‘The music industry is on its knees. Now is the time to throw the book out the window’

As coronavirus stalls releases by Lady Gaga and others, smaller acts step up to the plate

Dua Lipa decided  to bring forward the release of her second album, Future Nostalgia, so her fans could ‘take a moment away from what’s going on outside’. Photograph: Dave Meehan for the Irish Times

Dua Lipa decided to bring forward the release of her second album, Future Nostalgia, so her fans could ‘take a moment away from what’s going on outside’. Photograph: Dave Meehan for the Irish Times

 

Remember those halcyon times (about six weeks ago) when we were all looking forward to the new single by Cardi B and freshly minted albums by heavy hitters such as Lady Gaga, The 1975, Haim, Sam Smith, Alicia Keys, Jarvis Cocker and Dua Lipa? As we now know, with the exception of the last of these (Dua Lipa brought forward the release of her second album, Future Nostalgia), other music acts are choosing to sit tight until Covid-19 dissolves like a Rubex lozenge in a glass of water.

There are reasons for such decisions, of course, and hardly any are solely artist-led, but Dua Lipa has been applauded for what many see as taking account of her self-isolating fans rather than the bottom line of an admittedly financially lucrative album/tour/promotion. On her Instagram live stream, the British songwriter, now nicknamed the Quarantine Queen, admitted the decision to fast-forward the release wasn’t an easy one and that she had questioned “whether it’s the right thing to do during this time because lots of people are suffering”. In a follow-up interview with npr.org, however, she said in releasing the record earlier than scheduled she just wanted “people to be able to take a moment away from what’s going on outside . . .”

The decision by Lady Gaga, along with her management and her record company, Interscope, to push back the April 10th release date of her new album, Chromatica – her first record after the mainstream success of the Oscar-winning A Star Is Born, and her first studio album since 2016’s Joanne – was driven by commercial considerations connected to her now-deferred appearance at California’s Coachella festival (postponed until early October) and her Las Vegas residency (at MGM Park Theatre, originally slated for April 30th-May 11th, but now on hold for the foreseeable future).

Unpredictability

Acts as successful as Lady Gaga have reason to put their music and business affairs on hold. With the unpredictability of the lockdown and social distancing stipulations caused by the pandemic, there is little sense in releasing a new album this month, only for it become (relative) history by October, which is the timeframe in which acts of Gaga’s stature will hope to begin promotional touring. Even with that timeframe, though, there may be serious problems when it comes to the availability of venues with the requisite capacity.

Gaga’s most recent advertised (and by now wildly optimistic) stadium show dates in Europe and the US are in July (Stade de France, Paris; Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London) and August (Boston, Toronto, Chicago and New Jersey).

Lady Gaga performs onstage with Mark Ronson at the 2019 Grammy Awards. The A Star Is Born star has pushed back the release of her new album, Chromatica. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters
Lady Gaga performs onstage with Mark Ronson at the 2019 Grammy Awards. The A Star Is Born star has pushed back the release of her new album, Chromatica. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters
The dovetailed relationship between album releases and touring has inevitably been seriously impacted

During the summer, these enormodomes are available because soccer and NFL teams are between seasons. Depending on what happens, those seasons will either be under way by September or the stadiums will still be closed.

“As soon as football starts again,” says music industry expert Willie Kavanagh, former chairman of EMI Ireland, and current chairman of the Irish Recorded Music Association, “rock/pop shows in stadia have to end.”

The reason is the time it takes to stage shows at large open-air venues. According to MCD production manager Liam Coll, this can take up to nine days (for shows staged at Croke Park).

“Usually, myself and the team would move onsite immediately after the Sunday matches.” After the show on the following Saturday, he outlines, “the production load-out would be completed by 3pm Sunday, and the stage gone by Monday evening or Tuesday lunchtime. Works then commence to return the stadium for matches.”

Album teaser release (a single), album release, promotional duties ( strategically positioned media, television, online), ticket sales, venue availability – all of these are interlocking parts targeting a successful end result, which is a sold-out stadium show. “They have to work together,” says Kavanagh, “or it will fall apart. Ultimately, the logistics behind touring will depend on what the first usage of the venue is.”

Physical units

The dovetailed relationship between album releases and touring has inevitably been seriously impacted, which is why some acts have decided to isolate not just themselves but also their music. Physical units (CD, vinyl) amount to 10 per cent of overall sales, but with record shops no longer open (and supermarkets rightly prioritising more essential goods), even this commercially niche marketplace has shut up shop. It’s now all about getting new music onto playlists, from radio to streaming services, so that it can be heard. Once heard, it will either make an impact or be ignored, of course, but the time for smaller acts to take advantage is right now. One other significant change in listening habits with home isolation is that peak streaming from Monday to Friday happens about two hours later than previously. Every day, as the song on your Morrissey playlist goes, is like Sunday.

That situation will change by the final quarter of the year, observes Kavanagh, “but the smaller acts will own the streaming playlists during the summer. Being heard by people for the first time is a huge part of developing to the point where you can sell concert tickets. It’s about taking each individual revenue stream and maximising the revenue going forward – not necessarily cashing in today.”

Some music acts, however, aren’t thinking about the money element (or, at least, not all of the time). While several Irish musicians, including Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Pinhole and Blake’s Fortune, have decided to postpone forthcoming albums, Dublin folk-punk act The Scratch have brought forward their debut album, Couldn’t Give a Rats, by a few months . That decision, says the band’s guitarist Conor Dockery, was wholly influenced by the emergence of Covid-19.

Much of The Scratch’s fanbase is built on a very personal connection between us, the music and its listeners

“We had two options: push it back to winter or put it out with zero promo. Our thinking grew from a live stream we did on Paddy’s Day from our kitchen. We just jammed a bunch of tunes for a few hours, and the response was alarming – over 1,000 people watched from around the world and we received incredibly generous cash donations from a lot of them. In the aftermath, we realised that giving people a reason to be positive in this crazy time, as well as giving ourselves a reason, far outweighed any plans we might have had for the album to that point. The music industry is on its knees; now is the time to throw the book out the window and take a risk, so we went for it.”

Minor victory

The success of Couldn’t Give a Rats has taken the band by surprise. As of last week the album was top of Ireland’s iTunes Rock charts. It is, perhaps, a minor victory, but it shows that not sticking to tradition can sometimes be the best option. Dockery thinks different groups generate different responses.

“Much of The Scratch’s fanbase is built on a very personal connection between us, the music and its listeners,” he says. “We particularly feel this at our shows. There’s always such a special atmosphere at our gigs, it feels like so much togetherness and escape. In pushing the album forward, we’ve chosen to ‘give’ rather than ‘take’, and maybe that resonates strongly with people that listen to our music.” 

The window of opportunity for bands such as The Scratch won’t be open forever. Covid-19 will pass, and it is possible that by September all of those postponed albums will be, as the song on your Ramones playlist goes, all hopped up and ready to go. There will undoubtedly be a collective and finely tuned release strategy – and not just with streaming services in mind. The largest percentage of annual physical sales occurs from the last week of November to the third week of December, and the majority of these pre-Christmas purchases will be of albums released from October.

“People will be trying to optimise what they’ll get into the shops off the back of successful singles by having the album in store for that time period,” notes Kavanagh. “In the same way there is now a gap for small-to-middle size artists to benefit from the absence of new music from major names, it means these artists should ignore releasing albums in that October-December period. It will be much more difficult to get into the marketplace with the same effect that they did in the less-busy release schedule.”

Two words to those small-to-middle size acts. Get busy.

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