Artists Are Canceling Arena Tours Right and Left. Maybe They Shouldn’t Have Been Playing Arenas in the First Place

This is an edition of the newsletter Pulling Weeds With Chris Black, in which the columnist weighs in on hot topics in culture. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.

Last week, the Black Keys, a band best known for soundtracking car commercials and occasionally fistfighting fellow Nashville resident Jack White, canceled the entire North American leg of a scheduled arena tour without explanation. Why would a band without a major hit in years think it can sell out arenas in tertiary markets? No one can be sure, but the touring business is in trouble, and part of the reason is ego.

Going on tour used to be a non-negotiable part of a life in music—a way to interact with fans, make money, and see the world. But nowadays, artists either want to play arenas or stadiums or do a residency, playing multiple nights in one city at the same venue, à la Harry Styles and Adele. Every week, another artist goes viral on Twitter for low ticket sales, with a screengrab of a Ticketmaster seat map awash in blue. I will be at the Charli XCX and Troye Sivan show in New York City at Madison Square Garden, but can that duo sell as many tickets in Tacoma on a weeknight? Kim Petras, an artist with hits, had such an awful time with arenas that she resorted to Groupon. And legacy artists aren’t necessarily faring better; for every Justin Timberlake, who just added nine dates to his Forget Tomorrow world tour, there’s a Jennifer Lopez, who recently cut her upcoming summer greatest-hits tour short by seven dates, reportedly due to soft ticket sales.

The Taylor Swifts of the world are still making money on the road, and artists from Wednesday and Waxahatchee to Chappel Roan and Joanna Newsom are selling out shows at great venues. But big arena tours have historically been sustained by early ticket sales, and that part of the market appears to be collapsing. The Twitter account @UnderFaceValue tracks price drops and undersold shows and “other peculiarities across the ticketing ecosystem”; its mantra, because soft sales translate into crazy 11th-hour price breaks, is #PaysToWait. If you’d waited for the right moment, you could have seen the Rolling Stones in Seattle for $29, 21 Savage in Chicago for $19, or George Strait and Chris Stapleton in Indianapolis for $13.

These challenges hit close to home for me. My cohost Jason Stewart and I take our podcast, How Long Gone, on the road. We experienced a high point in Philadelphia at Johnny Brenda’s, a cozy spot in Fishtown with a rich history. The show was a sellout, the crowd was fantastic. The next time we visited, we stepped up to a bigger venue, World Cafe Live. The turnout was decent, but it didn’t reach the same level of energy, and the experience felt different. We're heading back to Philadelphia in June, and we've decided to return to Johnny Brenda’s. It's a lesson learned: Better to have a packed house in an intimate setting than a half-empty room in a larger venue. The ego bruise was temporary, but the lesson was invaluable.

So, who do we blame? Is this the fault of corporate mega-promoters like LiveNation (which produced the Black Keys’ tour) booking artists into the biggest venues possible, then jacking the price of everything from tickets to parking to concessions, all regardless of what the market will bear, while tightening their grip on the marketplace to the point that the Department of Justice is preparing to sue them in federal court for antitrust violations? Is it agents and managers gassing up the artist? Is it just the artist's desire to sell out these giant venues? Maybe all of the above.

If you’re going out on the road and you’re big enough to even consider booking an arena show, why not do three nights in a prestigious venue like Radio City Music Hall or the Beacon Theatre instead? It provides fans with a more intimate experience, and every night will feel full. The Black Keys eventually released a statement. They didn’t blame anyone. They didn’t whine about how hard touring is. They just said they were recalibrating after a successful European run playing venues like Brixton Academy in London and the Zenith in Paris. It was the right approach. We all know it was ticket sales, but no artist should be ashamed of taking your lumps, switching things up, and selling tickets.

Big streaming numbers look great online but don’t necessarily translate to ticket sales. A touring business has to be built, returning to the same cities every year. A career cannot rely solely on the algorithm. Being great live will get people through the door and keep them coming back. These offline collective experiences are few and far between these days; buying tickets and going to shows is essential and valuable. They just don’t all need to be in arenas.

Originally Appeared on GQ