Breaking the Record with Roan Yellowthorn, Part 19: The Future of Touring

Breaking The Record 2020
Breaking The Record 2020
Jackie McLean of the indie band Roan Yellowthorn grants us an inside look at the making of an album from start to finish in her ‘Breaking The Record’ column.
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” – Roan Yellowthorn

As I write this, it’s June 16th. This piece will come out on June 18th. What will be different by then, I wonder. So much is happening.

From our communities reaching a collective tipping point and coming together to fight for racial equality to the pandemic that continues to take lives at an alarming rate (overwhelmingly Black lives in America), it feels like humanity hangs in the balance. What will happen next?

With all of this happening, not to mention the political climate, the imminent election, and all of the potential chaos and carnage associated with that, it feels self-indulgent to think about art.

But I’m still thinking about it. I’m wondering what’s going to happen with art. I’m wondering what’s going to happen with music.

Just jumping into the Breaking The Record series documenting the making of our album from start to finish? Read part 1 here!

Touring seems like something that’s not going to be feasible or safe for a long time. I recently made a new album with John Agnello that was supposed to come out this summer and I’m pushing back the release until early 2021 in hopes that I’ll be able tour the following summer. But there’s no guarantee on that.

Many musicians are wondering what will happen next. We’re trying to figure out ways to adapt.

There’s an unspoken truth known among musicians. It’s one I wouldn’t have guessed or known if not for talking about it with many fellow performers about it. Do you want to know what it is? It’s that most musicians do not make money touring. In fact, many lose money touring.

That’s not to say that no musicians make money touring. Many do. And, for some, it’s a main source of income. But this is not the case for everyone. Once you’ve reached a certain threshold, you will make money. But that threshold is higher than you may think. Many people I’ve spoken to who I assumed made a good living touring actually lose money touring. This is the common experience. There are people selling out theaters and then there are the rest – a big group who are working musicians who do make a living but consistently lose money touring.

Does this mean that touring is ultimately unsustainable for many people?

It reminds me of a multi-level marketing strategy – as musicians we show our success to become successful, even when we may feel like we’re failing.

If touring is already unsustainable for many, does this mean that virtual concerts are the new frontier? Is there a platform that will allow for easy ticketing so that musicians can perform to crowds without any of the travel costs, mileage, wear and tear, physical work, or door deals that are a mainstay of the traditional route? Will this pandemic usher in a new reality?

I don’t know. But it seems possible. The truth is that musicians have to get back to work. We are an adaptable crew – constantly changing and transforming to roll with the punches. If this is the way to get back to sharing our music, we’ll do it.

Of course, it would be a change. It would be a loss in some ways. The most cathartic part of playing live music is the connection fostered between people. I grew up in an environment where I seldom felt seen or heard. For me, being in front of a group of people, speaking my deepest truths in song, and knowing that I am being seen, that I am being heard, this is the most profoundly healing interaction imaginable. I would miss this terribly. I would miss hugging people after a show. Seeing faces. Reading emotions. Feeling the vibe of the room. Feeling the heat of bodies. Making connections. Making connections is the best part about making music.

But there are things I wouldn’t miss. I wouldn’t miss driving for hours to get to a show with no audience. I wouldn’t miss messing up a note and feeling a wave of shame course through my body. I wouldn’t miss paying for a hotel, playing for an hour and getting paid thirty dollars. But I would miss that post-show high. I would miss being greeted after the show by a stranger, hearing them tell me that my words made a difference to them, and feeling like the show was a success, money or not, because of that connection. I would miss feeling like the show was a success because of the free feeling in my body. Because of the confidence gained from being afraid and continuing on. Because I was able to speak the truth and be the truest form of myself and be heard and seen and paid in dollars on top of it all.

And when you get paid to do that, any amount feels like a fortune. Even thirty dollars.

from a show at The Lyric Theater in Lexington KY, Woodsongs Radio Hour
from a show at The Lyric Theater in Lexington KY, Woodsongs Radio Hour

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