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Musicians are back on the road, but every day is a gamble

The Oakland artist Spellling is one of countless musicians this year to have tours disrupted by a band member catching COVID-19, with costly and draining consequences.
Illustration by Jackie Lay/Photo by Sharon Lopez
NPR/Courtesy of the artist
The Oakland artist Spellling is one of countless musicians this year to have tours disrupted by a band member catching COVID-19, with costly and draining consequences.

Last year was a career-defining one for Tia Cabral, the experimental singer-songwriter known as Spellling. With her 2021 album The Turning Wheel, she evolved from bedroom artist to maximalist composer, enlisting over two dozen instrumentalists to execute her surreal vision. It caught on: The album got rave reviews, and by the end of the year, new fans from across the world had begun asking when they would see her in concert.

Cabral had hesitations about pandemic-era touring. The infection rates for COVID-19 had returned with a force after receding that summer, and she knew that indoor gatherings of strangers are the exact setting where risk of exposure to the virus multiplies. But she also sensed a moment of hard-won opportunity that would not last forever. "It was too hard to turn it down [because of] my eagerness to share the music that I spent so long writing," the Oakland artist says. "I'm like, I just want to do it." She booked a short European trip for May and June 2022 consisting of outdoor festival gigs, which she figured would be safer than playing clubs.

Things went well at first: Cabral and her band kept interactions outside their bubble to a minimum, wore masks as much as possible and agreed to test for COVID immediately if anyone felt unwell. But the mood changed in early June, when they arrived in Barcelona for the sprawling Primavera Sound festival. "It's called Primavera in the City — it's literally all over the city. There are so many people everywhere you go," Cabral says. "So it became really hard to avoid, and stick to our regimen." Finally, at a stop in Portugal, a bandmate tested positive. Cabral made the tough call to cancel her remaining shows, and paid for her collaborator's quarantine in a hotel. "It just isn't right to move forward into the unknown and into this risk for ourselves and other people," she says.

Obstacles like the ones Cabral encountered are now features of life on the road. COVID rates in the U.S. stayed relatively high this spring and summer, and have only recently begun to dip (though the official stats don't account for unreported home tests). But beyond the numbers, many musicians have found a set of complex and wearying tradeoffs await them on tour lately. The maze-like logistics of COVID safety are theirs to navigate, with little support from governments or their industry. Mask mandates and similar risk-reduction policies have evaporated. And audiences, perhaps starved for social connection and a sense of normalcy, have largely reverted to pre-pandemic behavior. For those operating below the very highest levels of success and infrastructure, the increased health and financial risks of mounting live music — and the burden of trying to avoid them — tend to fall hardest on the individual performers.

"We're not health officials or experts," says Panache Booking's Michelle Cable, who manages Spellling, Ty Segall, Mac DeMarco and others, and books tours for artists such as Bikini Kill and Ezra Furman. "It's added a whole other extra layer of complication and stress to touring, which is already stressful without what's happened in the last two to three years."

A domino effect of financial losses

Brijean Murphy is one half of the Los Angeles disco-house duo Brijean and a touring percussionist with the bands Poolside and Toro y Moi. Prior to the pandemic, Murphy toured six months out of the year, and was well-acquainted with the job's common headaches: the busy travel schedules, cramped conditions and missed sleep, often without a huge financial payoff at the end. But lately, she says even the more mundane parts of road life — like flying on planes, where masks are no longer required — now come with "financial, personal and spiritual repercussions."

This year, the bands Murphy works with have avoided going on long runs like they used to; she's played a few Brijean shows and some one-offs with Poolside. Despite masking and regular testing, she came down with COVID-19 in May after a string of European concerts, and had to quarantine on the East Coast. As if it weren't enough to be sick, alone and burning money while stranded far from home, healing time from COVID can be unpredictable — the CDC estimates that nearly one in five U.S. adults experiences symptoms lasting more than three months — which can delay a musician's return to the stage well after they've ceased to be contagious.

"There are just so many moving parts," Brijean says, describing her stress. "And I think on top of everybody being worked so hard, your dollar doesn't go as far as it used to."

Brijean Murphy with her bandmate in Brijean, Doug Stuart.
Jack Bool / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Brijean Murphy with her bandmate in Brijean, Doug Stuart.

Indeed, inflation hit a 40-year high in June and has come down only slightly, adding more financial pressure as musicians attempt to bounce back from two years without performance income. And as the BA.5 variant spread, show cancellations due to COVID were commonplace throughout the summer. Bikini Kill called off nearly two dozen shows when several members got sick. Blondie, touring in support of a career-spanning box set, canceled or postponed dates in Boston, New York and Connecticut. Rakim canceled his European tour, which was supposed to take place in August: "After a month in which we have had several COVID cases in our crew and even more close contacts requiring quarantine, it is our sad consensus that extensive foreign travel (in my case by cruise ship) is neither safe nor logistically possible," the rap veteran wrote in a statement.

So what happens when shows are canceled due to COVID? If they aren't able to reschedule lost dates, artists are obligated to refund tickets and, if applicable, give venues back their deposits. Cable says musicians who travel with a crew typically have agreements for how to compensate them in the event of cancellations; these vary, but a typical one might require paying everyone half their wages. Travel may need to be rebooked, and quarantine hotels secured. Any money already spent on promotion is likely non-refundable. Additionally, if a show doesn't happen, a booking agent like Cable doesn't collect her commission after putting in as much as three years of work to make a concert happen.

If only to avoid these headaches, many artists take extra pains to keep themselves safe from COVID on the road as much as possible — although Cable says that even among musicians, that vigilance has waned. When we spoke in June, she shared that it was common for artists to request that venues require proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test at the door, whether or not the local government had a mandate in place. As the summer progressed, she says, fewer clubs made this a regular practice, and performers began to follow suit. Some of her artists still ask for signage requesting that showgoers wear masks, and may even provide face coverings for audiences — but she says few patrons actually wear them, and those who do often shed them while eating, drinking, dancing or moshing.

Artists with bigger budgets may hire COVID compliance officers to ensure that health measures are observed, or travel separately from the rest of the touring party to further minimize exposure. These added precautions, of course, all come at a price.

"COVID tests are expensive, masks are expensive, extra hotel rooms are expensive," Cable says. "When you're checking at the door, it's an extra expense of having extra people hired. ... That comes out of the show settlement, meaning it ultimately comes out of the band's payments."

And there's another, less obvious cost to these arrangements: Musicians who close off backstage areas and stay away from the merch table miss out on potential networking and connections that could lead to future work. "A big part of being a freelancer and being in this field, like many fields probably, is that you can meet up with people, have social interactions, connect with people and then follow that connection," Murphy says, "[whether] it's working on an album together later or getting hired to go on their tour or collaborate on a different session."

Independent venues struggle, too

Cultural attitudes toward the virus vary widely from place to place, and even in cases where the artist and venue are in total agreement on enforcing COVID safety, the social and political climate of the surrounding area can create its own hurdles.

In April 2021, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order making it illegal for businesses in his state to ask for proof of vaccination. In response, Tom DeGeorge, owner of the 300-capacity Tampa club Crowbar, got together with venue owners from his state and Texas — where there are similar restrictions — and discovered a legal loophole that enables them to request negative PCR tests from customers. "We had to be very careful with the wording because if we screwed up, it was a $5,000 fine per infraction. So it was a risk in and of itself," DeGeorge says. "But it did definitely help me get certain artists for shows that wanted a special requirement." (Still, as cultural tides have turned, DeGeorge says he hasn't had any artist ask him to check COVID tests since spring.)

In 2020, DeGeorge led a coalition called Safe & Sound, where Tampa music venues banded together to enforce masking and social distancing at their businesses. From about October 2020 to February 2022, DeGeorge says, he and his staff dealt with extensive backlash. "My place was tagged up. I had my beer garden destroyed. One day I had a woman spit in my face at a concert," DeGeorge says. "I would regularly come in to work and have voicemails on the phone telling me I was a Nazi and they were going to burn my club down. I mean, it was relentless."

Steven Severin says he's found the prevailing attitude to be more cautious in Seattle, where he owns the 650-capacity concert hall Neumos. Still, like the musicians they host, venues like his have to prepare for the unpredictable: "People keep pushing tours back or canceling them," he says. "I can't imagine being an artist and having to navigate this stuff."

Although governments and private funders created some grants to help the live music industry at the beginning of the pandemic, most relief funding has dried up — even as professionals across the industry say it still needs institutional support.

DeGeorge and Severin are both members of the National Independent Venue Association, which lobbied for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG), through which eligible venues could apply for emergency assistance. Throughout 2021, the SVOG rollout hit numerous delays, and venue owners took on debt to keep their operations going or simply closed their doors. In June, a national coalition of mayors led by San Francisco's London Breed and Chicago's Lori Lightfoot called on Congress to support the arts and culture sector's recovery, recommending that the U.S. Small Business Administration expand the time allowed for venues to use SVOG funding to cover costs incurred through March 2023.

"It will be at least till the beginning of 2023 before we get back to some type of normal," Severin says. "That's what I was saying like three months ago. And now I'm starting to worry that that's going to push out even further."

Musicians fend for themselves

As much as venues have struggled, there's no comparable federal relief funding for individual artists, who are the engines driving the live music economy. Many grants from state and local governments and foundations are no longer taking applications. "I think there's more of this attitude of like, 'You have to deal with it. You took on this risk,' " Tia Cabral says. "That's disappointing."

For now, artists and their teams are left to figure things out on their own.

Tia Cabral onstage with Spellling at the 2022 Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona.
Sharon Lopez / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Tia Cabral onstage with Spellling at the 2022 Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona.

Brijean Murphy is still pursuing her musical aspirations while also leaning into her second, more pandemic-friendly career as an illustrator and visual artist, a job she can do without stepping foot into a crowd. "I feel like I'm still just watching [the situation] unfold and seeing how people, bands, companies, venues are reacting to this wave that we're in, this phase of what it is to be in entertainment today," she says.

Being a live musician in 2022 "can be challenging, can be a grind, can be soul-crushing at times," Murphy adds. But there are also moments of transcendence. "We played in San Diego, and it was this outdoor venue on the beach. It was sunset and it was sold out, and everyone was having the best time. So I feel like there are a lot of highs and lows still."

Despite the lows, musicians are finding ways to stay motivated and push forward. Spellling is embarking on a headlining U.S. tour in late September that will take Cabral and her band to 15 venues from North Carolina to Oregon. This time, she knows that the liberatory feeling of performing must be tempered with constant risk assessment and caution. But she plans to make the best of the situation by using what would have been social time for introspection and songwriting on the road.

"I just have to accept that there isn't any cutting loose, and that's OK," she says. "And try to turn that into a creative meditation, instead of this other picture of tour that is about dancing with strangers, crashing in people's houses and, you know, sharing drinks and making new friends."

Copyright 2022 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.

Nastia Voynovskaya