A musician sets off down a path of colored tiles on a game board, which has stops along its length representing in stylized images the many hazards of touring: vehicle breakdowns, COVID infections, difficulty with lodgings, planning problems, vinyl-pressing delays, venues taking merch cuts, and more.
Credit: Raz Latif for Chicago Reader

Elijah Montez launched his psych-pop project, Daydream Review, after moving to Chicago from Austin in 2018. He put together a band to play his material live, and they planned their first tour for March 2020. We all know what happened next. “It kind of derailed where we were at,” Montez says. “We were playing a lot of shows in 2019, leading right up to the pandemic.” 

After U.S. clubs reopened in 2021, Montez plotted the tours that would actually be Daydream Review’s first: a week in the south in May 2022, then nine dates in August to the east coast and back. “It’s really financially taxing,” Montez says. “Probably the most financially taxing thing I’ve ever done.”

An illustration of a musician walking past a sign saying "start"
Credit: Raz Latif for Chicago Reader

Daydream Review didn’t have a booking agent, so Montez did the work himself. His live band has six members, including himself, which meant he had to rent a van, which set him back a couple thousand dollars. The cost of gas also took a financial toll—the group’s first road show was May 15, a month before the national average gas price hit its record high of $5.02 per gallon. The band also had to pay for cheap hotels on four nights, since Montez had only been able to line up a few houses where the band could crash for free. That added $100 to $130 per night. 

Montez had heard horror stories of bands getting robbed of their gear on the road, so Daydream Review moved all their stuff into those hotel rooms overnight. “We would literally unpack everything from the car, take it up to the room, and immediately go to sleep,” he says. “It’s exhausting taking that much gear in and out of a hotel.” 

Even before the pandemic, it was hard for upstart bands to draw crowds in cities they’d never played—and Daydream Review faced their share of empty rooms on the road. Montez loved making new fans in unfamiliar places, but poor turnout hurt the band’s already ailing bottom line. It didn’t help when the promoter at Small’s Bar in Detroit canceled their show due to an emergency. 

Daydream Review’s debut LP, due early next month

These variables make touring feel like a gamble to Montez. “It’s this touch-and-go kind of thing right now that’s really difficult to navigate,” he says. “Unless you have some sort of mysterious benefactor, I can’t really see someone doing it a lot. Unless they’re happy to not have a ton of money when they get back home.”

The current conventional wisdom about the music economy is that touring is where the money is. Now that streaming has destroyed most artists’ ability to earn meaningful income from recordings, they’re supposed to hit the road and hope they can get close to a living wage that way. Never mind that some musicians simply don’t have a live show or can’t tour due to family obligations, disability, or a hundred other factors. 

During the pandemic, plenty of stories have surfaced that expose additional cracks in that conventional wisdom. If even a single member of a touring band tests positive for COVID-19, it can result in a string of canceled shows and the loss of hundreds if not thousands of dollars—even without factoring in the cost of housing, feeding, and transporting the band while they can’t perform. 

When Animal Collective canceled a European tour in fall 2022, they cited COVID-19 and the economy. In a public statement, the group wrote, “From inflation, to currency devaluation, to bloated shipping and transportation costs, and much much more, we simply could not make a budget for this tour that did not lose money even if everything went as well as it could.” If that’s the position of one of the most successful indie acts of the past 20 years, what chance do smaller bands have?

An illustration of a venue stage with the "venue" sign dropping letters, symbolizing the rough times music venues have faced since the pandemic
Credit: Raz Latif for Chicago Reader

I called up more than a dozen Chicago indie musicians to talk about touring since the arrival of the pandemic. Some, such as Montez, had little to no experience on the road before 2020; others, including Facs front man Brian Case, started touring more than a generation ago. Everyone I contacted had encountered challenges on the road, whether caused directly by the pandemic or aggravated by pandemic-related economic conditions. No two people had the same experience, with the arguable exception of Bridget Stiebris and Haley Blomquist—and they play together in the band OK Cool. A few artists I interviewed aspire to make music a full-time job, but only a fraction of them can pay for even basic needs with music-related income. Everyone makes money some other way.

Most of the subjects of this story still value touring and the opportunities it affords them. Even before the pandemic, several had recalibrated their expectations for their music careers to bring them in line with the financial constraints of the post-streaming industry. One key element of productive touring is learning to depend on it only for what it can give, and that’s constantly changing—usually for the worse. 

I couldn’t answer some of my larger questions, such as the effect of deteriorating tour conditions on regional music communities—that’s an entirely different story. But I did come away from these conversations with a newfound appreciation for the lengths to which indie artists will go to hit the road.

Montez works full-time as an architect. “I needed a job that could provide health insurance, ’cause I’m diabetic,” he says. “That’s a whole other can of worms on the road.” His day job also allows paid time off, so he can keep drawing his salary even when a tour isn’t breaking even. Not every musician has that luxury.

The Ganser EP Nothing You Do Matters, released in October 2022

“None of us really have vacation pay with what we’re doing—we’re all freelancing or working in the service industry,” says Ganser drummer Brian Cundiff. That makes it much harder for Ganser to treat tours as loss leaders as they build an out-of-town audience. “We have to make it worth our while now,” Cundiff says. “Sometimes that means exceeding just covering the cost of the tour. We need to have money to eat. We’d like to have money to pay our bills when we get back.”

Relatively traditional nine-to-five jobs have disadvantages too, including less flexibility with time off. “We only have so much time off, in general, from work,” says OK Cool guitarist-vocalist Bridget Stiebris. “Me and Haley have never done a tour longer than a week, because that’s usually all that we can get off.” Since March 2020, OK Cool have gone on just one tour, playing a date in Wisconsin and another in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Stiebris and Blomquist also toured for a week or so in October 2021 as members of five-piece band the Weekend Run Club.

An illustration of a monthly calendar page cluttered with red Xs and Os and scratched-out notes, symbolizing the difficulty of scheduling a tour
Credit: Raz Latif for Chicago Reader

Artists without booking agents often discover that the labor of scheduling their own tours can be time-consuming. But as Meat Wave front man Chris Sutter learned as he booked 13 road dates for his band in fall 2022, it has benefits too. “A lot of these small, unaffiliated venues are more generous, I suppose, with a band of our ilk, rather than [venues] owned by Live Nation or a broader company. We used to play those [corporate] kinds of venues all the time through an agent,” he says. “It seems like the independent venues are kind of helping bands out.”

When Bret Koontz booked a seven-date November 2022 tour with his backing band, Truancy Club, he relied on the DIY network he’d built in the late 2000s as front man of Cool Memories. His Rolodex has shrunk since then, because turnover is high in the DIY scene—it’s volunteer run, and even when people don’t age out of the community, its venues are vulnerable to shutdown because organizers often live in them. 

“A lot of the smaller cities that we’d normally go to, like Louisville, the people that I spoke to and that I normally work with told me that that town is basically still recovering,” Koontz says. “They’re still trying to get their DIY music scene up and running again, and they didn’t really have the resources. I got that sense from some other places too. So we decided to do major cities and do longer drives and consolidate it more.” Koontz brought all four members of Truancy Club along, which shortened the tour because not everyone could stay out for the two and a half weeks he would’ve preferred.

Bret Koontz & Truancy Club released A Sparkle Road Cult in November 2022.

Izzy Olive records as Half Gringa, and when she goes on the road, she usually brings four support musicians. Since the start of the pandemic, she’s organized three full-band tours. “It’s my rodeo, so I pay my band and I pay for all the expenses on tour,” she says. “I know costs are going up, and I want to pay people in my band more, because they’re worth it.” Olive’s desire to do right by her band affects her cost-benefit analysis. “I have to make sure that I’m able to pay people and pay for all the things I need without completely being broke,” she says. “Or being able to just pay it off in a reasonable amount of time.”

Vivian McConnell, aka V.V. Lightbody, cut down on the expense of a backing band by partnering with Atlanta songwriter Jordan Reynolds (aka Rose Hotel) in September 2022. They played in each other’s groups and brought along a bassist and a drummer who could perform both sets—thus presenting two full lineups each night while paying just four people. 

“We didn’t pay each other, and it really worked out,” McConnell says. “Because we were essentially splitting the cost, we were able to pay our other musicians a rate that felt really fair.”

Even before the pandemic, Seth Engel had decided he couldn’t tour with his main project, Options. The cost of hiring musicians exceeds what he’s been able to make on the road solo. “The reality is, [touring] without being able to pay people what I would ask for would just feel gross and bad and icky,” he says. “I’m perfectly content to just hang out at home, play shows locally, and make bangers in my room.” 

That said, Engel toured more last year than any of my subjects—he just did it as a sideman. He played with Nnamdï, Water From Your Eyes, Mister Goblin, and Dust Star, which by his own reckoning kept him on the road for almost four months of 2022. “There are two lines I draw,” Engel says. “One is, I have to come back and not suffer financially—otherwise it’s like, why did I even do it? The other one, of course, is: doesn’t matter how much I’m getting paid if I don’t love playing the music.”

Of everyone in this story, McConnell has landed the biggest support gig: in May she performed at BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend with Harry Styles, singing backup and playing in his band. “It definitely gave me a boost of confidence,” she says. “I was feeling pretty down at the beginning of last year. I was not ready to do the hustle again, just because I’ve been doing it for so long. And it can be really discouraging with touring.”

YouTube video
Harry Styles performs “As It Was” at the Big Weekend in May 2022, with Vivian McConnell is his band.

Most working musicians won’t get to back an international pop star. But smaller artists routinely boost their touring prospects by traveling as an opener for a better-known act. Singer-songwriter (and Reader contributor) Tasha Viets-VanLear spent almost a month of spring 2022 supporting Nilüfer Yanya on the road. Ganser opened for Bartees Strange for a week of dates in September 2021, then scheduled a few shows with Algiers the following month. Indie rocker Mia Joy toured with Sharon Van Etten in spring 2022. 

This sort of arrangement exposes emerging musicians to larger audiences. “I was playing such big rooms on that Nilüfer tour that I sold a shit ton of merch,” Viets-VanLear says. “I ended up making a lot of money, which I wasn’t expecting—I could pay rent for maybe the next two months and not have to worry about my income.”

An illustration of an oversize pair of scissors snipping a T-shirt in half, symbolizing the cuts of merch sales that some venues and promoters extract from musicians
Credit: Raz Latif for Chicago Reader

Merchandise sales—T-shirts, vinyl, cassettes, CDs, tote bags, buttons, patches, et cetera—can make the difference between a failed tour and a profitable one. “It changes peoples’ lives to sell ten records in a night,” Engel says. Predictably, though, venues and festivals have been unable to resist muscling in on that money—they have a history of taking a cut, usually ranging from 15 to 35 percent, according to the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers. In November, the UMAW, the Featured Artists Coalition, and rapper Cadence Weapon launched the #MyMerch campaign to convince North American venues to stop skimming from artists, many of whom are already struggling. 

Vinyl records have outsize influence over tour scheduling. According to Billboard, vinyl album sales reached a post-CD-era high of 43.46 million in 2022, totaling 54.4 percent of all physical album sales. Vinyl’s resurgent popularity has made it more valuable to bands but has simultaneously worsened pressing delays—an October 2021 New York Times feature claims that pressing a record now routinely takes up to a year. Indie acts often plot tours to promote a new record, so delayed vinyl can put plans on hold.

An illustration of a vinyl record with a small clock face superimposed over one edge, symbolizing delays in the pressing of vinyl records
Credit: Raz Latif for Chicago Reader

According to Facs front man Brian Case, the band’s April release Still Life in Decay will arrive a year to the day after they finished it. That long road added a layer of difficulty to their promotional planning. “It’s just more complicated,” Case says. “It takes more scenarios: ‘Let’s target this, and if this works, we’re good, and if that doesn’t, we can try this and this.’ It makes submitting for tours harder, because those things happen even further out. So you’re like, ‘Well, we’re supposed to have a record out,’ which makes you more attractive to support some larger bands, because you’ve got press coming in as well.” 

Facs are already working on another record too. “That kind of puts your head in a different place,” Case says. “And it makes revisiting the [album] that’s about to come out a little different.”

Merchandise sales are also vulnerable to the same variables that make touring risky—low turnout and canceled shows obviously mean fewer sales. Several artists I interviewed said they’d love to find gigs with guarantees big enough to float a tour on their own, merch or no merch. Cundiff says Ganser has been eyeing shows at colleges, since they tend to pay more than clubs. 

The new Facs record comes out April 7, a year after the band finished it.

Indie-soul combo Hollyy stayed in the black on a tour of around two weeks in fall 2022 because they got hired to play a destination wedding in Asheville, North Carolina, that served as an anchor gig. “Starting out with a guaranteed amount of money was such a cushion for us,” says front man Tanner Bednar. “We only had a couple cities where we had guaranteed built-in numbers at the venues, and then everything else was dependent on draw.” 

Hollyy have seven members, but nobody in the band owns a vehicle that can hold more than six. They have to rent a van to tour, and that routine expense (like so many others) has increased during the pandemic. According to Wired, Avis-Budget’s revenue dropped 41 percent year-on-year in 2020 as car rental companies took a major hit; Hertz even declared bankruptcy. Most operations sold off idle vehicles to offset losses, and their inventories remain thin—which has driven up the cost of rentals. 

This cost forced Izzy Olive to get creative. Half Gringa guitarist Sam Cantor (aka Minor Moon) owns a minivan, and though the band initially assumed it wouldn’t be big enough for a touring vehicle, they practiced packing it with their gear. “‘Can we fit five people and drums and all our stuff in here?’ The answer is yes, technically, we can,” Olive says. “We did it. But the thing with that—it was a tight fit. We managed to make it work.”

An illustration of a van with luggage and instrument cases tumbling out of it and flames shooting from the front wheel well, symbolizing problems with tour vehicles
Credit: Raz Latif for Chicago Reader

Lining up a vehicle is only the first hurdle, of course. Meat Wave learned that the hard way this fall. “We were driving through Texas, and we discovered that our van was rusted to the point of no return. So we had to scrap our van,” Sutter says. “Then we rented a U-Haul, and all drove three up front in a U-Haul for a couple days.” A friend in San Diego let the band rent his van for the rest of the tour, but afterward bassist Joe Gac had to drive it back to California. 

Most musicians I talked to stayed in hotels for at least part of their recent tours. Mia Joy says merch sales made paying for a place to sleep possible. “On days that were really fruitful, we would splurge on a nice hotel, and everyone got a bed,” she says.

Indie bands have traditionally saved money on the road by sleeping on the couches or floors of friends or other sympathetic people, but COVID-19 has complicated that. In the middle of a 13-date headlining tour in late 2021, Tasha Viets-VanLear and her band found someone to host them in D.C. and checked in advance to make sure no one who lived in the house had tested positive for COVID. The day they arrived, though, they overheard a housemate coughing and complaining that they were sick. 

Tell Me What You Miss the Most is the album Tasha toured to support in late 2021.

Viets-VanLear and her band left and booked an Airbnb. “The underlying factor of all this is money,” she says. “If someone gets sick, regardless of if it’s COVID or not, you have to miss a show and not get paid for that show—and most importantly not sell merch, which is how most of our money is made on tour.”

An illustration of a positive COVID test result
Credit: Raz Latif for Chicago Reader

Greg Obis’s band Stuck plotted a four-date east-coast run in December 2021. Omicron was fast becoming the dominant U.S. COVID variant when Stuck arrived in Cleveland to play Now That’s Class on December 16. The other two bands on the bill canceled—they shared a member who’d tested positive. “So we played an hour set,” Obis says. “I don’t think anyone wants to hear an hour of our music.” 

Obis spent that night doomscrolling and struggling to decide what to do about the rest of their tour. “We drove from Cleveland to Pittsburgh,” he says, “and then had a ‘come to Jesus’ moment and turned the car around.”

The threat of COVID is all but impossible for touring musicians to guard against—by its nature, the virus requires wide cooperation to bring it under control, and in the States most people have abandoned mitigation efforts entirely. When artists travel for weeks at a time, play lots of indoor venues where few if any fans wear masks, and bunk at strangers’ houses on short notice, the risk factors are almost too numerous to count.

The 2021 Stuck EP Content That Makes You Feel Good

Touring artists can’t do much to plan for the possibility of getting sick either. If you test positive on the road, the best option is to cut your losses and return home—especially if your tour isn’t long enough for the disease to run its course before your last date. That’s what Ganser did when Cundiff and guitarist Charlie Landsman tested positive on a three-show run with Algiers. 

“We had to drive all the way back, straight from New Orleans,” Cundiff says. “Basically, we had the van’s windows down so Nadia [Garofalo] and Alicia [Gaines] wouldn’t get what we had. Luckily they didn’t—but that was pretty rough. That was an extra expense.”

COVID also struck Viets-VanLear’s four-plus-week tour with Nilüfer Yanya. They postponed two Canadian shows after a member of Yanya’s crew tested positive in New York. Viets-VanLear and her band drove back to Chicago, planning to rendezvous with Yanya when the tour resumed. But then one of Viets-VanLear’s bandmates was exposed to COVID, eventually testing positive. Her group played the last seven dates with Yanya (and two headlining shows) as a trio. 

“We changed the set list and played arrangements that would work for three people,” she says. “It was fine, but it also wasn’t what I practiced. It wasn’t what I wanted to do with these shows, which were in bigger rooms than I’d ever played before.” 

The rest of the tour took them west, which meant much longer drives with only three people to share the wheel instead of four. “It was a constant reckoning,” says Viets-VanLear. “Like, ‘This is a beautiful opportunity. I love music, I love my job, I love getting to do this.’ And also, ‘This is so hard.’ Like really, honestly, waiting for it to be over.”

Half Gringa scheduled a ten-date full-band run in October 2022, but doubt set in partway through the tour. “After about seven shows, turnout was not so great,” Olive says. “I started to think—I’m self-managed—from a manager’s perspective, ‘Does it make sense to do the last four dates of this tour?’” She’d played in some of the same cities in fall 2021, and ticket sales were lagging behind those shows. 

An illustration of a ticket with a large red downward-pointing arrow next to it, indicating declining ticket sales
Credit: Raz Latif for Chicago Reader

Ordinary tour costs (gas, food) had increased as well. In October 2022, the Wall Street Journal reported that consumer prices had risen almost 8 percent from the year before. “I thought, ‘Maybe it doesn’t make sense to come up here,’” Olive says. “Even some of the talent buyers who booked those shows were saying the same thing. They were not mean about it. They were like, ‘Hey, it’s a really tough time, these kinds of shows aren’t doing super well. Maybe you should save the gas money and come back another time.’” She canceled the remaining gigs, and the band returned to Chicago.

“It was a bummer,” Olive says. “Luckily, everybody that I had in the full band was really understanding and kind about it and very empathetic. We all have other jobs outside of this, and it didn’t put anybody out severely. But it was like, ‘I can’t lose more money. I won’t be able to make another record in the manner that I want to, or in the time frame that I want to, if I lose all this money on tour.’”

Half Gringa booked the release show for January’s Ancestral Home in April to avoid the winter COVID surge.

Touring today inarguably involves financial and health risks that it didn’t just a few years ago. These new realities, and the compromises necessary to accommodate them, can test any musician’s resolve. Viets-VanLear’s tour last year made her question what she wants out of the industry, and it’s been a balm to her to spend time at home, writing and reminding herself what she loves about music. 

Withdrawing from touring and recentering herself, says Viets-VanLear, helps her maintain her conviction that the music business is where she belongs. “I am able to believe that and buy into it a little more,” she says. “Which I think is necessary if I want to keep doing this silly little job.”

An illustration of a scale labeled "breaking even," with its arms holding an hourglass (time) and a dollar sign (money)
Credit: Raz Latif for Chicago Reader