THE LONG HAUL: Stepping Back, Taking Stock
Photo via Pixabay
Last summer, I had booked my first headlining gig at The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, an historic folk venue with a great reputation. Because I was excited about the opportunity, I was willing to deal with the logistics that getting to that show would require. I’d have to drive with my band straight from Nashville to Ann Arbor on the day of the show in time for sound check. This meant a 5 a.m. departure and nine hours of driving (if we kept stops brief) to get us there around 5 p.m. for a quick sound check. Then I would need to inhale some food, slap on some makeup, and play the show. Although I knew this would be an exhausting day, it was nothing I hadn’t done before, and I knew that I could handle it and still pull off a good performance. Or so I thought.
Fast forward to the night before the show. I started feeling nauseous and could only pick at my dinner. When my alarm went off at 4:15 a.m. on show day, I felt even worse. I got in the shower just in time to throw up. Thinking about everything that needed to happen that day, I started to panic. Should I cancel the show? Could I really make it 500 miles down the road feeling this way, and then perform? On the other hand, if I canceled the show we would be a 14-hour ride from our next stop on the tour. How would I pay my band, and how could I disappoint the promoters and people who had bought tickets? How could I miss this opportunity?
So, I popped a couple Dayquil capsules, threw my stuff into the van, and loaded my sad self into the passenger seat. Mercifully, my bandmates could see my condition and offered to take over driving duties. After a few hours I tried to eat something, and we had to pull over immediately so that I could be sick again in some dingy gas station bathroom. I remember the look on my dear friend and guitar player Cy’s face when I came out of the run-down service station, with watery eyes and an acrid mouth. “Oh, Baimoooooo,” he said with sympathy.
Last month I was grappling with the grief of losing the live music experience, in all of its various forms. This month, I’ve been thinking a lot about the benefits of being put involuntarily on pause. For most musicians, we exist in a state of adrenaline roller coaster. Racing to plan the next tour, to play the next gig, to make the next festival announcement, to catch the next plane, to record the next album. With the constant movement, excitement, and resulting exhaustion, there is a little time or energy to stop, reflect, and actually think about what we are doing.
I can only speak for myself, but I imagine this is true for many. I have always known what I wanted to do (i.e., create and play music for a living), but I have spent almost no time thinking about how I want to go about having that career. Now that I am being forced to consider alternatives to touring, I’m wondering why I never took the time to consider these options before? That day in Ann Arbor, did I really need to drive nine hours with the stomach flu, chug Pedialyte, and play two 45-minute sets? When did musicians come to accept living just on the brink of financial and logistical survival, so much that we feel we can’t decide when and how we want to work, to create, and to use social media? When did we come to feel that we have to do it all constantly or risk disappearing into the abyss of internet noise and thus zero income?
In the past decade or so, as physical and digital music sales have been almost entirely replaced by streaming services, and sales and royalty income streams have become ideas of the past, we’ve all come to accept that touring is the only way to make a viable living. As a result, we hit the road, playing 150-250 dates a year, every year. We have to make albums to generate publicity for tour, we have to tour to make any money, and we need money to fund making new albums. We are pushed by our own insecurities, as well as by labels, festivals, and promoters, to post on social media constantly, and when social media won’t show our posts to our own fans, we pay these multimillion-dollar tech companies to show our own content (which we’ve paid to create) to our own fans (which we’ve worked tirelessly to collect over the years). The vicious cycle continues, despite exhaustion, illness, mental health challenges, and an ever-growing carbon footprint.
These past weeks of having my entire worldview interrupted have allowed me the chance to pause and consider some other possible options. There are plenty of people making money via the internet, some without touring at all. Yoga instructors who teach one class to thousands of people at a time. Amanda Palmer, whose Patreon subscribers pay her $150,000 for every video that she makes. Podcast hosts, whose listenership allows them to make good money through advertising while still making their content freely accessible. Why can’t musicians make the internet work for their financial benefit too?
I heard once that an interruption of routine is the best path to innovation, and never have I felt that to be the case more than now. Touring being canceled for the foreseeable future may just be the tipping point we musicians need when it comes to realizing how much we’ve been cheating ourselves financially this past decade. I still love live performance above all, and I will be thrilled when I can hit the road again. But I’m going to make sure I do it on my terms this time — when and how I want to, and in a safe and sane way.