If you’re tuned into the music industry, you’ve heard it time and time again: the touring life is getting harder for our favorite musicians. Lingering effects of COVID-19, economic inflation, ticket retail monopolies, and managing physical and mental wellbeing are barriers all musicians face, even at the highest professional level. It’s frustrating to see canceled shows or sky-high ticket prices as a fan, but it helps to remember all of the above factors play a role. In Philadelphia, we’re fortunate to have a supportive network of music industry figures, from musicians to promoters to media to audiences. If the ecosystem operates in good faith, perhaps we could iron out some of the hardships of, ironically, the entertainment industry. For insight into the world of touring, the lifeblood of the music business, WXPN spoke to three artists from different backgrounds to better understand where the kinks in the system exist and the insecurities behind musicians’ unique nature of their work in the hopes of illuminating the industry’s greatest challenges, and offering solutions to fellow musicians and audiences alike.

For creative types especially, there are many allures to being a touring entertainer. There’s the perceived glamor of “seeing the world,” and the implied partying that comes with the rock star lifestyle. And of course there’s the escape from office culture: not everyone is trying to dedicate 40-plus hours a week to sitting at a desk. “I never felt cut out for office work,” says Zayna Youssef, frontperson of the Philly-born pop-punk group Sweet Pill. For Sweet Pill and many other emerging bands, going on tour at all means you’ve reached that next level in your career. Artists have to go beyond the same hometown crowds to build their audience further, and in conversation with touring musicians, the word “lucky” was brought up frequently. They feel “lucky” to make a living working with fellow musician friends. “Lucky” to be free from a desk or a boss. “Lucky” to connect with fans across the country and beyond.

Sweet Pill | photo by Paige Walter

While on the surface there’s plenty to be grateful for, reality soon sinks in. Like anyone who travels for work will understand, it’s lonely to feel disconnected from friends and family back at home. Holidays and birthdays and community events pass by without you around. Dom Angellela, who came up playing in the Philadelphia scene and now plays bass in Lucy Dacus’ band, says Facetime helps him keep in contact with loved ones, but the app can’t match being at home in person. “I just try and pick up the slack by getting in contact with them, and texting about annoying things that we would be having a face to face conversation about had I been in Philadelphia the whole time,” says Angellela. Tight scheduling is also a source of stress for bands on tour. “Sometimes we’re driving for hours and we can’t stop because we have to be at the soundcheck,” Youssef tells me. “And if we’re not there in time, the band after us can’t soundcheck because they’re using our equipment.” Sometimes those tight schedules don’t allow for adequate bathroom breaks or anything more substantial than gas station food. There can be a serious toll on physical and mental health, especially for individuals who thrive in routines they’ve created at home. “I saw my pants weren’t fitting the same way when I started the tour, and what happened is I started seeing pictures being taken by photographers that I don’t know, people who don’t know me, and I would see the pictures and I started to get unhappy with the way I looked,” says Youssef.

Some of these problems will just take some getting used to for most musicians. When I asked if she knew how to better approach her self care the next time she’s on the road, Youseff responded honestly that she doesn’t know for sure, but she’s figuring it out. Angellela, on the other hand, whose job is to be contracted for major tours, has some solid answers. “Watch your drinking and start reading again,” he tells me. “I’m not trying to do a seven hour car drive being hungover. Maybe in my 20s it was doable, but not now that I’m 36.” Ultimately, self care on the road comes down to being prepared well in advance, and treating the time away from home as the opportunity it is. Singer-songwriter Katie Hackett of local art-rock group The Lunar Year says the change of scenery inspires her to write new material, adding “your brain is taking in new things, and rerouting in different ways, so the things that you write could potentially be very different than what comes out of your psyche at home.”

Dominic Angelella | photo by Paige Walter

Although it’s time away from home, tour is no vacation, and going in with a strategy will pay off in the long term. Hackett has spear-headed a few DIY runs with her own rotating lineup, and insists on asking venues for guaranteed pay while you’re on the road. “I used to think that I couldn’t [ask for a guarantee] because I would think, ‘Well, they’re gonna get mad at me, or not book me at their venue.’ But if you need money, just ask; and some places will do that. And if they don’t, then oh well, you asked at least.” The guaranteed rate may not amount to much, but as Hackett points out, any reliable income helps musicians plan for their needs like lodging, gas, and better-than-gas-station-quality meals, and could allow them to take a risk in another city where there’s no guarantee. Hauling merch is another part of a successful tour strategy. “We can’t go on tour without merchandise,” says Youssef, as merch sales and modest venue guarantees financed Sweet Pill’s first tour. “We don’t just visit random cities either,” she adds. “We tried to pick cities that were densely populated, especially college towns” in an effort to appeal to their targeted demographic.

Other challenges of being a touring musician are specific to the current economic climate. Angellela points out that with inflation affecting transportation and lodging costs, and with revenue for artists as low at $0.005 per stream on popular services like Spotify, the middle class of musicians is disappearing. No doubt there’s money to be made in the entertainment industry, but with high overhead costs for musicians, they can be the last to get a cut. Even artists who emerge into the mainstream and have potential to sell significant amounts of tickets are thwarted by the lack of competition in the entertainment industry at the executive level. LiveNation and Ticketmaster, who you’ve undoubtedly come in contact with when searching and buying tickets online, control an estimated 70% of ticketing and venues across the country, and therefore set their own prices. Furthermore, the company has been investigated for essentially scalping their own tickets, earning more for the ticket than it originally cost, and another transaction fee on top of that. Payment in “exposure” for artists isn’t uncommon, especially in our digital era where it’s possible to build a career online, but it won’t pay bills. 

In the midst of this bleak landscape, it’s important for musicians at every level to manage their expectations. For artists like Hackett, the goal of touring is to “spread the gospel of your music,” as she tells me, and to not lose money along the way. She sees it as an investment, like planting the seeds for her music to spread to diverse audiences, finding a niche somewhere she may not expect. “As much as I love the feedback I get from my friends, it’s cool to get the perspective of someone you don’t know at all, someone who doesn’t live around you and is just discovering your music for the first time.” For more widely established artists, a high priority on tour, that ends up taking weeks and months out of the year, is to earn a living. After Sweet Pill’s breakthrough last year, Youssef quit her job, and even turned into an employer herself. The band hired a bookkeeper and a manager, filed as an LLC, and became insured at the advice of their manager who noted they might get sued eventually if someone gets hurt at a show. With a full crew to provide for, the pressure is on to make money. Angelella knows how it looks to an outsider: “[making money with music] is a tough thing because you hear ‘Oh, well this is your passion so…’ and, this isn’t a ‘real’ job.” But for touring artists, making music isn’t just a hobby. We all know music is a crucial pillar of culture and social change; it’s also a commodity vulnerable to exploitation. 


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So going on tour is hard. How can society make it more feasible for musicians? As awareness for the injustices of Live Nation rises – thanks, Taylor Swift – popular artists and even The Senate Judiciary Committee are calling for the concert giant to be broken up. Grammy award-winning producer Jack Antonoff has spoken out in favor of dismantling Ticketmaster’s “dynamic pricing,” a system that spikes ticket prices to accommodate high demand. He argues tickets should cost what the artist wants them to, not what the market or Ticketmaster says they should. “Why can’t I buy a f–ing ticket at the price that the artist wants it to be? So it’s that simple.” Antonoff adds, “And you know the reason why. And it’s not ‘cause of artists.” 

As a result of dynamic pricing, it’s not unusual to see major spikes in ticket prices from the time tickets go on sale leading up to the concert date. For example, at Big Thief’s last Philadelphia show at Franklin Music Hall in February, tickets started at $35, then creeped up into the $200s as supply dwindled. And this is a mild example. Tickets to see Lovejoy at The Theatre of Living Arts earlier this summer started at $25, and rose as high as $750. The most inexpensive Taylor Swift Eras Tour ticket was $49 originally. That same seat weeks later on StubHub? $1,300. Without checks on dynamic pricing and the resale market, the cost of tickets becomes absurd. 

Independent music promoter and co-founder of MIDWESTIX Kathryn Dickel told Pitchfork the real solution to price hikes is one step further than taking down Ticketmaster: it’s taking down capitalism. Consumers influence the market more than we understand. If you don’t want to see ticket prices soar into the thousands, don’t buy them. That $5,000 Bruce Springsteen ticket? Even if you think it’s worth your money, think twice about the fans who were priced out of that show before you buy it. Hate paying ridiculous fees on top of the price of your ticket? Circumvent the middle man when you can by purchasing directly at the box office. Still, larger effects on the system are out of our individual hands. The US Department of Homeland Security, for example, has the power to end price hikes for touring visas that make performing in the US less feasible for international bands. And did you know mid-size or larger venues take a percentage of bands’ merch sales under their roofs? That practice has only become more common over time, and is worth negotiating. 

But there’s still plenty we can do as fans to support our favorite artists on the road. Like buying tickets from independent venues, who support touring and local artists without being tied up in politics of big business, and often put more care into their programming and the audiences’ experience. And Philly fortunately has a bunch of them. World Cafe Live, Johnny Brenda’s, Ardmore Music Hall, and MilkBoy are all completely independent. Even the 1200 capacity venue Union Transfer, while not wholly independent, doesn’t book Live Nation/Ticketmaster concerts. As evil as Spotify seems with legacy artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell protesting the streaming service by removing their music from its catalog, many musicians, especially emerging ones, still rely on the platform’s engagement. A suggestion that’s been buzzing around Philly for a few years now is to create a playlist of your favorite artists, listen and enjoy it of course, but then let it play in the background, even at night on mute, to accumulate streams. Even more direct, buy merch from local and touring artists. Some venues will take a cut, yes, but most of that money goes back to support the artist’s investment in themselves and their work. 

Artists: the touring world is prickly, but not unmanageable. And fans: we can do our part to ensure the live music we look forward to doesn’t come at great personal sacrifice from the artists. Musicians will never cease to share their music; it’s who they are. And those of us passionate about music can’t live without it. It takes some educating, and participation on both sides, but our crooked industry is not above saving.