7 Tour and Merch Managers Explain How Coronavirus Is Wrecking Their Work

Independent music is hit hard by the COVID-19's spread. Here's how people who work with PUP, Japanese Breakfast, and more are coping.
March 19, 2020, 7:59pm
7 Tour and Merch Managers Explain How Coronavirus Is Wrecking Their Work
Tour manager and bassist Deven Craige performs with Japanese Breakfast (Photo by Jim Bennett/Getty Images)

The ripple effects of COVID-19, better known as coronavirus, are spreading out into every corner of the economy. It's hitting independent music especially hard, as the spring's tours, festivals, and events are being postponed or canceled across the board. While many artists, who depend on touring revenue are devastated by the mass cancellations, the people they tour with, like tour managers and merchandise managers, have been doubly hit. While musicians can sell records or t-shirts, their crew doesn't have that source of income to fall back on.

Making matters worse, many whose main income is generated on the road have lost gigs in the service industry and at music venues. As restaurants, bars, and concert halls across the country are closed as measures to combat the spread of the virus through "social distancing," the murky timeline of when touring will resume is still up-in-the-air and the lack of other employment options puts these workers in tenous and potentially scary situations. While this is just a small sliver of the people who are now out of regular crew gigs, VICE talked to seven tour managers and merchandise managers to hear their stories of how this disease has thrown their livelihoods and industry for a loop.

Rachel Dispenza (Tour Manager for Mannequin Pussy, Merch Manager for Whitney)

Bummed is the wrong word to describe how I'm feeling because it feels selfish. But it sucks. I was out a month ago. I was in Miami, on the beach, for a tour and I was looking at my calendar for the rest of the year and it was over half full already in February. That was really special for me because only 10 months ago, I quit the last food service job that I've had. I was in the middle of a really great run and it's all gone for at least the next couple of months. With Mannequin Pussy, on February 27, we flew out to California to meet up with Best Coast to start a five-week tour. When we were in Seattle just a few days later, and they knew that they got hit really bad with the virus. We had heard that there was no toilet paper or hand sanitizer to buy there and we were playing the Showbox that night and about a fourth of the people who bought tickets just didn't show up. That was the first sign things were getting bad.

I don't want to crumble and freak out. I'm going to keep focused and move forward and pretend that the system isn't breaking down, at least emotionally. I am in a semi fortunate position that I had a little bit of a savings account before all of this because I expected to owe way more in taxes that I wound up owing. But I also have really high student loans, I need to make my rent every month, I have a car loan, and a bunch of different bills I don't know how I'll pay after a long time. And the other hard part is that my other marketable skillset is food service, which is also closing down pretty rapidly. This puts people in pretty dangerous positions. I feel really bad for everybody who still has to go serve coffee every morning and interact with the public in such an extreme way and they have no choice because they have these bills too.

What's hard for crew is that at least with bands when the tour is canceled, they can still sell their music. They could sell their merch and there are other revenue streams. But if I'm not touring, I'm not making any money. There's no back up for a tour manager or a merch seller or a venue staffer who doesn't have a venue to run and bands inside of it. My biggest sympathy is also to the artists but at least they have some sort of a fallback. I think it's really cool that a lot of people are getting together and doing live streams and finding other ways to create community. I do worry about whether the spaces will still exist for us together when this is all over.

Deven Craige (Tour Manager and bassist for Japanese Breakfast)

I'm doing okay, despite just my whole industry seemingly collapsing in the span of a week and a half. I'm hearing now I'm hearing things that like, even if things are okay in a couple of weeks that shows in May and possibly even June are getting moved. Even if things will be okay to go to, I don't think people are buying tickets to anything. We had SXSW cancel and another festival at the end of the month, Treefort in Idaho. We were in a weird situation where we had the last three months already off tour as Michelle works on the new record. So to all of a sudden have the three months turned into four months and then it all of a sudden turn into five months and then maybe into six months, it's pretty scary.

It's just insane right now. I've got nothing to do. At this point, I can't pick up other work like at a music venue which is what I do when I'm at home. I'm in the position, because I'm crew, where I don't have record sales or other income to supplement this. I feel like people who have my same job are freaking out about it across the board. Everyone needs to pay the rent. These days, touring revenue is where all the money is so if every band isn't touring there's really no money coming in.

Dan Case (Tour Manager for PUP, Washed Out)

Things got weird towards the end of the run I was just on with PUP. When we played Seattle on March 9, the next day or the day after they closed off events over 250. It's pretty common when you sell a 1000 tickets for a few people to not show up but we noticed that in Tacoma and Seattle like 25 percent to 30 percent who bought tickets just didn't come. Then we played Eugene, Ore. and midway through the set the venue found out they had to close off indefinitely. Obviously, this whole thing sucks but thankfully most everything over the next couple of months has been rescheduled so I'm really only looking at four days of work completely canceled. We're banking on a whole summer of festivals in Europe and I don't even know how that's going to happen. Before this latest tour, I had been off work for two months so it's not ideal to be off again. It's definitely not fun. For touring people and touring musicians who either it's their sole income or it's most of their income, their backup if they're out of work is to go in the service industry, which obviously have all been crushed. There are going to be layoffs too: lighting companies, bus companies, bus drivers, travel agencies, vendors, it's all intertwined and it's going to be a real shakeup.

Hayden Sitomer (Tour Manager for Lala Lala, Merch Manager for Half Waif)

All the tours that I had planned for the whole rest of the year are now postponed with no specified date when they're going to be happening, because we just don't know how long this virus is going to last. I had a few jobs at venues and doing merch for bands like Half Waif that have all been postponed. This whole thing has mostly made me reconsider what part of the music industry I want to work in going forward. I'll definitely stay working in music because it means so much to me, but I'm starting to think that I'm going to be moving away from touring. Even though it's been like the most stable and thriving part of the industry in recent years, I'll probably move to something more steady like a label or an office job. Working as a freelance tour manager is always unpredictable and always full of cancellations so it's not something I'm not used to. I do think it's for the best not touring right now in order to keep everyone safe during this time. I think there's definitely going to be an influx of rescheduled tours all happening at once, probably in the fall at this point. There's just gonna be like an overflow of tours and content and releases and stuff because everyone just has to reschedule everything and push it back. But I do think that there will be some sense of normalcy that the industry regains at some point and I do think people are going to be able to bounce back but I don't know who long it's going to take. It just might make people reconsider how much they rely on music as a source of income, especially with smaller independent bands.

Mel Grinberg (Tour Manager for Kevin Devine)

I was supposed to have three tour dates this weekend with Kevin Devine and that was my only stuff that was booked for the next two months besides a couple of freelance events. Between those dates and not being able to go to work at the venue I work at, I'm probably out $2000, which isn't fun. I take a lot of pride in my work and I spent all this time like advancing these shows. And for me, it was only three [dates], but there's a lot of people who spent all this time advancing months worth of shows and they did all this work. That's work that they don't get paid for because tour managers for the most part unless you're a little bit higher up and on retainer, you don't get paid for advancing shows. I think that's the most frustrating part: We don't get paid if shows don't happen, even though we've done all the work to make them happen.

All of these dates that are being canceled right now or postponed are being postponed either too late in the summer or to the fall. It's going to be super busy. Fewer people are going to go to shows because there's going to be shows all the time in the fall. For the crew, there will be a lot of work all of the sudden but we're all going to be competing for the same jobs. I really don't know what's going to happen to most of us until this is over. I'm worried about my friends being able to pay rent. I'm really lucky that I'm gonna be okay hopefully for the next, like two months. But still, is this going to be over two months?

Ansley Lee (Tour Manager for Molly Sarle, Great Grandpa)

Well, I basically have temporarily moved back to my parents' house at the age of almost 30. We live in a two-bedroom condo in Austin. It's close quarters, but I guess I'm ok. I just finished up a U.S. tour for about a month with Molly Sarle, who was opening up for Andy Shauf. I was just about to meet up in San Francisco with Great Grandpa to TM for them for another two months, which included SXSW and Treefort which are both postponed or canceled. I was booked for work until August and I don't know where those later dates are standing. I'm based in Seattle and I had sublet my room before my last tour so going back to where I live wasn't an option. I also have asthma so I'm considered a high-risk category for the virus.

Either we're going to be really busy this summer or it's gonna be a while. Either we're going to bounce back and the market is going to be incredibly saturated or I don't know. Here's the thing that I'm grappling with right now that I don't know what to do about, because the musician counterparts that I have committed my career to support so much and caring for so much are able to go online and say, "I'm going to do a livestream concert" or "buy my record and buy my shirt." Oh, I don't have a fucking shirt. I'm just a loser who's good at spreadsheets.

Abbey Simmons (Merch Manager for Destroyer, Maggie Rogers)

I was doing merch for Destroyer and I got back yesterday. It went well. We had to cancel the last five dates but I think we left at as good of a time as we could've. For the most part, it felt like a normal tour. Towards the end, selling merch, people would be hesitant to touch the iPad or buy things. It was also wild to pull into Seattle, which was basically a ghost town. All of us are based either in Seattle or in Destroyer's case, Vancouver. Right now, I have nothing booked, which normally around this time I'd be scheduled till the fall. This is my first time in my eight years of touring that I don't have any work. I was on the road for 316 days last year working with seven bands. I was supposed to have knee surgery in February that my insurance refused to cover three days before my surgery, which is why I took the Destroyer gig. That's postponed indefinitely too. I don't want to have a big surgery then be immunocompromised and have to do things like physical therapy when health care workers are needed to be managing this virus.

A big question is how we're all going to survive this. Fortunately, my husband has a stable job at the University of Washington. I run an online Etsy store where I sell vintage clothing. We've seen a huge drop off in orders which I'm thinking is because customers freak when they see where our store is based. Where normally we have a few orders a day, we've only got nine this month. Even the best laid plans are kind of up in the air.

I think that this is a "before and after" event in our industry. I don't think what we do for a living is going to look the same ever again. So what does that look like moving forward? It's something that we're kind of all going to be learning together. It was, for me, invaluable to be on the road during this, because we were still providing joy to people. Our last show was in Nashville just six days ago. It felt really important to be there. We had about 200 people come out and all of those last shows, there was this really focused energy where we knew we had no idea when we were going to do this again. It didn't feel like the last gasp of people partying or anything; it was almost sacred. I spent that whole show with my back against a beam feeling the bass reverberating and just being like, "enjoy this. Feel all of this, because it's gonna be a minute until you can again."