Iona Fyfe on touring the US; the difficulties of touring “post-pandemic” and with chronic illness

📷 by Euan Anderson, Cove One Studios

Back in early 2019, Miki, my now-US booking agent approached me via email and asked if I wanted to work with her to tour the US. This was extremely exciting – I was 21 and didn’t have any agent booking for me in either the UK or Europe, let alone the US. I immediately said yes, and she got to work scheduling shows for 2020. I had just graduated from The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and had worked hard during my studies in order to line up tours for 2019 and 2020, in a sort of ‘hit the ground running’ type vibe.

Anyway, COVID came, and the world completely changed. Fast forward two years, the tour that was originally scheduled for 2020 was rescheduled for Autumn 2022. The visa process was made less stressful through the assistance of Covey Law, with a small grant from Tamizdat, but with a very large upfront cost into the thousands. All information regarding press, social media, awards, releases, nominations, competitions was handed over in what felt like an incredibly invasive process that, in my brain, could only be equated to DV clearance. Either way, the visa came through without need for an interview at a consulate in London, which was a bonus. I now had more right to work in the US than in Europe, an exciting but depressing thought.

My first stop was at TradMad camp in Plymouth, Massachusetts ran by Joy Bennett and Heather Wood (The Young Tradition). Without a negative test taken 72 hours before arriving at camp, you weren’t getting in! Campers and staff had to also take two lateral flow tests over the duration of their stay and only after everyone tested negative for a second time, were we allowed to unmask. Masks were initially required at every workshop, performance, dance and could only be removed when eating. There were no scares, and no one had to isolate or leave the camp. It was managed very well and was a firm reminder that COVID was very much still around and needed mitigated. These COVID protocols could be seen as “overkill” by some, but it created a safe respectful atmosphere where people were self-aware and looked out for one another.

After a week of singing, swimming, and meeting new and familiar faces, I flew to Los Angeles, ready to meet the two musicians I was touring with. The cost of visa petition, application and paperwork made it financially impossible for me to take musicians who I usually work with, so my agent put me in touch with Seattle-based Brian Lindsay and AlexSturbaum. It’s always scary meeting and working with new musicians, let alone touring with musicians who you have only met with via Zoom to sort set lists out. Luckily, it all worked out and they proved to be brilliant humans to work with and be around, but the panic of a socially awkward singer (me) meeting brand new people, rehearsing for a few days then setting off on a month-long tour certainly stressed me out.

In late 2019, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition which causes chronic fatigue and pain. 2020 allowed me to reset and figure out how to manage the incurable condition. Apart from a week-long tour of Denmark in 2021, the US tour was my first “dip the toe in the water” of touring in a “post-covid” world. But my health had changed, the industry had changed, and in the midst of a cost of living crisis, audiences’ willingness to book tickets in advance had also changed.

Merchandising however, is still very relevant, especially in the folk community – people want to support musicians, and many like a physical product they can hold, and liner notes they can flick through. So, it made sense to manufacture disks of my previous CD’s, two EP’s and an album. Musicians rely on merchandising to supplement their income, but on this tour, merchandising was a case of either losing money or breaking even. Despite ordering the CDs in July, with complications between the plant, customs and Fedex, long story short, the full shipment of CD’s only arrived in LA a few days after the entire tour ended. It was devastating – not to mention micromanaging the mix-up from 8 hours behind. Staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning almost each and every night in order to chase up answers from EU manufacturers would exhaust anyone who had to sing for 90+ minutes each night, let alone someone with chronic fatigue.

Managing chronic illness whilst being on tour is exceptionally difficult – understanding and empathy is needed from any and everyone you work with.

I used to struggle to articulate the complexity of fibromyalgia and hypermobility syndrome, so when I was previously on tour, it felt hard to explain to my band members, promoters, agents, tour managers that the lights couldn’t be too bright because it would trigger a migraine, I needed rest, or needed healthcare, or that I didn’t want to drink or socialise after the show because I was trying to pace myself. When your condition is overlooked or made light of, you leave the room feeling like a commodity and not a human. A few years ago, during soundcheck, a lighting engineer used extremely bright lighting in a lighting check, it triggered a migraine and violent sickness. I paused the soundcheck and asked if the engineer could dim the lights. In response, the lighting engineer asked the band if anyone else had “special needs”. I felt humiliated, on top of feeling physically unwell. Another instance when touring with a tour manager in Germany, my knee dislocated and popped back in. I knew I needed to see a doctor, and at 21, I knew that my knee wasn’t properly healing. Iwas in a lot of pain and self-medicating on tramadol and other painkillers which were previously prescribed. For almost twenty-one days, I was denied the opportunity to be taken to a doctor, with the tour manager citing “time” as the issue. When I got back to Glasgow, I was listed for emergency surgery and spent three months recovering on crutches and had to take time off. When someone puts the importance of the show over your health and wellbeing, you know it’s time to run, and never work with that person again. I don’t want to ramble, but when you have access needs, and your condition is underplayed and not taken seriously on tour, it can have very real and serious ramifications. I’ve now reassessed who I surround myself with, and the industry representatives that I will work with.

Thanks to the Musicians Union Access Rider template, I’ve managed to create a document that can be easily sent on to venues and promoters detailing the different needs that I have, and protocols in case of a bone dislocation. Almost 100% of the organisations and venues that have received this document have been extremely supportive. The Musicians Union have a great advice section for people who experience chronic illness, health conditions or disabilities. You can create an Access Rider for yourself here.

Luckily, Miki the agent, Brian and Alex were extremely understanding of fibromyalgia and supported me throughout the tour. But it was only two days in when one of the musicians tested positive for COVID, yet the other two of us didn’t. It was heart-breaking – myself and guitarist had to continue the tour, and I had to find the means to pay for isolation hotel and hire car for our bandmate who unluckily contracted COVID. We were already wearing masks out and about, and at the CD stand but not all the audience members did. In the US, many venues have their own mask and vaccination policies. More liberal areas, like California saw us play shows where most of the audience remained masked throughout and would certainly wear masks at the merch stand and when talking to the band, with some exceptions. Other, often more rural, areas barely had any mask wearing at all, with many people adamant that they would shake your hand. It’s hard to not be rude when you say “let’s just elbow bump”. But after the COVID case, I decided to outwardly recommend that audience members wear masks when approaching us. Some listened, some didn’t. I very quickly saw the consequences of a COVID case completely dismantling a tour and creating far more financial constraints that we didn’t have pre-COVID. Fibromyalgia is a condition that will in turn affect your immune system but is not an auto-immune disease. A common cold will completely floor me for weeks, let alone COVID. Whilst my bandmate unfortunately got sick and was prescribed Paxlovid, I have still not *touch wood* had the misfortune of getting COVID myself. I’d love to keep it this way and have continued to exercise good mask wearing and hand hygiene. I urge all audience members to do this too. A COVID case can completely dismantle a tour.

Whilst it was an incredibly bumpy tour, it was so rewarding, meeting Alex and Brian, performing some old and new songs in new venues. Being able to tour in a nurturing positive environment where your health and you as a person is taken seriously sounds like a low bar to set, but is incredibly important in getting by and having a good time.

– Iona

Iona is touring in Germany in November –