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Are Package Tours Helping Or Hurting Live Music?

Ben Patashnik
Ben Patashnik 7 September 2010 at 18.51

With the rise of the sponsored tour continuing into Autumn, and bands such as Bring Me The Horizon and Bullet For My Valentine gigging together, we investigate whether the live music scene is really ready for such a massive change

Summer = over. But that’s no reason to be even a little bit bummed out, because as ever, Autumn = loads of gigs. Every decent band this side of Mars has spent the last few months doing festivals all over the world and now they’re all fed up of fields and want to get back to the comfort of their own headline shows.

And combine that with the fact no one is making any money from selling records (apart from, like, the Black Eyed Peas, and that’s because they’re hollow-eyed consumerist cocklicks rather than actual musicians) and it becomes even clearer that the pre-Christmas gig market – if you want to call it a market – is even more important than ever for bands, because it’s probably their last chance to make a bit of cash before the year’s out. Despite how cynical that sounds, and if you ask any manager or label dude whether or not it’s true they’ll probably just start crying and ask for 20p, the end result is a stronger set of tours than there’s been in years. At the end of the day, no one really cares about the ulterior motives for having, say, Bring Me The Horizon supporting Bullet For My Valentine because the end result is a set of dates that will no doubt mean a lot to the fans of both bands. And Atreyu.

And when you’ve got the likes of Coheed And Cambria and Deftones / The Dillinger Escape Plan and Rolo Tomassi / 30 Seconds To Mars and Enter Shikari / 36Crazyfists and Devildriver / Coliseum and Bison BC AND Kvelertak / Bring Me The Horizon with Cancer Bats / Cancer Bats and Trash Talk touring together it’s hard to say this is anything other than a massive stew of awesome with floating chunks of awesome and a hearty dose of awesome gravy. Of course, bands touring together for the sake of commerce or simple bromance is the oldest trick in the book, stretching back to the Motown package tours of the 60s. But change is afoot…

The rise of sponsored package tours is something that is commonplace in the US – clothing companies and energy drinks being the ones splashing the most cash – and was arguably kicked off in the UK in its current form over a decade ago by the Deconstruction punk extravaganzas. It’s not that they’re a bad thing – remember, of course, we’re getting involved and putting on the Rock Sound Presents… Powered By Fender Tour - because it represents people getting together and putting tours on that have some thought behind them, rather than just dumping a load of bands in a few buses and hoping for the best.

Nevertheless, taken to a logical conclusion, some might argue the upshot is that people might stop going to ‘normal’ shows where they might ‘only’ see three or four bands because within the next month there’s some extravaganza featuring seven bands in one venue, all for £20. The daddy of them all, the venerable but ever-flexible Vans Warped Tour has, according to Brendan Kelly from The Lawrence Arms gone some way to “destroying the economy of DIY”.

In an interview with Thepunksite.com Kelly states: “Summer touring season used to involve a bunch of bands, like Alkaline Trio for example, jumping on buses and taking smaller bands, like us and The Black Maria for example, on tour. There would be all these bands that would do that, so all these support bands would have great tours to go on. Kids in every town would have a bunch of different shows to go see, like over the summer. Small clubs would have big, good shows at least once a week if not twice a week, three times a week; and kids would have stuff to do. Now, all those big bands go on the Warped Tour. When they come to town, it’s for one day. It’s in a band shell, small clubs all across the US are closing down, they can’t afford to be open.

“Bands like us have to tour against the Warped Tour, which sucks; or tour on the Warped Tour, which sucks even more. And you know it’s in a fucking big band shell; and the fact is, every single person who would read this interview, got into this at least in a tiny, little way thought there was something cooler than going to a band shell and buying $12 bottles of water and standing there watching your favorite band play from like a million feet away. Now people talk about the Warped Tour like it’s the greatest thing to ever happen to punk rock, it’s not the greatest thing to ever happen to punk rock - it’s single handedly dismantling the whole thing we’ve been fucking building for all this time and nobody gives a fuck. And bands, big bands that play the Warped Tour say things like ‘Oh, it’s great, you only have to play it for half an hour’ and it’s like, ‘Fuck you! This is your job, I don’t care how hard you don’t have to work in order to get paid; like you’re fucking everybody!’ And that’s why it’s the biggest tragedy. And that’s why it’s the worst thing to ever happen to punk rock, or DIY music in general.”


The argument against Kelly is, of course, the fact fans genuinely like being able to go and see a dozen bands and still be home before 10pm. And for people who live in some backwater province in North Carolina, the bands on Warped simply wouldn’t be able to go there if they didn’t have the financial muscle of the tour itself and the knowledge that, when all is said and done, they’re reaching more and more people than ever before. Also, whenever the massive summer festivals roll around there’s always no shortage of big bands doing tiny warm-up shows in places like Kingston or Wakefield – thanks to the efforts of brilliant local promoters – so we’re lucky in that we don’t have the same problems the US has.

Are package tours simply corporate shillfests put together in order to get people wired as fuck on energy drinks and buying really expensive merch? Largely, no – if they were, no one would go (that’s the thing about having infinite choice, no one’s going to do anything if they don’t want to). The ones that are more cynical, and feature bands no one gives a fuck about, will be obvious; the good ones will be equally obvious because they’ll be long sold out. It’s down to necessity - bands don’t have the tour support they used to from labels, because labels aren’t making as much money from record sales as they once were, so they have to try and attract some funding from elsewhere. So bands will gravitate towards the companies with some disposable cash who want to get into the world of music – which is why, for example, the likes of Toyota sponsored a music show on Channel 4 – and have to give away a slice of sponsorship at the same time.

When done right, by people who know what they’re doing and who let the artists do what they do without too much interference, it’s great. When it’s done wrong, it’s called T4 On The Beach. You’d hope enough people would be able to see through the cascade of shit certain companies present as ‘real music’, but if that was the case then we wouldn’t have fucking Jedward given their own show on ITV2 (surely one of the clearest signs yet that humanity is doomed).

The simple fact is that behind the scenes, the way business is done in the world of music is shifting on an almost daily basis. Out front, however, everyone is getting more and more choice as all kinds of music become more and more accessible and more astute companies are working out how to package stuff more ‘effectively’, and the upshot is that live music is more important – financially speaking – to bands than ever before. Will sponsors start having a bigger say in what gigs can take place at their venues, thus putting the power back into the hands of the moneymen, or will the commerce be shared around to ensure a more rounded, open environment? Who knows.

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