Taja Cheek a.k.a. L’Rain in concert. Photograph by Kevin Condon.
Taja Cheek, a.k.a. L’Rain, a musician and curator based in Brooklyn, discussed the inequities of touring with Chelsea Pachito, a tour manager based in Rotterdam; Matana Roberts, a composer, visual artist, saxophone player, and record maker; and Tasha, a musician based in Chicago.
Taja: I’m touring more than ever and want to frame this conversation around touring as a way of talking about inequities in the music industry. I have done a lot of DIY touring for short periods of time, while I had a full-time job, and have been doing a lot more touring with bands in the U.S. and in Europe. I’m trying to start a tour support fund for musicians, because there’s no meaningful infrastructure for that in the U.S., really, or for any of the arts, certainly not for nonclassical and non-jazz music. What is it that makes touring so difficult for each of you? What are the biggest struggles that you’ve encountered?
Tasha: The last tour I did was a support tour opening for another band, and it was exciting to play bigger rooms that I hadn’t played before. But I was bringing a band, and I couldn’t at the time afford a tour manager or my own front-of-house person. And so the money was really limited. I was also doing everything else myself: I was driving, playing the show, selling merch, coordinating with the band and the other tour manager, and figuring out where we were sleeping, and then where we were eating. That was the biggest part of this last tour. It was exhausting. And I wasn’t having fun playing shows, which is the whole point. The other piece of it is showing up, because I don’t have another person on my team to vouch for me or a front-of-house person to interface with people at venues — usually white men who don’t really have any interest in listening to me or trusting that I know what I’m doing in any way. And that happened almost every night, having to walk into the room with my band that is all women and me being the only Black woman and being like, O.K., let me emotionally prepare to be in this room full of men who probably aren’t going to take me seriously. But I have to try hard anyway, just so that we can maybe play a good show and maybe try to have a good time. But with all of the other work on top it was just so, so draining.
Matana: I try to keep my foot in different corners of art-making partly because touring can be so soul sucking. That is one of the reasons that I tried to shape shift into many different areas, because if I just depended on touring, I don’t think I’d survive, to be honest. I can deal with being mistreated. I know what I need to do. I know how to speak up for myself. But I cannot set up other musicians to be mistreated. I have a responsibility to make sure things are cool for them. It never feels like a safe space. Not once have I had an experience where I have felt not only is my music safe, not only is creativity safe, not only is my band safe — there’s always something. A lot of people who come to the shows have no idea about all that. I deal a lot with improvised music, and what’s going on in the background shows up on the stage. But a lot of people don’t understand that. And it’s just hard to communicate these things.
Taja: The job of touring itself is really difficult. But there’s this extra layer of antagonism that comes with it. So much of what everyone has been saying resonates with me. I want to take a moment to step back and talk about what it is about the job itself that’s difficult. For me it’s so many things, but I’m thinking right now about the long drives — the cost is a huge, huge part of it too. Especially doing support tours, the fees don’t really cover the cost of traveling with my band. I wonder if you all can talk about the aspects of the job that we’re supposed to take for granted but don’t make any sense for you.
Chelsea: I’m Cory Henry’s European tour manager, and we’ve been doing that since 2015. It’s been a lot of fun. So happy to talk to you all about touring, especially as a Black person. For me, it’s the constant cutting of costs. It means you’ll have to pick up more roles than you have time to do because you’re only one person instead of the six people you need to effectively perform your job. That’s difficult to navigate for me sometimes — the balance of still making sure there’s quality in the work even though you have to cut some costs.
Taja: I’m curious if you all have experienced this, but every time I go to a venue now it seems like the staff has dwindled so much. So many times I’m opening for someone that’s playing a humongous room, and there’s one person doing front of house and monitors and patching the whole stage. I’ve heard anecdotally from a lot of people that so many people just left the industry during Covid; there wasn’t work, so people had to find other jobs. And the people that are left are not supported. They probably weren’t properly mentored or trained in the ways that they needed to fill these new roles. And so I also feel bad for all the venues, too, because they’re trying to make it work.
Matana: There are people leaving the industry, and there are these other kinds of spaces that are jumping into creating these pay-to-play models that are essentially robbing musicians. I spoke to a musician just the other day who was paying $600 at a small gallery space that’s presenting musicians — he’s not only paying, but the space is also taking 50 percent of the door and then charging for documentation. I said to him, “I want to know who this is.” I’ve been hearing things like this happening all over the place, because people are noticing that there are spaces missing, that there are teams that are missing their tech people who have left the industry. They’re trying to capitalize on that by abusing musicians more than we already get abused. So it’s a very scary time.
Taja: That’s completely insane.
Matana: He was telling me, “I’m just so desperate to play this show. And there was no venue that I could find to do it. I’m putting out the record myself, and I’m trying to get the tour together and the social media.” I could feel his stress, and I could understand how, if I’m in that amount of stress, I would pay somebody just so I can realize my work — but not in this economy. It’s impossible for anybody to survive in that way.
Tasha: You mentioned social media. I feel like that’s a huge part of it for me with labels. Oftentimes, when you’re doing a headlining tour, there’s an expectation that you are promoting your own tour nonstop and posting about it and posting ticket links every day, every week, all the time. And if people aren’t buying tickets, it’s maybe because I’m not putting in enough work to show my face on the internet and convince people to like me enough to come to the show. You’re like, “I can’t just show up and play like I have to?” And maybe that’s part of the work, but it’s one of those things that I’d like to try to question. Is this supposed to be part of the work? What are the things that are part of this job? And what are the things that I shouldn’t feel so much weight and pressure to perform?
Taja: Totally. It’s hard for people to understand how physically demanding touring is and how emotionally draining it is. You’re lifting a lot of heavy equipment, you’re in physically confined spaces, you often aren’t given time to rest, you will immediately go from a really intense travel day to immediately having to do physical labor and then perform and be “on” — and then go to the next place. It’s a lot. But at the same time you have to also be “on” in a similar way on the internet, documenting it all. It’s just so much to demand of one person.
I broke my foot, and I was touring with my injury. I was realizing so much about how a lot of these spaces are just completely inaccessible. I found that a lot of times there are no disability accommodations for the artists, which is really crazy. There are so many venues that have elevators for the audience and no elevator to get to the green room.
I was going to come back to the safe space comment that you made, Matana. Because live music is really important. People need it. Audiences need it. And performers need it. People come to see music because they see it as a sort of safe space. But behind the scenes, so much of the infrastructure doesn’t reflect that. I want to take a minute to envision the changes that would be necessary, the things that we would need, to create that safe space. What is missing? What could we use more of? What could we use less of? One thing that comes to mind is the reliance on alcohol being a primary driver of income for venues and a primary way that musicians are “taken care of” on the road. It’s like, We might not be able to feed you, but you have a free drink ticket. I’m curious if there are other things that come to mind for all of you.
Matana: This idea of care is not at the foundation of any of these systems. It’s a very broken setup. They get all their pictures and all their video and their streams and everything with their logo on it, but the audience doesn’t know that the band has been treated like crap or that the tour manager has been treated with disrespect. This is a real problem. And something needs to be done.
Tasha: I’m doing this show that’s kind of a theater dance show that I’m playing in the band for. But because it’s being put up at a college, there’s all of this funding and all of this infrastructure for this show. And it’s been so interesting to see the way my relationship to playing music has changed, because I’m so used to doing all of my own tours. Here I have a place to stay, and someone picks me up and takes me to where I’m eating dinner, and someone picks me up from there and takes me to the theater. We have this long of a rehearsal; then we have this many breaks. I’m so calm, and I’m so enjoying every moment of playing the music and building relationships. I know who to text or who to call if I need something. And I know when I’m eating and where I’m eating, and where I’m sleeping. I’m like, Oh, playing music could feel this way. It could feel this easy. It could feel this fun.
Taja: It really comes down to economics at a certain level. We are forced to kind of fend for ourselves without much support. I think it would be interesting to see how that manifests in other kinds of systems where there is more government support for the arts and for music, because that just doesn’t exist here. So we’re forced to create our own systems, and every single scenario is entirely different depending on how it’s being supported, how it’s being funded, and what the investment is of the people and the work that they’re doing. So many details go into a show and making a show happen, and each one has a big impact on all of our lives as performers. And when one piece of the puzzle is missing, it can be really disastrous. Going back to what you were saying, Matana, about how care should be the foundation of what we do: I was talking to someone about the phrase “talent buyer” — that’s very telling, right? Someone who is booking or programming a festival or a show is often called the talent buyer. That very clearly shows what our relationships are like, what we’re thought of, how musicians are considered in the general context of the music industry.
Matana: As artists and musicians we’re taught to be really codependent. We want to be really flexible. You don’t want to burn bridges. You don’t want to complain too much because you want to be asked back. But this is helping to create these things that are continuing to go on. I mean, I’ve burned a lot of bridges. [laughter] I am the burner of bridges. And it’s fine — I mean, I don’t suggest that people do that. But the one thing I’ve learned is that the more of us doing just a little bit, and the more musicians speaking out in the way everyone here is speaking out, the less it’s going to have to happen down the line. Because the jig is up. Covid really brought down the house of cards that trying to make a creative life really is, especially for musicians. And these words, this language — “talent buyer” — for me, I go straight to the auction block in my head. No, that’s not what we’re here to share and sound together. We’re going to have a good time, but also you’re not going to treat musicians like garbage and then expect us to just get up there and sing and dance and do whatever you have expected us to do. It’s such a precarious balance.
Taja: I think communication is really important, and that’s really discouraged in the industry. It makes it hard because the stakes become higher, right? If you’re the only person speaking up against one of the big corporations that puts on one of the major festivals, you probably won’t get asked back. And that may cost you a career.
Matana: You’ll be framed as difficult. And we know, as Black people, that term “difficult” — that’s not all that’s being said, right?
Taja: Totally. But if all of us are communicating, if we’re sharing information about how things are run and how things should be run, that makes it so that each instance of speaking out isn’t the end of the world or the end of a career. But that’s really hard. That’s a real risk that you take if you do speak honestly about any of these things or with any kind of pointedness. The system is set up so that it just kind of perpetuates itself forever.
Tasha: I’m thinking about an experience I had forgotten about; this conversation is reminding me. The first time I ever toured, it was opening for another band, and I was doing it solo and riding with them. They let me ride along in their van. I’d never toured before, and it was like three weeks long. There was a night we were staying in Alabama somewhere between shows at a hotel. And in the middle of the night — the band was staying in one room, and I was staying in a separate hotel room — cops showed up at my door, banging on my door. I had to get out of bed and open the door. They were at my room because they got some call about some disturbance and asked for my ID and asked what I was doing. And I was alone. It was terrible. It was extremely frightening, extremely destabilizing. The next morning I told the other band, all white people, what happened, and they were like, “Wow, I can’t believe that happened.” And then we moved on. I remember sitting in the back of this van just in shock but also realizing how unsafe I felt in that moment and still felt in the band with these people who had no idea, no understanding, and no sensitivity. What safety is there for me in this position? That’s not something they were thinking about, asking me to be on the tour and asking me to travel with them and asking me to be a part of these experiences. That wasn’t something I knew to ask for — like, “How are we going to take care of each other? But also how are you maybe going to take care of me too in this space?” It was nuts. It was so terrible.
Matana: On the tour that I was on right before Covid I got locked in a cab by a cab driver. I was on a collaboration; we were touring through Europe. We were coming by train, but we were on different trains. I got to the train station. I had all my gear. I looked like a musician. I had all my stuff. I got into the cab. The guy is almost to the venue. And I say, “Sir, do you take cards?” He goes, “I knew you were trouble. I saw you sneaking around the station, up to no good.” Locked the doors, turned the cab around to start taking it back to the train station, yelling at me that he’s going to take me to a cashpoint. I start screaming at this gentleman: “If you don’t turn this fucking car around, you’re going to have some trouble on your hands.” By the time we get to the venue, I’m able to get out of the car. I’m still screaming at the guy, and up comes from the venue a white woman, a nice person who just wasn’t understanding how upsetting it was. She gave him the money, and the car drives away. And I asked her, “Did you take his license plate? Do you have his name? What happened there was not cool.” I’m in tears. I’m calling my agent, thinking I should probably cancel the show because I’m not functional. And I just could see no one was really — I mean, of course they care. But they weren’t really understanding what it felt like to be accused as a Black person in a space of a white man driving this car. For him to accuse me of that, it was such a racist moment. And then to have to put that aside and be like, “Oh, you know, guys, it’s cool. We’re in England.” I can laugh about it now, but it was really upsetting.
Chelsea: While traveling, you encounter so many moments where you’re in a space that’s supposed to be generally safe, right? There’s police, surveillance. In airports is where I feel most unsafe, as I go through customs. I toured with a fully white band before, and every time we went through customs, I was the only one taken aside. I remember one time, the band leader was like, “Why does it always take you so long to go through customs? Is your passport all right?” Really? My passport? It’s so gaslighting not only in the moment but also in discussing with your travel party or the booking agent or whoever is your first point of contact. It’s very taxing. There is an idea that because some people bought a ticket or booked you, they own you. And you can’t have boundaries or say you feel unsafe. No, you play a show — we’re paying you. That’s the feeling I get sometimes.
Taja: What’s so infuriating about all of these examples is that it’s so clear how all of these scenarios could have been handled in completely different ways and with compassion and care. And there are so many models. People think about performing as being very glamorous or leading a band as being this really special thing, which it is, but it’s also a responsibility. That should be talked about more — the responsibility of caring for a band, the responsibility of running a venue and what comes along with that. I’ve seen so many examples of bands that are really successful and doing really well showing care. I’ve seen people give me more money after a gig, because they knew what I was being paid and were able to support me in that way. I’ve seen bands introduce other bands, because they want to make sure that their audience is listening to them. I’ve seen people make sure that the opening band has time for a soundcheck. There are so many ways to show care, and I’ve seen it operate so many ways at so many different levels. That’s also important to call out, to show the examples of how people can be supportive and what it means to assume the responsibility of having a band, of running a venue, and of running a festival. Because if everyone took the responsibility of being a leader as seriously as they should, it would become a system of care. And then when something does go wrong, someone knows how to fill in and say, “I’m really sorry that happened to you. How can we support you? How can we put you in a different room? Can you dial me when you’re in a pinch?” Given all of the issues that have been laid out, how do we even begin to chip away at addressing them?
Chelsea: Maybe another question is how you would do that with public funding. Because there are still strings attached in public funding, at least in the Netherlands. So how would we be able to make touring safer in the way that we need it to be if it’s subsidized?
Taja: I think the issue is that there’s just so many different problems, and they each need different solutions. A lot of what we’re talking about is just the fundamental ways that people are mistreated and a culture of deprioritizing care. That’s one issue. Another issue is the financial cost of touring, which could be solved with public funding, potentially. But the question then is always who gets the funding? How is it passed out? And on what timescale? Cash flow is a huge issue with touring. Oftentimes you get offered a tour not long before you have to do the tour. There’s also racism and sexism, which is a whole other thing. And there’s just a general inequitable culture in the music industry that doesn’t value artists. We’re the last to get paid, the last to be considered, the last to be taken care of. Public funding can potentially solve or at least address one aspect of these issues, but there’s so many others. It’s hard to figure out who to “blame” or hold accountable, because the venues aren’t really making much money; they’re doing what they can. Travel in general is just expensive right now. So many other factors make touring more expensive.
Matana: It’s interesting thinking about models from different places. I’m on a Canadian record label, with a British manager and booking agent. Most of the touring that I get to do is more in Europe than ever in my birth country. And I’ve just accepted that that’s just what it is. Because the structures in the U.S. that are set up for the things that I do just don’t feel safe. And the funding just never feels like it’s actually about the music and the musicians — but rather for the foundations and the spaces, so that they can look a certain way and platform certain things. Performing your work at academic institutions is always interesting, because you’re treated in the way that Tasha was mentioning. Next thing you’re on the road, and you’re being treated like trash somewhere and just hoping that things will weave themselves together in a way that makes sense. Just talking about the financial: I always go in the hole, because I want to make sure everybody else that I’ve asked to do this thing, they’re O.K. And then I have to remember everybody else, the other cuts that are happening that I don’t want the musicians to know about. I just want them to be cool. But then what about me?
Chelsea: There’s a great example of a fund here in the Netherlands called the New Makers Fund, and it partners creators or artists with an organization, which then gives you autonomy but also a space to fully develop yourself. To me, that’s one of the best funds there is because they’re not asking anything in return besides that you take your time to develop as an artist. I think the fund truly believes that if you do that, you create a healthy environment for art to flourish. So I think that could be a great example of how both musicians but also venues can create a partnership, because you build a home for an artist that’s always going to want to return — hopefully, if you treat them right — but you also give the artists space to develop without having to do something in return.
Taja: Labor struggles are connected. So when you have that kind of support for artists, I can only think that everybody should have money to do what they need to do. And then you very quickly get from a conversation about what it is to be an artist to everybody needs money to live, we need health care, we need housing. It very quickly escalates to a more universal approach to care in general for human beings on earth no matter where you are.
Tasha: I think of slowly trying to help shift people’s perspective. If art in all of its forms were valued at the level that it’s wanted and consumed and desired, then I think that some of these shifts would automatically happen, that the care would come.
Matana: I’m sure you’ve had this experience where a fan comes up to you talking about how they’re on Spotify streaming you all the time, having no idea that that does nothing for you. And then when you explain the model to them, they go, “What?” “Yeah, I just maybe made a fraction of a cent for what you just did. There are other ways you can support us; here are other things that you can do.” And the more it gets around that there are bands out there treating support acts like trash, the more that that information is passed around, those things are going to happen less and less. Because there are people out here doing the work. There are bands and musicians who are keeping those things in mind; they remember what it was like for them.
Taja: And it’s so easy to do. The simplest gestures are extremely meaningful.
Matana: It’s simple home training. That’s my Black stamp. [laughter] Because you folks know what I mean when I say “home training.”
Taja Cheek is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and vocalist from Brooklyn. She released her self-titled debut album as L’Rain in 2017.
Chelsea Pachito is a tour manager based in Rotterdam.
Matana Roberts is a composer, visual artist, saxophone player, and record maker. Their new album Coin Coin Chapter Five: In the garden… is part of the ongoing 12-part Coin Coin series.
Tasha is a musician based in Chicago. Her most recent album is Tell Me What You Miss the Most.