The conflict and the cost of touring during a pandemic


The music of the Mountain Goats lives on stage. Led by John Darnielle, the independent rockers based in North Carolina have given more than 1,000 concerts during their decades-long careers. Live performances are “among the oldest things humans do,” notes the 54-year-old singer. “Coming together is a community, spiritual and undoubtedly religious experience. ”

For groups that fall between the intermediate and external levels of fame, touring has another element that is just as vital as the community, spiritual and religious – it is also an essential economic element. So when COVID-19 vaccines began rolling out earlier this year, accompanied by delayed concert reschedules and new tour announcements, many were relieved. Superstars like Drake and Taylor Swift may survive a delayed show or 200, but most performers – and the teams that work for them – depend on concerts as their primary source of income. Having little to none over the past 18 months has been brutal.

“We’ve been making this joke for each other over the last decade as all of our album sales crashed: ‘Well they’re never going to take tours from us,’” said Jim James of My Morning Jacket. “And then this pandemic comes along, and we’re all like, ‘F —, what are we doing? “”

Many have turned to live broadcasts with virtual tip pots to fill the touring income void as they adjust to the new normal. But the financial benefits of the resurgence of live music come up against hurdles, both physical and mental. With the Herculean stamina that must redevelop when you’re away from the stage for nearly two years, plus the Delta traveling variant putting audiences on their toes again, the planned return to the tour has become – like much of the tour. life during COVID – complicated.

“We are delighted to see each other and perform,” Darnielle told EW in July, before the Mountain Goats began their new tour. “But I’m a little nervous because I don’t sleep well on the bus. Normally I just say, ‘I’m going to be a little crazy and sleepless for half the year, and that’s not serious. “But now I’m home, sleeping in my own bed, since March 16, 2020. So it’s gonna be a hard landing, because when you’re not sleeping your sanity crashes, and then you have to go through a a lot of energy just trying to stay vertical. “

“If you turn enough, reality starts to warp,” says Martin Doherty of Scottish synth-pop group Chvrches. “You start to think that it’s okay to only live in hotels or not be in the same place every day. So it was a shock to the system when it was gone.”

It can be an even bigger shock coming back. Chvrches took advantage of the break to make his last album, Screen violence, on Zoom. But when it came time to perform the songs at virtual festivals and radio shows, the band encountered another unforeseen problem: singer Lauren Mayberry was rusty.

“I realized I had to start singing more,” Mayberry says. “I’ll sing to understand the demos we’re doing or for the final takes. I don’t really do vocals other than that. It’s weird, to have spent nine years singing all the time, day in and day out. I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I really need to do some vocal workout.’ “

And then there’s the big elephant (possibly unvaccinated) in the room.

“As an indie, you have to be smart because your money is your tour,” notes R&B singer Dawn Richard (formerly of Danity Kane) before acknowledging the most critical challenge to performing live now: keeping the crowd safe. everybody. “We want to have a good time, but we have to respect each other and understand that we are still not out of this situation. I want to make sure that we are all happy and dancing, but also healthy.”

In the spring, when the delayed concerts started to be rescheduled and new shows were announced, a spirit of hope was in the air: maybe, just maybe, that this would all be over soon. A shadow has been cast over that prospect by the recent resurgence of COVID -19 cases – catalyzed both by the large number of unvaccinated Americans and by the more contagious Delta variant. The news inspired musicians and promoters to start adopting new security protocols.

In August, Michelle Zauner from Japanese Breakfast announcement that his upcoming concerts would require masks and proof of vaccination or a recent negative test (in states where this is legal). Live Nation quickly followed suit by requiring all artists, team members and participants to perform one of the latter two in their venues and festivals. (The same policy was applied to Lollapalooza, where only 203 confirmed cases emerged from more than 385,000 participants.)

The logistics of vaccines and masks are just another thing artists need to worry about. Some artists, like singer Brittany Howard or hip-hop duo Run the Jewels, have chosen to simply delay their tours again until (hopefully) this latest wave of COVID-19 subsides. Others have kept the dates already planned while incorporating the vaccination protocol into their list of things to do on tour. “It went from buying guitar strings and harmonicas to organizing the band’s immunization records and buying a lot of very expensive rapid tests,” singer-songwriter Joe Pug said. .

James of My Morning Jacket refers to their tour in support of their upcoming self-titled album as “a mission of survival” – both in terms of finances and health.

“It’s not going to be loose,” he said. “It will be: Get off the bus and go on stage, take off your mask, put on a show, put on your mask, get back on the bus. I’ve been able to make a living for the past two years. So a lot of things depend on those shows. As a singer, even if I had fewer cases of COVID, that would end the whole tour. “

But many artists, such as Zauner and Darnielle, agree that these extra hurdles are worth it, as long as they can share music with people in a room again. After the Mountain Goats began their new tour, Darnielle wrote a twitter thread how much he loved mask mandates as another manifestation of the community spirit of concerts: “A place requiring masks sends the message that they care about their workers and the people who paid to enter. too!”

“I’m so excited to just rewind a cable again and carry an amp – all the trivial, grueling parts of the job that reminds you that you’re good at something and have a sense of purpose,” Zauner said. “It feels like the last frontier, having a big group of people in the room enjoying something. It’s like the pinnacle of community gathering. I think it’s going to be scary and weird at first, but the music hopefully heading into a truly wonderful time of rebirth. “

A version of this story appears in the November issue of Weekly entertainment, on newsstands from October 15. do not forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.


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