Breaking Even in the Gig Economy

Things change fast in societies dominated by the market economy.  When a place is growing, it grows fast.  When a place is decaying, it decays fast, too.  It’s the same with professions of all sorts.

An average gallon of gas in the US now costs over $5, and the cost of food has risen dramatically as well.  Plane tickets, as well as the fees charged by rental car agencies in much of the world, have doubled or tripled in price.  The cost of housing — whether buying or renting — has risen at a far higher rate than anything.  These are all regular stories in the news.

The impact of these more recent developments on the cost of traveling in particular seem to warrant a little revisit to the topic of the current state of the gig economy, for that classic little subset of the gig economy known as touring performers.  It occurred to me how much things have changed at this point when I realized, without having consciously made any decisions, that my orientation towards booking the next tour had changed dramatically from what it was even just a few years ago.

The new business plan, such as it is, is breaking even.  Given that my situation is very relevant to the situation other artists are in currently, I thought maybe I’d help unpack some of those snippets you might have heard on NPR, such as an interview I heard recently with a member of a band that is thinking about canceling some festival gigs because of the rise in the cost of gasoline.

Some folks are doing just fine, to be sure.  The real estate companies and the banks that own them.  The property management companies and the banks that own them, they’re doing better than ever.  Big Tech is doing very, very well.

Similarly with music acts that are able to scale up, or charge more, or otherwise adapt to the new circumstances.  If an artist is popular enough, their touring operation may be able to triple the ticket price for the show at the 1,500-seat venue that’s going to sell out anyway, for example, in order to deal with the rising expenses.  Artists and audiences may be unhappy with the ticket prices, but not as unhappy as the artists that can’t afford to pack those venues anymore in the new economy, and thus have to stop touring with a band altogether.

And then there’s the more subterranean, or maybe street-level arts and music economy, the ever-elusive Greenwich Village-in-the-60’s kind of scene, the sort that tends to vanish almost as soon as its existence is acknowledged by the corporate establishment, which then systematically destroys it by trying to profit off of it.

Scenes like Greenwich Village in the 60’s, or Portland, Oregon 15 years ago, can only exist in a place where the cost of living is low.  It’s sad to see the surprise on the faces of people who moved to Portland more recently, who had no idea that so many of the now comparatively sterile streets around the city full of upscale establishments were once lined with funky little cafes, from which acoustic music could be heard, often old-time fiddle music, which was all the rage around here for years.  And when I say acoustic, I mean totally unamplified, in so many cases.  You’ll find very little of this kind of thing in Portland today.

The ongoing gentrification of Portland and so many other cities notwithstanding, if you look for the underbelly of the traveling performer gig economy you’ll find people who are traveling like bees to flowering plants, seeking out those diminishing spaces where there is still a more or less thriving scene involving small independent cafes and other such venues for small acts to perform for small audiences.

When we’re talking about a few dozen people in a space that fits a few dozen people at the maximum, this is a fragile ecosystem, easily destroyed by capitalism.  These spaces really only tend to thrive, or even exist, in areas where those running the venue aren’t having to spend most of their time and effort figuring out how to shell out another trove of monthly earnings to the landlord.  Venues that have to come up with enough money to buy a new car every month have other priorities, and can’t even think about offering their space to host your weekly folk club, because they no longer have that function room upstairs from the cafe anymore anyway.

When we hear about developments like inflation and the particularly dramatic rise in the costs of food, gas, and anything else associated with eating or traveling, the story can be just a story.  But if we connect the story to broader trends, the picture it paints is bleak.  For example, if we look beneath the hood here, with the example of a band that is thinking about canceling a festival gig a couple hundred miles away because of the rise in the cost of gasoline.  The first thing that comes to my mind, and presumably others, is just how marginal were the economics of doing this gig in the first place, that the rise in the cost of gas makes or breaks whether you can do the gig at all?

This band may cancel some of their gigs, and of course many others just won’t book them in the first place.  Some will find ways to make more money from other sources, in order to afford the new expenses.  Others will find ways of cutting costs further than they already probably have, such as in this case by packing the band and the instruments into a Greyhound bus instead of a van.

What won’t generally be mentioned in a 3-minute news story, of course, are what similar situations the band faced prior to the $5 gallon one.  What costs did they likely cut in the past, in order to make past tours possible?  When did they reach the stage where this kind of rise in the cost of touring would make or break whether they could tour at all?

Of course the answer will be different for everyone.  There are always musicians just trying to get started with some kind of touring, just barely squeaking by, others who are packing stadiums, and lots at every level in between.  But in terms of fundamental changes in earnings and expenses for any traveling performers attempting to subsist in that most precarious of scenes characterized by the small, independent venue, the back story here can be summarized, or at least I’ll give it a stab.

The 1990’s were very far from a golden age for artists.  But rent in most of the US was still relatively low, small independent venues were relatively plentiful, student groups at colleges and universities were still well-funded and spending a lot of their money on visiting performers and speakers, and without getting any commercial airplay, with no involvement with the record industry as such, someone could travel, do shows, and sell independently-produced CDs at $10 or $15 a pop.

There were, of course, plenty of people involved with performing who weren’t making a living at it.  Sometimes this was more or less by choice, or because people were more or less allergic to money.  I knew lots of punks who just couldn’t bear charging for their CDs, or if they did, they’d sell them for barely more than the cost of production, like a few dollars.  Giving away their CDs, or refusing to sell them for more than a few dollars, they also couldn’t afford to maintain a car with a full tank, but they preferred to hop freight trains anyway.

Equally, lots of others were more realistic about these things, and would manage to charge for their CD sales.  Back then, regardless of how much you might have made from ticket sales or anything else related to playing gigs, if you had a good crowd, they’d buy CDs, and if you sold dozens of CDs in an evening you’d make substantial amounts of money, like enough to make a decent living.

In the 2000’s, with the rise of MP3’s and music piracy (as downloading an MP3 you didn’t pay for yourself was coming to be called), the major record labels and the artists on them suffered massive financial blows.  The music industry began its rapid collapse in this period, shrinking down to a fifth of what it had been.

I haven’t seen a clear breakdown of the stats on this one, but I know that for me, and I think for lots of other independent artists, the first decade of this century CD sales were still great.  My impression was that music piracy was mainly a problem for the really famous artists.  For independent artists it was much less likely than anyone would bother to make all our music available for free download somewhere on the web that most people would feel comfortable going and downloading files.

More of a problem during this period was the inexorable rise in the cost of housing in more and more cities, and the precipitous decline in small independent venues that went along with that phenomenon, especially in the more expensive cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York, accompanied by the rapid decline in student groups with budgets, in the US at least.

In the 2010’s, the collapse that the big record labels and the rock stars had dealt with in the previous decade caught up with independent artists, brought on largely by the phenomenon of free, legal music streaming platforms, specifically Spotify, which came to dominate the music streaming landscape globally.  Suddenly, for me and many other artists who already had all our catalogs signed up for streaming on what had been a bunch of different paid streaming platforms, the rug was pulled from beneath our feet.  If you had more of a youth following it was a faster and more devastating process.

This sudden, massive loss of income was accompanied by a further rise in the cost of housing and a further loss of small venues.  For some of the specific stats I recommend the book, The Death of the Artist, by William Deresiewicz, which came out near the beginning of the pandemic.  But basically, the ranks of independent artists shrank.  Folks found other jobs, or more fully transitioned to other forms of work.  Those who stayed in the game of playing in small venues either had to have an inheritance or some other form of income like that, or they developed an income stream from getting a day job, or by crowdsourcing the income online, whether by crowdfunding for individual recording projects, or crowdfunding in order to basically subsidize the life of the artist — including the touring.  Touring, in the post-merch era, combined with the problems associated with the housing crisis and the independent venue crisis, was more and more precarious.

By no coincidence, this period of industrial collapse associated with the rise of Spotify’s free tier also saw the rise of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon.  Those who hadn’t moved on to other pursuits were still trying to make records, but in the absence of being able to fund the costs of renting a studio and hiring musicians and otherwise putting out a recording by selling CDs, they were raising the money through crowdfunding.  Or trying to, and failing, far more often than not, and then drastically cutting back on the vision of a given recording, or other such project.  Let’s skip the bass and drums and the studio, and just record with two guitars in our bedroom.

Enter the 2020’s.  If, like the relatively successful artists who survived the 2010’s — and I’m still talking about artists playing in small venues for small audiences here — you were living a largely crowdsourced existence by the time the pandemic hit, however it was that you rode that one out, now that restrictions in most countries are lifting and gigs are happening again, you are now facing a situation where not only are lots of the venues you used to play in permanently closed, but the cost of travel has gone through the roof.

I can already imagine how the corporate press is going to try to spin this situation.  When we were busy losing half of our income due to free, legalized streaming platforms doing their legal thing, we were told that now the money was in touring.  What a strange way to reframe the situation — you’ve lost half of your income, so let’s just focus on the other half that you haven’t lost, and talk about the money being there.  But that’s what they did.

Then they started telling us that vinyl was all the rage.  I was far from the only idiot who took the bait, and put out a vinyl record, many hundreds of copies of which are still weighing down shelves in the closet of our bedroom.  What you’d only figure out if you looked into it more deeply than I had done is vinyl was only outselling other forms of physical recordings comparatively speaking — basically nothing was selling, including vinyl.

Now they’ll be encouraging online touring, busking in the metaverse, since driving and flying and doing physical gigs is bad for the environment and also unaffordable.  Unaffordable unless you’ve achieved a certain degree of success, playing bigger venues for more money, or if the alternate streams of income you had to pursue when the music industry began its collapse were sufficient to include the new costs involved with touring.

In my own case, the last tour, like the next one, will be some of the few I’ve done over the decades without either using my own vehicle or renting a car.  I always used to say carrying around a guitar and two suitcases was just too much to lug around on buses and trains.  I long ago changed that policy when it came to various places, like Norway.  But now it’s the new policy everywhere.

And not just because of the cost of renting a car, but because I no longer need to travel with two suitcases.  One of them was always for merch.  In the old days, I needed to do mail drops to fill that second suitcase periodically, on the longer tours.  But now, with no merch to bother with, one carryon will do.

There was a time where I regularly paid for hotels, bought plane tickets for friends, and was in the priority lane at all the airports, which is what happens when you fly more than a hundred thousand miles a year on the same airline.  But I long ago since cultivated a network of friends with guest rooms, to avoid the hotel expense when touring.

My newest method of downsizing the touring operation is to abandon the guitar altogether for road purposes, and travel with a bouzouki, which is decidedly smaller and lighter than my guitar is, and far less of a problem for my back to be walking around everywhere, dragging my carryon suitcase behind me.

A few years ago I wouldn’t have really given it much thought, but being in a situation where touring is only possible if someone else buys my plane ticket, and then when I reach my destination, I travel by bus or train to gigs because cars are too expensive, and stay with friends because hotels are out of the question, what’s the next cost-cutting measure that might be taken, to keep this touring hobby going?

Unlike rental cars and plane tickets, train tickets in many places are subsidized by governments, and they don’t just triple the prices when the market apparently dictates they should.  So maybe they won’t become as unaffordable as other things have become.

If they do, though, perhaps it’ll be time to downsize the bouzouki to a mandola and downsize the carryon suitcase to a napsack, and learn to hop the freights with the crust.  Though I still know too many people with guest rooms to need to sleep outside for too many nights, and thus may never quite achieve crust punk status, I can aspire.

David Rovics is a frequently-touring singer/songwriter and political pundit based out of Portland, Oregon.  His website is