Live music is thriving right now. According to the US trade magazine Billboard, Taylor Swift’s Eras tour has so far grossed an estimated $838m, and that’s just from 66 shows in the Americas. It’s already the second highest-grossing tour in pop history, and she hasn’t had to cross an ocean yet.
At the top end, live music is indeed awash in cash. But at the grassroots end, it really isn’t: December began with one of the UK’s best loved small venues, Moles, in Bath, announcing its bankruptcy – one more historic room set to shut down. Bands complain about venues taking a third of their merchandise revenues, a recent practice that eats into one of the few areas where musicians really can make some money.
International touring has become harder and harder. For UK bands, getting into Europe after Brexit has become an administrative nightmare. For US bands, coming to Britain to be paid in sterling is barely worth it – the exchange rate reduces their fee to untenable levels. It’s not as if there’s one single villain here. Everyone in the live music business – venue owners, booking agents, promoters, musicians – is finding it harder than ever to make sense of the touring business, and harder still to make money from it. Which is why every sensible artist these days is trying to find ways to minimise outgoings and monetise new things.
As November tipped over into December, I travelled to New York to see the Hold Steady. I do this every year, because they’re my favourite band, and because I’m friends with them (I wrote a book with and for them last year). They never were and never will be a big band. They’re at the level of a beloved cult, but unusually for a band 20 years into their career, they’re continuing to evolve and make worthwhile new music.