There are two reasons I’ve finally come to write and publish it now, in October of 2022. One is that I’m just over being sick—not with covid, but with a bad cold that had me in bed for two days on a beautiful fall weekend (I say this because I’ve taken multiple PCR and rapid at-home tests, which have all come back negative), and just prior to that I had a bad case of bacterial tonsilitis or strep, which took another week out of my favorite season. I’ve remembered just how much it sucks to be sick (and for two weeks at that), how much time it takes to get better, and how grateful I am for the paid sick time my full-time job grants me to do so—something many musicians who perform live simply do not have.
The second reason is current events: Animal Collective, Santigold, Car Seat Headrest, even Ringo, and many other musical acts are canceling shows and tours because of ongoing health issues, financial dilemmas and the inability to make tour worth the money, time, and risk involved. Gas prices, inflation and ongoing supply chain issues have all impacted the ability for groups to successfully tour and turn any kind of profit, whether here in the U.S. or internationally.
Meanwhile, monopolies such as Ticketmaster and AXS have turned to new profitable schemes such as on-demand pricing and increasing made-up fees, causing tickets that were once within reach for many fans to now be beyond their budget. Struggling venues are taking larger cuts from musicians—like from their merchandise sales—while musicians lose more money every year to Spotify and major streaming services.
Live music and the industry isn’t just struggling, it feels like it’s on the verge of some kind of collapse.
As someone who loves live local and indie music, I simply don’t know who is regularly going to these giant Red Rocks shows south of me in the Denver area that start at $200 a pop. I don’t even understand who can continue to afford to see two smaller name acts on a weeknight for $40 after fees—most of which likely doesn’t make it to the artist anyway—plus a tab that adds up to $20 for a single whiskey drink. Who has at least $60 to blow for maybe 3 hours entertainment on a weeknight, let alone hundreds to see the reunion tour of Blink-182? In Denver, I can at least chalk it up to tech bros and people with good paying jobs who bought homes before 2020 and aren’t now seeing 20% increases in their rent year after year, but what about everyone everywhere else?
Since I started my college radio show in 2010 and subsequently turned it into this website after graduating a decade ago, my mission as The Aural has always been to speak up for the little guy, showcase the unknown band, highlight the emerging artist, and so on. It’s why I’ve kept the same name this whole time (despite some people who have laughed at it): the only way I know how to stay on top of what will become the next big thing in music is to keep a pulse on the little guy, the local scenes, and whatever isn’t currently mainstream. This is usually where the music I love most emerges from—and these are also the communities with the thinnest margins, who are hit the hardest by changes and downturns in the industry.
As KQED reports (for NPR) on this subject: “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.”
When COVID-19 shut things down in early 2020, it was obvious that musicians and live music would suffer. Indoor live music was not “essential” in the same way as grocery stores and pharmacies. Shows and tours were cancelled, and musicians suddenly had no way to gain income. Venues shuttered, with no idea of when they’d be allowed to operate again. There was a strong sense that your favorite musician or bar or venue just might not be around when things got better.
Fast forward to 2021: we got vaccines that spring and summer, and for a moment that season, things felt “normal.” Even as the Delta wave hit schools and then the public that August into September and on, cases were still low enough and vaccines were new enough to instill confidence in performers and fans alike. I went to a couple indoor shows again (wearing a mask, of course) that were absolutely amazing. I remembered what I had been missing, how special live music was for me and many, many other people. I saw how much musicians missed touring, how much they needed the money from selling merchandise, and how glad the venues were to have them back.
But it didn’t last. It simply couldn’t—not with the way our public health policy devolved in late 2021 into 2022, and has almost been eliminated since. In case it’s not obvious, “you do you” is not *public* health policy. That’s individualism: every person for themselves.
There’s nothing “public” about one-way masking. Without adequate and free testing, mask mandates, and improved ventilation and air filtration in indoor spaces, this airborne virus has continued to persist at high levels since the Omicron wave of early 2022. There’s also nothing “mild” about it, despite the narrative sold to us over and over, attempting to get us to live our lives and contribute again to the wheel of capitalism without taking proper precautions to mitigate and reduce the spread of this deadly and debilitating virus.
At least the way I’ve experienced it, community public health measures and live music go hand in hand. But due to the pandemic, and all of its fallout, these two happily partnered pieces have become divorced—and without this pairing, I don’t see live music having much of a future. Not past giant Red Rocks and stadium shows, at least. I’m really worried about the local venues and the little guy, you guys.
(Again, you should just go really read this entire piece: https://www.npr.org/2022/09/19/1122947022/tour-canceled-covid-safety-concerts-masks.)
Here’s where the piece I’ve wanted to write comes in. Last spring, I went to see Joywave live in Denver at the Bluebird Theater, and it both boosted my spirits and broke me. I’ve been trying to type out my thoughts ever since. And with all the recent news about well-known indie artists and rockstars alike being too ill to tour and unable to just break even, it’s finally time.
Because, live music is all about community. It’s about connecting with the music, with the musicians, and with other people. I first learned this in Minneapolis, where went to every show I possibly could from 2012-2016 and kept myself busy writing about it. The music can speak for itself (high quality), and most of the musicians and fans there are good folk, many of whom became my friends. Out of the hundreds of live show I saw in the Twin Cities, I can count on one hand the number that weren’t worth going to.
Now remember, in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the winters are brutal. They’re cold, snowy and often icy. It’s 5 p.m. in January and I’ve just got off work on say, a Tuesday. There’s a show I want to see at 7th Street Entry, or maybe all the way over in St. Paul at the Turf Club. I could easily decide, as the sunlight has already disappeared, to stay home, stay warm, and do nothing. But what do I do? I put on a base layer under my jeans, done my warmest hat and gloves, and grab my sturdy black wool coat and head out at 7 p.m. after scarfing down dinner. I find parking in the streets’ snowy mess, and I skip coat check—leaving my warm layers on the whole night—and head straight for the bar to order a cheap local beer and a grab free pair of disposable earplugs. I head home a couple hours later, as the temps dip below 10 degrees, pass out in my bed and wake up after dreaming of doing it all again, exactly the same. No complaints.
And dozens of other people did the exact same thing those nights, because I saw them there, at the same show. We were all willing to muster the energy, wear the appropriate attire, and show up for the musicians we wanted to see and support.
So why are we not willing to the same thing when it comes to COVID-19?
I’ve tried it out, and it’s… really easy, you guys. It’s honestly the least you could do these days to protect performers and fans alike. I wore a 3M Aura N95 mask to Joywave last March and the only bad thing that happened was completely unrelated—me dropping my glasses (I stupidly brought with) and them getting run over by a car. Which is one of those crappy things in life that just happens, unfortunately.
The biggest issue to my view during the show wasn't my mask, however, it was the two super tall men in front of me. For me this is, and continues to be, the biggest interference to fully enjoying live music. And yeah, I was singing along and my friends couldn't see my lips moving, but big whoop! If it means I’m making sure people don’t get a life-changing disease at a show, that’s a small price to pay.
Yet many venues don’t allow bands to mandate masks anymore, and there’s no higher authority or group holding people responsible at this point in the pandemic. Some still require vaccination, but that’s something that really only protects you and you alone—vaccinated individuals can and do spread COVID-19, and a huge number of infections remain asymptomatic, which means you never develop or show symptoms. You could be vaccinated and feel just fine, and give COVID-19 to your favorite musician and their fans without knowing it—one of the main reasons masks still remain so important today.
Here's the best comparison I have: Masks are like earplugs that offer protection to the wearer as well as the people around you, both short and long term. The trick with masks is that the performers can't wear them, but they're the ones who will suffer the most if they get COVID-19. So it's up to you, by wearing earplugs of sorts for them, to not just help keep their tour going now but to keep their career going for a very long time.
In the same way that earplugs are often offered for free at music venues in certain cities or states, I wish masks that offer high quality filtration for aerosols would be offered with every show. Maybe that's what our absurd ticket fees could go toward, that they charge on every freaking sale now! And if I could snap my fingers and change a couple things about how we all do live music these days during an ongoing pandemic, I would also add these four items:
Code of conduct
- Don't come if you legitimately feel sick and don’t PERFORM if you *are* sick with COVID-19. I'm talking cold symptoms that you can't ignore, allergies that don’t make sense, food poisoning or digestive issues that come out of nowhere. No matter if we get rid of COVID-19 or not, please don’t give me the flu, your cold, etc. because you feel it’s more important for you to show up sick than to keep other people healthy.
- Rapid test before a show, especially if you are feeling off. It won't catch everyone or every case, but it will catch a couple people, and that will keep for sure contagious people away from the venue and all the people in it. Rapid tests often don’t catch Omicron within the first five days of infection and/or symptoms, so this isn’t foolproof, but it’s better to test than to not. You can get 8 tests free every month with your health insurance at Walgreens or CVS, and many local public libraries are still giving away rapid tests for free. There are also still free PCR sites in certain cities—check on your city government’s website to find out if they exist in your area.
- No matter what, wear a high-quality, well-fitted mask. I’m talking KN95s and N95s—no cloth or surgical shit anymore, we left that behind in 2021 when super contagious Omicron hit the scene in early 2022. Yeah, it will impede your ability to get wasted at the show, boohoo. Yes, it will make it harder to be heard in an already loud space. Yes, it will keep your friends from seeing you mouth all the words to your favorite songs. Too fucking bad!!! We probably could all drink a little less these days, and stop talking so much during live music shows. If you want to drink during shows, wear a KN95 with ear loops, and pop it back when you’re talking or not drinking.
- Buy merch and music if and when you can! Have an amazing time and the support musicians you love, through more than just a ticket purchase when possible. So much of what makes touring possible is the money that the artists make from merchandise and direct music sales.