On a sweltering Friday night last week, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival returned to its glory in Jericho Beach after two quiet years, showcasing bands that have weathered the worst of the COVID years and made it to the West Coast despite it all.
“Thank you for coming. My god it’s so good to see your pretty faces,” Pascale Padilla of Toronto-based indie duo Housewife told the crowd.
“Alright, let’s do that. Wait, no, I have to tune first,” added lead singer Brighid Fry. “We’re going to do a lot of tuning on this set.”
Lots of tuning, as the duo, who have rebranded themselves from their previous name Moscow Apartment, don’t have the usual stock of guitars on hand. There are many reasons not to take instruments on planes these days – the cost, the justified fear of losing luggage, the cancellations and delays.
“It’s more expensive now, messier and scarier,” says Fry of air travel. Scary because they don’t want to get COVID again, especially when they’re away from home. Especially when preparing for a big performance.
Frazey Ford, a Vancouver musician who also played at the festival, recently waited in a security line at Amsterdam Airport for almost five hours and nearly missed her flight. “Even for a domestic flight, we have to be at the airport three or four hours earlier. There’s this worry, will you make those connections? The airlines will randomly reshuffle all tickets,” Ford said in an interview. Then there is the worry that someone will get sick. “Everyone carries all these expenses for their tours and just hopes their crew doesn’t go under.”
For Ford – like so many other acts – these are tours that their manager has booked and rebooked multiple times under duress from waves of the ongoing pandemic. “I’m grateful she didn’t throw in the towel because it was just exhausting.”
From all appearances, the live music business in Canada is booming this summer after two years of relative hibernation. The recent Winnipeg Folk Festival, for example, attracted 74,000 visitors – just short of the record 76,000 visitors three years ago.
However, behind the scenes, the picture is worrying. Mid-level acts and working-class artists in particular are struggling with logistical problems and rising costs. Crew members are in short supply; People have left the business after two dry years. Bands can’t find crew vans, tour buses, or even rental cars. West Coast alt-rocker Art d’Ecco was blown away by an offer he recently received for a van rental — $14,000 for a week. Even when bands can locate a tour bus, drivers are scarce and gas prices are high. “These things are huge gas guzzlers,” says d’Ecco. “And you drive maybe eight hours a day.”
In addition, many musicians receive performance fees that were originally negotiated in 2020 or 2021. Now that they’re finally playing the postponed gigs, overspending for 2022 has them hoping to break even at best. worst case? Pop band Stars tweeted that they were $20,000 in the hole after a sold-out West Coast tour of the US in June.
“As long as we can get over a hump, anyone can survive exceptionally difficult circumstances,” says Conner Molander of Montreal band Half Moon Run. “But if that’s the new norm, it’s going to be a big problem.”
Molander and others who spoke to The Globe and Mail for this article, while happy to be back on stage, characterized this summer’s logistical nightmare as a perfect storm, caused in part by band and artist rushes , all taking to the streets at the same time in support of the backlog of albums released over the last two and a half years.
Over a six-week period this spring, indie music advertising and media company Killbeat Music had more than 30 of its artists perform on stages in Toronto alone. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Killbeat’s Ken Beattie. “Not even close.”
While pent-up demand for live music is being met, there are only a limited number of shows that music fans can afford. “Outside of festivals, when you start going indoors like bars, clubs and theaters, ticket sales aren’t what they were before the pandemic, or even for shows this fall,” says the Soul/Roots singer Rock singer from Toronto Samantha Martin.
Martin and her band Delta Sugar are booked to perform at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern on July 28th. In the past, Martin would have sold more than 300 presale tickets so close to the show. This summer she sold half of them. “People go to the concerts in the arena instead,” says Martin. “They’re still holding on to tickets for all the postponed big tours from last year and the year before that.”
Over time, touring schedules will loosen up, touring supply shortages will ease, and logistical problems will resolve. Some bands – particularly up-and-coming acts – may not make it there. And today’s unsold tickets could have implications for years to come. “I have serious concerns that if I’m playing anywhere this summer and the room is half empty, that suggests the promoter paid too much for me,” says Juno-nominated singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards. “It could just be circumstances that there is a backlog of artists who want to get back on the road immediately and make a living, but maybe if I go on tour next summer my guaranteed fee will be cut in half.”
In search of merch sales to make up some of the lost revenue, artists are struggling with supply chain issues — particularly with vinyl. LPs are a popular item at many merch tables.
“Honestly, it’s just a wild time,” says Ford. “Personally, I find the experience of being back in the world and the speed and pace that we haven’t had in years — it feels easy in a way much more difficult. We’ll sort of get back to business as usual, but things aren’t business as usual; They are very different.”
Touring musicians implement solutions and workarounds to enable summer touring. Here are some ways they make it work:
trim cost: “I go back to festivals and tell them I know I agreed to bring a 10-piece band, but that’s not financially possible right now, so I’m bringing a 7-piece band,” says Martin. “I just can’t afford to take my beautiful horn section out onto the streets.”
Venue have, travel: Singer-songwriter Michael Bernard Fitzgerald eschews traditional venues, skimps on expensive hotels and doesn’t bother with tight tour vans. Instead, he rents a trailer and pitches a large tent in fields for his solo acoustic performances across Canada. “It was a decision driven by the pandemic in 2020, but now it just feels like there’s so much creative space with this type of facility.”
Find a friend: After getting that “insane” offer and hiring a shoddy van for an East Coast tour (the “door open” signal didn’t stop ringing) for an East Coast tour, Art d’Ecco will be playing a “for Peanuts” by the band Said the Hire Whale from Vancouver. “Really, they’re saving our tour.”
No-Fly Zones: Artists avoid airlines out of concern for canceled flights and lost luggage. “Instead of flying someone back and forth from Toronto to Vancouver between shows, I need to put part of my band in a Vancouver hotel for a week,” says Kathleen Edwards. “I don’t feel like I have any other choice.”
More merchandise: D’Ecco’s sales of goods “exploded” after changing the payment system from cash-and-carry to a high-tech solution. With a QR code at the merchandise table, customers can easily shop using their phones, with the money going straight into the band’s (or Venmo or Square) PayPal account. “It’s such a game changer.”
increase ticket prices As reported this month, popular concert tickets are almost 20 percent more expensive than before the pandemic. “There’s a sticker shock going on right now with higher ticket prices,” says Samantha Martin. “Fans are worried they can’t afford it, but I can’t afford to play for less.”