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Tour Cancellations Go Viral — Why the Risk May Be Too Great for Some Acts

"A lot of bands -- it could be pretty devastating for their financial picture" to cancel a tour, says one band manager. "We would survive. We're one of the lucky ones."

The immediate cost of Edgar Winter‘s sore throat and minor congestion — followed by bandmate Steve Lukather‘s own symptoms — was roughly $11 million. When the “Free Ride” rocker and the Toto guitarist both tested positive for COVID-19 in June, Ringo Starr had to postpone 12 of his All-Starr Band’s shows; earlier dates had grossed more than $900,000 apiece, according to Billboard Boxscore. 

“It’s more of an inconvenience now than anything else,” Winter, also known for the Hot 100-topping “Frankenstein,” tells Billboard. “I could easily have gone on. If it weren’t for the danger of exposing the other guys, I would’ve done that.”

The All-Starr Band moved the dozen canceled shows to this fall — they resumed touring earlier this month — but the stars’ positive tests demonstrate an ongoing problem for touring acts as they return to the road. Postponements are complicated; cancellations are devastating. This past summer, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, the Doobie Brothers, Chris Stapleton, Alan Jackson, Blondie, Haim, Jenny Lewis, Bikini Kill and the Strokes were among the top stars who scrambled to reschedule dates when band members (including Mick Jagger) or crew came up positive.

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“Obviously, people’s health is the most important, but the big thing is the financial implications. You’re making plans for ‘what if we have to cancel the tour one week in or two weeks in?'” says Ed Harris, manager of indie-rock band Cigarettes After Sex, which returned to international touring in late May and has, thus far, avoided positive tests. “Does it make sense to cancel halfway through, or three-quarters through? You have to make certain calculations.”

Like the All-Starr Band, Cigarettes After Sex has enough resources to withstand a canceled tour, but not every artist can say the same. “A lot of bands — it could be pretty devastating for their financial picture,” Harris says. “We would survive. We’re one of the lucky ones.”

Artists who carry cancelation insurance are generally covered when they come down with health problems, according to entertainment attorney and crisis manager Ed McPherson, but “every show-cancelation policy excludes COVID-related cancellations.” He adds that artists who cancel must eat their own expenses and lost revenue, while artists who reschedule generally negotiate with the promoter to waive or absorb “the promoter’s extra costs.”

At this point in the pandemic, the touring industry has more or less returned to normal, and artists are flooding venues in an attempt to make up the revenue they’ve lost over the last two years. But while vaccines have reduced the risk of severe illness, artists and crew members who test positive often result in canceled dates. Especially for smaller artists, the financial risk of touring is high. That’s why Andrew Bird and Iron & Wine were scrupulously careful during the summer co-headlining tour. They asked audience members to wear masks (most complied), played mostly outdoor venues and regularly tested crew and artists in their traveling bubble.

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Nobody tested positive, and the tour resumes this fall. “We had to have some conversations. If one artist was sick and the other was not, the show could go on, and one artist would play and the other would have to quarantine,” says Victoria Roe, Bird’s co-manager. “We have a short list of folks we’ve worked with over the years who could hopefully pop in and out for a show. God forbid, if somebody got sick, we could find someone local to help us.”

Other acts are too worried about financial consequences — not to mention getting sick — to resume touring. “I would never have attempted to tour on my own, with my regular band,” says Winter, who recently released an album, Brother Johnny, in tribute to the late bluesman Johnny Winter, and hopes to perform the songs live soon. “I just felt like it was too dangerous, flying commercially, being with crowds in airports.” The All-Starr Band requires band and crew to wear masks when not on stage and excludes others from their dressing rooms and backstage areas. “It was as safe as it could possibly be,” Winter says.

But most acts don’t have access to the former Beatle’s resources, and must make tough decisions about the risk of COVID-related cancellations. “It’s terrifying going into a tour,” says Harris, Cigarettes After Sex’ manager. “You’re just like, ‘How is this going to play out?'”