This year was supposed to be the triumphant return of concerts. In some ways, that has materialised. Live Nation, the live music juggernaut, in August said it had sold more than 100mn concert tickets this year — more than all of 2019. After a few years of quiet, many acts have rushed back to the stage, and fans are happily showing up to see them.

But there are also some loud signals that in this late stage of the pandemic, the business of concerts is still very much in flux.

Some of the most ambitious tours, such as that of Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber, have been cancelled — shredding several months of meticulous planning and hundreds of millions of dollars in forfeited ticket sales. Adele in January postponed a Las Vegas residency, citing Covid-19-related delays. Arlo Parks, Santigold, Wet Leg, Disclosure and others have also taken the dramatic step of cancelling their entire tours, while others such as the Strokes and Ringo Starr have cancelled individual shows.

There are a lot of explanations for why this is happening, but put simply: musicians have returned from hibernation to a much more precarious landscape. Coronavirus still poses a threat, at least financially, and inflation has sent the prices of everything from flights to snacks and gasoline soaring.

Insurers cover tours for disruption from illnesses such as the flu, but do not compensate for unforeseen expenses because of coronavirus.

Bill Zysblat, who managed tours this year for Lady Gaga, the Rolling Stones, Sting, Steely Dan and Shania Twain, said the costs of cancelling even one or two shows because of someone contracting coronavirus can be “massive”. 

“If one of our stadium acts loses a show, that can be a $3mn, $4mn, $5mn hit in expenses, because of everything from stadium rentals, to having flown in and spent five days constructing the set, to ticket refunds,” said the longtime music manager.

He should know. In June, the Rolling Stones postponed a show in Amsterdam after Mick Jagger tested positive for coronavirus, while Sting earlier in the year had to cancel a series of performances because of a coronavirus outbreak. “Any tour that loses a week or two because a musician had Covid, from a financial point of view it’s very dangerous,” Zysblat said.

These losses are a big deal because for the past two decades, touring has been the financial lifeline for musicians. CD sales have evaporated, and their replacement — streaming on Spotify — pays relatively little in royalties to musicians. As a result, musicians from all walks of life, from pop superstars to middle-aged songwriters, have been touring relentlessly, sometimes for years without a break.

Putting on a concert is physically demanding, and doing it for months was always tough from a mental health standpoint. The pandemic made these pressures worse.

The singer Santigold on Tuesday summarised what some musicians are going through. “After sitting idle (not being able to do shows) for the past couple years, many of us like everyone else, earning no or little income during that time, every musician that could, rushed back out immediately when it was deemed safe to do shows,” she said on Instagram, announcing the cancellation of her autumn tour.

“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.”

One potential solution is more “residencies” — stints during which artists play many shows consecutively in the same location.

Las Vegas has long been the home to residencies, which can be hugely profitable but also carry the stigma of being a place for older acts who have peaked.

Some younger stars are becoming more open to residencies, though. Harry Styles recently performed 15 times in a row in New York, allowing him to stay in one location for a month and saving money on travel expenses. He is doing similar stints in Austin, Chicago and Los Angeles.

“I don’t believe enough of us are talking about it publicly,” Santigold said. “In the place that the music business is in, it feels like I’ve been hanging on, trying to make it to the ever-distant finish line, but my vehicle’s been falling apart the whole time.”

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