TOURING IN THE POST-COVID UNKNOWN: The Bright & Dark Sides of Being an Artist Entrepreneur on the Road
Over the past year, Alex Henry Foster & The Long Shadows toured the U.K. and Europe extensively ,being one of the first North American bands to do so since the pandemic began.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2022 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.
By Alex Henry Foster
Photos by Stephanie Bujold
I’m finally back home after being away for what felt like forever at this point. Having spent most of the last 12 months on the road with my band, I felt quite disoriented waking up in my own bed this morning, but even more so to do it in a completely quiet environment. It’s somehow kind of distressing to realize how easy it is to lose track of time after touring for that long. If it wasn’t for the display of bright colours from the trees surrounding my house, it would be even worse I suppose. In that state of controlled confusion, those great questions remain: What have I done all that time? What can I actually remember of it all? And where do I go from here?
At least, I’m grateful that my two dogs still recognize me; it’s a good starting point, right…?
I’ve had the utmost privilege to tour since the early incarnation of my previous band, Your Favorite Enemies, back in 2007, so I’m getting a little accustomed to dealing with those strange post-tour sensations of distancing from reality and existential disruption. Nonetheless, I realize how much work and dedication are required to go on the road, from your personal involvement up to your collective engagement. And if it wasn’t complex enough already, the post-COVID era makes it particularly puzzling. At least, it has been for me.
In fact, over the last 15 years as an international touring artist, I have been in all sorts of situations: playing in tiny venues in front of an utterly enthusiastic crowd; headlining an Australian tour thinking we were on the verge of being the next big thing but playing in front of a handful of close friends every night (thank you guys for your undying support, by the way); touring all over mainland China as tourists who happened to be carrying more musical instruments than some remote cities probably had access to at the time; doing a few modest European tours; headlining major festivals in Asia; and being invited to support major acts — some of which became friends and others whose music I will never listen to again. This is life on the road, but I think touring encapsulates life in a more vivid and generous way than we might think while we’re in the centre of the storm. No matter how cool or bad it is, it reveals a lot about ourselves, our expectations, dreams, and illusions, as much as its brutality exposes the level of inability we have every time we think we’ve figured it all out.
I guess that starting over as a solo artist after 10 years fronting a band that went through all the different phases of development helps me a lot now. I’ve been through the initial phases of “we are the best in the world,” “wait until the world finds how great we are,” and “we are pure and doing things our way, so better to be poor than slaves to the machines.” Then it was, “it’s normal that others don’t get how special we are,” “we need to persevere like [insert name of your favourite band that never quite made it] and we’ll make it in the long run,” “those bands [insert the name of the band you despised that actually made it] are sellouts,” “we’ll never compromise our principles and values.” That then transitioned to, “Let’s focus on us and appreciate what we have: US,” “Okay, last call for me, if nothing happens, I’ll quit. Again. I’m serious this time.”
That is until the unexpected opportunity bloomed from your perseverance and resilience. Then it’s, “Of course, we will support your band (usually a band you thought were sellouts and bad) on the road and we’ll do as you say.”
And then you are on for another cycle of promises, expectations, disappointments, great exhilarations, creative rebirths, and renewed band vows. But underneath, what is more of the emotional realm of our business, resides the real dark side of touring and being in a traveling community: the deep work and the impact its pressure has on everything.
So, when I decided to accept an offer to support British progressive rock band The Pineapple Thief last October, right in the middle of Delta and Omicron variants (which is how I track time now), I felt equipped, both mentally and technically, to manage that wonderful opportunity to go back on the road after almost two years of being grounded. Being independent artists comes with a lot of creative freedom and self-gratification, but not so much with budget, as no matter how great, special, and deserving of fame you may think you are, it always goes back to budget.
In our case, based on the road with the tour’s tight schedule, it meant it was only feasible with a tour bus. Yeah, tour bus! We’re rock stars! But it wasn’t possible. So, we looked into vans, trailers, and hotels, but it was crazy and dangerous to foresee ourselves being in vans for that tour. We then circled back, contacted whoever was still in business to try and make a deal. We were amongst the very first bands to get back on the road, so it gave us a bit of the upper hand. We managed to rent that holy-grail-type of tour bus at the prices of vans and hotels. Yeah, we made it! But then, we had forgotten, we were the first North American band to deal with the new reality of no-one-is-supposedly-in-charge-and-knows-anything-about-it Brexit. I didn’t receive a prize, only additional bills for our merch, carnet, and everything else… Thank you Boris Johnson, I hope you are enjoying your imposed retirement.
So back to square one: transportation and accommodations. As we were about to decline the tour opportunity altogether, an old friend called me to say he had a friend of a friend, and so we finally had a bus… Old like my friend, but a bus nonetheless!
Those five weeks back on the road went pretty smoothly. Once that tour was over, I felt incredibly galvanized about… well, pretty much everything. I believed COVID was over, remembered all those people having a drink outside, venues filled with enthusiastic crowds. I was excited to start my first headline tour under my name, and the energy from the reopening world was simply electrifying and inspiring. Until lockdowns returned as the Omicron variant struck back.
I knew I would have to wait some more, but I was not as enthusiastic regarding what was ahead as I had been a few months earlier — and I wasn’t wrong to be. Then came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, fuel prices skyrocketed, and everyone bore deep stigmata of COVID-related PTSD. I knew it would be quite a journey for us to go back on the road, this time in nine-seater vans we’d drive ourselves, sleeping in (very) humble hotels.
It all started with the plane tickets for Europe almost doubling, which was a serious issue as we had musicians, crew members, and luggage. Gear is the only aspect of touring that I never accepted to downsize, as improvisation is at the centre of what I do, and a specific instrument is usually used in only one song — don’t do that, it looks cool, but I highly suggest you avoid that at any cost because there is a steep price to pay when you travel abroad. Amongst that ridiculous amount of gear cases were a serious amount of merch boxes. We looked like a traveling circus. Thank God we didn’t have to bring two drums and five amps, or should I say thank God for the support of our brand partners who endorse us. We were a moving disaster awaiting a tiny little bump on the road to a devastating derailment — all in the name of artistic integrity, of course. No one even thought about loading in and out several times a day. While facing stairs in all the venues, I was practically praying that I was in a three-piece flute ensemble and bitterly regretted ever writing a guitar-based song in my life.
But truth be told, I always liked touring in a van, it just suits my emotional state to sleep in a bed every night, if only for a few hours, and to have a proper shower. It helps me transition from one day to another as well.
What I hadn’t factored in were the other summer vacations and the numerous festivities available, a U.K. train strike, and European heatwave. Germany was particularly hot; I could see steam rising from the crowd night after night, to the point that I was more concerned for people suffocating than I was about passing out on stage — which almost happened in Berlin and Stuttgart before I had an absence on a festival stage in France. I’ve never drunk as much water in my life as during that tour.
Suddenly, everyone was getting on our nerves in the packed van, every instrument case made us hate the song it was dedicated to (almost). Then we learned about the ticket-owners-ghosting-shows phenomenon, where people who bought a ticket when your tour was first announced in 2020 lose track of the rescheduled and re-rescheduled shows. Add to this venues canceling shows because of COVID. But hopefully, there’s always a silver lining; we were able to be accommodated by friends who truly welcomed us with so much love and care, and it served as a necessary reset (and the food was fantastic as well).
Speaking of, another source of frustration on tour could be food: who’s eating what and when and why. Only to know on-site that no catering would be offered — something we relied on — and that we would have to go buy-outs. For us, this meant, well, we’ll make it happen, right? Even if we go a little over budget, we all need to eat. Then shows started being canceled. No buy-outs, no merch, no nothing. Only a few more worries — okay, many more worries. And as if everything wasn’t complicated enough, we had to be tested for COVID almost every other day. Another adventure to a local drugstore, and a lot more expenses. I can positively say that we should be shareholders in that business only based on all the tests we did for that tour. But safety first, right?
So, it went on and on. Even though we had pretty much figured everything out beforehand, the tight preparation of which saved us from a terrible financial disaster — that and all the peanut butter sandwiches we ate. Everyone was really happy to remember their punk ethos come meal time. Or almost everyone.
The other important aspect of touring is how to address what I call the intangible elements: expectations, frictions, tiredness, homesickness, pre-tour commitments not being observed by some, and the vocal frustrations of others. They are the most difficult aspects to deal with once on tour. That’s why experience and wisdom come into play here. I always have individual and collective meetings before getting on the road to explain how I see the upcoming weeks, making sure everyone can contribute to the global success and intimate well-being of the tour. I find it critical to do so because the human factor is essential. If your intention is to party, the others need to know. If you need free time, you need to voice it clearly. Everything needs to be on the table because once we are “on” – and I’ve experienced it over and over – it will become an issue.
And on the road, every little thing can be seen as huge or potentially become the object of a relationship rupture and fiasco. If being in a band is challenging, it also is for so-called solo artists having to deal with musicians, technicians, and a tour manager — who, in my case, is also in the band (hey Jeff, hope you are recovering well from the last tour, buddy). So, the more transparent you are with others, the less trouble you’ll have to deal with — or at least, you can always refer to that “let’s open our hearts together” meeting. It makes you feel like you are the boss, which is uncomfortable when you are with your friends, but someone has to maintain the compass; otherwise, when relationships are challenged, the coherence of the concerts will be greatly affected and the most disastrous consequences of all will follow, as everything you endured to get on the road is for that very moment on stage and communing with your
Another important aspect is discipline, a word I never thought I would refer to when I first screamed “I am an antichrist! I am an anarchist” in my first high school band. Discipline is a significant part of your well-being on the road, yet it’s the most difficult to maintain because you are never truly in charge of your daily motion, nor are you in complete fluidity with your best intention.
So, I’m trying to set those impossible conditions around things I know will be daily occurrences; venue arrival, load-in, set up, soundcheck, dinner, show time, load-out, shower, and bus/van call. In my case, I’m also trying to add interviews, pre-show meet-and-greets, and after-show merch signings and pictures. Routine is especially important for me because I get anxious when I don’t have some structure. When I have structure, I can channel my energy and be more attentive to the pre-exhaustion signs my body and spirit will show me before collapsing. And since I hardly sleep on tour buses (especially the old ones), I have to be extra careful to physically and mentally recharge, may it be having a coffee in the city, reading a few pages of a book, or simply going for a walk. That balance becomes a necessity for me, as I have to overlook the tour specifics to be my upbeat self during the tour promotional duties, abandon myself on stage, and share significant moments with the people who came communing with us that night.
That’s why establishing a tight-yet-flexible schedule is very important before we hit the road. Even if there’s always something unexpected happening, you have a pretty good idea of what the tour will be like, so everyone knows what has been programmed beyond the concerts themselves — interviews, photo sessions, radio performances. Even if the rest of the musicians and crew members don’t have to be there, they aren’t left wondering what’s going on, why I’m making coffee at 5:30 a.m. in front of a radio station where I’m having a five-minute on-air chat, which inevitably turns into me talking for an hour or so with everyone at the station or why I have to put on makeup at 4 a.m. in the morning (feels like I need more and more with every passing day and also because live TV cannot be photoshopped afterward).
Everyone being aware of what’s going on allows a real sense of togetherness and a positive vibe feeds the collective purpose of the tour. I often rent rehearsal studios when we have a few consecutive days off, like we had due to COVID-related cancellations. Not only does it keep things fresh, positive, and creative, but it also offers a sense of camaraderie that forms bonds beyond the immediate tasks and that form friendships beyond the roles. And when there’s a real sense of tribe amongst us – musicians, techs, and crews – that is what makes it a rewarding experience. The contrary has its equal measure of frustrations.
Of all the organizational layers and pre-tour setups, I think my biggest personal deadlock remains the side-tour projects and engagements that I am either involved in or looking to accomplish while being on the road (no wonder I missed my Canadian Musician deadline twice. Thank you, Mike Raine, for your graceful heart!) “Doing” has always been my Achilles’ heel, regardless of being on tour, at home, on vacation, or elsewhere. I need to be “on,” to be active somehow, which is a serious issue I have to deal with and a problematic affair for whoever acts as the tour manager — just ask Jeff Beaulieu (the band’s bass player and my partner in many other ventures).
It usually goes like this: I want to do it all. On-the-road podcasts? Yes. Daily tour blog entries? Yes. Special social media on-the-road features? Yes. Write new songs in the back of the bus? Yes. A movie about the tour? Yes. A commented photo book? Yes. On it goes until it becomes a burden and I start freaking out. Then, it’s no longer yes, but rather, fuck. So, I’ve learned to balance my emotional need to be active in the projects that I really want to accomplish based on my touring reality and my capacity to accomplish those projects. My willingness and my desires are never the problem, it’s everything I can’t say no to, which is everything!
Therefore, if all those aforementioned details and structural facets of your preparation are necessary to ensure you can appreciate the tour without losing your mind and prevent daily catastrophes, you need to keep on remembering that your ultimate goal is what is designed to be expressed and shared while you are on stage. It sounds simple, and it is simple, but when you are a DIY and entrepreneur/artist, it is the first thing you tend to deprive yourself of, trust me.
I have enough anecdotes and nonsense I’ve dealt with on tours to write a book and do a tour of every comedy club on the planet. So, the way I learned to stop that faraway circus from distracting me is visualization. I will unplug from everything that could come between me and the moment meant to happen. The rest of the musicians have a mandatory one-hour unplugged moment as well. No worries, none of them suffered from missing a cat meme in the meantime. That period of quietness, away from the noise, allows me to align my spirit with the singularity of the country, the city, and the venue, which is indispensable to the type of improvisational and experimental music I do. Otherwise, if I let all those distractions get to me, the creative moment I dearly long to share with others will become sterile and lifeless and every single concert will be the same dull repetition, and I’ll turn into an entertainer I’ve seen and heard enough of. I still value the beautiful danger of being live, in the “now,” in such a way that it is no longer a show but a common experience where we are all welcome to define what we are willing to share over the course of that sonic uplift… And for me, this is an uplifting blessing.
That connection with the people might also explain the reason why I consider going to the merch table after every concert a precious gift. It is where the music and sounds are incarnated, through conversations, hugs, pictures, stories, laughs, cries… I understand some major acts are unable to do so, but too often I see up-and-coming artists snub that post-concert rendezvous. It’s not about selling another t-shirt or an additional vinyl. If you care — and I’m sure you do — you already crafted meaningful items aligned with the vision of your tour, so the merch table is a perfect rally point. Your presence makes it a little more magic for everyone, you included, as it’s all about making your music tangible, human, and accessible. It’s my favourite moment of the night, when you can meet new friends, and catch up with old ones. And more often than not, I’m the last one being kicked out of the venue. It’s a precious moment where time seems suspended for us all to maintain that unique connection a little longer, and that’s what makes all the usual touring misadventures and logistical headaches worth it.
Granted, I knew that touring made sense at that time. It might sometimes be unreasonable for variety of factors, maybe it’s financially hazardous, strategically unaligned with your creative journey, too mentally demanding, or whatever reasons. But when you are convinced that it is the perfect timing for you to embark on such a venture, I like to wonder what, besides the inspiring memories and the ongoing vibrations, could stretch the tour vividness just a little more? What could immortalize the emotional generosity we offered each other, how I could eternalize what has been shared with so much selflessness? It can be a live album, a recap video, a book… Whatever it might be, I believe it is fundamental to honour that last tour and everyone who made it significant by crafting something that will reflect how singular it has been. In my case, as I
like to invite people to get involved, it is always something interactive and open; a book, with a limited-edition hardcover copy and its digital version, featuring never-before-published pictures, anecdotes, and individual notes from me, the band members, and the fans with their pictures, along with a lathe-cut vinyl featuring one of the songs I played during the tour. But every idea, as long as it’s yours, remains the best representation of who you are and who your people are to you. And this is always right on.
In conclusion, no matter what you have to deal with — every touring act has its own share of funny and not-so-funny adventures and misadventures — the most important thing when you envision touring remains being honest with yourself, with your touring companions, and those who care enough about to you and your music to spend their hard-earned money to share a moment with you. The rest, even if essential to consider and manage, has been extensively covered in several other publications. So, I wanted to share a little glimpse of my experience as a touring artist in general and in my recent post-COVID wilderness in particular. Trust yourself. It’s a magnificent world out there, but it is up to you to add some of your own colours to it all.
Alex Henry Foster & The Long Shadows appreciate the support of Orange Ampliflcation, Mapex, and Hiwatt on their 2021-22 tour. The band is always back up by these brands: Eastwood Guitars, Roland/BOSS, Earthquaker Devices, Chase Bliss Audio, Novation, Radial Engineering, D’Addario, Death By Audio, Sabian, and Vox amps.
Alex Henry Foster is a Canadian singer, musician, writer, and activist who fronted the Juno-nominated alternative band Your Favorite Enemies. His solo debut LP, Windows in the Sky (Hopeful Tragedy Records) debuted at number three in the Canadian top 200 charts and stayed in the top-40 for a year after its initial release. Standing Under Bright Lights, a live triple LP and DVD from his sold-out concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival, is also available. His latest release is “The Power of the Heart.” www.alexhenryfoster.com.