The conflict and cost of touring in a pandemic
The music of the Mountain Goats lives on stage. Fronted by John Darnielle, the North Carolina-based indie rockers have played more than 1,000 concerts over their multi-decade career. Live shows are "among the oldest things humans do," notes the 54-year-old singer. "To gather is a communal, spiritual, and arguably religious experience."
For bands residing in the middle to outer tiers of fame, touring has another component that is just as vital as the communal, spiritual, and religious — it is also an economic essential. So when COVID-19 vaccines started rolling out earlier this year, accompanied by reschedulings of delayed concerts and announcements of new tours, many were relieved. Superstars such as Drake and Taylor Swift can survive a delayed show or 200, but most artists — and the crews working for them — depend on concerts as their main source of income. Having few or none over the past 18 months has been brutal.
"We made this joke to ourselves over the last decade as all of our album sales dried up: 'Well, they'll never take touring from us,' " says Jim James of My Morning Jacket. "And then this pandemic comes, and we're all just like, 'F---, what do we do?' "
Many turned to livestreams with virtual tip jars to fill the void of touring income as they adjusted to the new normal. But the financial benefits of live music reemerging are butting up against obstacles, both physical and mental. With the herculean stamina that must redevelop when you've been absent from the stage for almost two years, plus the roaming Delta variant putting audiences on edge again, the anticipated return to touring has become — like much of life during COVID — complicated.
"We're excited to see each other and to play," Darnielle told EW in July, before the Mountain Goats began their new tour. "But I'm a little nervous because I don't sleep well on the bus. In normal times I just go, 'I'm gonna be kind of crazy and sleepless for half the year, and that's okay.' But now I've been at home, sleeping in my own bed, since March 16, 2020. So it's going to be a hard landing, because when you don't sleep, your mental health crashes, and then you have to spend a lot of energy just trying to stay vertical."
"If you tour enough, reality starts to warp," says Martin Doherty of the Scottish synth-pop band Chvrches. "You start to think it's normal to only live in hotels or not be in the same place every day. So it was a shock to the system when that went away."
It may be an even bigger shock coming back. Chvrches used the break to make their latest album, Screen Violence, over Zoom. But when it came time to perform the songs at virtual festivals and radio shows, the band encountered another unforeseen problem: Vocalist Lauren Mayberry was rusty.
"I realized I needed to start singing more," Mayberry says. "I'll sing to figure out the demos that we're doing or for the final takes. I don't really do any singing other than that. That's bizarre, to have gone from nine years singing all the time, day in day out. I was like, 'Oh yeah, I really need to do some vocal exercises.' "
And then there is the large (possibly unvaccinated) elephant in the room.
"Being indie, you have to be smart because your money is your tour," notes R&B singer Dawn Richard (formerly of Danity Kane) before acknowledging the most critical challenge in performing live now: keeping everyone safe. "We want to have a good time, but we have to respect each other and understand we're still not out of this situation. I want to make sure we're all happy and dancing, but also healthy."
In the spring, when delayed concerts started getting rescheduled and new shows were announced, a hopeful spirit was in the air: Maybe, just maybe, this would all be over soon. A shadow has been thrown over that prospect by the recent resurgence in COVID -19 cases — catalyzed by both the large number of unvaccinated Americans and the more contagious Delta variant. The news has inspired musicians and promoters to begin enacting new safety protocols.
In August, Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast announced that her upcoming gigs would require masks and either proof of vaccination or a recent negative test (in states where that's legal). Live Nation soon followed suit by requiring that all artists, crew members, and attendees show one of the latter two at their venues and festivals. (The same policy was employed at Lollapalooza, where only 203 confirmed cases emerged from more than 385,000 attendees.)
Vaccine and mask logistics are now just another thing artists have to worry about. Some artists, like singer Brittany Howard or hip-hop duo Run the Jewels, have opted to simply delay their tours again until (hopefully) this latest COVID-19 wave subsides. Others have kept already-scheduled dates while incorporating vaccine protocol into their touring to-do list. "It went from buying guitar strings and harmonicas to organizing the band's vaccination cards and buying a slew of very expensive rapid tests," singer-songwriter Joe Pug says.
My Morning Jacket's James refers to their tour in support of their forthcoming self-titled album as "a survival mission" — both in terms of finances and health.
"It's not going to be loosey-goosey," he says. "It's going to be: Get off the bus and onto the stage, take your mask off, put on a show, put your mask on, get back to the bus. No hugging strangers. For a lot of musicians and crew, nobody has been able to make a living over the last couple of years. So a lot hinges on these shows. As a singer, even if I got some lesser case of COVID, that would shut down the whole tour."
But plenty of artists, such as Zauner and Darnielle, agree that those additional hurdles are worth the effort — as long as it means getting to share music with people in a room again. After the Mountain Goats began their new round of touring, Darnielle wrote a Twitter thread about how much he loved mask mandates as another manifestation of the communal spirit of concerts: "A venue requiring masks is sending the message that they care about their workers and the people who paid to get in. And the performers too!"
"I'm so excited to just wrap a cable again and carry an amp — all the trivial, grueling parts of the job that remind you you're good at something and you have a sense of purpose," Zauner says. "It feels like the final frontier, having a large group of people in the room enjoying something. It's like the pinnacle of communal gathering. I think it's going to feel nerve-racking and strange initially, but music is hopefully headed for a really wonderful renaissance period."
A version of this story runs in the November issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands beginning Oct. 15. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.