Strangers on a Train
I sat down on the crowded train and did my COVID-era routine of wiping down surfaces, walling myself into a small semi-sterile space. Just me and my mask, computer and headphones, on the way home to Boston from a weekend in New York – a four-hour ride.
A woman appeared in the aisle and said, “I believe I’m your travel companion,” indicating the window seat next to me. I got up and offered to help stow her luggage above. She thanked me, sat down and entered her own bubble of privacy.
But at some point, after reading, eating a sandwich, reading some more, and napping, we ended up talking. We were both heading home after a visit to see family – her trip had been for a cheerful occasion, mine had been to a hospital. I said it was especially hard because the patient was railing against being a patient. “Is it because of the physical state he finds himself in, or the emotional one?” she asked. The question cut to the quick of the weekend’s experience, and I said so. “Are you a doctor,” I added, sensing a professional’s acuity. “A therapist,” she answered.
And so we continued talking.
Among the pleasures lost to me during the pandemic have been the chance encounters of travel. Touring for music is actually a lot of conversation – with your bandmates, if things are going well (and sometimes even if they’re not). With journalists, fans and opening bands. With promoters, sound engineers and venue workers. With bartenders, hotel clerks and waiters in restaurants. And with those travel companions you might end up sitting next to on planes, trains and automobiles.
We talked about a lot of things, as you do in that situation. It was emotional – that’s how it started – but we also exchanged a good deal of mundane information. We come from different worlds and were each curious about the other’s.
I explained about my work in music, and the problems of touring during the pandemic. But hasn’t it come back now, she said. And I mentioned the issue of “no-shows.”
No-shows are people who buy tickets to an event, but don’t go. You might think this only happens rarely, and pre-COVID you would be right – the normal rate of no-shows to music events was less than 5%. But recently, the statistics have been shocking: up to 50% no-shows in 2021, according to testimony from a representative of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) to Congress. And this hasn’t gone away in 2022 – no-shows have now become a serious issue for venues of every size, in a way they never had been before. “Even for largely sold-out tours like Pavement, the no-show rate has spiked,” reported Billboard last week.
No-shows mean emptier-than-usual rooms, which can bum out performers. But in financial terms, no-shows also mean lower alcohol sales for venues, and – this is important to any touring artist – lower merch sales for bands. “It kind of hits you from all sides,” David T. Viecelli (aka Boche), Pavement’s booking agent, told Billboard about the touring situation. Fees for bands are either stagnant or going down, while costs are going up. The net result is a miserable touring economy – even at the top of the profession. “Some of the very biggest artists are struggling to make shows work for them,” said David Martin, CEO of the UK-based Featured Artists Coalition (FAC), in the Guardian last month. “The idea that the top 5% to 10% of artists are OK is coming under threat as well.” I haven’t seen anyone specifically link the rate of no-shows with lower fees for artists. But the venues have to make up their loss at the bar somehow – there have also been numerous reports of venues demanding a larger and larger share of bands’ merch sales, up to 30% or even more from some promoters.
My astute travel companion looked thoughtful. “COVID is obviously a part of this, but it can’t only be COVID keeping all those people home,” she said. “Let’s think about this emotionally. Everyone’s habits have been broken. New ones have formed. We’re much more used to staying home now. Maybe we think we want to go out like we did before. But emotionally, we don’t. We have new habits which may no longer include live music.”
The train rumbled on. I wondered if I’d ever go on tour again, having intense chance encounters like this all the time.
Back home, I looked for more details about no-shows: not just how many are happening, but why. And no one seemed to offer anything other than COVID as an explanation. “Illness or fear of it,” is how Billboard put it, vaguely. Had anyone actually asked the no-shows?
“Curious to hear from people who have bought concert tickets in recent months and then not gone to show - what gives?” I posted on social media. And the answers flooded back. Some were about COVID infection, as you’d expect. But many were much more emotional…
“I have forgotten how to plan ahead,” said one. “I buy tickets way in advance and then usually have a conflict or I don't write it properly in my calendar.”
“I bailed on a show this summer. Never done that before, I just had a strong feeling something bad was going to happen,” said the next.
“Didn't want to take any chances.”
“Knackered/inconvenienced by work - bought tickets with optimism but just too much faff when knackered. Don't make the choice lightly.”
“Missed a couple shows I bought tickets to in the past due to just not having friends to go with/anxiety about going alone.”
“Quite frequently, if I buy a ticket for my partner, she won’t come for one reason or another. Especially irritating if a babysitter has been arranged, but it usually can’t be helped.”
“Social anxiety, tbh. I have to psych myself up to go to large public places a lot more than I used to pre-COVID. Some nights, staying home just seems less stressful.”
“This keeps happening to me. I'll buy tickets intending to go and then as the day approaches, a conflict arises.”
“Travel is not always worth it.”
“Twice this year I’ve bought tickets many months in advance, then put the wrong date for the gig on my calendar.”
“Laziness and scheduling mishaps happened twice.”
“Bad sleep the night before, generally. I figure if I'm not going to enjoy the show, why go?”
“I couldn't bring myself to face a sellout crowd by myself.”
“The drive didn't feel worthwhile.”
“Totally spaced on a show. Had great reserved seats too.”
“Some days I just can't bear the thought of being in a room with other people.”
“Buy tickets, forget you’ve bought them.”
“Depression, exhaustion and not being able to bring myself to leave the house.”
My travel companion was right. This isn’t simply about contagion, this is about a range of feelings: loneliness, exhaustion, anxiety, depression… The idea of live shows is still appealing to these respondents, enticing enough to buy a ticket. But actually going seems to evoke a lot of less-than-desirable emotions.
Our habits are changed, and maybe they aren’t going back. Because is this really about the physical state we find ourselves in, or the emotional one?
Listening to: Jeff Parker, Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy
Cooking: Harrow Sweet Pears from Clarkdale Fruit Farms
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