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MusicMaster Blog

Live…But on the Ropes posted on June 13th, 2023

by Brian Wheeler

I’ve had the pleasure of attending hundreds of shows in the last 35 years and with few exceptions, a live performance is my happy place. I love the energy of a crowd that is enjoying the moments created by a great live band. But live music performances are at a crossroads. Many factors are converging and something has to give.

Artists are facing greater challenges than ever before. The opportunity to make a living creating music is becoming difficult at best. Music buying is down, venues are taking bigger cuts in an effort to stay afloat, and higher costs associated with touring are driving artists off the road. COVID certainly had an impact on touring in recent years, and don’t get me started on Ticketmaster.

Some artists are certainly coming up with creative ways of combating this issue. David Lowery, front man of the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, has taken to a more practical approach to sales, marketing, and touring. Long a vocal opponent of entities such as Napster, Pandora, and Spotify, David has returned to his DIY roots, cutting out the middleman and selling his merch and music on his own. In a Facebook post in 2022, David cited a lack of ‘soft ticket’ events (corporate sponsored events), a 15 to 20 percent reduction in ticket sales, and a 40% increase in expenses when touring as the main issues faced by many bands when attempting to coordinate a tour. These days when David hits the road solo or with his band, Cracker, he’ll concentrate on high-yield/low overhead tour destinations in an attempt to break even or perhaps make a small profit on the tour. Merch sales often make the difference as to whether many artists lose money, break even, or make a profit.

David Lowery hand-packs another load of merchandise for shipping.

Tommy Stinson, formerly of The Replacements and Guns ‘n Roses, takes a similar approach. When Tommy hits the road he’ll book clubs across the United States, then coordinate intimate performances at listening rooms, garages, even fans’ living rooms in between those dates. This method minimizes travel time and costs between dates and maximizes earning potential all while generating buzz and goodwill with his modest fanbase. Before his untimely passing in 2017, Pat DiNizio of The Smithereens also toured with living room performances peppered between club dates.

Stinson plots his route

Obviously not everyone can tour living rooms and sling limited-release CDs from their homes and hope to make a living. I think it’s important to ask what CAN be done to keep the music industry viable, however. Without a vibrant music scene, the product that music-based radio stations provide suffers more and more. If an artist can’t make a living making music, they’re going to stop making music.

So what can be done? Jamie Lee Curtis recently opined that she’d like to see matinee performances, as she didn’t want to be up as late as some performances are normally scheduled. There may be a kernel of truth to this at the club level and in fact is sometimes practiced, but it also presents its own set of problems. You’ll need the venue staff there longer, which increases costs and presents scheduling issues. You’ll have to clear out the early crowd before bringing in the late crowd. Large productions will require cleanup between shows. Can you imagine having to clean up the confetti and whatever else ended up on the floor between arena shows to reset for a later performance?

The onus does not fall on the shoulders of radio entirely, but the strong connection between the music industry and the radio industry cannot be ignored. I don’t know what the solution is, but I think radio can play a role in sustaining the live music scene and music in general. It’s important that we do what we can to keep the lifeblood of so many of our stations healthy and vibrant. It’s important not only for our industry, but for our general well-being. I can’t imagine living in a world without music, and I don’t want to.