Steve Vai Opens Up on Financial Issues With Touring, Says Big Bands Can’t Make Money

During his interview on Meltdown’s “Talkin’ Rock” podcast, legendary guitar virtuoso Steve Vai reflected on what many musicians are discussing these days — difficulties earning money on tour. When talking about touring in support of his latest record “Inviolate,” Vai said (transcript via Ultimate Guitar):

“By the time the record was released, everything was starting to open up. But it was kind of iffy. It was really weird – you book a tour, and then COVID would spike, and you have to cancel the tour.

“And then, trying to get out on tour after COVID was incredibly difficult for musicians because everything was kind of deranged.

“You couldn’t get a bus. All the buses sat for two years, and the bus drivers went to drive trucks. You couldn’t get a bus driver, you couldn’t get gear, you couldn’t get help. And it was really difficult – that European tour I did was the most challenging tour I’ve ever done.

Nonetheless, it seems that Steve is still retaining his

“But we got through it. And now things are getting oiled and are starting to come back together nicely.

“Some bands actually canceled some of their European tours as recently as this past year, just because they couldn’t make it work [financially]. It’s remarkable.

“You know, before you do a tour, you get all the gigs, you get the guarantees, and you look at what your bottom line is. And it’s changed, brother.

Steve Vai - For the Love Of God - Live in Bristol 6-2022

“First of all, unfortunately, the promoters and are challenged in paying what they used to pay. And it’s just so much more expensive.

“I mean, these buses and the fuel and shipping gear to your home. Oh my god, I couldn’t believe it. You’re lucky if you break even. I have a lot of friends that are canceling – big bands – because they just can’t get the numbers to balance.”

Apart from the already low incomes from streaming services that musicians have addressed over the years, the post-pandemic music industry landscape is impacted by the general global economic recession which makes things difficult on the road, both logistically and financially.

Steve Vai - "Teeth of the Hydra" (LIVE) 2022

What Vai is addressing here is a problem that’s been troubling rock musicians worldwide. Plenty of other big names have addressed the issue as well. For instance, in recent interview, Dream Theater’s John Petrucci said pretty much the same thing, even explaining that young bands need a “reality check” these days if they want to make it. He offered:

“Well, it is really, really challenging now. For young bands, it’s so expensive to go out and do this on any level. And my advice is, you got to be willing to put in the hard work and make really big sacrifices if you want this.“

“I remember doing this as well, back in the day, on our first tour. We had a van and drove ourselves, didn’t get any sleep, and didn’t get any money [for performing].“

“And eventually, you know, [we] made things happen. I think bands need to have that reality check. And the ones that do and are willing to do it – and do it with a great attitude – I mean, a lot of these guys, they don’t have a tech, they’re their own tech, they’re packing up their stuff. There’s one crew guy, if they’re lucky.“

Dream Theater - At Wit's End (from Distant Memories - Live in London)

“It’s hard. It’s a hard, hard life at that early stage. So, as long as you have perspective on that, and you’re willing to do that… It’s that type of thing [that’s] always easier when you’re young…“

“But you know, we also do it for the same reason – for the love of music, and playing, and being in that position – as I always say, providing the entertainment for the evening. We love it.”

In another part of this interview, Petrucci also touched upon the issue while talking about Dream Theater finally getting a Grammy. He said:

“The point I wanted to try to get across [at the Grammys] was that we’ve been doing what we do for a long time, the way we do it, against all odds, and we built a career out of it.“

Dream Theater - The Alien (Official Video)

“And then, to achieve that sort of recognition from that community was really just great.“

“Because it’s not like it was some sort of pop version of us… It was probably one of the most complicated songs we ever wrote.“

“So, my point was: Do what you do, believe in what you’re doing, and do it with a ton of conviction. And then, when moments [like that] happen, it feels that much more satisfying.”

Vai’s old collaborator Devin Townsend also addressed these problems in a last year’s interview, explaining how things aren’t looking good at all. He explained:

“It’s gotten way worse. I don’t think it’s better at all, actually. Because the costs of touring now, with inflation and the cost of gasoline and diesel… Plus, over the course of the pandemic, we’ve lost a ton of really good venues.”

Devin Townsend 'Deadhead' Royal Albert Hall 2022 (night 1)

“I’d say probably 50 percent of the workforce in touring has now left. ‘Cause what’s a guitar tech gonna do for two years? You have to get a job, right? And so the ones that are remaining, not only are they already spoken for with other bands, but they’re almost twice as expensive.”

“I saw this thing about Live Nation the other day, they’re taking 30 percent of merch sales from some of these venues. The costs of airlines have gone up. So artists, the ability to make money on tour is almost completely gone now — at least an artist on my level.”

“So, yes, it’s opened up again, but it’s 10 times as expensive. It’s, like, what do you do? Even little things like, okay, the hotels are more expensive; the food at the hotels [is] more expensive. So at the end of it, you’re touring for what? You’re touring ultimately so you can present your work to the people who care about your work, and that’s worth it to me.”

"Lightworker" - Official Promo Video

“But I think for anybody to think that it’s now easy again, you should investigate that, because I’m trying to set up tours for next year, and there’s no way to keep them within cost — there’s no way. And so you go out there and, like, well, we can’t have this vehicle; we can’t have this backline; we can’t have this production; we can’t have these lights.”

“And then if you show up at a place and the audience comes, they’re, like, ‘The show’s not good. There’s no lights. There’s no production.’ So what should you do? And I think a lot of musicians, their decision is, like, ‘Well, I’ll just stay home then and I’ll just create from home.’”

"Call Of The Void" - Official Promo Video

“I try to go out with acoustic now, because that way I can afford it. If I just show up with an acoustic guitar and sing for people, it’s better than nothing. But it’s still, like, man, it’s a complicated time, brother.”

Photo: Toglenn (Steve Vai Zepparella 2017)

Author

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at Ultimate-Guitar.com, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor.