The Toronto power pop band had just hit the road, and their first show was in Detroit. But the vibe was off. People came out, but they seemed nervous. On their phones, everyone was watching major tours get cancelled, along with sports leagues starting with the NBA. When the group moved on to Cincinnati the next day, the local bands dropped off the show at the last minute. The same thing happened the next day in Columbus.
"Things were feeling a little more tense, so we pulled the plug and came home," says Matty Morand. "I was also feeling like it was irresponsible to be travelling and asking people to come to the shows when I can't possibly know what we have come in contact with."
Musicians all over Canada can tell a similar story. As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the globe and social distancing has become a vital component of the strategy to stop or slow its spread, concerts with dozens, hundreds or thousands of people dancing, singing and screaming in close quarters go against society's current rule against mass gatherings.
Major festivals and international arena tours were among the first to come to a screeching halt. SXSW was cancelled. Coachella was postponed. The Juno Awards were cancelled. Live Nation and AEG suspended all their tours. In no time, just about everyone else with shows on the near horizon had come to the same conclusion. The show must not go on.
The spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 has led to thousands of people dying and many, many more falling ill. It has also devastated businesses and industries and will have long-lasting effects on the global economy. That includes the music industry, where artists' livelihoods depend on the live concert experience more than perhaps any other time in history. With notoriously paltry sums coming from online streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music and the purchases of physical albums offering nowhere near the earnings that they once did, musicians make most of their money from hitting the road and playing lots and lots of shows.
What happens when the venues are all empty?
"Ninety percent of our income is made through touring and merch," says Stefan Babcock, singer of the Toronto punk band PUP, who were nearing the end of a West Coast U.S. tour when it was suddenly cut short. "It's a pretty major blow to us financially."
Many other artists — probably most of them — are in a similar situation. And Babcock's estimate of 90 percent is not an exaggeration; many artists interviewed for this piece quoted a similar figure. Beyond ticket sales or cash at the door, there are other income sources that come from touring such as meet and greets, VIP access packages and, most popularly, merch sales. Those secondary and tertiary revenue generators vanish along with the gigs. Not only that, but some artists fear that if they're not out there performing, they'll fall off the radar.
"I am definitely out of pocket thousands of dollars and lost many more in income," says singer-songwriter Alex Cuba, who was forced to postpone his U.S. tour that was scheduled for late March and early April. "The money from touring is about a third of my yearly net income. It is more like two-thirds of gross, but involves a lot of expenses. The catch is, will people still find me on streaming and digital if I am not active? I'm not an industry expert but my numbers go up on digital platforms around the world when I am touring. All the dollars that go into a tour for travel and publicity keep me visible to my fans."
Some artists were not only unfortunate enough just to have been forced to cancel or postpone a tour, they were especially unlucky to have to do so in the middle of it. Young Guv, the solo project of Canadian musician Ben Cook, ended up temporarily stranded in Texas.
"Every tour is carefully budgeted and every single night matters," says Cook, who has been touring for almost 25 years, mostly with Fucked Up and No Warning. "To have a tour get cancelled halfway through with all these expenses," Cook says, "left me in a very tight place financially. New flights needed to be purchased. A few of us have apartments subletted for the rest of the month and when this tour was canned, we had really no place to go."
Drew Thomson of London, ON, had been on tour for a few weeks with his solo project and planned to carry on with his band Single Mothers for seven more weeks afterward. "I knew we would take a big loss on the first tour but that we would make it up on the second," he explains. "The first tour got cut short and the Single Mothers one didn't even get a chance to start, so it's a massive hit financially. There is very little money in this, so planning ahead and trying to balance the books takes a lot of time and effort. When it doesn't go right, it all kind of crumbles."
Halifax indie group Nap Eyes, meanwhile, had gone through a long stretch without touring and were itching to get on the road to support their upcoming record Snapshot of a Beginner.
"By the start of this year, our finances were already stretched very thin, but we finally had the prospect of 44 shows ahead of us in the first half of the year," says the band's singer, Nigel Chapman. "After completing seven of them, all the rest have been cancelled due to the virus threat. This puts a major burden on the four members of our band. In addition, we're faced with the reality of losing the most effective means of promoting our new album, which is to play live in front of audiences in cities around the world."
For artists with music careers already, the financial health of their business is severely compromised. For artists who are just starting out and looking to break into the public eye, the bigger worry is that it could hurt the chance that they'll have a music career at all.
"I spent the last few months anxiously waiting and preparing for this moment, to finally be able to play these songs and promote the music that I've spent so long working on," says Hamilton, ON-based musician Linnea Siggelkow, whose dream pop project Ellis is set to release debut album Born Again at the beginning of April. They were supposed to tour the U.S. with Ratboys, but that too was postponed a couple weeks before it could begin.
"It feels like, in a flash, it's all been taken away from me," Siggelkow says. "I'm worried that my record will get lost in the shuffle. I'm terrified that this will be extremely detrimental to the trajectory of my career this early on. There is never a good time for something like this to happen, but for me personally it could not have possibly happened at a worse time."
For Winnipeg's Micah Visser, a.k.a. Boniface, it was a perfect storm of sunk costs and missed opportunity, as the band was set to hit SXSW and tour the U.S. in support of their debut album, released on Valentine's Day. "The bottom line is I lost $2,000 on this tour," Visser says. "Touring is often break-even for us at best, and with SXSW and this tour falling though, we were left scrambling." But that wasn't even the worst part, they say. "Without a strong touring schedule it's nearly impossible for a record to succeed. It's really disappointing to have these U.S. dates cancelled and now the May tour uncertain when we were just starting to pick up some steam."
So what now? The contingency plans vary by situation. Some artists like PUP and Boniface consider themselves lucky enough to have been able to accrue a modest rainy-day fund. "My heart really goes out to some of the smaller bands," Babcock says. For others like Single Mothers, the priority is getting home, as many countries — including Canada — are enacting increasingly stringent travel bans and travellers are rushing to the airports before it's too late. Others have already had fans come to the rescue; Young Guv raised more than $5,000 through a GoFundMe campaign to help Cook and his band get home safe and sound.
"Love truly did find a way here," Cook says. "We're very grateful for the crowdfunded support we received. I plan to pay it forward over the next months, organize streamed benefit performances from wherever I end up, and show my support to all other artists, workers in the industry and even my friends in the service industry who are all in the same boat."
For most, the threat of COVID-19 has crippled their ability to make ends meet — as with anyone who has lost a job or customers during the health crisis — and casts uncertainty over the future. These harsh effects will also be felt by sound and lighting teams, security guards, ticket takers, bartenders, maintenance crews and other event staff. There's not much work to do in an empty room. Add to that all the business owners who have closed their doors for the sake of public health. Many, many people will be struggling for what's sure to be a long time.
"It is an unprecedented situation. I feel more in shock at the moment," Cuba says.
"Because my partner is also in music, our whole household's income has been totally squashed indefinitely," Siggelkow adds. "We can't even fall on each other right now — we're both in the same boat. The future seems so uncertain. We don't know how to plan for anything right now."
Making the best of a bad situation, artists have been coming up with creative ways to circumvent the traditional means of getting their music out there.
For example, some have been turning to live streams to mimic the concert experience. U.S. metal band Code Orange still wanted to celebrate the release of their new album Underneath, so they invited fans to a Twitch stream as they played to an empty venue in their hometown of Pittsburgh. Vancouver singer-songwriter Dan Mangan had to postpone the second of his two shows in Toronto celebrating the 10th anniversary of his album Nice, Nice, Very Nice, but the room was booked anyway, so he played to an empty Danforth Music Hall and put the performance up as a live YouTube broadcast — titled Show to Nobody — a few days later. Neil Young is planning "Fireside Sessions" streams from his home, and Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard has a similar plan.
In a perfect future, COVID-19 would pass quickly without claiming any more lives, while perhaps also spurring a radical reshaping of the structure of the music industry, one that has bet all of the musicians' money on the live concert. As Craig Jenkins wrote for Vulture: "Coronavirus is the nightmare scenario that calls the viability of this business structure into question. It's the bottom falling out of the idea that everyone will always want to be in the room."
Perhaps one of the most sobering quotes about the financial impact of COVID-19 on musicians came from David Crosby, who revealed that even megastars like him could be bankrupted by it.
"They don't pay us for records anymore, right? So touring is all we got," Crosby recently told GQ's Zach Baron. "Truthfully, if I lose the tours, I probably will lose my home."
For those who are in a position to help, rather than be helped, what does that look like?
If you have the money to spend, the first thing many artists suggest is to buy merchandise. Most of them will have forked out hundreds or thousands of dollars on having new T-shirts, records and other goodies made specifically to sell on these tours that are no longer happening, so they'll be fully stocked. Yes, you'll likely have to pay those nasty shipping costs, but it means more cash in the pocket of a musician who needs it and fewer boxes of Gildans sitting in their living room.
If you don't want any more stuff, another option is to buy or pre-order music from websites like Bandcamp, where artists get dollars from purchases instead of the cents they get from streams. For some, radio airplay may be the most reliable source of income during this time. Perhaps you can even request a song? You can also make a pledge to yourself that the next time the band comes to your town, you'll buy a ticket and be there to show your support. And if you bought tickets to a show that was postponed, hold on to that ticket and forego the refund, if you can.
Otherwise, you can always just flip them some cash.
"Picture yourself at a restaurant or buying a coffee. You tip every time, right?" says Cook. "Consider contacting a band you support directly. Tip them. Give them $10 directly via their Venmo or PayPal. Five dollars, even. Everything else you do there's a bunch of hands taking from the pie. The way it's been set up for us hasn't been questioned. It's all happened so fast. Now is the time to show love like you never have before."
Granted, some musicians are reluctant to ask for money when "everyone is getting hit right now," as Visser puts it, amid the fallout from COVID-19. "I see playing music as a working-class job," Morand adds, "and I think that the onus being put on the fans to pay me because the rug has been pulled out from under our tour points to a bigger problem with the way that working people are treated and the lack of an organized support system for musicians."
But support isn't always monetary. At times like these, just engaging with an artist on social media or messaging them directly to let them know you appreciate their art can make a bad day that much better. Perhaps most importantly, share their music with a friend. All anyone making music really wants is for people to hear it. One way or another, the show must go on.
Doesn't feel great to say it but we are cancelling the rest of our tour opening for Destroyer and postponing our North American headline dates that were set to begin later this month. I'd say we have been unlucky on this run but that would be a little untrue... pic.twitter.com/cMPDYVHHZx— N 𝓪𝓹 E 𝔂𝓮𝓼 (@NapEyes) March 13, 2020
truly feels like a rly shit time to be dropping my first record, i worked so hard on this and feels like all my plans for it are falling apart :(((— ellis (@ellissongs) March 11, 2020
i lost 2k in non refundable expenses for sxsw. we just put out a record and whether we can even tour it is now uncertain. the awful thing is i know many are getting hit much harder than me, both professionally and uhh actually getting covid-19. stay safe, we're in this together x— boniface (@BonifaceBand) March 14, 2020
Stream a lot of music in quarantine. Artists who just released records are gonna need that and more.— Donovan Woods (@DonovanWoods) March 13, 2020
Wouldn't it be amazing if @CBCMusic, in an effort to help Canadian musicians who can no longer tour, ONLY played #CanadianMusic for the next two months?! THIS WOULD MAKE A DIFFERENCE. If you support this idea, please RT. #COVIDCanada @PresidentCBCRC @SOCANmusic— David Myles (@mylesdavid) March 15, 2020
I will be live streaming stripped down acoustic performances all over New Mexico in the next month or so to benefit out of work artists, musicians and whoever else needs a hand. I woke up today depressed and without purpose, but I'm back baby.— guv (@youngguv) March 14, 2020