There Isn’t Always Money in the Merch

Has anyone else been having a particularly bad time at shows lately? I am going to continue to blame every little thing on the pandemic until I find another reason why I’ve aged a whole decade in two years. But this impending social disconnect that’s only advanced since relationships became digitized has made craning my neck and getting my toes stepped on feel a lot less worth it as of late. Not to say that concert etiquette had been always been adequate pre-panny; there was always that guy with a god complex spewing saliva in all directions as if he was the only one who knew the lyrics. But in the past year or so, I’ve had so many unpleasant concert experiences that I’ve started romanticizing my childhood spent drowning under armpits in GA at the House of Blues Boston.

In June of this year I saw Ravyn Lenae at Metro in Chicago, but I struggled to catch a fully formed glimpse of her with some guy behind me recording the entire show with flash on. Despite the lineup of dirty looks shot his way (including Miss Lenae herself), this dude persevered with his iPhone flash high in the air. 

And when I saw Kacy Hill last winter someone hurled a glass bottle into the trash can immediately next to stage left. The echo of the clink rippled through every vein in that room; even Kacy skipped over a lyric and lost her place for a moment. And at Yves Tumor back in March I had the privilege of watching the entirety of their set through the iPhone screen of the person in front of me. 

There was a collective eye roll this summer when Stranger Things created a whole nother monster by pushing “Running Up That Hill” back to the top of the charts. Likewise when, with the help of Drake and Beyoncé, Gen Z discovered that house music exists. To me, much of this discourse is rooted in unjust entitlement and bitterness; I am overjoyed that Katie B got her much deserved renaissance and that house music history is being learned and celebrated beyond its niche. 

But on the other hand, it is about more than just watching fame dilute the novelty; now it’s not nearly as special when that electric intro to Hounds of Love comes on, and the intimate, sacred house venues in Chicago felt way overcrowded this summer, compromising some goers’ safe spaces. 

Sadie Sinking

In some ways there is a direct correlation where the more famous a musician becomes, the more difficult it is to be their fan. When demand increases in our capitalistic hellscape, competition spikes, and accessibility declines; GA shows turn into stadiums, and soon you’re financially humbled beyond belief when tickets go on sale.

Steve Lacy, long-time collaborator of my dearest Ravyn Lenae, recently had a camera thrown at him on stage. He smashed it on the floor which was rather generous considering that fans have been yelling over him, interrupting the set, and ignoring every song other than “Bad Habit” throughout his tour. Is it because musicians exist primarily in a virtual, conceptualized place with their fans that once they walk onto that stage they’re still treated as if they’re not real? (I wrote more about the dehumanization of musicians last year.)

It’s not just the nefarious level of disrespect from the audience that’s soured many concerts lately; the whole touring business is totally fucked. Experimental musician L’Rain recently encouraged a discussion on the nuance of these live music catastrophes, attributing the root cause to be celebrity worship (musician dehumanization) and the failing capitalistic business model.

@lrain000 on Twitter

We all know musicians make most of their income from touring, and the real money is all in the merch. (That $0.0033/stream from Spotify certainly isn’t paying the bills.) But I’ve been hearing of more and more musicians forced to cancel their tours, like Santigold:

“… every musician that could, rushed back out immediately when it was deemed safe to do shows. We were met with the height of inflation—gas, tour buses, hotels, and flight costs skyrocketed—many of our tried-and-true venues unavailable due to a flooded market of artists trying to book shows in the same cities, and positive test results constantly halting schedules with devastating financial consequences. All of that on top of the already-tapped mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional resources of just having made it through the past few years. Some of us are finding ourselves simply unable to make it work.”

If the only channel for a real life connection in the musician-fan dynamic and the primary means for financial support is taken away, where does that leave the musician? As listeners, it’s easy to forget that music making is a business, and no matter how indie or mainstream, a musician is a worker. Musicians fight to keep their heads above water in the same ways many of us do, and although there will always be a figurative Taylor Swift stadium tour, the music business model doesn’t allow those tours to succeed without the failure of others.

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