The Year In Challenges: For Many, ‘Great Return’ Was Still Out Of Reach

DREAMS DEFERRED: Santigold, performing here at Afropunk Brooklyn on Aug. 25, 2019, in New York City, was one of many artists forced to postpone her road
comeback in 2022 because of higher costs and a glut of other tours. Photo by Cynthia Edorh / Getty Images

Despite the success of high-profile tours – particularly those performing mainly in stadiums – in 2022, the harsh reality is the “great return” is still elusive for many artists and venues trying to make a go of touring at lower tiers.

Rampant inflation including skyrocketing gas prices, staff and equipment shortages, mental health issues, ongoing COVID infections and resultant last-minute cancellations have contributed to disappointment for many artists who found themselves canceling or postponing shows during the year, and venues struggling to maintain already thin margins.

A flurry of tour cancellations and postponements during the summer brought attention to problems that had been percolating under the surface of otherwise glowing reports that the concert industry had come “roaring” back. Not all of it has.

Tours by Shawn Mendes, Justin Bieber, Arlo Parks, Gang of Youths, GAYLE, Sam Fender, and Disclosure were among those interrupted or canceled. In some cases, mental health issues were cited as well as difficulties making planned tours make financial sense as originally envisioned.

“As a touring musician, I don’t think anyone anticipated the new reality that awaited us,” Santigold posted to social media after canceling her anticipated 2022 tour. “… We were met with the height of inflation – gas, tour buses, hotels, and flight costs skyrocketed – many of our tried-and-true venues unavailable due to a flooded market of artists trying to book shows in the same cities, and positive test results constantly halting schedules with devastating financial consequences. … Some of us are finding ourselves simply unable to make it work.”

Rev. Moose, co-founder of National Independent Venue Association and Marauder, said of venue operations in 2022, “…From the practical day-to-day of running an actual venue, it’s never been more difficult. The pandemic is still very much affecting businesses. We are absolutely not through to the other side. There are cancellations and economic issues and no-shows and a number of different financial stresses continuing to wreak havoc on the independent sector that is making it more and more difficult for folks that were already dealing with relatively small profit margins to be able to see the light at the end of this tunnel.”

Another challenge for midlevel touring is that of ticket pricing – finding the sweet spot at which expenses are covered, and all the stakeholders make at least a little bit of money without fans balking at ticket prices.

According to Pollstar Boxoffice data, the average ticket price at auditoriums and theatres in 2022 was $66.49, compared with $63.41 in 2019, the last year there were comparable ticket sales. At the club level, 2022 saw an average ticket of $35.84, versus $31.89 in 2019.
“The challenge heading into 2023 will be to thread the needle between the increased cost of touring on all fronts, with the realities of the economy writ large, and consequently the need to be extra mindful of ticket prices,” Arrival Artists agent and partner Erik Selz told Pollstar earlier this year. “Our friends at Thalia Hall in Chicago ran shows for 53 consecutive nights across April, May and June, and my guess is that’s closer to a rule rather than an exception. The appetite for live music feels as strong as ever, but has a ceiling!”

And, as much as the industry wishes it over, COVID continues to wreak havoc with the physical, as well as mental, health of many.

“We’re starting to see younger and younger artists stepping out and saying that they’re hurting, that they’re overworked. There’s so many other issues at play other than mental health,” says Terra Lopez, community manager for Backline, a nonprofit organization that connects music industry professionals and their families with mental health and wellness resources.

“It’s a very difficult time with inflation. There’s so much that goes into putting on a tour – bus prices, gas, housing and food per diems, all of that is at a nearly all-time high, and obviously it affects everyone. It affects the venue staff, the promoters, venue management. It’s a whole ecosystem that’s having a difficult time right now.

“There are so many shows that, prior to the pandemic, would be instant sellouts and that’s not happening now for clubs or secondary venues. And that would cause extra stress for the artist and team as well. It’s a different environment post-pandemic. It was difficult prior.”