Detroit is indisputably one of the most important music cities on the planet. But does it ever feel like more often than not, your favorite artists skip it on tour?
For example, out of 52 tours announced since April, 31 are coming to metro Detroit, while 21 are not, including acts like Yo La Tengo, ZZ Top, Lil Baby, Orville Peck, Rina Sawayama, Soccer Mommy, and Bad Bunny. Even the Black Pumas, the Grammy-nominated Texas band who has released covers of two Detroit artists — Death's "Politicians in My Eyes" and Rodriguez's "Sugar Man" — are skipping the Motor City on its latest tour, heading to Grand Rapids on the other side of the state instead.
Industry experts and music fans Metro Times spoke with were split on whether artists frequently skipping Detroit was a real thing or not. (In fact, MT music editor Jerilyn Jordan turned down writing this story, even though her favorite band Radiohead famously snubbed Detroit stops on tours for more than 15 years — perhaps the best-known example of the phenomenon.) But pinning down the exact reasons why this seems to happen is slippery.
One of those who agreed that it was an issue is longtime WDET radio host Ann Delisi. "In my opinion this is nothing new," Delisi says via email. "The joke used to be that Detroit was the city artists would fly over on their way to N.Y.C. or L.A. I've seen this during my entire time in radio, but the irony is that for many years, record companies would bring their up-and-coming new artists to Detroit because Detroit radio would break records and give artists a chance. All of that has changed, but Detroit was a place that would take chances on new music before bigger markets like New York, L.A., or Chicago would."
Willy Wilson, of Ferndale's Magic Bag venue, agrees, and also blames the collapse of terrestrial radio here for the decline. "Whether or not you liked them, [the end] of 89X and The River does hurt," Wilson says of the local stations, which pulled the plug last year, adding, "Back in the day you had all these amazing DJs that were going to shows and seeing bands and talking about them, and now you don't have that anymore."
But it goes deeper than that. "There's so many reasons, it's hard to name just one," he says.
Wilson rattles off a slew of other possibilities, including Michigan's "depressed" economy, and the fact that some artists found themselves playing to smaller and smaller crowds on return trips to the D. (It got so bad that about a decade ago, amid the Great Recession, the operators of Detroit's Magic Stick would erect partitions to make the room even smaller so artists wouldn't feel like they were playing to an empty crowd.)
Of course, these latest tours are against the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has closed the border to Canada, making a Detroit stop on the way to or from Toronto impossible, and also has many artists and fans still wary of gathering in large crowds. (Detroit-based band JR JR recently canceled a homecoming show scheduled for the Magic Bag, citing pandemic concerns, and a source says summer concerts at metro Detroit's large outdoor theaters haven't been doing the numbers they typically do.) As for the artists who are deciding to brave the pandemic to tour, they're having a hard time finding places to book them, competing with each other for a limited number of venues.
"You had 16 months' worth of shows that you were going to put on that were booked," Wilson says. "Now you need to [reschedule] those 16 months' worth of shows, along with another year of tours, and put that together to try and come up with a lineup of artists who are rescheduling and those who are going on tour now."
All that said, Wilson believes that the Motor City is still a top music market. "I still think that Detroit gets way more than a lot of other towns do," he says.
Drew Drialo of Detroit venue El Club, a mid-sized venue known for booking shows ranging from cutting-edge acts like a then-up-and-coming pop star Billie Eilish to country music vet Wanda Jackson, thinks that things are better in Detroit now, even with the pandemic.
"I don't believe tours are really skipping Detroit anymore," he says. "I know they often did in the past, but things have changed a lot. ... My inbox is flooded right now with agents trying to get their artists here."
Drialo believes that if acts are skipping Detroit, it's due to routing issues. "We basically got flooded with potential shows and sometimes we don't have the date that is needed (because it's confirmed with somebody else)," he says, "so either it goes to another venue or skips Detroit entirely." But if artists skip Detroit on a tour, they'll often be sure to make a stop on the next one.
As for the Black Pumas? The band's management tells Metro Times they're skipping Detroit because they already played here, in 2019 and 2020 — and have never played Grand Rapids.
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