Interview

How Will Festival Cancellations Due To Coronavirus Affect Indie Musicians?

Detroit rockers Dogleg have spent the last several months building a considerable amount of buzz around their debut LP, Melee — and its release, which is set for this Friday, was perfectly timed with what would’ve been an all-out performance assault at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. “We’d been sitting on the record for a long time and figuring out the best time to put it out,” the band’s manager Zac Gelfand says. “What sells people on this band is the vitality of their live show, so we figured we’d release it in March when everyone was at SXSW and Dogleg were playing a bunch of live shows.” [Editor’s note: Once upon a time, Gelfand was a Stereogum intern.]

Ahead of time, the band booked flights and purchased custom flight cases for their instruments. Then, last Friday, the festival was cancelled en masse due to the coronavirus outbreak that was just declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization earlier today. “We were like, ‘Oh my God — no, no no,'” guitarist Alex Stoitsiadis said of the band’s collective reaction to the announcement. “We worked so hard to set this up only to have it blow up in our faces. It was a wreck. Being at SXSW would’ve been a big moment. Now it’s just shot.” Gelfand adds, “This was gonna be a big culminating moment, and the wind’s been taken out of our sails now.”

Despite the hipster-baiting snark and sighs of relief from beleaguered industry stalwarts on social media that followed SXSW’s abrupt and first-ever cancellation, it’s inarguable that smaller acts previously scheduled to play the fest are and will be greatly affected in the weeks to come. And this, really, is just the beginning: In the last 24 hours, festivals both massive (Coachella and Stagecoach) and boutique (Treefort) have announced postponements, Knoxville experimental fest Big Ears has been cancelled entirely, and it’s rumored that two major UK festivals will be announcing postponements in the weeks to come.

Acts ranging from Pearl Jam and Zac Brown Band to Bombay Bicycle Club, Khalid, and Poppy have cancelled or postponed shows and entire legs of tours, while Washington, DC’s health department just recommended cancellation or postponement for any public gathering of 1,000 people or more. “So many bands rely on these gigs — and festivals are the biggest paydays,” Patrick Garcia, a promoter and booker behind the Dreams festival in McAllen, Texas, explains. “Two to three months of no shows is massive. Someone like Kacey Musgraves could afford to take time off of touring, but for a lot of these artists, this is all they have.”

On Dogleg’s part, Stiodsiadis estimates the band has lost around $800 (not counting refunded flights) in terms of investing for their SXSW appearances specifically; making matters worse, he was recently laid off from his job at Ford Motor Company after taking too much time off to tour with the band. “We were definitely hoping that we could sustain ourselves by booking as many tours as possible,” he states. “Now we’re like, ‘Do we have to cancel our tours? Do we need to get full-time jobs again?’ It’s very stressful.”

UK trio False Heads had also timed the release of their new album, It’s All There But You’re Dreaming, to a spate of U.S. dates that centered around a series of SXSW appearances. Now those shows — and, by extension, a chunk of the promotional campaign surrounding the album itself — are left to dust. “It’s derailed a large part of our album campaign,” band member Luke Griffiths says, estimating that the band had invested upwards of 3,000 pounds in the now-scuttled jaunt. “We were going to play in New York before SXSW, but all of us have full-time jobs and we’re on a small label, so we can’t really justify that now.”

Jeremy Berkin, the co-founder of DIY-focused booking agency Lost + Found, had planned to announce their second annual unofficial SXSW showcase yesterday. “I can’t imagine how much money people lost on this,” he sighs, citing costs ranging from Airbnb fees and van rentals to down payments on venue spaces. Berkin claims second-hand knowledge of an Australian act that, upon SXSW’s cancellation, lost over $6,000 due to non-refundable flights. Of course, talking about financial losses when it comes to SXSW specifically is a tricky subject; the lion’s share of emerging bands that play the festival typically view the exposure it provides as compensation, many receiving no money at all for the myriad showcase appearances and DIY shows they perform at.

But similar to the as-yet-unforeseen complications that the cancellation of radius-clause-dependent festivals like Coachella augur (multiple Coachella-booked artists declined initial comment for this piece), SXSW’s cancellation alone stands to affect the touring economy for months to come. “All of our tours are based around SXSW,” Berkin explains. “Every band from all over the country is touring down to Austin and back during the same four-week span, and a lot of bands don’t book anything in April or May. Now you have all these artists who took off work to tour in March that can’t book tours until June or later. A lot of people put their eggs in this basket, and the floor fell out. It’s really tough.”

“I rely on SXSW for a cluster of bands that, once a year, I could otherwise not get,” Garcia says while discussing how the temporal and geographical proximity of Dreams (which is scheduled to take place a week from now) has been affected by SXSW’s cancellation. “Now that it’s cancelled, those bands are scrambling to figure out in-between shows and losing a week’s income just by coming down here.” As there’s been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in the larger McAllen area, he estimates that there’s only a “50% chance” he’s forced to cancel the event, but a sense of personal responsibility hovers over that decision as well: “As an organizer, I want the show to go on. But now it’s weighing on my conscience, because this is a mass gathering.”

And as the spread of coronavirus continues to impact events further into the future — the Los Angeles installment of RuPaul’s DragCon set for the top of May has already has been cancelled, as has the massive gaming expo E3 in June — it’s not unreasonable to worry about the long-term effects incurred by the touring industry that exists as lifeblood for so many musicians. Griffiths hypothesizes that the continued shrinking of public-gathering attendance capacities could be “pretty devastating” for up-and-coming acts dependent on support-slot touring gigs. Although Dogleg has a US tour scheduled following Melee’s release along with appearances at this summer’s Pitchfork and Mo Pop festivals, Stoitsiadis is nonetheless watching the daily events unfold with trepidation: “I’m seeing other bands cancel entire tours right at the moment that we’re trying to play a bunch of tours. It’s definitely worrisome.”

The aftereffects of widespread event cancellation could spell out doom for the future of the events themselves; SXSW Chief Executive Roland Swenson told the Wall Street Journal earlier this week that the cost of cancelling this year’s festival means that he’s “not entirely sure” SXSW will be coming back next year at all. But perhaps a potentially large-scale upending of established touring-industry staples will also offer a moment to rethink the mechanisms of an industry that’s had its own stability tested by the events of the last several weeks. “SXSW isn’t sustainable for artists,” Berkin claims. “They’re booking shows there to play for exposure. I’ve seen a lot of artists being like, ‘Huh, why do we put our financial stability, health, and safety on the line to play for industry folks? Why do we do this?”