Vermont Musicians Grapple With a Touring Industry in Flux | Music Feature | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont Musicians Grapple With a Touring Industry in Flux


Published September 13, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated September 13, 2023 at 2:04 p.m.

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  • Pons

"It's over. The old days are gone." So proclaimed no less of a music luminary than Neil Young in a March 19 post on his website titled "Concert Touring Is Broken."

The famously cantankerous singer-songwriter was responding to recurring controversy surrounding Ticketmaster. The massive ticket company enjoys a near-monopoly in the field and has outraged concertgoers with its skyrocketing and often hard-to-decipher fees.

"CONCERT TOURS are no longer fun," Young wrote.

He's hardly alone in his sentiment. The past two years have seen a raft of well-established artists cancel tour after tour, from indie act Belle and Sebastian to alt-rock royalty Weezer to rapper Lil Baby. Philadelphia indie rockers Dr. Dog quit touring, full stop.

In press releases and apologetic social media posts, artists cite common reasons for their decision: the rising costs of gas, lodging and food as a result of inflation; continued uncertainty surrounding attendance; and disadvantageous deals from promoters and venues.

Yet 2022 was a record-setting year for the live concert industry: It generated an estimated $6.28 billion, a 37 percent rise over pre-pandemic figures. How can a business that is raking in obscene profits be a bad financial proposition for the artists who actually make the music?

The answer is that those eye-popping numbers are top-heavy. Stadium tours by big acts such as Bruce Springsteen and Taylor Swift account for most of the pie. Swift's 2023-24 Eras Tour shattered records as it moved across the country, grossing an estimated $2.2 billion and selling well over 1 million tickets in its first half alone.

Below that highest stratum of the industry, touring is a much riskier affair. Yet plenty of musicians continue to hit the road. For all of its pitfalls, touring is one of the few revenue streams left to artists, as streaming has significantly cut into the profits they generate from sales of albums and singles.

"Exposure is super important, for sure," said Jack Parker, one-third of the New York City-via-Burlington post-punk band Pons. "But touring is also where you hope to make some money, between ticket sales and selling your merch. I don't know, you just sort of have to."

Independent, DIY bands such as Pons and Philadelphia rockers Low Cut Connie are striving to crack the equation of navigating a changing industry. Vermont musicians are in the same boat, with everyone from indie rockers Guster to Burlington jazz guitarist Xander Naylor tackling the touring conundrum in their own ways.

Those artists and others reported to Seven Days from the road this summer. Here are scenes from a twisting route that can lead to ruin more easily than it can to bliss.

Road Worriers

"The music industry is destroying and re-creating itself in real time," Ryan Miller said from a hotel room in Florida.

As his band progressed through a leg of its recent American tour, the Guster front person and Williston resident described the current state of the touring industry as "fascinating." Over their 30 years together, Miller and his bandmates have learned not only how to grow Guster's brand but how to perfect their touring process.

"There's no real secret," Miller said. "You have to be a pretty significantly tuned machine or a big deal to make money on the road."

Guster are a bit of both, onetime college rock radio darlings with the benefit of grown-up wisdom — and a devoted fan base. One way for bands of their ilk and means to thrive is to stack the deck from the get-go. Guster cut costs by owning all of their gear and sleeping on their tour bus instead of in hotels when they can. They also know where it makes sense to tour the band.

"We know we don't make money in Boise, Idaho," Miller said. "So we're not going to go. We stopped trying to develop markets that we're not going to develop."

Miller's band enjoys a built-in and bankable audience, a network of fans amassed over years. But even for a mid-level band such as Guster, touring costs weigh more heavily these days.

"Every single thing that costs money on the road has skyrocketed now," David Lowery said.

As the front man of two seminal alt-rock bands, Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, Lowery has been touring for more than 30 years. He also has a math degree and a doctorate in higher education and is a senior lecturer in the music business program at the University of Georgia. "It's all so screwy out there right now, none of the math really adds up," he said. "We never had to pay $400 for hotels when we were touring [in past decades], but we are now."

Like Guster, Lowery's bands have established fan bases, providing a measure of security on the road. He fears for younger bands that are trying to carve out a living in a less lucrative field.

"Touring has always sucked, there's no getting around that," Lowery said. "When Camper Van Beethoven was touring back in the day, yeah, we slept on floors and played shitty clubs with maybe five people there, but at least we weren't out there competing with legacy acts."

The Wall Street Journal reported in July that the average price of a concert ticket has more than doubled in the past five years. Higher prices naturally make fans more selective and less likely to take chances, Lowery pointed out. Faced with a choice between an up-and-coming band they don't know and a legacy act such as, say, Cracker, consumers often choose the latter. That's something Lowery said his bands never had to deal with coming up.

"It would have been like we were competing with Benny Goodman or something," he said with a rueful laugh. "But that's the shit that's happening to young bands right now. It's really tough to cut through that, and I worry."

Fake It 'til You Make It

Parker was exhausted when the promoter emailed him the threat.

"We were two days out from this gig in D.C., and the promoter suddenly tells us they'll pull the show if we don't agree to cover any costs of low ticket sales," Parker recounted by phone from his apartment in New York City.

Parker's band, Pons, was finishing up a 10-week run across the East Coast and Midwest when the promoter suddenly started playing hardball. Though the young band had recently signed with the Berlin-based label Dedstrange, Parker handles all the booking and business with the help of his bandmates — and he's learned a few tricks along the way.

"We invented a fake manager named Mike Norris," Parker admitted. "He's just this hard-ass who will go toe to toe with asshole promoters who try to rip us off — which happens a lot, incidentally.

"If we get one of those emails, like from the dude in D.C., we bring out Mike to get nasty," Parker went on. "Then, after, we can be all smiles at the venue and be like, 'Sorry about Mike. He's hard-core, man.'"

Pons formed at the University of Vermont. After quickly establishing a reputation for wild, frenetic live shows, the band moved to New York City in 2020. Its members picked up right where they left off, ripping through the Big Apple's club scene and earning the 2022 title of "Hardest-Working Band" in the city from NYC website Oh My Rockness.

These days, Pons pull off marathon DIY tours using lessons they learned in Vermont.

"I grew up in rural North Carolina," Parker said. "Until I moved to Burlington, I didn't even know what a DIY show was; I'd never been to a basement concert or anything like that."

He and his bandmates quickly realized that their brand of chaotic punk wasn't likely to land a booking agent to send them on tour. So they learned to do it themselves. Scouring the internet to assemble Pons' tours, Parker focuses on finding "a cool venue or a band we like" and goes from there.

Once the shows are booked, he has to find the band a place to stay, since hotels are well beyond its budget. "Honestly, sleep is the hardest aspect of touring," Parker said. "Finding a place to sleep for free, where you can actually get rest and not get stuck in an all-night after-party, is key."

The band uses the Couchsurfing app, which connects people with free places to stay across the country. While Parker admits things can get a little sketchy — "definitely some weird swinger vibes out there, man" — the app has been essential to helping Pons tour.

While Pons take the ultra DIY approach, other independent artists have chosen another tack: skipping America.

"As it stands, I'm not even trying to tour in the U.S.," Naylor said. The Burlington-based jazz guitarist, who also plays with NYC act Mwenso & the Shakes, has ruled out a solo run of stateside shows in 2023.

"I just can't find the equation where I can break even," Naylor said. "Put it this way: I've played long weekend mini-tours and come home losing more money than if I had gone to India for five weeks."

Naylor figured out that it was more profitable and less stressful to play in India with the support of artist grants. After securing a Creation Grant from the Vermont Arts Council, he toured with Indian musicians Vinay Kaushal and Shreyas Iyengar at the end of 2022.

"The venue owners over there were stellar," Naylor enthused. "It was just so fucking honorable the way they treated the musicians. You don't see that as much in America, unfortunately."

House Money

"The music industry is always evolving, and it's not always necessarily going in a positive direction," Mike Caulo said.

The North Hero native has helped produce the annual Waking Windows music festival in Winooski and worked for many years with Merge Records in Durham, N.C. Now operating his own promotion and management company, Sipsman, Caulo is keenly aware of how difficult touring is for the indie bands he manages. Yet he worries that the narrative has become "The poor bands are being ripped off by greedy promoters."

"I don't want to see this thing where the blame game goes around from artists to venues, like an ouroboros eating its own tail," he said. "Ticketmaster and all that shit aside, a lot of these venues are just trying to support music and stay alive themselves."

Robin Johnson, owner and operator of the Stone Church in Brattleboro, outlined some of the challenges facing music venues, particularly independent clubs that are free from Ticketmaster's equally evil alter ego, Live Nation. Venues such as his face long odds when it comes to making a profit on shows, between rising costs for concessions, post-pandemic staffing difficulties, bot and scammer accounts printing fake tickets, huge increases in liability insurance rates, and people who buy tickets but don't show up.

"The level of no-shows are still staggering," Johnson said. He estimated that 10 to 15 percent of people who buy tickets to a show don't attend, "which is pretty devastating on our concession sales, as well as the overall feel of having a full club."

Johnson sees speculative ticket fees as one of the biggest enemies of live music. Often tacked on to the price of concert tickets as "delivery" or "facility" fees, these are usually payouts back to promoters. They've become such a problem that President Joe Biden addressed them during his State of the Union speech in February, calling on Ticketmaster to "stop service fees on tickets to concerts and sporting events and make companies disclose all the fees up front."

Johnson pointed out that fans often blame venues for ticket fees. But clubs such as his get only $1 kickback from those fees, and they need it to pay staff. As the New England chapter president of the National Independent Venue Association, Johnson is part of a push for a bill in Congress that would ban both speculative ticket fees and scammers' websites that masquerade as a venue's ticketing site.

"We're a venue that wants to support the artist," Johnson said. "We do have merch cuts on our offer sheets to bands, but we never end up charging them. We haven't taken a cut of a band's merchandise since before the pandemic, and that was only when we had to provide an employee to sell the merch."

The Stone Church is a rarity among mid-level and bigger clubs in that regard. Many venues have begun demanding a cut of any merchandise sales that musicians make while playing a show.

Musicians have widely condemned the practice. But, especially at clubs owned by giant corporations such as AEG and Live Nation, merch cuts have become the norm.

"We try to play places that don't take merch cuts," Lowery said. "But if Live Nation is involved, they can just pop up and say, 'Yeah, that's our table.'"

Band on the Run

Adam Weiner of Low Cut Connie - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Adam Weiner of Low Cut Connie

With such tight margins for success and survival, it can seem nearly impossible for independent bands to tour, requiring as much psychological hardiness as it does talent.

"When you find out how the sausage gets made, it's a dirty business," said Adam Weiner, front person for Low Cut Connie. His band has appeared on Barack Obama's Spotify playlists, is beloved by Elton John and has created a cult following over a decade of hard touring.

"I don't have any illusions about what this thing is, man," Weiner said by phone from the road. "I know it's fucked — it's more difficult and corrupt out there for musicians than it's ever been, at least since I started."

But Weiner feels he's made touring work by investing in "myself and my own abilities, rather than use my limited resources trying to hire and gain my way into a higher strata."

"Look, everyone wants easy advice, but there isn't any," he said. "It takes a lot of elbow grease and a lot of belief. But my advice to young bands out there is to invest in our own talent. Write the best songs, put on the best shows you can, inspire people and make this fucking thing your religion. Over time, you will find a path."

At age 24, Parker admitted that there have been multiple times touring with Pons when he has contemplated quitting the music business.

"You're going to have some soul-crushing nights out there — it's just statistics," Parker said. "But what keeps me going is that, hey, I'm getting to travel around and play music instead of cleaning houses in New York. I feel pretty good about the big picture, and if you use that mindset and you have a sense of adventure, you'll be OK."

The original print version of this article was headlined "On the Road Again? | Musicians grapple with a touring industry in flux"

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