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How Black Women in Indie Music are Navigating the Toils of Touring
As fans are making their return to live concerts, Black women are speaking up about the difficulties of touring as an indie artist.
Black women in indie music are paying the burdensome costs of touring post-COVID-19. With a lack of financial stability, their mental health is being compromised. However, they are not suffering in silence. As artists and fans alike are making their return to live concerts, some acts are choosing to vocalize their grievances and the changed circumstances of hitting the road. In late September, singer Santigold called off the North American leg of The Holified tour, with a letter detailing her woes with inflation, insurmountable travel expenses, exhaustion, mental health factors, and “positive test results constantly halting schedules with devastating financial consequences.”
“I think there’s a general disconnect in people understanding what the real life is like,” Santigold told Rolling Stone in an interview about artist burnout. “I think that because artists haven’t been honest, then there’s a real inability to see the humanity in our struggle. I think that’s a big problem.”
Santigold is one of the most prominent Black indie artists to open up about the toll of touring. Previously, fellow Black women indie artists Lil Simz and Arlo Parks also spoke of the challenge of touring during this time, with both of them canceling their U.S. tour dates earlier this year. While Simz cited that touring overseas would put her in a “huge deficit” financially, Parks announced a cancellation of her Boston and Salt Lake City stops, admitting that her “mental health has deteriorated.”
With Black women in indie music giving a revealing look at their post-pandemic touring experiences, some acts have shared that their consternation with the music industry began at the height of COVID-19 lockdowns. Res, a Philadelphia-based artist who was once signed to major label MCA Records (through which she released her debut album, the Santigold co-executive produced How I Do, in 2001) but phased into becoming a self-financed indie artist in the mid-2000s, is one of those acts.
“I could imagine there's a group of [artists] that felt like the pandemic was a way out for them. But for me, it was going full circle and realizing, ‘I want to continue doing music, so how am I going to continue to do what I do?’” Res said during a Zoom call. “It takes you through all the emotions.”
During her time on MCA Records, Res shared how her weekly touring budget was between $30,000 and $40,000, with expenses including everything from bus rental to food for her band and touring manager. Now, Res essentially handles everything — from speaking with booking agents about the logistics of the shows to performing them.
“I was lucky I was assigned to a major label,” Res said, reflecting on her time signed to MCA. “That’s what I required and that's what they did for me.”
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On a mainstream level, Black women artists found innovative methods to keep their audiences engaged through quarantine-style performances during the pandemic, like Erykah Badu’s “Quarantine Concert” live streams. But the act of performing virtually wasn’t a quick solution for indie acts. During the height of the pandemic, UK-based Black punk rock trio Big Joanie held a few virtual shows, but didn’t receive much income from their music other than small royalties. Gaining prominence in London’s DIY punk scene in the last decade, the band received the opportunity to support pioneering feminist punk band Bikini Kill in June 2019 for two UK shows at O2 Academy Brixton, as part of the band’s first reunion shows in 20 years. The pandemic stalled the momentum the trio had made for themselves, and as live concerts began to make their return across the world in 2021 and 2022, the group found themselves dealing with an over saturated touring market where everyone seemed to be hitting the road at the same time.
“After the pandemic, everyone wanted to get back out on tour, but it kind of meant that everyone was touring at the same time. So there was like a lot of people vying for a small audience's attention,” Stephanie Phillips, lead singer of Big Joanie, said during a Zoom call. “Also it's just been a lot more difficult to organize in terms of the lack of resources. There's less drivers. There's less bands. There's less tour managers and crew that are available, so it becomes kind of hard to manage, and a lot more costly to go to an average show now.”
There’s also the fact that bands are still having to cancel shows over band members (or other people a part of their touring camp) catching COVID-19. Such was the case with Bikini Kill, who had to cancel summer dates this year in Europe after a band member contracted the virus — dates that Big Joanie was supposed to support. As a result of all this, the members of Big Joanie have primarily spent their time working at their daytime jobs, and finalizing their sophomore LP, Back Home (which dropped on November 6).
“At the moment, we all have our real jobs and don't rely on band income to pay ourselves. We don’t have generational wealth in Big Joanie, we just work our real jobs in the daytime and tour when we get holiday or time off,” Phillips said. “It feels like we're getting a lot of momentum as a band and getting our name out there, but in reality, we've kind of got nothing to our names.”
Touring was already a strenuous and stressful experience before the pandemic. Now, it’s only been exacerbated, and as an indie artist — and specifically a Black one at that — you’re having to not only navigate the typical challenges that come with that (back-to-back performances, eating cheap but unhealthy fast food), but also traveling through parts of places that may be hostile to Black people in order to get to the next show.
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This is something that Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist and singer L’Rain, who’s a relatively newer touring act, spoke to. She shared how she takes safety precautions touring with an all-Black band in parts of the U.S. like the Midwest and South, and how they all rely on each other for being a “built-in support network” that helps each other navigate different cities that they’re unfamiliar with.
“It's really hard because you wake up early, you travel on the road, you go directly to soundcheck and go directly to your performance,” L’Rain said. “If you want to make money at the merch table, you have to talk to fans and it's very fun but then, you're waiting until the headliner is finished really late at night. You have to drive to wherever you're staying and then that's the moment where you're the most exhausted because the weight of the whole day is on you.”
But this problem also extends to those operating the venues, too. Res shared how booking agents have often dismissed her when trying to set up a show. More recently, she was told that a venue wouldn’t accept her demographic of artists, even though she booked an upcoming performance there.
“Being a Black woman in this, I'll deal with male promoters that [are] not as professional as I feel like they would be to someone else,” she said. “When I’m negotiating terms and things of that nature for shows, it becomes a situation where the conversation, the language, isn’t professional. I’m a Black woman and I feel like that’s more of the norm for us than someone of a different color. Sometimes people make you feel like what you're bringing to the table people don't want to see as much, or they’re doing you a favor.
“As an artist, you pick yourself apart so much, we’re our own worst critics,” she added. “I feel like we as artists go inward and think it’s something we did, it’s the way we’re performing, it’s the BPM of the songs, when really it could just be someone not seeing value in us.”
Phillips seconded this sentiment, speaking on how Black women in indie work with much less resources and opportunities in comparison to white indie acts.
“For anyone from a marginalized group whose identity isn't a sellable asset, that's a lot harder because you're seen as a bad investment. It’s a lot harder to convince labels to believe in you, to get your name onto different stages or to work with different media,” Phillips said. “We’ve been a band for almost a decade and it’s taken us that long to get any kind of kudos within the industry. For a white male band playing straightforward indie music, they could get to our level within a year and surpass us financially.”
As the pandemic has made clear, there are so many parts of the live music industry that need to be restructured. The conversations that Black women in indie music have sparked on the financial and mental tolls touring puts on them — and indie artists in general — are necessary and needed not just for consumers to better understand the realities of the artists they listen to, but for an industry that needs to be better at sustaining indie artists both on and off the road both for the short and long term.
“There's no one person to blame. The booking agents are not raking it in. Venues aren't really making much money. The musicians aren't really making money. The people working at the venues aren't making much money,” L’Rain said. “While we're working on the long-term solution of how to revamp the whole music industry, touring included, I think we'll have to think of some stopgap solutions somehow.”