Americana artists, like most in the recording industry, are either abandoning concert tours or postponing upcoming gigs as the coronavirus pandemic worsens and Governments worldwide impose stringent measures of containment.
Some, like 2020 Grammy-winner Patty Griffin, got two-thirds through a tour before having to fly home, while others, like the politically-charged James McMurtry, are reluctantly pulling the plug on upcoming tour dates.
Griffin was about to head to New Zealand for two gigs after completing three concerts in Australia when a decision was made to abandon the rest of her Down Under tour – the promoters quaintly informing ticket-holders that the remaining shows have been cancelled “out of an abundance of caution.”
McMurtry, son of novelist Larry McMurtry, was, as expected, a little more expansive in his explanation: “Like a number of touring musicians, I have postponed all my March and early April tour dates. A couple of the clubs were already pulling out, and the rest might have eventually followed suit, because postponing the dates is the only ethical choice at this time.”
The outspoken Texan added: “Everyone involved in my postponed tour is taking a financial hit, but we have to. We can’t be abetting a situation such as the one happening now in Italy, where doctors are having to decide whom to treat and whom to let die, because the virus spread so fast that there are far more sick than there are beds and respirators. We can’t stop this thing, we can only slow it down, hopefully slow it down enough that our healthcare system can handle the steady flow. To slow the spread, we must take uncomfortable action, and we the people must take action on our own because we are leaderless.”
It will be interesting to see if McMurtry puts such thoughts to music during his self-imposed hiatus.
The decision to cancel or abandon gigs has been largely taken out of the hands of artists by the corporate promoters who dominate the concert industry. Two such global operators, AEG Presents and Live Nation Entertainment, suspended all tour engagements in the United States late last week, as well as in countries “deemed level 3 by the C.D.C.”
Such a decision proved somewhat foresighted, given, a few days later, countries like New Zealand and Australia – relatively low-level-risk nations - were to impose stringent isolation measures on incoming visitors.
It is almost impossible at this stage to speculate on how much income might be lost, not only by the high-profile artists and promoters, but for all who make a living off the back of touring musicians. For the concert industry is now the principal earner for recording artists who have seen their income depleted by the “digital dimes” now on offer via music streaming.
And in order to reap any reward from a new-released recording, the first thing artists need to do is get on the road for a promotional tour.
No better example of this is Nashville singer-songwriter Caleb Caudle who had meticulously planned a 16-week international tour schedule to promote the April release of his new album Better Hurry Up.
He told Rolling Stone: “If my tour goes away, it’s like a farmer losing their crops. Anyone who is not a huge superstar, the time right before you go on an album release tour — that’s famine right there. That’s when things are the tightest. All your funds are allocated to press, radio, and merch. We just placed a huge merch order for the album release tour. All that stuff is already paid for. You’ve got everything out there, and the tour is like the tide coming back in.”
Among gigs cancelled by Caudle were appearances at South by Southwest (SXSW), Austin’s annual mid-March Alt Country festival which was cancelled last week, joining other high-profile festivals, like California’s Coachella Valley and Australia’s Byron Bay Bluesfest, on the coronavirus casualty list.
Festivals are a good outlet for lower-profile artists like Caudle who use such occasions to mix and mingle with star acts and rely on the word-of-mouth recommendations and merchandise sales which come from events with a high volume of patrons.
In a recent report, PricewaterhouseCoopers, estimated that the global market for ticket sales and sponsorship for live music was predicted to reach nearly $US29 billion in 2020. While most of ticket sales naturally go to the performing artists, the economic ripple effect reaches right down to stage/technical crews and service workers in the hospitality and accommodation industries.
There are usually insurance clauses included in any tour contract, both protecting the promoter and the artist. These normally cover inclement weather and an illness preventing the performer to appear. In the business, it is commonly known as “material adverse change provisions.”
But communicable disease is unlikely to be covered. And once the coronavirus was detected, it is believed that most insurers were quick to exclude Covid-19 from new policies. Added to this is speculation that insurance rates may escalate as high crowd-volume events could pose greater risks for promoters in the virus era!
It is generally accepted in the music business that star acts and the promotional giants, with greater income streams available, will be better equipped to survive the close-down of live events than independent artists and promoters - performers like Caleb Caudle who is sadly reflecting on how suddenly his best-laid plans of seven months have come unstuck.