They Were Going to Be Spring’s Biggest Albums — Until COVID-19 Hit
Last year, the singer-songwriter Cavetown, who has amassed a small but fervent following releasing frank, hushed guitar pop, signed a deal with Sire Records. In the weeks leading up to his major-label debut, he had developed a detailed rollout plan. “We had pop-ups planned in New York, Philly, and London,” says Cavetown’s manager, Zack Zarrillo. “He painted and made all the artwork for his album, so we had hired out gallery spaces where we were gonna invite his audience in to see all the art. We had underplay shows, in-stores, and a European tour.”
But even the most carefully laid plans were detonated by the rise of COVID-19, a pandemic that made nearly every aspect of Cavetown’s rollout unfeasible. “It’s crazy to have these things that were hopefully gonna shape the next phase of his career burn down in one day,” Zarrillo says.
Cavetown’s major-label debut album, Sleepyhead, still came out last Friday. “We’re fortunate that his audience is very digital,” Zarrillo notes. But at least a dozen artists have taken the opposite approach and decided to wait out the chaos. Members of this group range from stars (Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga) to young groups (Haim, Hinds) to R&B singers (Toni Braxton, Kehlani) to veterans (the Pretenders, Willie Nelson) to boy bands (CNCO) to Englishmen (Sam Smith, Jarvis Cocker, the 1975) to indie acts (Kelly Lee Owens, the Lemon Twigs). Another one of the groups that Zarrillo manages has decided to delay a not-yet-announced album as well.
“The people I know who are about to release stuff are hesitant,” says the producer Tainy (J Balvin, Bad Bunny). “If you have the power to at least move it a little bit, I’d rather you do that then put it out and have that thought: ‘I shouldn’t have released it right now because I’m not gonna get the same response.'”
Many artists who were hoping to put out albums in the spring and early summer are now reevaluating their plans. From the outside, releasing an album seems like a relatively simple task, especially in the digital era: Record music, upload it to streaming services, call it a day. But for many artists, and most of the ones who make a living through music, the release of the songs themselves is just one small part of a much larger push.
That’s because tens of thousands of new tracks appear on streaming services daily. To rise above the deluge, videos need to be shot months in advance, TV appearances need to be wrangled, streaming service curators courted, press opportunities locked down, tour dates and radio station visits and record store appearances lined up. Without these components, artists risk releasing music to an uninterested, unaware, or simply overwhelmed public. And right now, almost all these profile-raising options are out of reach.
“The issue is not releasing a project — the bigger issue is promotion,” says Antonio Dixon, who has written and produced hits for Beyoncé and Ariana Grande. “You can’t go do The Tonight Show. You can’t go radio station to radio station. You can’t do any of that.”
Some artists are more dependent on these channels than others. Many rock acts, for example, rely primarily on steady touring to stay afloat, keep awareness up, and fund new recordings; rock fans also tend to buy physical albums more than listeners in other genres. But at the moment, no one can go to a show or a record store, so it’s hard to support a new album.
“I think the punk and rock world are in the worst space right now,” Zarrillo says. “For all of my artists that aren’t Cavetown, 80% of their revenue a year comes from touring. Every single one of those artists just had one to two tours postponed or cancelled — that’s at least 40% of their revenue delayed or gone. I’m actively having conversations about pushing music back.”
Last Friday, Margo Price, another artist who depends heavily on shows and physical releases rather than streaming, announced that she was also pushing back a planned album. “Circumstances are beyond our control,” she wrote on Instagram. “Even the record plants have halted production of vinyl. I want to be able to play this album live and tour with my band all over the world.”
Some big-budget pop acts are delaying albums as well. Playing the Top 40 machine is like running a national political campaign, but instead of glad-handing local leaders and kissing babies, stars parade through pop radio events and network-television interviews. Without this carpet-bombing marketing, it can be hard for music in this space to pick up traction.
“When it comes to the big, big campaigns, I suggest everybody hold a beat,” says Chris Anokute, a long-time major-label A&R — best known for overseeing Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream album — who now runs the artist development company Young Forever Inc. “You can’t do everything from the phone and from Skype. You’ve gotta get in front of people’s faces, perform, go on TV. If this continues, and you can’t travel to promote records, I think people should push back their records.”
Older acts are also facing a complicated calculus around new albums, regardless of what kind of music they make, since their audience is not digitally savvy. “Legacy artists, someone like Alicia Keys, are more reliant on traditional ways of promotion,” explains Kayode Badmus-Wellington, founder & CEO of drtymnd, an artist development collective, and a former executive at Epic Records and Pulse Music Group. “They depend on an older fanbase that will typically connect with the music through TV, magazines, radio, live concerts — things you have to be present for.”
While some artists choose to batten down the hatches and wait out the pandemic, others are mulling moving release dates forward. Chris Crowley, who manages Beach Bunny, thinks all the push-backs may leave the release calendar unexpectedly light over the next few months. “Would that leave an opening for some up and coming artists to get some shine?” he wonders.
“There’s a good argument to not push back since so many people are going to,” Zarrillo acknowledges. “Let’s assume life is normal in the fall. It’s gonna be hellish for everyone — these album releases are going to be stacked on top of each other. Then we’re all going to be going to the same Spotify editor, the same reviewer, on October 15, and that person is going to have 20 releases on their plate instead of eight. You’re going to be fighting for attention and there’s only so much attention to go round.”
One class of artists seems unlikely to be postponing album releases: Acts who depend largely on a digital fanbase of voracious streamers. Streaming has taken a dip, but it remains the primary way that listeners can engage with music when they’re locked down. “Those who can do things cost effectively without jumping on planes and hiring lots of people, they will be in good positions,” Anokute says.
Often that means young rappers. The lack of a sturdy live business in hip-hop has been seen by some as a weakness, but the genre has focused on building up streaming numbers, and right now, this looks like a strength. As artists started to share news of postponements, the rapper Rod Wave announced that he had recently passed the billion-stream mark and will release a new album the first week of April. Big Sean also signalled that he would release a long-awaited album, as did the California rapper Mozzy.
“Rod Wave didn’t get hot from live; he got hot from putting out a lot of music over the past couple years,” Badmus-Wellington says. “He hasn’t gotten big TV [opportunities] or crazy press looks. Artists like that, [the new restrictions] don’t affect them as much. He’s just gonna keep it going.”
So are superstars with a strong streaming presence. One publishing executive says he heard that several prominent acts immediately went into album mode as the world started to shut down. Elite acts tend to stockpile beats and demos, and they have access to comfy home studios. It’s easy to imagine that an artist like Drake or Bad Bunny — international stars with streaming-heavy listenerships — could release an album a month for as long as quarantines last, racking up streams by the hundreds of millions.
“For those artists who are established and already have a strong following, they can put out new music and people will just run to it,” Dixon says. “What Beyoncé did on a couple albums — she didn’t promote anything. It popped up on your streaming service and everybody bought in. Those artists can do that.”
Other artists will have to inch forward more cautiously. Crowley is hoping to keep to his artists’ planned release schedules when he can, adjusting rollout plans on the fly. “You scramble with good intentions,” he says, “and the understanding that it could blow up at any moment.”