How Inflation, the Supply Chain and Rising Ticket Prices Could Impact the Viability of Live Music

Cadence Weapon and others discuss the wave of cancellations that have affected the touring industry

Photo: Matt Forsythe

BY Kyle MullinPublished Nov 22, 2022

Cadence Weapon has grim advice for concert buffs: "Go see a live show while you still can." 

The Edmonton-born rapper also known as Rollie Pemberton tweeted his concerns about the future of live music in response to the news that Animal Collective were cancelling their European tour, since the outing wasn't going to be profitable even if it went smoothly. It was the band's second cancellation of the year, after some of the members caught COVID-19 back in the spring.

Cadence Weapon's tweet went viral in October 2022 amidst news of numerous other cancellations: Regina Spektor and Ringo Starr, who caught COVID; Arlo Parks and Wet Leg, who cited mental health; Little Simz, who blamed "financial unviability" due to inflation; Santigold, who described a combination of the aforementioned challenges; and Oliver Sim and Cass McCombs, who didn't offer specific explanations. Pemberton tells Exclaim! he also nixed an upcoming New York show, in part because COVID-wary and cash-strapped patrons are buying more door tickets instead of the advance passes that artists use to gauge the likely turnout.

Kelp Management founder Jon Bartlett (whose acts include Andy Shauf and Cadence Weapon) says he and his fellow managers have "exchanged a lot of hugs" during "a really tough year for our artists" thanks to exorbitant hotel, fuel and flights.

He adds: "My mantra is 'double ticket prices,' and though it's not popular with the industry folks, if we're faced with doubled [expenses], something's gotta give."

Bartlett's assertions may meet less outrage than expected. Erin Benjamin is the president and CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association, the trade association representing Canada's live music sector, and Unison's board chair. "No one wants to pass along increased costs to fans," she says, before pointing out, "Like every aspect of our lives right now, our supply chain has seen increases in prices."

Among the potential solutions: shorter tours, a greater focus on local talent, or new forms of sponsorships with brands, says Benjamin. "We need to collaborate with the unusual suspects. There are lots of folks out there, for example corporations or companies, who really care about seeing shows and can support in new and exciting ways."

Jeff Cohen takes a more upbeat outlook. The co-owner of Toronto venues Lee's Palace and the Horseshoe Tavern, as well as Collective Concerts, sees nothing to suggest touring "will be a 'thing of the past,' at least in terms of artists wanting to tour and play Toronto," he says. The sources of his optimism: Collective shows at venues like Massey Hall and the Phoenix are selling out, and the Horseshoe and Lee's are "finally doing well again since September."

Specifically, Cohen says ticket sales at his venues and shows are at 85 percent of pre-COVID levels, while their alcohol sales are up 10 to 15 percent compared to before the pandemic. He's also heartened by strong presale figures, and how the worst of pandemic restrictions appear to be in the rearview. Or, as he put it when replying to Exclaim!'s email: "It's October 2022, COVID is over."

But as the industry recovers, many artists still suffer.

"There aren't even doors on the bathrooms, let alone air filtration systems," Cadence Weapon says of numerous venues that make COVID-concerned musicians feel like "canaries in the coal mine." He adds that it is common for venues to take 20 to 25 percent of artists' merch money, and those who take none are the exception. "When the pandemic started, these venues said, 'We love our artists. Support live music.' And everyone got grants. Now that things are 'back to normal,' you see it's lip service. I'd love to see them put their money where their mouth is."

This week, he launched the #MyMerch initiative to protest the practice. Such treatment feels like apathy, says Cadence.

Cohen argues, "Yes, most Canadian small venues take merch cuts, emulating the larger venues like the arenas and theatres. But they are usually small percentages." He points out that Lee's and the Horseshoe don't take merch cuts.

"Venues are also struggling," says Halifax rapper Fortunato, who commented on Cadence's tweet. This isn't to diminish musicians' plights — Fortunato is forgoing merch entirely, as transportation and accommodation costs soar. Would higher ticket prices help? Fortunato knows attendance drastically dips at small-town underground rap shows steeper than $20. So he tries "to be reasonable in what I ask for. But the pie is just too small."

Some artists can broaden that pie. Alex "Agor" Kerby of Montreal's Blue Hawaii thanks his "lucky stars for incredible Canadian grant funding from FACTOR and SODEC." Blue Hawaii has decent streaming revenue — a rarity, thanks to the famously low royalties — and that, along with money, grants and merch, amount to what Kerby calls the fiscally necessary "bits and pieces."

But Cadence points to the controversial vanishing of CBC Radio 3 from SiriusXM, and the royalties therein, as an alternative revenue bellwether. 

While some artists are resourceful with funding and royalties, Cadence boasts a different inventiveness. "I'm working on something where it will be very clear who is actually supporting artists and who isn't. It's coming soon." 

The future also holds an upside to his pessimistic Twitter prediction: "I anticipate us getting out of bars and pubs. Some of them will get out of music and just put in VLTs (video lottery terminals). I think there will be a DIY revolution, something that's not focused on alcohol sales. It's an opportunity for us to take the means of production into our own hands."

In the meantime, he calls for empathy. Cadence Weapon's response to cynics suggesting artists get "real jobs": "If you want to live without art, see what's popping in Idaho. Art's the heartbeat of culture."

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