Media @ McGill

"Not-for-Profit: The Complex Role of Touring in Rock Musicians’ Careers"

Submitted by Media@McGill on

Not-for-Profit: The Complex Role of Touring in Rock Musicians’ Careers

Gabrielle Kielich


My point of departure is to investigate the common characterization of musicians as “players” that burst onto a music scene and are suddenly accorded wealth, autonomy, and privilege. James P. Kraft (1996: 4) argues that the perception of musicians’ work is skewed based on glamourized portrayals of popular bands in the media — and that this distorted view is understandable given society’s tendency to think of musicians as “artists who ‘play’ rather than work.” To build on this work, I propose to investigate the relationship between established popular rock musicians and touring, and how bands negotiate their labour in different markets and at various stages of their careers.

Musicians’ labour is marked by its own particular set of circumstances: maintaining an audience, recording, touring, and publicity. However, the specific nature of musicians’ labour — or how a band “makes it” — changes according to what is profitable in music. Touring is the primary source of income for most artists, and musicians, both new and established, tour to earn money, broaden their fan base, and please existing fans (Black, Fox, and Kochanowski 2007: 154). However, touring is not always a profitable endeavour, and in some cases, may be more valuable to musicians’ careers in areas other than economics. In this way, this project will examine the touring process as a form of labour with purposes and meaning beyond profitability. I will study rock musicians who confront touring as an unprofitable form of labour, and consider why popular rock bands tour in unprofitable markets, and thereby take a financial loss, when they are already established and financially successful elsewhere. I will explore the process and experience of touring in two distinct and contrasting environments — the arena versus the club, extensive versus minimal media exposure — and the transitions and adaptations that musicians make accordingly. My research will detail the organizational and financial logistics (e.g. tour length, venue choice, box office sales) as well as the social and experiential  aspects of working on tour (e.g. routine, division of labour, fans). I will also examine the nature and extent of these tours’ media coverage and will explore their role as promotional vehicles. The goal of this investigation is to understand the particular set of factors that successful bands consider in the management of their careers. It will also provide a deeper understanding of the touring process, its impact, and its broader influence on musicians’ labour. This project will connect issues related to work, autonomy, and identity to the touring process that will contribute to understanding the specific qualities that define creative labour.

My research will concentrate on UK rock bands who are commercially successful in the United Kingdom but do not experience similar profitability in the North American market. This project will examine the North American club tours that led to a financial loss for these bands. My research will situate these case  studies alongside wider trends in touring and profitability in the music industry.