The Mad Covid Bottleneck of Indie Bands - Rolling Stone
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The Mad Pandemic Bottleneck of Indie Bands

In the post-quarantine rush back to concerts and live music, venue calendars are filling up with superstars and baby bands are falling to the wayside: “It’s a lot of chasing dead ends”

Ganser

Nadia Garofalo performs as part of Ganser in 2018 at Chicago's Beat Kitchen.

Stephanie Jensen

In the quest toward rock stardom, buzz is nearly impossible to bottle — everyone who’s made it in the music industry knows it’s at first a grueling long-distance run, then suddenly a give-it-all-you’ve-got sprint — so in the summer of 2020, when music critics showered the Chicago post-punk foursome Ganser with praise for their new album, Just Look at the Sky, they were absolutely ready to lunge forward.

The band started in 2014 with no famous friends or piles of cash. Keyboardist and vocalist Nadia Garofalo, who works in the prop department for film and TV projects, was just trying to make money to “fund [her] music habit.” She’d met bassist and vocalist Alicia Gaines, who has a career as a graphic designer, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2006, and the two — finding themselves creatively unfulfilled — embarked on a band almost a decade later. Drummer Brian Cundiff found them at a show when they were still playing to a drum track; guitarist Charlie Landsman came on board via Craigslist.

Thanks to Garofalo and Gaines’ efforts, the quality of Ganser’s visual art, from release covers to music videos, was top-notch, but they lacked an official team. “We were just really DIY for a while,” recalls Garofalo. “We’d do our own publicity. We did research and reached out to places, trying to get people to write about us. We did a lot of the work that publicists and managers are paid to do.”

Ganser released their debut album, Odd Talk, in 2018 through a small local label. “We were still doing a lot of the legwork,” Garofalo says. “The distro was basically, ‘Here, take these records on tour and try to get record stores to buy them.’ And I’d end up selling to one store in Pittsburgh. It just felt meaningless. But maybe someone in Pittsburgh picked up the record and really loved it, and it was all worth it … it’s just a lot of effort. The label pretty much just paid to print the records, which was great of them at the time.” Odd Talk was well-received, and the success took Ganser to New York for the first time — a milestone for a band that had spent years making long drives around the Pacific Northwest for small-scale shows. It got them a manager and a deal with Felte, a larger label with more resources. It helped them nestle more into their signature sound.

In making their sophomore album, Ganser was firing on all cylinders: They had big shows lined up for spring 2020 and had scored a spot at South by Southwest. “It just seemed like everything was actually going to happen,” Garofalo says. “All the press was good. People really seemed to like it.” (Rolling Stone also dubbed the set “one of 2020’s most impressive rackets.”)

But then, the scourge of Covid-19 struck just as they were in their stride. With their shows canceled, the band scrapped together promo and revenue streams with livestreams and tons of virtual content — but “it was constant work” to scramble hard for little attention and money, Garofalo says, and she describes her mental health last year as “awful.” “Not having shows was much harder than I thought it would be,” she says. When 2021 came around, Ganser knew they couldn’t drop the ball; first impressions only last so long.

Yet Live Nation and AEG executives aren’t exactly running to answer calls from bands like Ganser, which doesn’t have a big-time agency or label, while chart-topping acts like Twenty One Pilots and Tame Impala are much safer bets, guaranteed to sell out reopening arenas. Venues — hard-pressed to literally keep the lights on this past year and not drop like dominoes waiting the pandemic out — are being queried by dozens of agents for the same slots and have to make pragmatic bottom-line decisions. And since Covid threw the staggered album-release cycle out of whack, concert dates on the entire docket right now are essentially a free-for-all.

Ganser, an exhausted group of underdogs, is running on fumes after years of fighting for the tiniest speck of attention. And they’re far from the only ones getting the short end of the stick, as the live-music industry convulses with a first-of-its-kind post-pandemic traffic jam.

line outside foo fighters concert

As shows come flooding back, ticket queues for big names are drawing big crowds.

Roy Rochlin

“It’s getting harder and harder for smaller bands to book shows,” Brothertiger, who makes experimental electronic music, wrote on Twitter when L.A.’s beloved Bootleg Theater announced its closure. “The fallout from this pandemic on indie venues is absolutely terrible.” The tweet “was referencing smaller bands who might not have a booking agent who has access to promoters who book [in-demand] venues,” Brothertiger — who, with millions of streams, no longer considers himself a smaller artist, but worries for the new generation of artists — tells Rolling Stone. He describes the Bootleg closure as one of the rare venues that were “very accessible for a variety of bands to book.”

“That’s a key word in booking a tour nowadays: ‘accessibility,'” he says. “Obviously not every band can play venues like Brooklyn Steel. There aren’t as many smaller venues in New York or in L.A. and other cities, where smaller indie bands can email and ask if they can jump on a show or book a night.”

Minneapolis-based indie band Dad Bod, who dropped their debut single in December of 2019, echoes Brothertiger’s sentiments. “Everyone from Olivia Rodrigo to Julien Baker is looking to tour post-pandemic. It’s an extremely saturated market,” vocalist and guitarist Callie Marino tells Rolling Stone. “It’s super hard to be an emerging or DIY band booking shows right now.”

A thin silver lining, Marino says, is that “in reaching out, we’ve come across a lot of bands in similar situations looking to help out, and I feel like a lot of cool things are going to come from that.” She hopes to see a “killer underground scene” come out of this mess but stresses it’s “definitely tough to tour on just that.” Marino points out: “It’s hard to book ‘underground shows’ because the venues and contacts are constantly fluctuating — it’s a lot of chasing dead ends. Throwing Covid in the mix, a lot of venues were disrupted and no longer exist. Secondly, it’s really hard to afford and sustain touring on basement-show income. It’s really expensive to tour even sleeping in a van, but it’s a long-term investment on our part that feels totally worth it.”

“On every night, we’re looking at four to eight holds from other artists.”

Ethan Schiff, a music manager who’s worked in the industry for more than a decade, is representing an artist hoping to book their very first show in the fall. They’re looking only at 150-person rooms. “Availability is very limited,” he says. “On every night, we’re looking at four to eight holds from other artists.”

“Before we all got furloughed last summer, we had rebooked tours three to four times already, and it was like the eighth and ninth holds, or worse, for every club,” adds Gabe Berenson, formerly an assistant at APA Agency.

Club-level acts are being forced to get creative, according to Bruce Kalmick, a manager who rose up in the country scene as a partner at Triple 8 (Kaleo, Ryan Hurd) before starting the company Why&How (Breland, Chase Rice) last year. “If you’re putting a tour up right now, you’re suffering no matter how big you are,” he says. “Especially with small rooms, big acts are going backwards to go forwards, so they’re not available. Even the small rooms at House of Blues aren’t available. They’re all booked.”

Bands that would not normally play that small room at the House of Blues might do multiple nights there now and market an evening as a special, intimate affair, because of the lack of real estate elsewhere. “Not only that, but there was also a moment of uncertainty that made people rebuild and think, ‘We had music out and we took too much of a break. So, let’s leave people on the street [for good optics] rather than going into a 7,000-capacity room.’ That took inventory away from the developing acts,” Kalmick says.

On top of that, many venues had pre-established contracts they had to honor, Kalmick says: “There was a group of proactive agents in music constantly booking and rebooking all last year no matter what, and then there were agents that didn’t and said, ‘Well, let’s just see what happens.’ The ones that kept on rebooking are winning — because those guys had dates that were up, and the fans want to be there. They got ahead of it.”

Kalmick’s team found a semi-solution in creative venues. He brings up a conversation he had with an employee around six months ago: “I was like, ‘Let’s go get 12 shows in the Southeast. He calls me and goes, ‘There’s just nothing available. There’s no way to make it work.’ So, I said, ‘Man, what you’re doing is putting up stop signs. Think outside the box.’ OK, fine. Our typical venues aren’t available. What about a restaurant? Street corner? Fraternity house? Backyard? Let’s create our own venues.” (He expects the college-party scene to become even more outrageous as fall approaches.)

His team went to work booking, essentially, backyard parties. “We booked 15 shows at $5,000 a pop, or something like that, on Tyler Braden,” Kalmick says. “He’s got something happening, but we haven’t released a single to radio yet. He’s on a major label, but I didn’t expect that.” These types of shows can now complement his artists’ official tours: “Those were just fillers,” he says. “That’s what they came back and told me: ‘We can get these nine shows, but they’re too spread out. It doesn’t make sense. You can’t route ’em.’ So, I said, ‘Fill them with this idea.’ Sure enough, it worked.”

In another situation, Kalmick partnered with Live Nation on an arena tour for afterparties. “Most of those arena tours finish early enough where you can have a midnight show, so we’re just piggybacking on them and making them the official afterparties. Even on those nights, live-music rooms are trying to avoid live music because an arena tour is coming through — or they’ll put a DJ in there for a couple of hours, and then we’ll clear the stage and play for an hour and a half.” But these solutions stand as small exceptions to the rule, which is that, by and large, space and money in a post-quarantine world is going to the superstars.

“It’s like the music industry doesn’t know what it wants to be in these places: It doesn’t know if it wants to be a place where friends go have fun on the road, or if it wants to be a place where you honor business contracts and agreements.”

Earlier this year, Ganser, the indie foursome, got an opportunity to play a far-flung music festival — but in order to make the trek financially worthwhile, they needed to schedule some tour dates around it, with another group. And “we really wanted to find a good support tour with a band that was larger than us, could take us to markets we hadn’t gotten to go to yet, introduce us to new audiences, and help take us to the next level,” Garofalo says. “It gives you more opportunities. When you’re playing with larger bands, you get more attention from larger booking agencies and labels. It can help push you forward in a way that’s really important.”

After three months of research, they thought they’d found the perfect setup. They booked a run opening for a band with a sizable fan base, millions of streams, and indie-darling status, which Garofalo prefers not to name — “They just put us in a bad position, [but] I don’t feel like they need any publicity from this,” she says — and which Rolling Stone will refer to as “Band A” to avoid confusion.

Ganser put out the ask. On May 26th, the manager of Band A emailed to say they already had a competing offer. But on the 28th, the manager confirmed Ganser’s slot, with their booking agent on copy. On the 31st, another person at the agency sent Ganser the full itinerary and ticket links. Yet 12 days later, the group suddenly backtracked to its original stance: “There was some confusion on our end, and it looks like the band have booked another band to do this run,” an agency rep for Band A apologetically wrote to Ganser.

The timing of this misstep was critical. In late May, tour announcements began springing up out of the blue, as governments relayed promising vaccination rates. A 12-month Google trend report, itself, speaks volumes: The “concert” search topic surged in mid-April and rose consistently through June. Across music, decisions were being made quickly, and ideas that weren’t set in stone abruptly had to be cemented. Ganser never found out exactly who dropped the ball or what happened, but Garofalo suspects that the lead singer of Band A went rogue, giving Ganser’s slot away to a friend in handshake-deal fashion.

The lead singer told Garofalo’s bandmates on a phone call that had they no idea what the booking agent was up to — claiming to be angry and saying “that guy is probably going to get fired for this,” according to Garofalo, who found it hard to believe that a booking agent wouldn’t quickly relay a touring agreement to their own client. “The blame kept shifting,” she says. “People kept being like, ‘Oh, the band did it; oh, the booking agent did it; oh, the manager did it.’ Things were not clear. We expected a certain level of professionalism. I get that they really want to go on tour with their friends, but we went through the proper channels. It’s like the music industry doesn’t know what it wants to be in these places: It doesn’t know if it wants to be a place where friends go have fun on the road, or if it wants to be a place where you honor business contracts and agreements.”

“We just wanted to tour,” she continues. “Couldn’t you have told us sooner that this was happening? Even if you had told us even that first week, it would’ve been better. Things moved really fast. We could’ve kept looking. When we thought we were confirmed, so many tours got announced that week.”

Garofalo found the whole mishap heartbreaking. “We were thinking, ‘This is so great. This came together so well. Maybe this year’s going to be better. We’re finally going to go on the road with this album we released a year ago.’ All of this hope we had just got really smashed up by this miscommunication or unprofessionalism,” she says. “I don’t think there was any intended harm here at all, but we were also faced with a lot of criticism [from Band A’s manager, mostly] of how we were handling it. Someone did something bad to us and then they’re like, ‘Why are you upset about it?’ But we were left behind in the dust. It’s just like, nothing can be easy.”

In This Article: covid-19, DIY, music industry

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