Masks Off: Musicians Reflect on Touring in a Post-Mandate World

Sound and Vision
photo by Jim Bennett

Reporting by Emily Fox and Roddy Nikpour. This story originally aired on Sound & Vision on May 7.

It’s been more than two months since Washington State lifted it’s COVID mask mandate. Hospitalizations are down to the low we saw last summer before the Delta variant peak. Bands are starting to tour again but not without risk. We caught up with three musicians who shared their stories of touring after masks mandates were lifted—two artists have had to cancel tours from either getting COVID themselves or a bandmember getting infected. 

Bob Mould had been touring as a solo act recently, but is also known for being in the bands Sugar and Husker Du. He had to cancel a few shows during his most recent tour in April after getting a positive COVID test the night before his performance in Seattle. 

'It felt like one of the crappiest flu-type things I've ever had in my life," Mould tells KEXP. "And trust me, when I say 40 years of touring, I've had a lot of different viruses and flus."

This comes after he performed more than 20 shows across the country this past fall. At that time masks and proof of vaccination or negative COVID test were required to get into all shows. Neither Bob nor his band or crew got the virus. 

"My first time back to work was September and October of 2021, I had put together a Bob Mould Band tour. Three musicians, two crew people. So that's five people total traveling to, I believe, 15 cities and three weeks inside North America," Mould says. "We were testing ourselves every other day and everybody made it through healthy. I attribute a lot of that to the vaccines. I attribute a lot of that to me reaching out to my audience directly ahead of the tour asking them to please wear a mask so that we could stay healthy and get through the tour. So last fall, that is what we did. Mission accomplished."

Mould continues, "I went back out in mid-October of 2021 to do eight solo electric shows again with the same criteria and the same request. Audiences helped me out, and I made it through those eight shows without incident."

But in April, COVID restrictions were lifted across the country and Bob started out his spring tour with nine shows in California with no COVID restrictions, except for his last stop in Berkely. By that time Omicron numbers were starting to rise again so Mould reevaluated his approach and told his upcoming venues he’d be playing in the northwest to require fans to wear masks at those shows. He went on to play Portland, Vancouver, Bellingham, and Olympia and for the most part, fans wore masks at those shows. Then in mid-April, which was 8 days after his California tour, Bob tested positive for COVID.

"Sunday was my off day in Seattle. I woke up at noon, did my daily tests. My test was negative. At about 4 or 5 PM I started feeling a little rundown, took a nap, woke up at about 6:30, so took a test at 8 p.m. and was positive," Mould recalls. 

After the diagnosis, Bob canceled his Seattle and Eugene shows. He ended up having to quarantine in Seattle for 5 days in a hotel then had to get his own rental car to make the 800-mile drive back home to San Francisco to lessen his possible exposure to others.  

"My conclusion is, I think masking at indoor events like, you know, rock clubs where people are drinking and yelling and singing – I think it might help," Mould says.

Mac McCaughan of Superchunk shared his band's experience with COVID, canceling tour dates, and the future of touring. 

Mac McCaughan: We begin a tour for our new album, 'Wild Loneliness,' and we started off in Seattle on the West Coast, and before we got to Los Angeles, our drummer had contracted COVID and we had to cancel the last six shows of our tour and fly home, after which everyone else eventually tested positive. And so we are in the process of rescheduling those shows and just figuring out all the ancillary damage that goes with having to cancel half your tour. 

Emily Fox: Yeah, I was going to say, I mean, like, how does that impact your bottom line? I mean, obviously, a lot of people couldn't tour for the longest time. Now we're trying again. And it's like even if you start to tour, it's like at any moment it could get canceled. And so just how does that impact you as musicians, just trying to do your job and make money? You know, doing art. 

Mac McCaughan: Booking a tour right now is already complicated because so many people have put off planning their touring and promoting their records until we all hoped that everyone would get vaccinated and the pandemic would go away. Obviously, that hasn't happened. So there's a logjam of people trying to go out on tour now. So when we have to cancel shows, rescheduling them is even twice as hard, both from the standpoint of, you know, our booking agent trying to find another date that will work at those venues, but also just everyone's personal schedules. You know, it's hard finding crew and tour managers and sound people because everyone's schedules are just really nuts. 

Emily Fox: Yeah. I'm curious, are the shows that you were able to do about how many people in the audience were wearing masks? 

Mac McCaughan: The number of people wearing masks at shows really varied from venue to venue. It's in our contract that the venue require vaccine and mask-wearing. But I think there's a real – I don't know if you would say peer pressure aspect to it or what, but, you know, if there is a venue where most people seem to be wearing them, then most people seem to be wearing them. And there's a couple shows where, for instance, I would say to the people, at least in a couple front rows, that I can see, "Hey, can you all put your masks on because you're singing these songs back at me in my face and I can't wear a mask because I'm singing." So, you know, just we're all trying to stay healthy and make sure these shows can happen. And for the most part, everyone's like, "Oh, sure, cool" [and] put their masks on. But there was a couple of shows where very few people were wearing masks at all, and it just seemed to be kind of like whatever the prevailing attitude was in that town or in that venue, even if masks were required everywhere, if it was a place where people had  "stopped wearing masks," then they weren't going to put them on for this show. And that was frustrating. 

Emily Fox: I'm just curious, I mean, what do you think like venues, fans and others can do to make, you know, you more comfortable touring and ultimately, like, allow, you know, live music to come back in another, more normal fashion? 

Mac McCaughan: I mean, to be clear, it's not about my comfort level or the band feeling comfortable touring. It's about being able to do it at all, you know what I mean? And so I think that, like I said, I feel like everyone has to kind of just be on board with the idea that if we're touring now, when COVID is still here and even more transmissible than it was a year ago, for instance, then wearing masks and being vaccinated has to be part of the formula for shows to happen. 

Emily Fox: Do you think that touring will ever be the same again, like pre-pandemic times? 

Mac McCaughan: I don't know if it will ever be the same again. Touring is different in a lot of ways, not just the fact that, you know, you may have to cancel your tour because someone got sick at a show. It's it's also just that a lot of the things that were really fun about touring before other than the show itself, which obviously is is the point and the best part of any day on tour is playing the show. But as a band, Superchunk had rules. No one backstage. All the things that were kind of the fun, ancillary parts of touring, getting to see friends that you haven't seen in different towns in a long time, and going out to dinner and doing all that stuff, all that stuff has kind of gone by the wayside in order for us to try to stay healthy and keep playing shows. And so it's frustrating when you're taking all these extra steps and then still, it's so easy for people to get sick. 

David Bazan of Pedro The Lion says he lost about 30% of his income, not being able to play live shows during the pandemic. But even without a pandemic, he says, touring can be a fine line between profit and debt. And it's an even bigger financial risk to tour during the pandemic. 

"So many of our friends bands are dropping out of shows because somebody in the group gets COVID and the whole investment gets just flushed down the toilet in some cases," Bazan says.

That's why Bazan has made it a point at shows to talk about the importance of fans wearing masks. The amount of people wearing masks when he starts a set varies from town to town. 

"It'll change after I give my little spiel. And after about this, the fifth song, I stopped and say hi and just talk to people about why it's important to us that people are masked up at the shows and, you know, at worst we'll come out and maybe 10% of audience members are wearing masks. In one case, that's how it was. And so the three of us masked up for the entire show," Bazan says. "And then after I said something, I think most people put their masks on. It's roughly that way everywhere. We just played Pittsburgh last night, and every single person seemed to be wearing their mask. I mean, it was crazy. If it's not our responsibility, we have an opportunity to help people understand where we're coming from and what it's like to be in a van, driving around the country, hoping not to get it and not really having a lot of control over whether we do or not, because it comes down to audience members hearing our plea for them to wear masks."

Bazan says he makes appeals to the crowd in cases where there are only a few audience members wearing their masks, adding, "Basically, I just say, like, you know, every day we're getting word of another friend of ours going home because somebody in the crew or the band got COVID. Postponing shows, in some cases canceling tours. And it's because audience members aren't wearing masks is what's been reported in all the cases that we're hearing about. And we've been preparing for this for at least a year, if not more, if you count the album making. And what this represents in terms of, you know, my livelihood and the livelihood of these people here is so important to us and so much is riding on this. And all day, every day we wear masks to try to, you know, mitigate the chance that we're going to catch it somewhere. We're not going out to eat with our friends indoors. You know, our protocols are pretty tight to try to keep us safe and we need your help."

Like Bob Mold and Mac McCaughan, David Bazan also thinks masks should still be required at shows. He'd also like to see COVID testing provided at shows as well. 

"What is for me a really beautiful, sometimes spiritual, certainly nourishing experience, going to see bands that I love, [it's] no problem wearing a mask," Bazan says. "And I do think that that's what shows are going to look like and it does not bum me out."

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