David Friend, The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, July 31, 2022 2:22 PM EDT
Last updated on Sunday, July 31, 2022 2:23 PM EDT
First, Justin Bieber postponed his June Toronto concert, then The Weeknd was paused a few weeks later by Rogers’ network outage. Shawn Mendes canceled his dates at the Scotiabank Arena a few days before the show, while the New Kids of the Block canceled a performance a week earlier.
Concerts are raging back in Canada after two years of pandemic restrictions, but for music fans, who often travel from far away, the triumphant return is far from certain. Some of the music industry’s biggest artists have pulled out of Canadian shows within days — sometimes hours — of start time, leaving ticket holders who have traveled long distances with flight and hotel bills that often cannot be refunded.
Usually, circumstances were beyond the artist’s control – from illness to technical hurdles – but concert-goers who’ve spent big bucks on a night that doesn’t happen say the sting can stay.
“You’re essentially making an investment and hoping for a payoff,” said Jill Krajewski, a Toronto-based culture writer who has been attending fewer shows since the pandemic began.
“It’s a bit like a lottery ticket.”
Postponements and cancellations are nothing new in the concert industry, but as ticket prices soar, gas and food costs skyrocket from inflation, and promoters work hard to get people back into venues, some fans say that a negative experience could affect whether they consider visiting another show soon, especially outside of their hometown.
It’s a debate Tracy Smith faces the next time she thinks about buying tickets.
Earlier this month, she flew to Toronto from Atlanta in hopes of catching The Weeknd in his hometown for the launch of his After Hours till Dawn world tour. It wasn’t until she was in line to get into the stadium that she learned, amid a haze of confusion, that the show could not go ahead due to the Rogers network outage.
“No one really knew what was going on,” she recalls. “The lines just kept getting longer around the block.”
Concert tickets for her and her daughter totaled $800, while she says a flight and hotel package cost an additional $2,800. The tickets are refundable, but Smith doesn’t get the rest of her expenses back because the cancellation happened on the day of the event.
That bothers her the most, she said. Smith was staying at the hotel in the Rogers Center but had already checked in because The Weeknd canceled an hour before the show was due to start. She has contacted Rogers to request at least a partial refund or credit – arguing that her network outage cost her money while she was on her premises – but she said the company has not responded to her.
“It cost tears,” she added. “And it makes me want to travel to shows less.”
Such experiences are common at major concert centers across the country, drawing superfans and families from other provinces or, in The Weeknd’s case, from countries as far away as Europe and Australia.
Eric Alper, a music publicist and industry figure, said the cumulative attention from cancellations isn’t helping an industry still trying to get back on its feet.
“From a fan point of view, someone with the constant cancellations has a bad taste in their mouth,” he said.
“They don’t just hear about the cancellations in Toronto or whatever city they are in, they hear about cancellations in Barcelona, Paris and the United States by reading about them on the internet. All of that needs to be consumed, get into someone’s mind and make the issue much bigger than three or four shows.”
Nicholas Li, who observes consumer habits as an assistant professor of economics at Toronto Metropolitan University, is less convinced that trouble is ahead for concert promoters.
“I definitely sympathize with people who find the whole experience kind of annoying; one thing consumers don’t like is tremendous uncertainty,” he said.
But he added: “I think there’s so much catching up to do that[it’s]less of a concern that people will be put off by the experience of an expensive show cancellation.”
Alper is not so sure that bad experiences this year will not lead to problems in the future.
He suggested 2023 could go “one of two paths” – fans could return in droves for live spectacle or show a waning interest in uncertain events.
He points to recent concerts he’s been working on, which he says “sold out” in advance, but only 70 percent of ticket holders showed up that night.
Ticketmaster was criticized in 2020 for changing its policy to no longer offer refunds for postponed concerts. The “hassle” and uncertainty of this experience didn’t sit well with some consumers, and Alper suspected it could influence future ticket stories.
“For some people, maybe a[postponed concert]date doesn’t work for them… their financial situation has changed drastically or they might have been laid off,” he said.
“Maybe they’d rather have their $1,000 back now. And I think it’s only fair that they get it.”
Whether the concert industry can afford further damage to its reputation in economically turbulent times is an open question.
A short-term study by market research firm Ipsos, released last week, says Canadians expect to scale back entertainment spending as inflation hits a 39-year high.
The study found that 25 percent of Generation X consumers say they limit their entertainment activities, compared to 15 percent of Boomers.
Looking at spending habits in August, both middle- and high-income Canadians say they plan to cut spending on entertainment outside the home — at events like movies and concerts — by 21 percent.
Amidst this uncertainty, Krajewski says, she thinks of the musicians trying to balance the safety of their fans, the business interests of their record labels who want to get them back on the road, and their own need to pay the bills.
“They are doing their best to travel at a very precarious time, not to mention singing indoors,” she said.
“Everyone is rolling the dice right now to try to have a good time. Be merciful if it doesn’t work out.”