The story has become depressingly familiar over the past few weeks: After nearly two years of lockdown, thousands of musicians returned to the road this year, virtually all at the same time, vying for gigs at the same venues, buses from the same bus-rental companies — and most significantly, the same very limited disposable income from the same music fans. Audiences flocked to arenas and big theaters see Harry Styles, Olivia Rodrigo, Elton John and others, but for independent musicians, it’s a different story. Touring is how most of them make a living — royalties from streaming are a pittance compared to the old CD or vinyl model — and they’ve returned to a world very different from the one they knew pre-pandemic.
On Sept. 26, independent, multi-genre artist Santigold, who has performed on tracks with Jay-Z, Drake, David Byrne and others, became one of the first to publicly say she’s “simply unable to make it work” can’t do it in this environment. She explained why in an impassioned Instagram post announcing the cancelation of her fall tour in support of her self-released new album, “Spirituals.”
“As a touring musician, I don’t think anyone anticipated the new reality that awaited us,” she wrote. “After sitting idle for the past couple years, [musicians] rushed back out immediately when it was deemed safe to do shows. We were met with the height of inflation, many of our tried-and-true venues unavailable due to a flooded market of artists trying to book shows in the same cities, and positive [Covid] test results constantly halting schedules, with devastating financial consequences. All of that, on top of the already-tapped mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional resources of just having made it through the past few years. Some of us are finding ourselves simply unable to make it work.”
The post struck a nerve with fellow musicians. “I feel you and I feel exactly the same,” Swedish singer Lykke Li responded. “Fucking hell, it’s so brutal out there,” British singer Lily Allen replied, adding, “You’re right, we don’t talk about it enough.”
Last week, Santigold (pronounced “Sahntee-gold”), who is also the mother of three children, got on a Zoom with Variety from her home in Los Angeles and unpacked what led to her decision, and what might be coming next.
Are the main reasons for calling off this tour psychological or financial? Or are they really both?
There’s so much to it, and I don’t really know where to start — but it’s both. Touring has never been great. It’s always been really, really hard. At the very top level, it works out fine. But at my level — somewhere in the middle — it’s fucking rough. Even before COVID, the only time it was really profitable is when I could anchor tours with a bunch of festivals and some private [usually corporate] gigs. And if you get a tour support from a label or other company — I never have — then you’re in debt even more because that’s a loan. Nowadays, even people touring at high levels are taking deals, because they can’t make it work either.
Were you making money on tour before COVID?
I was making some money but not enough to live off of. It was that and syncs and then hustle up, you know? You’re always hustling. When I started as Santigold, I was single, my bills weren’t very high, it was my first time around the world and it was fun. So if I wasn’t making a whole lot of money, it was like, “Oh, you’re building a fan base. Let’s go again.” But then once you have life — first, I took my two-year-old on the road, then I had twins in 2018, and hit the road the same year! I was on stage four months after I had twins. And why? Because there’s not really another option. If you don’t do it, you’re going to lose relevance, you’re going to lose momentum, you’re going to be out of the public eye for too long.
But even younger artists are getting caught up in that cycle — a lot of the ones who are calling off tours for mental-health reasons are in their early or mid-20s.
I’ve talked to some friends who work with young artists, and the young ones are getting in debt right away, because they’ve heard that [artists] can only make money on the road. So they hit the road and come home in debt!
And even if it’s not a financial problem, they’re burning out, and that’s where the mental-health [problems] come in. Because it’s not just the money — it’s the relentless expectations of this industry, where you have to constantly put out music, you have to constantly be in front of the people, making TikToks and engaging on social media, you’re supposed to be a marketing genius, you have to be constantly accessible — instead of making art! I didn’t sign up for that. If art is becoming the side note, then maybe this isn’t what I need to be doing.
So if you can’t make money from streaming or on tour, how do you make money?
That’s why so many artists have been reaching out and saying “Thank you for saying this,” because everyone is at that exact question — and really struggling. People on the road are hitting me up: “I’m losing money, I’m putting myself in debt, trying to do shows.” I mean, I canceled my tour, not because I know what I’m doing next.
But I was just like, “This ain’t it.” Trying to make it work as an artist and a mother during the pandemic is already too much for my body, too much for my mental health, too much for my strength. And I’ve kept going because, honestly, music lifts me up, and that’s what it does for so many people. That’s why we want to keep doing it, and that’s why I will keep doing it. Even if it’s not what my career is, I will always be making records.
So what is your next move?
I’m about to do a book deal, I have a podcast that’s I’ve already done the first season of, I’ve got a bunch of other projects that I’ve been pushing off, because I’ve been just doing this thankless work of trying to put out a record. I really couldn’t tell you where money would come from if I was just going to focus on being a musician right now.
The other thing people don’t realize that any amount of money that we make, some goes to your management, your agent, your business manager, your lawyer — that’s 40% off the top of whatever you make, plus taxes! That’s almost unsustainable in itself — I’m the only one that’s not going to get paid, because I gotta pay everybody else.
I think I’m gonna shift focus, and I think that’s what a lot of people are going to have to do. I think that’s really sad for music and it’s really sad for art.
What would make things better?
I think the first step is for people to start being honest about what it’s like, and the hard thing about that is it requires you to be very vulnerable — because nobody wants to say, “I can’t make it work.” You actually get cursed out: Some fans are like, “Well, you asked for it, I go to my job every day and I’m not depressed,” stuff like that. But this is a very different job, to show up and just pour out all of your energy in front of a crowd? It’s hard to describe what that requires. For whatever reason, the perception is that you just walk up onstage and you perform and it’s no effort and you’re in this very comfortable lifestyle, when you’re not. It’s a really difficult, unforgiving way to make a living.
So I don’t have the answer. I don’t think there is a quick fix.
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