WHAT IF TOURING ENDED?
Introduction and interviews by J. Vognsen
Here's a striking fact: From 1995 to 2019, the number of tourists who crossed a national border as part of their journey grew from 0.5 billion to 1.5 billion.
That's a lot of travelling. A number of factors conspired to bring it about, dwindling airfare not the least of them, and the development was immediately noticeable in the world of music as well. Destinations not long ago out of reach became increasingly commonplace for musicians on the road, with new visitors popping up in Tokyo, Moscow, Buenos Aires, Beijing, Paris, Addis Ababa, Oslo and beyond.
But will it last? Pandemics, war and climate change at least challenge the idea, raising a number of questions: Will international travel remain as safe and convenient? Will it remain as affordable? Can all this burning of fossil fuel even be justified?
So, what if it doesn't last? What if all this travel is not the future, but a strange aberration, confined to a brief moment in history?
I thought the question was worth a thought, whether the scenario actually comes to pass or not. I thought it would lead to some insight into the meaning and function of live music today, as well as the social aspects of creativity. To this end, I reached out to a number of musicians familiar with touring and posed the following:Imagine an end to easy global travel. Suppose, for example, that - for whatever reason - airplanes were no longer an option and touring would be limited to ships, trains, busses, cars and bicycles. In other words, what if live music again became primarily a much more local phenomenon? How would you adapt financially and creatively? What would be lost? Would anything be gained?Reactions below.
for helping out, thanks to:
Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje
Arnold de Boer
Photo by Andy Moor
ARNOLD DE BOER, Amsterdam:If you drive for three hours in The Netherlands, from any point, you're out of the country. That's why we never say we're 'on tour' here because you always drive back and sleep at home after a show. The special tour experience starts when you cross the border, when the days are filled with only four things: travel, eat, play and sleep. After a few days of full focus on the music and live performance, a musician (and a band) gets into the zone. Biological clocks start lining up, all daily thoughts about family and bookkeepings and shopping are being replaced by conversations about other musicians, bands and friends in the next city. Then, when you arrive at the venue, there are people waiting for you, happy you could make it, preparing you a nice meal and offering you a drink while restlessly looking forward to your performance that night. These, and much more, are the irreplaceable pleasures of being on tour.
"Get in the van and play every day" and you will have the best experience in live music you can have and you will create the conditions of giving the best performances you can imagine.
An aeroplane is opposite to a van. There is no freedom and no focus on a plane. You can read a book in a tour bus but at an airport, you will use that book at most as a pillow. The gradual change of landscape, the stops at gas stations and small restaurants, the variety of smells, language and architecture all add to your focus and prepare you for your new audience that evening. A flight shakes your body into a numb mode and swirls you out of the zone. You start closing your brain and get stressed and worried about getting your merch through customs. A musician touring by plane is a contradiction, concerts become small islands in a series of inconvenience.
So less airplanes isn't just a way of counteracting global warming, it's also a gift for good music. The idea that everything always has to be instantly available everywhere is untenable and eventually turns Earth and the arts into shit. Even if we have all electric airplanes next week, I'm not eager to book. I'm happy in the (electric) van and on the train. I think the slow focus on what we do is important. I enjoy touring a lot and believe that cultural exchange is extremely important as a peacekeeper amongst other things like preventing people from getting a stiff brain.
ARRINGTON DE DIONYSO, Olympia:I'm thinking every day about the future of touring, because it's not just about flying around and playing gigs. It opens us to larger questions about the nature of cross-cultural collaborations, even communication of any kind between places far apart.
My first few years of touring were done in "the old way." No emails back then, we couldn't have even imagined "social media" the way it has become now. We (I mean anyone in a band, a weirdo musician) all had a "little black book" of one kind or another filled with phone numbers that had been collected person to person, names of people we probably never met but having some referral from another musician, "yeah there is this little spot on Valencia Street, you can't even tell it's a club from the outside, but if you call this number on a Monday from 3-6PM ask for Ratch, she will get you sorted out with a good show." We also had notebooks full of street directions, scratchy little hand drawn maps of how to get from the record store to the Food Co-op to the venue and back to the promoter's house for a place to sleep that night. If you didn't already have a hand drawn map, and if the venue was on a street that was too small to be seen on a road atlas, getting directions meant trying to guess which part of the city would be a place to find some punks hanging out, rolling down the window and asking someone if they knew where the show was happening! This actually worked because in those days, most small college towns would really only have one or two venues likely to host weirdo music. It wasn't difficult to tell by looking at a person that they might be into weirdo music themselves. You could definitely judge who WASN'T into weirdo music- that was fairly simple.
As internet and email communication became more commonplace, one of my bands started doing tours in Europe fairly frequently. I was also able to build a fairly reliable solo "career" in booking my own tours not only in Europe and the US but eventually playing a bit in far off places like Japan, Israel, Indonesia, Peru, etc. In almost every case, a tour would be judged a success if you were able to make at least the amount of money you had to spend on airfare, plus your basic expenses on the trip. If you came back with enough cash to also cover the month or two of rent you had to pay back home, the tour was a HUGE success.
Now, even long before the current COVID crisis, the current threats of war and collapse of civilization as we know it, I've always been playing out the various doomsday scenarios in my mind. Especially while on tour. Long drives between cities, crossing borders and security checks, waiting to be picked up at airports, it's always been in the back of my mind, "what if something really TERRIBLE happens and I'm never able to fly back home." For many of my friends who happened to be on tour in March of 2020, one of those doomsday scenarios became reality. Many who are trying to escape regions of conflict in Eastern Europe or the Middle East or North Africa or Central America are experiencing another type of doomsday scenario. For Indigenous peoples who have been resisting colonization, slavery and the destruction of sacred lands, doomsday has been playing itself out for more than 500 years. So I try to put all these things into perspective. I have some strange belief in my heart that my act of traveling to some faraway place and emitting my strange sounds in front of a room of usually less than 30 people is somehow offering an act of resistance to the dark forces of the unknown that continuously threaten to destroy everything that we have ever known. I also believe that being comfortable with everything as we have always known it, is an enormous part of the problem and a big part of why I make my strange sounds in the way that I do.
I do believe that certain acts of musical magic are a form of energetic bioremediation to a point. Healing might occur in communities that have been stressed, if music is a reason for people to gather together when the alternative would be isolation. I've certainly done more of playing music outside the last couple years, perhaps we develop a program of organizing experimental music concerts in areas that have been ecologically stressed as well? It's going to be difficult to find a place that is NOT ecologically stressed when you think about it.
I'm not sure about the travel part though. I have decided to let go of a lot of the gear I might have enjoyed traveling with- ideally a musician is traveling only with what they can carry, because you never know what will happen next. The biggest problem for me is not the weight of the instrument but in trying to decide what kind of merch to bring. Even a small box of LP's is very heavy to lug around, but sometimes people only want to buy vinyl. Downloads aren't really more ecologically sustainable either, because of the vast amount of heat generated by the electricity needed to power data storage servers. So, I don't know the answer. A lot of times I play concerts and it seems like nobody even wants to buy anything anyways, so why bother taking all the time to set up a table with all of my beautiful objects? Maybe I should just build my own art gallery and let people come to me if they want something.
I thought I had become a master of the "long tour" where you leave your home and your city and your friends for two months, even three months, maybe longer. A concert in a different city every single day. In Europe, it's not so difficult to do this on the trains, as long as the trains are still running. I know only a few people doing this in the USA, because our train system is very poorly developed in comparison. As for traveling internationally without air travel... I know of only one collective group that organizes all of their international touring through a sailboat. It's a very difficult way of traveling although the uniqueness of their situation is quite legendary, the ARKA KINARI collective based in Indonesia with international crew.
CATHERINE SIKORA, Tijeras:In the past 2 years, we have already had to deal with a suspension of travel, with the recent pandemic and the global lockdown that happened, even though this was spun by the media as a temporary thing. Now, I am certainly not expecting a return to a "normal" which only ever existed for those of us who are extremely privileged, and who live in places that have not yet suffered war or climate related disasters in our time.
When COVID-19 started to hit Europe in late February/early March of 2020, I was at l'Atelier de la Main d'Or in Paris, working on some recordings with Christopher Culpo. Our host there is a retired virologist, and being around him was the most incredibly informative-and shocking-experience for me. When I landed in Paris, I had no idea of what was coming, but this person described everything almost exactly as it happened. He told me that I would not take the flights that I had booked for travel in the coming months, that we would be locked down, and that this could continue for an indefinite period of time. I was initially unable to comprehend this vision of reality, but being around this person who was clearly an expert, while simultaneously watching the world news, I slowly came around to understanding that he was absolutely correct. Even with this experience, and with climate change being the huge, urgent issue that it is, somehow still our media speaks of "getting back to normal" and returning to a way of life that is built on the horrific exploitation of humans and animals and the environment, and that was never sustainable. Imagining a whole other way of doing things is one of the most difficult things to do, but it is imperative. In this essay, I have decided to play with some ideas that could be hopeful, to try to imagine that a change in how we work can be a good thing. The world right now is so dark, and it is so easy to imagine everything bad, that I see it as an ethical obligation to stay hopeful and to think of ways to help improve matters.
Speaking only from the perspective of music, the idea of world touring becoming unfeasible raises some interesting possibilities, and could possibly address some issues that I have with the music industry as it is now, in all of its toxic patriarchal exploitativeness. I really like the idea of celebrity becoming separated from music (or even disappearing altogether). Why have just a few celebrity groups who command enormous fees to play huge stadium concerts with horrible sound, when we could have many more musicians and concerts, and much more diversity in the music, were this to be balanced (here I am also thinking of Hazrat Inayat Khan's writing on music, and his view of enormous western style concert halls as being much too big, and not allowing for enough intimacy between performer and audience). Instead of the idea that a few celebrity artists should be the focus, wouldn't it be amazing if audiences developed broadly varied musical tastes, and the desire to hear many different kinds of musicians and styles of music? It could be a very beautiful thing for musicians to be able to perform in a reasonably local area, to make a decent living, and to have a meaningful artistic relationship with their community and their audience. Perhaps we can start to view local music in the same way that we view local food-it could be the healthiest, most ethical, most nutritious way to be entertained, and your local musicians should be the ones that are the most precious.
Creatively, while I really missed playing with other musicians in person, I found that the lockdown intensified my relationships with some colleagues. Ursel Schlicht, a longtime collaborator of mine, created an improvised piece called "Breathing Meditation," and drummer/percussionist Andrew Drury and I contributed our own work, recording alongside Ursel's track. This piece and the long conversations that we had while working on it are very important to me, and may not have happened had the circumstances been different. The resulting recording is being presented as a sound installation, and part of what we discussed was how to distribute our work in a way that is meaningful to us, while not necessarily being there in person. We also discussed music and accessibility, and the hope that this work may be more accessible to people who may not normally be able to attend a live concert. Of course, accessibility is another question to consider when it comes to touring; only artists who are reasonably able bodied, physically and psychologically capable of enduring the rigors of touring, can become touring musicians, or sustain it for any length of time. This is ableist and denies many artists the chance to do this work. Perhaps, with robust local support systems, and shorter travel distance and trip duration, we could consult with disabled artists as well as listeners and try to meet the needs of more performers, and create a more accessible, equitable, safer and healthier environment for all musicians and their audiences.
Regarding financial adaptation, I personally have never made a full living as a performer, so I cannot offer the perspective of someone who has earned their whole living by touring.
Having said all of this, some of my most treasured memories are of touring, and hearing touring artists when I was growing up was critical during my formative years. I think the live exchange of musical ideas is very important, and if this were lost the world would be a poorer place.PostscriptThe total rewrite I wanted to do is not happening. I am currently on tour (Ha!) and it has been a nightmare-missed flights, my baggage is lost, and I am exhausted and stressed out. It is feeling very unsustainable to me right now.
photo by Andreas Sterzin
ELLIOTT SHARP, New York City:It's a Gig
Some say it began when the Republic of Texas tried to nuke Gomorrah (their name for NYC) in 2030, fortunately thwarted by the National Guard's Arrow system though still sending metaphorical but very real shockwaves around the world. Going back further, some said COVID, others 9/11 while the historically inclined contended that the decline in gigging began with the Reagan regime in the 20th century. The breakup of the European Union in 2027 preceded by the destructive chaos of Brexit in 2020 nailed the coffin. The whole recessive economic structure meant that culture was the lowest priority except for blue-chip programming favored by the oligarchs and still enjoyed in their gated domains, exclusive clubs, heavily guarded museums. The usual haunts of touring musicians: NYC, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, London, Japan, Norway - all locked down tight with not even the local musicians performing in the flesh.
Yet despite this harsh reality, there still was a need for music and where there's a need, the market will find a way of filling it. Memory and history, malleable and mythified, and therefore ready to be monetized. Now in 2037, I remain surprised that at my advanced age I might still be gigging. In fact, I absolutely must keep working to maintain a slightly-more-than marginal existence. I had signed with The Agent in 2033 as their patented lllgorithmicTM approach to booking seemed right for the times as physical performances were cratering. In NYC, the only venues still "live" were the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center and they programmed a very narrow bandwidth of acts appealing to the most upper of crusts with ticket prices to match and locking most real music out. Finding even a basement space in the outer realms of the Bronx or Queens for a DIY show had long become impossible so as far as local gigs went, there was nothing. And if there's nothing local, one might as well go global, even if it's all metaversical.
I might have two weeks with no work and then suddenly a thorny knot of gigs but that was nothing new - it had always been feast or famine. This particular morning as I poured out my first cup of NoSpressoTM (coffee plants having been one of the deeply-mourned victims of climate change) my tablet bannered a message from The Agent informing me of a tour for the next day: seven concerts in Tokyo, Berlin, Barcelona, Santiago, Bologna, Brussels, and the Luna colony. A '90's Downtown Scene revival had been brewing for a couple of hours the previous afternoon on both Blather and Glub-Glub so The Agent pounced with contracts signed by 1700 EST. Twenty-four hours advance notice was considered very civilized these days. Sometimes the call came with the expectation that you'd be onstage in 15 minutes, like a neo-mariachi waiting in the town zocalo for the dispatcher to send you to a pop-up wedding, divorce party, or supermarket shooting.
Given the Downtown theme, I first prepared backgrounds for my show. Starting with scans of Berlin's Tacheles in all its deconstructed glory, I moved to the black-box purity of The Kitchen, hopped over to Tokyo's Plan B with its reductionist esthetic scripted by Min Tanaka, and ended up with the grime and whimsy of the E. Village's 8BC. There would be mismatched guitar and bass amps of varying quality but large size. My instrumental arsenal would feature a model of Double Neck Nr. 4 built in 1992 by Doug Henderson, resplendent with its figured maple top and steel deck-plate guard as well as one of my ancient Martin straight soprano saxophone. I'd made the impulse-response samples back in 2028 and though not using the latest codecs, they still sounded good. For this gig, I would use no time-based processing, just overdrive on each of the necks referencing my "fundamentalist" period between 1984-94 when I'd pretty much eschewed digital effects. The latest version of AliveTM allowed me to sequence the necessary instrumental processing that would ensue over the course of the set in addition to the staging and lighting moves. Alive's predictive subroutines could do a pretty good job of anticipating the dynamics of live performance, providing a nearly realistic concert experience for the performer as well as the audience. I programmed in 2% randomness for ambience which might lead to some unexpected equipment malfunctions, heckling, or power dimming - just enough to keep it funky.
The introduction of JuiceTM in 2032 (essentially a home 3D printer for manufacturing and delivering chems to performers and audiences alike) upped the ante for live performance though some Luddites objected to this novel intrusion. Humans have been hacking their own biochemistry for eons so what's the problem? If you kept an open mind (not to mention a port in your neck for the introduction of the chems) the meta-concert experience was deeply enhanced with its simulation of the pheromonal handshaking present in a physical space shared by performers and audience.
The concert itself would be held at 2015 hours local, wherever that was, with the audience temporally filtered by IP address. As show time approached, I felt that old anticipatory buzz: wired but lulled, empty but overflowing. I welcome it even if I'm now just sitting in a chair, chems dripping, headset and datagloves in place, ready to rock.
This was a good tour, and not too long at 72 minutes total duration. There was that sense of inevitability I've always sought in improvisation yet I found myself surprised at the direction the music took me at crucial moments. The feeling that the audience and I were riding the same wave remained present throughout, whether thanks to the chems or quantum entanglement or just the nature of the music. The post-gig hang used to be a high-point of touring - the current chat-room scene is a poor substitute even though it's nice to exchange some bumps with the listeners. Hate to sound like an old geezer, but I do miss the way it was.
photo by Heike Liss
FRED FRITH, Santa Rosa:Interesting question, if a little misleading. If you live and work primarily in Europe, say, or Japan, then touring has seldom meant flying (except to get there if you don't live there), and almost always involves trains and cars and yes even bicycles-memories of Peter Kowald cycling to gigs in Wuppertal, his home town, with a double bass strapped to his back! Also I think that music has ALWAYS been a local phenomenon for most practitioners, which is why some cities are so vibrant - having recently played in Oakland, LA, Portland and Seattle, I was forcibly struck by how much is going on in those cities and how little I know about it (except Oakland of course). I'm sure the same is true across much of North America, and certainly in Europe as well, and no doubt most other countries and continents. Passionate people getting together to share their work, compare notes, try things out, listen hard, and support each other. That's how I started out in York Folk Club in 1966, and it was a lesson for a lifetime.
The vast majority of musicians are amateurs who are playing for fun, and because they are passionate about it, and care about their communities. This has always been the case, and no doubt always will be. Those of us who have been privileged enough to travel across the globe, presenting our work have created other kinds of communities, not to mention life-long friendships, based on that practice. But in the end, it's about community one way or another. So I can't imagine that suddenly not being able to travel would impact one's desire. After I retired from teaching, I moved to Santa Rosa, and now I'm in touch with all kinds of wonderful and wacky creative artists of all persuasions. So if you're asking me what would be lost if I couldn't travel globally, it would be the chance to regularly touch base with my global community, and what would be gained would be the possibility to grow the local one. And maybe the chance to connect one with the other in ways we haven't invented yet.
Of course there are financial implications if you consider yourself a "professional." But where I live, I think everyone gets by through a whole range of activities, and that will always continue to be the case. We mostly figure out how to survive. And when it comes together, we also learn to thrive...
JENNIFER TORRENCE, Oslo:An end to easy global travel is easy to imagine. In very recent times, the COVID pandemic has given a strong taste of this ever-present possibility, drawing parallels to the way World War II forced a (temporary) stop to international cultural exchange, including in music, sports, and other performance-based professions. Meanwhile, the climate disaster has been screaming at us with questions around the ethics of international touring, and many of us are waking up to a distinctly queasy feeling at the thought of boarding a flight to play a gig. Theoretical futures have never been more actual. In order to avoid international musical exchange becoming irrevocably unsustainable and a worsening class privilege, I wonder: how can we work slower and more deliberately? How can we foster solidarity? Do we need new institutions or can our institutions think differently about how they use their resources? How can we create new models with the resources we collectively already have?
One proposal: Scene swapping.
An example exchange:
An experimental musician seeks a 90-day stay in another city/scene and is offering as a trade a 90-day stay in the experimental music scene in [insert city name here]. A clean swap between two parties is ideal. Green travel is preferred. The hope is to make international touring feel local through long-duration stays and interpersonal sharing and hospitality. The goal is deep exchange and climate sustainability.
- Accommodation in [insert city name here]. Rent is covered in the swap.
- An invitation into the local network of presenters and artists through personal introductions and/or co-productions.
- A stay of circa 90 days - but the longer the better.
- The time period is up for discussion, with at least one year for preparations, bookings, visas, etc.
- Accommodation in another city/scene with rent covered in the swap.
- An invitation into the local network of presenters and artists through personal introductions and/or co-productions.
- A stay of circa 90 days - but the longer the better.
- The time period is up for discussion, with at least one year for preparations, bookings, visas, etc.
JIM DENLY, Sydney:In 2016, I easily travelled to the Solomon Islands on an aeroplane, and then by ferry, truck, canoe and walking to the Ataa Valley in North East Malaita. There, I met musicians, many of them highly skilled players and singers, some of whom I would ascribe all the attributes of the musical ethos I work in, of 'new music' and 'experimentalism.' I could easily think of them as companion musicians or musickin, except there was a massive difference between us - I could travel beyond my island/territory/country to play and engage with contexts and other players beyond the local, because I am, compared to them, relatively rich, and come from a rich country. But for them the idea of getting on a plane, to go to say Brisbane, would be an amazing opportunity they could only ever dream of.
So the scenario posed above was and is already a reality, before any pandemics and climate change induced guilt over air-travel - there are many less privileged musicians in the world who don't have the opportunity to apply for travel grants, or who are not on international and even intra-national circuits with fees that allow professionalism. If they want to travel to play, they are already limited to walking, ships, canoes, ferries, trains, busses, cars, trucks and bicycles. If they do travel and play over boundaries, it is usually to represent and showcase neat and digestible archaic notions of traditionalism. We still want them to be noble musical savages and if they are curated into an international festival, it is expected that they express some absurd notion of a fixed culture.
I got a strong sense that the musicians I met in Malaita were well aware of the relative injustice of their position - it is obvious. It can be explained in terms of ongoing colonialism, powerful hegemonies and racism. Who gets to play and who are excluded from playing in international forums and festivals are deeply ethical and political questions, but in general, many scenes and institutions unthinkingly curate as if we are still deeply involved in a colonial era where Europeans and their settler diasporas around the globe plunder, exploit and reduced previously rich communities to third world status.
Malaitian musicians are not isolated from international ideas and trends. They have quite advanced telecommunication technologies, so one might walk through jungle paths for some time and come to a village, completely off any power grids, but with good data reception, where a musician has a large collection of recorded music in digital form, and playback devices powered by solar panels. These people have been in the 21st century as long as we have. The musicians in Malaita can receive files with information on music from all around the world, but we know nothing of their developments in musicality. They are forced to embody rhythmic systems, dance, vocal and instrumental styles and techniques, and the hegemonic predominant western well-tempered intonation system, without any real reciprocity.
The Ataa Valley was visited by canoe in 1969 by a French musicologist Hugo Zemp and the recordings he made became the release Fatelaka and Baegu music of North East Malaita, 1970 on a Unesco LP. Largely, this document remains the international community's only source of knowledge on the music from this region. So it isn't only that they can't travel to engage in an international exchange of ideas, they don't have the means to record and distribute recordings of their musical pursuits to a wider audience, unless a first world producer uses their privilege to travel to them and elevate their work to the world stage.
Is anything lost or gained in this enforced localism? You bet ya - but we don't have space to go into this in details here. I believe that musicians around the world desire to have meaningful and reciprocal exchange, we all live in an age where we understand the implications of our globality, and just like the rich westerners, poorer musicians want to intra-act in a meaningful internationalism. Rich nations for decades have been sending their musicians to go and play all around the world. Norwegians, Canadians, the Swiss, French, Germans, Austrians, Swedes have been regular travellers on aeroplanes to the local forums and festivals in Australia that I engage in, and as Australians, we've benefitted from travel grants to go overseas and engage in international forums. The discourse generated has been at times wonderful, exciting and even profoundly moving, but it is iniquitous. It is very rare that we have the same exchange with musicians from the so-called third world.
One has to ask, why are governments around the world promoting their artists on international stages? This funding, if we were talking about sugar, would be seen to be unfair trade practices. How can the Ataa Valley musician compete against Norwegian or Australian artists who have all their travel costs, and often fees met by their own governments, to play in say, a festival in Singapore or Germany? The pre-COVID marketplace for international performance was skewed and unfair. Can we enter a new era where there is more justice on the worlds stages?
KATHLEEN SUPOVÉ, Brooklyn, NY:At first, imagining a scenario where world travel for a performing artist goes away is something that deeply saddens me. But as I think realistically about it for MYSELF (and I really mean only myself), I realize that it isn't a big part of my performing activity anyway. I made very little of my money from it.
That also makes me sad in a different way, as I think: why have I not made it a high priority? On an artistic level, I love the idea of being "the other." Then you not only share new music, but the cultural milieu out of which it came. But as time goes on in the world and in my life, it seems like we are becoming much more tribal. We want to see what we already know, what we understand, people who share our point of view. So the shutting of the world seems to be happening on many fronts. Things used to be much more simple: I simply thought that European audiences were better and more plentiful than ours!!! It was strangely comforting to know that SOMEWHERE people appreciated my music in a bigger way.
But now, I'm less sure. Walls seem to be caving in. So why not just present your art closer to home for a few appreciative audience members?? In a way, you have to work harder to be original and interesting, to stand apart from the crowd!!
Suddenly, writing down these thoughts makes me want to perform on boats that are traveling from port to port. But they are such fuel guzzlers, they are terrible for the Earth!!
LOUISE DAM ECKARDT JENSEN, Toftlund:If air travel was no longer viable, artists would be affected disproportionately - those artists who make a living by touring internationally would of course be most affected, and continents would become cut off from each other. American musicians who make their living touring in Europe would be most affected, as their primary sources of income (touring Europe and playing at festivals) would be cut off. Relying on concerts/gigs in their own regions would be harder or impossible, as funding opportunities for artists and arts organizations in the US are far more scarce than in Europe. Venues do not have the same kind of subsidy scheme as in Europe and won't be able to pay proper artist fees to touring musicians without other kinds of private sponsorships.
The struggle to survive playing locally would discourage many currently full-time touring musicians, who would be forced to go out and take day jobs instead. Those with families to support would be in even worse shape. But the shift to a drastic reduction in funds could encourage a paradigm shift to stronger grassroots organization (unionization, coops, etc.) to create better working conditions for creative professionals and a richer cultural life in general.
On the other hand, I think European musicians could benefit financially from an end to flights. Europe is small compared to the US, and has a good transit infrastructure that allows for travel between countries; use of this infrastructure is probably preferred by most musicians, even by American musicians touring in Europe. In addition, fewer musicians coming from outside would give European artists more artistic and financial space.
Within Europe, the end of air travel would mean the end of short tours across the continent, and would require the planning of longer tours. The longer tours would probably also mean longer periods at home, so touring musicians' lives would have more extreme periods of intense touring contrasted with periods of intense domestic lives.
The possibility of biking longer distances with instruments and luggage might perhaps become more widespread and could save artists more money in the long run, though the infrastructure would probably have to change slightly to allow for this.
A negative consequence of limiting physical contact across the Atlantic would be a decline in quality of music, as Europeans and Americans gain from exchange of ideas, which would diminish with the decline in trans-Atlantic touring.
Naturally, I would be sad to find myself disconnected from the other contingent; as a dual citizen, I would have to choose a side of the Atlantic to live on, which would be a difficult decision for me.
If I look at my current situation, where my family and I live in the middle of nowhere in southern Denmark, which means that both my husband (who is also a musician) and myself travel at least 2-3 hours with public transport to be part of a music community, it has forced us both to think a lot about how to foster high quality art and music in our local community. We have to actively convince people here that they need art to avoid becoming a cultural desert. We've started a festival for improvised music and engage ourselves culturally with the local community; we show up to local arrangements, set up concerts with high standards, but don't expect the locals to agree. But this local work doesn't pay our bills, so we are forced to travel to make money.
To return to reality: carbon emissions from planes are a significant contributor to the world's climate change, a fact I am painfully aware of; I know that my life as a touring musician isn't sustainable and doesn't contribute to a cleaner world. But I also understand that even if all musicians stopped flying, the airline industry wouldn't stop running. I don't have a solution to the problem; or at least, I don't think that I as an individual am capable of stopping climate change. But maybe discussions like these can help us to imagine new scenarios, and possibly even prepare us for the new realities that wait just around the corner.
MARTÍN ESCALANTE, Guanajuato:If this dystopic world you've imagined became a reality then I am luckier than a lot of musicians because I don't depend on playing or selling my music to make a living. I don't have the same type of concerns as a full-time musician would. Expression is really the only objective of any musical project that I take on, so my spirit might break but I think I would eventually put it back together and adapt. That said, being able to travel with my music and with the films I have worked on has spoiled me! I would certainly take a long time to adjust to this new castrated culture. It would be like going back in time 100 years or so wouldn't it? Back when air travel was not as accessible. Traveling by boat at first sounds kind of like an adventure. But adding 2-4 weeks of travel at the start and end of a tour would mean big changes in planning, logistics and timing of a tour. What if I had a family? They might have to come along! Luckily (or unluckily) I don't have a wife and/or children so as long as I planned ahead then I could probably use this boat time to write and work on music stuff or edit photos or just relax. Actually that might be really nice. I've been on a boat before, I once spent 5 days on a boat helping with some marine research and I did pretty well, no sea sickness and being out in nature was nice.
Tours might become longer and their structure would change, so maybe instead of a 3 or 4 country tour in 3 weeks maybe I would just be able to go to one country for 4 or 5 weeks playing shows here and there, a couple of shows a week. I did something similar this year in Norway. It was fantastic playing and recording with friends, but there were some major issues, especially involving audience attendance and promotion of the shows post COVID. It looks like this area is in serious need of some more creative tactics. With this stretched/leisurely tour format I was able to experience Norway in a totally new way, taking time to visit smaller cities and getting to know the natural landscape. It gave me a nice perspective of why my friends (some of which are also my favorite musicians) do the things they do, creatively and personally. I have always enjoyed the peripheral activities possible while touring; good food, hiking, walking around, taking pictures, record shopping, and it's not easy to do these when you are rushing out of town to play the next show.
I have done 2 tours recently, one in the US in September of 2021 and another in Norway/Holland in March of 2022. The US tour was more or less rushed and trying to do a tour the way I knew how, like it was 2019, and this was fun but in the end, really stressful. The tour in Norway/Holland took on the reformed style I've been describing above and it was just as fruitful if not more so. Either way I must continue to tour and play with these friends that live half way across the world. I don't see that ending unless there is an all-out world war and we're forced to stay put.
These are a few strategies that I think will be helpful; be patient, lower my expectations, set aside more time for a relaxed tour schedule, plan recordings and be open to impromptu sessions and live shows, get creative with promoting a show, and be grateful I have a day job that lets me keep touring during the apocalypse. I feel so lucky that I have a few things I can do for money and that I have a skill that is useful and in demand. I don't have huge expenses, I am single man, a screenwriter and with the growing demand for "content," I am hopeful that I will never stop making money that I can then spend on DIY tours where I lose money or barely break even.
Photo by Ziga Koritnik
MARTIN KÜCHEN, Lund:The fact that live music has become a much more local phenomenon is for the better I think - for various reasons. A bigger question then is if this phenomenon is primarily driven by a non-cultural, technocratic and digitally biased public/private entity or entities or is it a mere happenstance occurrence, moved by honest concern for the global environment situation etc?
We might be able to discuss this at length and not come up with any clear answers.
But seeing the push for a more general digitalization in all aspects of our lives (especially since March 2020), hints at some answers to the dilemma of the touring musician. To either continue to travel as before - adhering to continuous vaccination programs, testing, social distancing restrictions and what not - or to radically change travel behaviour or stop travelling at all, and perform only locally instead, increasing ones' performing persona on digital platforms and on digital "live"-scenes (streaming etc), step by step creating a cultural metaverse which might actually annihilate real live music situations.
This summer, I made a week-long tour together with a colleague in the southern part of Sweden, where I live. I was biking, transporting all the gear in a small bicycle trailer, covering in average around 50 km a day between concert venues. All in all, we made five performances. The idea to do this emerged a few years ago, and this summer - partly due to the fact we got some funding from the region's cultural department - we could implement the project.
There were many questions from people in the audience. Why were we doing this kind of backward, but morally high-brow trip? I could then hear myself praising the automobile, to the clear consternation of the questioners in the audience. I think any monocultural worldview - or set of habits - has an eroding effect both on itself and its surroundings, and pushes us towards adapting a totalitarian outlook on life: all cars are malign, only bicycles are benign (even though, if batteries are used, they consist of nickel, lithium and cobalt mined by children in war zones).
I concluded the audience conversation by saying that next time, maybe we will do a tour with an old petrol driven car - but then we for sure will not get any funding. Some people were laughing, some were not.
And we left it like that. Packed our things, and then the next day, another cycling route through a very beautiful landscape. And I was very happy about that of course.
MASSIMO FARJON PUPILLO, Rome:These are questions one cannot reply to with a horizontal mind only. Even an eagle's eye can't fathom these depths. It is not only for practical reasons. Because if we were to think in the realm of quantity only, there would be no reason to go out there and play music. Yes, ego, fame, earning a living. And this kind of practical mind, this agenda, has become prevalent, with its ratio, its hunger and its horror. Hence my questions: Why did we start playing in the first place? Why did we feel the urge to play music for and with people? Why all the insane travel, the worries, the war-like logistics, for that one single ecstatic moment that was not even granted to happen? We then enter the realm of Magic. There are two timelines now and few people have been given the weight and responsibility of witnessing this. One timeline will try and go back "as it was." Even if exactly "as it was" brought us to the precipice. Some people saw the precipice coming. Some people played, wrote and even warned about it. Did everything fall on dead ears? Is this only a materialistic, ecological, health crisis or is there more? Is it the deepest spiritual crisis of all times, where the word and the flavor of Spirit has been completely thrown out of the window? Did we forget that the Western musical tradition starts in Greece with the Eleusinian mysteries? Did we forget Bach? Where did all this hubris come from, this idea of ourselves (modern humans) as more advanced - hence disillusioned - than the Ancient Greek masters? That we know more than the aboriginal shamans and the Tibetan lamas, because we have all these smartphones and gadgets? Did everything come down to THIS? REALLY? Another timeline somehow someone knew. We were warned multiple times. My beloved PK Dick warned us. And when you know, somehow you are not afraid. Or less afraid. The current crisis didn't sever the primal connection (much stronger than our phone one!) and is not even afraid of the passage called "death." In this timeline, our primal forces keep boiling. We will play music with stones if nothing else is available. We will sing to our children. We will use old bicycle wheels and plastic cans as drums if needed. This sanitized version of life, this complete modern fear of existence, this lack of primal faith, this deeply ingrained mistrust in nature and its resources, this need for material safety and all our sophistication, has reached its limits. It will undoubtedly end. We have, and will sing its end. This world needs beauty and needs community and needs communion. It also needs a sort of cathartic beauty. All these forces for me are stronger than anything else for our wellbeing and even, let me say, for our immune system, be it physical, mental or spiritual. These forces can be suppressed only for so long, but they can't be stopped forever and they will not be stopped. Even if this means going and playing for 10 people in a living room for a time, or for the next lifetime. In the past, we already slept on cold floors, we ate Satan's meal (aka the classic lentil soup served on dirty dishes in freezing cold squats). Because we had to do it. And when occasionally it was a single room in a 5 star hotel, it was always met with a grain of irony. Because that was all simulacra. Now it's time for the real thing only. To show what we have learned down that road. On one side, there is this push to sanitize existence and to control and hack every aspect of human beings, but there are hidden and subtler aspects that machines cannot compute. There will always be stronger forces under the carpet. And they will erupt again, one way or the other, promise. And music will be a vector for this as it has always been. Don Juan told Castaneda, once, "All roads lead nowhere finally, the only thing you can do as a man is embark on a path that has a heart." And this is the only question one should ask oneself. And this is all there is to say really. And at this point, all there is to sing and play about, in my humble opinion. In one way or another.
MICHAEL REXEN, Copenhagen:The lockdown - no flights. I'll just tell you how I did it.
I bought an old horse transporter. I rebuilt it into a foldout stage - and a small bed inside - and drove through the European lockdown, equipped with special work permits from all the Danish embassies in the countries I travelled through. I obtained this by telling them that I intended to write a symphony about the lockdown in Europe. On the road, for 8 months, I wrote and performed my work, now known as the album and book; For We The Sick.
I saw that in this later stage of the pandemic people were allowed outside, and I saw no reason why street music and street theatre would not be allowed, and I was right. People regulated themselves safely according to the rules and I created an extraordinary street performance all through Europe.
The music performance is in large part music for meditation, or just very still and quiet music, based on special research into the existing scientific papers on the correlation between particular frequencies and their effects on the body and the mind. Hoping to achieve a piece of music that soothes the listener, music to make you forget that you are even listening. All in inspiration of our new common global illness.
Out from this beautiful horse caravan came endless instruments and its own PA system with its own battery power, playing recordings of string quartets I recorded along the way, as the performance and compositions grew through the months in an empty Europe.
I survived by applying for travel grants and playing on the streets and beaches. The show is a beautiful dance between being humble and being enormously visually pleasing. Allowing passers-by to partake without being asked to partake. Chains of lights fed from the wooden room of the car, with flowery curtains, inviting you to stop and stare. Gleaming underneath them an array of flutes, string instruments, wooden percussion and copper gong instruments that no one has ever seen before... because I built and invented many of them myself or because they are too old for our cultural memory. So they just needed to be there with the performer, in this case me. After a while, people would courteously come and give some money. Or buy some wears. I survived.
Further on the theme of travel by road in Europe, I also came upon a fascination with street organs. Through this I ended up writing software that translates MIDI files to barrel organ metal plates. This meant that I could write new music for a 160-year-old mechanical instrument.
So I guess you could say that the absence of easy global travel revived an age-old European traveling street musician culture. Reviving and renewing... rethinking - and not just any street show, but one of an enormous artistic ambition. A trait that musical street performance has not known in Northern Europe for nearly a century. After this period of research and creation, I now believe that street performance culture would grow in both mass and quality in a version of the world where easy global travel is no longer available. A revival of our own cultures seems a natural progression when an international view of the world becomes less common.
TOM WARD, London:In 2020-21, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I gained a lot of experience of online musical collaboration using JackTrip and derived technologies, which I want to talk about in this answer. However, before we start, I want to point out that international touring was only ever for a minority - my UK passport gives me generally easy access to a lot of places in the world, people with other passports have a lot less access to travel. And for a long time, there have been many musicians from many countries who are systemically denied access to the UK - because of visas, money and government policies. I also already have friends and collaborators who refuse to fly, limiting their options for international touring.
Anyway, when the pandemic hit, some friends and I began experimenting with JackTrip. It's a tool with a very simple design, aiming just to take sound from an input and get it through the computer-network-computer-output system as quickly as possible. When we tried it, we were surprised to discover that the quality of home internet connections we had was good enough to achieve latencies low enough to give us the experience of playing together. There were unexpected winners and losers though. From my house in south-east London, I could get a great connection and have a good musical experience with someone living near an internet trunk route in Belgium. But somebody else with a music space in a garden room just a few miles away from me had terrible connection quality and was unable to meaningfully participate. There were also barriers of money (manifested as having suitable equipment) and time (manifested as being able to learn to operate the software). I was part of the Autonomous Noise Unit project which aimed to address some of these barriers by creating easy-to-use standalone devices, which produced a batch of prototypes that facilitated a number of online rehearsals, jams, recordings and broadcasts.
We were successful partly because of the type of music - free improvisation - and the definitions of success that come from that. It requires attentive and responsive listening, but does not necessarily require the extreme coordination of rhythmically rigid music. We were most interested in very low latency collaborations, but other collaborators went in the opposite direction - seeking out musicians as broadly as possible (from all over the world) and choosing to tolerate whatever sonic conditions that implied.
Of course, things are lost by online collaboration compared to in person. One musician specifically mentioned that they are usually aware of their instrument sympathetically vibrating with the sounds of other instruments playing in the same group, and had the strange experience of feeling as if they were playing live with someone else but suddenly realising part-way through that their instrument was not resonating with the music in the same way.
Some things were not as lost as expected - we found that the usual post-gig chatting to other musicians was far more enjoyable on our system than on other platforms. The audio fidelity and low latency of our audio-only system meant that a lot of the tropes of poor video calls were not present, for example people being unable to interject without interrupting the flow of the conversation, as video calls necessitate an order of magnitude more latency. Also, the feedback from an audience is usually an integral part of an improvised performance. I facilitated a live real-time streamed concert by a large improvising group, with a decent sized audience listening in on to the internet audio stream. Although they definitely missed the responsiveness of the audience, they were aware that people were listening in, live and in the moment, and there was a sense of something happening in a wider context. Akin to the feeling from previous decades of watching a television show, knowing that your friends are also at home watching the same television show, and you're going to talk all about it when you see them tomorrow.
And there were gains. Our focus on very low latency collaboration limited the scope of people that we played with to Scotland, northern England, southern England, and Belgium. However, new and pre-existing bands with members across England were able to get together to meaningfully rehearse and perform new material completely online. Due to the normal travel costs of in-person rehearsals, and the time-effectiveness of being able to do a short rehearsal from home, groups were able to do far more rehearsal than is normally practical. At a time when housing costs are a particular barrier to access to certain musical scenes in the UK (i.e. London), this was an exciting development that points to a new ability to bridge some gaps.
I think there are interesting possibilities for this technology, which could potentially go some way to addressing not only a reduction in international touring for those of us privileged enough to have experienced it, but also for those who are currently shut out. In particular, I think that current models can lead to a fairly low level of engagement with artists/collaborators/audiences in other parts of the world, and maybe there are now more interesting options. For instance, something fairly common in this sort of music is that one or a few musicians might travel to another place, spend a few days developing a new work under time pressure, perform the new work once or twice, and then return home until the next project. A remote online collaboration could develop a new work over a much longer time period, could have lower barriers to entry to experimenting with a variety of collaborators to find good artistic fits, and more.
The speed of light remains - for the time being - a hard limit as to what is achievable, but we found that the possibilities were a lot richer than we expected, and we were able to maintain and grow significant aspects of our artistic community in a meaningful way.
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