excluding COVID from everything — it's like how insurers won't cover flood insurance in flood-prone areas, it's because it's possible," said Lindeman during a FaceTime interview. 

Touring is already financially burdensome. For independent artists it means pouring money into marketing to promote their tours, paying for flights, tour vans, gas, food, hotels and more in the hopes that they get a decent return on investment. Lindeman estimates it will cost $10,000 a week when the Weather Station sets off on tour through North America, the United Kingdom and Europe in November. That's without additional COVID-related costs included, such as testing, which is $200 per person in Ontario. 

Managing the money

"Touring is one of the most expensive ways to make money," said Greene, over the phone from his home in Montreal after a three week-long tour through the United States. "Bands can make a decent amount of money touring but end up only making 10 per cent actual net profit."

On his recent tour, the DJ and producer played a bucket-list venue, Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, as part of the lineup for a day festival organized by British musician Bonobo. 

The tour started on a "euphoric high" but as the Delta variant started surging and breakthrough infections became rampant, Greene's anxiety began to spike. He started running over worst-case scenarios in his mind. "If I'd gotten sick at any point and had to quarantine and pay for the hotel and everything, all of the money I'd made on tour would have gone to that."

Lindeman posted a Twitter thread on Aug. 19, asking other bandleaders how they were managing the stress and financial pressure of going on tour. "I'm very determined to make my shows happen but the financial risk is just something that is hard to consider."

She believes that a contingency fund or an emergency grant from FACTOR or Ontario Arts Council could alleviate part of the burden, something that bands could apply to if they end up having to quarantine and cancel shows while on tour. The federal government created funding to help employ artists and to help the arts and culture sectors weather the pandemic. One example is the Support for Workers in Live Arts and Music Sectors Fund, but it hasn't taken any new applicants since June due to high demand. 

"The biggest part of the problem here is that bands don't usually have extra money lying around ... an emergency fund, to make sure that everyone's fed and housed while quarantining would make touring so much more possible for smaller bands," says Lindeman. 

'I am not an epidemiologist' 

Touring is very physically demanding, and artists need to ensure their bodies can withstand the onslaught of late nights, early mornings, long drives and little sleep. Staying healthy is a priority but even more so now that a sick team member can amount to thousands of dollars lost. 

Cadence Weapon played a show in Sudbury at Up Here Festival on Aug. 21, a four-hour drive north from Toronto, where he currently lives. "When I arrived, it was the first time I had to do a rapid test before I got to play," he said. "You're sitting in this room for 15 minutes waiting for the results and if it shows that bad colour, you just came to Sudbury for no reason. It's wild, this new level of stress on top of the regular rigours of touring."

Touring acts will have to restrict how much they interact with fans — meet and greets, merch table hangouts and crashing on fans' couches (as Cadence used to do back in the day) are things of the past. They'll have to skip the afterparties and avoid any unnecessary exposure. All because one positive test can bring their entire tour to a halt.  

Ralph finds herself facing a moral query. She would rather everyone be double vaccinated when she's performing at an indoor venue, for her peace of mind and for the safety of other attendees, but she doesn't want to make her shows inaccessible to people who can't get vaccinated for health reasons. "I'd basically be limiting their access to music, which should be a right for everybody."

Saints and Sinners, a multi-band tour including Headstones, Sloan, Moist and the Tea Party, was cancelled on Aug. 20 with no plans to reschedule. They had shows booked from British Columbia to Quebec. In a press release, the bands expressed frustration at the "immovable pandemic-related roadblocks and regional restrictions, making it impossible to keep our dates for this November." 

I am not an epidemiologist, this is not my job. I would really like to stay in my lane and just think about what drum kit we're bringing.- Tamara Lindeman, the Weather Station

Regulations and restrictions around venue capacity and mask mandates differ from city to city and country to country. In Ontario, indoor-seated venues are at 50 per cent capacity or 1,000 people, whichever is filled first. In Quebec, if the venue has more than 250 people then it needs to have assigned, distanced seating. British Columbia is expected to enter its final phase, Step 4, of its reopening plan on Sept. 7, meaning increased capacity for large organized gatherings, and masks will no longer be mandatory indoors. In Newfoundland, no more than 500 people can gather indoors or outdoors, and events of that size are only permitted if run by a recognized business or organization. And that's just a glimpse of the many guidelines across Canada. The U.S. is another story all together, with many venues running at full capacity.

It's been difficult for artists to get clear information about crossing borders and testing requirements, with different government websites having contradictory information. 

"I've been asked to make a few decisions lately and I am not an epidemiologist, this is not my job," said Lindeman. "I would really like to stay in my lane and just think about what drum kit we're bringing. In the absence of clear guidelines for what venues should be doing or what artists should be doing, we have to make these decisions."

Crossing borders

Even travel within Canadian borders is tricky since some artists live in provinces with rising case numbers, but are travelling to provinces that have a better handle on the pandemic. 

The 11th iteration of Lawnya Vawnya, a festival in St. John's, ran from Aug. 25 to 28 and artists from Ontario and Quebec, including Backxwash, Cots and DijahSB, were on the lineup. 

Executive director Chrissy Dicks wrote in an email that they made the decision to "scale back the number of visiting artists from out of province this year but just feel lucky that we can include them in-person at all for the first time since 2019." All out-of-province acts had to be double vaccinated. 

The festival kept the well-being of its small island community at the forefront of its programming decisions, not wanting to fill venues just because they could. They kept shows at around 70 per cent capacity to leave extra room for social distancing. Masks were encouraged, there was contact tracing at every venue and attendees had to stay two metres away from anyone outside of their bubbles when possible.

"We've been very fortunate throughout the pandemic here in Newfoundland," said Dicks. "We haven't had to deal with the same challenges or prolonged lockdowns that the rest of the country has and I feel incredibly fortunate for that. In a geographically unique place on an island, we have to stay vigilant and move cautiously through all of this."

In terms of crossing the border to go to the United States, all the artists we spoke to feel safer touring there now that they are double vaccinated. However, there is still concern about how open everything seems to be. As of Aug. 27, 39 per cent of American adults had not received a first dose of the vaccine according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 77 per cent of the country's ICU beds were occupied, according to data from Axios. And yet, many states are running business as usual: clubs, arenas and theatres are at full capacity, with no masks required indoors. 

Cadence Weapon has played several shows in Canada since venues started opening again, but he kicks off a 13-city American tour with fellow rapper Fat Tony in September. "It's different in America, people are further ahead with the idea of living with COVID." 

Some of the venues he's playing have mandates about vaccination, but not all. His concern is more about other people being at risk, not himself. "I don't want to endanger an audience, you know, it's more about the other people, especially in cities where people aren't widely vaccinated."

For the love of the music 

Despite shows looking and feeling different for the foreseeable future, the intangible magic of live performance persists. Toronto R&B singer Savannah Ré is hoping to tour in the new year but in the meantime, she's playing a sold-out headlining show in September and she finally gets to perform the songs from her debut EP, Opia. It was released in November 2020, while the city was in lockdown. She's performing at the Axis Club, formerly known as the Mod Club, a storied Toronto venue that was shut down in 2020. It's now under new management. 

Many shows are selling out as soon as they're announced. Ré's sold out within 12 hours, and it's clear music fans are craving the return of concerts after months of live-streamed performances. Greene experienced live-stream fatigue as a performer quite early on in the pandemic, missing the tangible elements of performing to an in-person audience. Greene was reminded on his recent tour that "no amount of online engagement is comparable to a group of four kids in the front row of a show, bouncing around to the track."

Music takes on new meaning when it's shared. As Ré fantasizes about what it will be like to return to the stage, she anticipates a very emotional homecoming.

"Releasing Opia [during the pandemic] was so uncertain, but it helped me to get through this really rocky time," she said. "People messaged me saying this project was like listening to their life being told back to them, and that's via the internet, so I can't wait to share that connection in real life when I perform the songs. I just want us to go on that journey together, the sweat, tears, and laughter. I can't wait."