Can Canadian Musicians Afford to Tour Anymore?

Between the still-raging pandemic and skyrocketing gas prices, the nation's musicians are struggling to stay on the road
Can Canadian Musicians Afford to Tour Anymore?
With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, so many artists are unable to get their tours off the ground. Matt Peters remembers when his indie-pop band Royal Canoe were days away from starting their spring 2022 tour when disaster struck.

"It was almost comical how it all went down," recalls the Winnipegger now. "We had a series of positive tests right before we were supposed to start our tour, which forced us to postpone the full eastern leg. Then, once we got out on our western leg, I came down with COVID a few shows in, which meant we had to postpone those dates as well."

But those who do manage to get on the road are finding it's not any easier: with Canada's inflation rate at its highest since the 1980s due to skyrocketing gas prices, it's now even harder to tour the massive country, a difficult undertaking under even the best of circumstances. And all while trying to dodge COVID-19. 

Daniel Monkman was already asking themself "Is touring still sustainable?" four years ago, when they were starting to build an audience for their now-acclaimed shoegaze project Zoon. Now, the Manitoba-born, Toronto-based rising star says they "went from being able to tour when I wanted" to needing to be highly selective.

"Before, you could make money selling merch at festivals, even if they had a low guarantee," says Monkman, referring to artists' base fees for live appearances, but "at all fronts, that's been affected by inflation."

Zoon's manager, Brendan McCarney of Double Denim Mgmt, agrees that merch is "a great lifeline for bands" because expenses can devour smaller spaces' door deals and bigger venues' and festivals' guarantees. But, he adds, this tough economy slows ticket sales, let alone merch.

"It's a double-edged sword," McCarney says. "Smaller promoters and venues can't afford to dish out big guarantees especially when considering their expenses for each show," which often include marketing and promotion, a sound tech, a door person, and so on. He adds that it is also extremely costly for artists and bands to tour when factoring in accommodations, per diems, musician fees, gas, vehicle rental and more, pointing out that "during that time, musicians can't work their day jobs, if they have them, so the net loss is often even greater."

Smaller artists like Zoon and Royal Canoe aren't the only ones feeling the effects of today's economy. Canadian pop-rock mainstays Stars tweeted that they lost $20,000 on a recent tour because of hotel, car rental and gas prices. (The tweets have since been deleted and Stars declined a request for comment.) 

It all speaks to an increasingly undeniable reality: Canadian artists are struggling more than ever to tour the country.

"Top-tier artists can increase their ticket price in order to not come home in debt," says Meg Symsyk, president and CEO of FACTOR, a major grant-giving body supporting recorded music in Canada, but "bands just starting out have a harder situation when they are still building their audience, and a ticket price could mean a consumer decision to attend or not." 

Erin Benjamin, the president and CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association, says the industry is doing "everything it can to bring fans back and not pass costs on to the consumer," adding that promoters, venues and more are working toward creative methods to approach that higher cost of doing business." 

Benjamin emphasizes that the association represents the music industry, not the artists themselves, admitting that "the cost gets passed to the consumer in everything else we buy, and it's more expensive for everything we purchase. So it makes sense that we all feel it. To what degree depends on the vibrancy of the market." She adds, "We haven't seen an end to what the industry requires to not only recover but thrive. It looks like concerts are back, but just look at the costs." 

Such a return to form won't be easy, says Benjamin, because "Touring was already hard in this country" because the swaths of Canadian landscape between gigs can be so vast. "Breaking even was always hard to do. So when you add something like 30 percent to costs like gas and eating into paper-thin margins, and a different COVID situation and different consumer confidence in each town, it makes touring in Canada more complex than ever."

Despite all those pitfalls, pHoenix Pagliacci and Truss — a.k.a. Toronto R&B/hip-hop duo TRP.P — just wrapped up their first tour and are planning a follow-up soon. Though Truss readily calls touring a big financial gamble for independent artists, it also "gives the fan base a chance to grow." Their tour's success is partially owed to granting bodies, but what's available won't suffice, says Pagliacci. 

She adds, "The government has to step in and realize just how much money it makes off of live music. The city thrives off the backs of musicians, and yet it chooses to turn a blind eye when musicians need it the most," before shouting out the City of Toronto's Music Office and the Unison Fund, of which the latter recently pledged to dole out $2,500 to qualified applicants from $16,855,000 allotted by the Canadian government via their new Live Music Workers Fund. 

Anna Ruddick, the Unison Fund's industry relations manager, shares much of Pagliacci's viewpoint: live music contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to Canada's economy, she says, but "if artists, musicians, technicians, roadies, bookers, independent venues, festival staff, etc., do not have the ability to earn money, the show will not go on." 

She adds, "the Live Music Workers Fund closes on March 31, 2023, but we have had an unprecedented number of applicants already and the need for aid is only increasing. That being said, Unison will keep raising money to support this community." Ruddick has seen steeper expenses and softer ticket sales leaving "a lot of mid-level artists struggling to draw anything close to the numbers they relied on pre-pandemic." 

Vancouver noise-pop band Kamikaze Nurse have been steadily climbing the funding ladder and without that, says vocalist and guitarist KC Wei, they "would not be able to tour." Wei says young acts such as themselves need to tour to build on their albums' successes, but unless they can "spend like $8,000 in two weeks, with the unlikely goal of breaking even … it's just not reasonable." During their recent U.S. leg, Kamikaze Nurse heard other bands call out gas prices to appeal to the audience to buy merch. "We would say, 'We're from Canada!' and that seemed to work," Wei adds.

Symsyk readily agrees that the touring market is formidable for nascent Canadian acts, even without a pandemic and runaway inflation. She goes on to describe how FACTOR's system begins with an entry level artist development program and showcase opportunities. "Then other programs graduate up in support as the artist grows their audience and engagement in the commercial ecosystem, mainly with artists who have already established some foothold and built a team to help achieve their goals," Symsyk says.

That being said, FACTOR does evaluate its programs for "unaddressed gaps," says Symsyk, adding that she and her team are mindful of up-and-comers who "may have a harder time as the industry ramps back up post pandemic, and promoters are booking talent that consumers will definitely leave their house for." One of FACTOR's approaches to those issues: "We have discussed looking at incentives for major acts to take more emerging Canadian talent out on tour," says Symsyk.

Challenging as COVID and inflation have been, they've also pushed some acts like Michael Bernard Fitzgerald to innovate. The Calgarian troubadour dodged pandemic cancelation tumult by pitching a tent cross-country for his rural, socially distanced Farm Tour. It's uniquely gratifying because he has "an actual green room," jokes Fitzgerald about the grassy backdrops, along with "the beautiful sounds of Canadian farmland, bison ranches … having my family around, horseback riding." Among the challenges: building a 20-by-40 foot tent nightly, warding off frost, and no post-show fast food.

Fitzgerald says, "I'm interested to see how inflation factors in on" his upcoming leg. "Touring our massive country was already fairly expensive. That being said, I'm excited to get playing again this year. I'm thankful to go."

Peters echoes Fitzgerald's optimism: Once Royal Canoe actually made it on the road, he says all the stress was worth it. "When we actually got up on stage and played the shows, it was truly remarkable how great it felt. It was like waking up from a long dream — being reintroduced to this past version of yourself, playing music with the other guys in the band, even just being reminded of what it was like to have people look at me again," he adds with a laugh. 

But looking ahead, his optimism is weighed down by a number of concerns. "It seems like every artist has a story like ours from trying to hit the road over the last couple of years. It's definitely taken its toll," says Peters. "I'd like to think there will always be an appetite for live music, but the infrastructure has been really badly damaged and it will probably take time to build it back up again. I imagine the economic downturn will only slow that recovery process."  

As Wei, ever the self-proclaimed pragmatist, says bluntly, "If you're a working or professional musician at this point, then you need to adapt. For the rest of us, keep your day job, tbh. Dream big, but keep your day job."