Two weeks ago, singer-songwriter Caleb Caudle was at Johnny Cash’s rustic cabin-turned-studio outside of Nashville, excitedly gearing up for the April 3rd release of his new album, Better Hurry Up. The North Carolina native recorded the record there during what he calls a “peaceful and joyous” time in his creative life. Now, the album’s success, his live show receipts, and the very livelihood of Caudle and his wife-manager are in jeopardy due to the coronavirus pandemic. His two shows at SXSW disappeared when that festival was canceled last week, and he’s full of uncertainty about the 16-week tour he’s about to begin. He’ll be there, guitar in hand — but will his audience? In his own words, Caudle tells us about how the coronavirus threat could impact independent artists and touring musicians.
If my tour goes away, it’s like a farmer losing their crops. Anyone who is not a huge superstar, the time right before you go on an album release tour — that’s famine right there. That’s when things are the tightest. All your funds are allocated to press, radio, and merch. We just placed a huge merch order for the album release tour. All that stuff is already paid for. You’ve got everything out there, and the tour is like the tide coming back in.
We’re completely reliant on merch sales and live shows. That’s how this career is set up. Without that, we wouldn’t be able to do this. But now there’s fear from a few different sides. For one, I’m scared of the actual virus, because of how contagious and quick-spreading it is. Two, I worry if I am being responsible for going through with these shows and having people gather together. That’s something that weighs on you. The third thing is, this is my album release tour, and I started planning this seven or eight months ago. I think of all the time we spent setting up to go on tour — you’re not getting paid for that. The payment comes afterwards, when you’re on tour. If you look at my calendar, clearly we set ourselves up to have that tide come back to us. We have 16 weeks straight of touring, half here and half overseas. To look at that and feel like it’s all in jeopardy, I don’t know what to think. I can tell you one thing: It’s not helping ticket sales.
Financially, an album release tour will carry you through the year. You’re using that tour to catapult the rest of your year and build the momentum. Routing our tour into SXSW, that’s by design. I had two really great bills I was on, an official showcase and the Yeti [outdoors-gear company] party. Now those are canceled and we have three days in Austin without a show. We’re trying to put together a house show to offset costs. I’ve never been presented with this situation. It’d be really hard in an off-year, but the fact that everything is on the table in this moment in time for us is pretty crushing.
That said, we live here in Nashville, and our house wasn’t destroyed by the tornado. So there is some guilt at play when I feel like this is a woe-is-me situation, because there are people who have it way worse off. But I haven’t had a day job for eight years. Neither does my wife. [Music] is our day job. We’re a single-income house, so to take away touring is like both of us getting laid off at the same time.
For me, the worst-case scenario is I go do the whole album release tour and no one shows up because they’re scared. It’s a better scenario for me to postpone it all and take a hit now, but I just can’t make that decision yet. There’s too much at stake and too much at play, and too much money to be lost.
I saw Pearl Jam moved their tour, and it’s great they did that, but unfortunately for independent artists such as myself, we can’t afford to make those calls at this point. I really only get a full team around me — a publicist, radio promo — about four months every two years, if I’m lucky, when an album comes out. Everything is working like a machine together. Three weeks away from the album release, we can’t say, “Actually, we’re going to change this.” The momentum has already been shifted to where it is now.
All I can hope is that fans understand that for a lot of their favorite artists, touring and selling merch is their means of survival. If you don’t have a record player, now is the time to get one and start buying up some records and buying up T-shirts, even if you don’t need them. I don’t want to be alarmist, but people are not going to be able to tour and pay the bills and they’ll lose the places they live.
I have no answers. Nobody does. The fear of the unknown is the driving force behind it all. Things are changing day to day, and I’m just trying to act in real time.