“The cost of gigging crisis”: How rising prices are affecting your favourite bands

As the cost of living crisis continues to loom large over our lives, bands and music industry workers alike raise their concerns, and tell us that it’s crucial for fans – when they can – to do their bit…

“The cost of gigging crisis”: How rising prices are affecting your favourite bands
Mark Sutherland
Nat Wood

Once upon a time, your favourite band didn’t seem to need to worry about the cost of living.

Life as a rock star appeared to consist of travelling by private jet and stretch limo and living large on the proceeds of huge album sales and sell-out shows. But, if that was ever the case, it certainly isn’t in 2022. After two years in lockdown, bands should be making up for lost time, enjoying the return of live music without a care in the world.

Instead, they’re grappling with a toxic cocktail of real-world issues – Brexit, the war in Ukraine and the spiralling cost of everything from petrol to food. Add in older problems such as the reduced income from streaming, and making it as a musician looks tougher than ever.

Take Witch Fever. The brilliant Manchester doom-punks are going places, having recently starred on the cover of Kerrang! and supported My Chemical Romance at Milton Keynes. And yet the band all still have day jobs, and even then can struggle to make ends meet.

“The current cost of living crisis will widen the gap between people who can afford to build a creative career and people who can’t because they need their basic needs met,” sighs drummer Annabelle Joyce, who often travels back from gigs overnight to hold down shifts at a fashion retailer. “It’s a concern on an individual level, a social level and a music industry level.”

As Annabelle notes, Witch Fever at least have support from their record label, Music For Nations. Others are not so lucky. According to a report from music industry trade body UK Music, more than one in three jobs in the music business were lost during the pandemic, with musicians making up many of those affected.

Photo: Bob Foster

Now, with UK inflation running at nine per cent – its highest rate for 40 years – UK Music CEO Jamie Njoku-Goodwin says music is being hit by an unprecedented “double-whammy”.

“The music industry is seeing rising energy and labour costs, there are all sorts of post-Brexit frictions and things are slowing down in the supply chain – so businesses are feeling the pressure,” he explains. “And, on the flipside, audiences are as well. People have got less money to spend and there are lots of people worried about what impact that will have on demand.”

Usually, rampant inflation sees people concentrate on buying necessities (food and energy bills), while ‘discretionary’ spend on things like entertainment falls. So, everything from sales of expensive vinyl albums to monthly streaming subscriptions could be hit.

Against that backdrop, live music would appear to be under particular threat. The price of tickets had been rising steadily in recent years, a trend that, understandably, seems to have accelerated post-pandemic. But, once the backlog of postponed 2020/2021 gigs is cleared, many in the industry fear ticket sales – which have been strong in the immediate COVID aftermath – could drop off.

“People are definitely thinking about what they spend their money on,” says Andy Copping, Download Festival organiser and a promoter for Live Nation. “The cost of trucking, crews and fuel has gone up significantly and that has to be covered. The easiest thing would be to go, ‘Costs have gone up 40 per cent so the cost of the tickets has got to go up 40 per cent.’ But we can’t just do that; we’ve got to be a bit smarter.”

That may mean further use of controversial, airline-style ‘dynamic pricing’, where prices rise or fall according to demand, although advocates for the system say it should also mean some tickets remain available at lower prices.

Photo: Derek Bremner

During the pandemic, the government reduced the 20 per cent VAT rate on hospitality (including concert tickets) to just five per cent. That helped the live sector cover costs, and kept a lid on ticket prices. But the rate returned back up again – far higher than most European countries – in April, just as inflation really started to bite.

Andy and Jamie both call for the rate to be slashed again to help deal with what Jamie calls “the cost of gigging crisis”.

“There’s no point the government spending money and resources to help save the sector during the pandemic, only to see it fail post-pandemic,” he points out. “The government understood the argument that this sector needed saving over those two years, and that case is just as strong now.”

Annabelle is sceptical that lowering VAT on its own would have significant impact on musicians’ finances, instead proposing more radical solutions such as a “universal basic income”. It’s hard to see the current government embracing such ideas but, for musicians, the clock is ticking.

“2023 is going to be more difficult than 2022,” warns Jamie. “Don’t be fooled by pictures of packed-out gigs at the moment, there is a big issue with consumer confidence.”

Indeed, music biz insiders tell of sluggish sales for some future rock tours as fans put off buying tickets to the last minute. Others talk of unusually high demand for refunds when bands reschedule shows, as fans look to get money back in their pocket.

No wonder Annabelle warns that conditions are so bad some emerging artists – particularly those from working class backgrounds – will be forced to walk away.

“If you’re in a new band and just getting started, why bother now?” they ask. “How are you going to be able to survive?”

Photo: Andy Ford

While the government dithers, Andy points out that live music also boosts the wider economy.

“When business is buoyant, it’s not just about people buying a ticket and being at the gig,” he explains. “They get transport in, they go to a restaurant, a bar – money is being spent and put back into the overall economy.”

Until the government steps in, or the economy recovers, it may fall on rock’s famously loyal fans to do their bit. Annabelle says that, for those who can afford it, merch sales are the most direct way to boost bands’ income. And Jamie says fans can play a vital role in keeping the whole scene afloat.

“Get out to gigs,” he urges. “Those people on the ground – the crew, technicians and musicians – really need the support.”

In the meantime, that old limo lifestyle – or even just surviving as a full-time musician – looks further away than ever for most bands.

“I don’t care about making loads of money and getting rich,” sighs Annabelle, before returning to the day job. “I just want to be able to live.”

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