How Coronavirus Is Wreaking Havoc on Music
First it was just a few displaced shows in Asia and Europe — then came the toppling of global music-tech conference SXSW, desert bacchanal Coachella, and tour dates for everyone from Pearl Jam to the Rolling Stones to Post Malone to Billie Eilish. North America’s largest concert promoters AEG and Live Nation suspended all their shows; major arenas and underground clubs alike were forced to their doors. By mid-March, the coronavirus pandemic had effectively put the multibillion-dollar concert industry on indefinite pause and brought cataclysmic knock-on effects into the rest of the music business as well.
As the crisis continues to spill over into the operations of record labels, venues, streaming services, booking agencies, tech startups, and other companies in the various corners of the music industry, we’re committed to in-depth reporting and analysis from every angle. Below is a running list of Rolling Stone‘s coverage of COVID-19’s impact on music. Keep an eye on this page — we’ll update it with each new major story we publish. For a weekly digest of our exclusive original reporting, subscribe to the Rolling Stone Pro newsletter as well.
The Week the Music Stopped
It was the beginning of March when Don Smiley started planning for the worst. As the chief executive of Milwaukee’s Summerfest — which calls itself “the world’s largest music festival,” attracting 900,000 people over 11 days each year — Smiley was confronting a tidal wave of reports about the outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S. With the news darkening, he began to seriously consider dismantling the event’s entire meticulous plan. In its 52-year history, Summerfest — which was set to include performances by artists from Justin Bieber to Guns N’ Roses this year — had never been canceled or postponed.
In March, COVID-19 wiped concerts and festivals off the calendar — and that was just the beginning. Inside the unprecedented week that threw the music industry into crisis
How a Singing Surgeon Is Raising Funds for COVID-19 Relief
“It’s been a humbling past few weeks,” Francois says, calling shortly after a surgery. “Dr. Robinson and I have been sharing music with patients over the last few years. You can perform perfect surgery and prescribe appropriate medication, but if someone is broken on the inside, music can go places that medicine can’t. It heals people in ways that medication simply can’t.”
With the help of two Nashville music execs, Dr. Elvis Francois recorded an EP that supports health care workers on the front lines
Sales of Instruments and Music Gear Are Soaring. Will Quarantine Spark a Renaissance?
With time to spare, musical beginners are diving in by purchasing instruments for the first time and signing up for lessons. Tuerk says Reverb is currently welcoming an influx of new buyers. “We’re seeing an increase in acoustic guitar, synthesizer, keyboard, and pro audio orders,” he says. “Based on the types of gear they’re purchasing, many of these new buyers appear to be beginners.”
Defying the economic downturn, online business is booming for Apple’s GarageBand music software, as well as Sweetwater, Guitar Center, Reverb, and other retailers
Independent Artists Are Making More Music Than Ever
“In the last week, we’ve seen record volumes,” says Zach Domer, brand manager for Soundrop, which has around 45,000 users. “Artists are saying, ‘What can I do right now?’ The answer is: Record music at home and put it out.”
Since musicians began social distancing, distribution platforms that cater to unsigned acts are seeing huge surges in activity
Should Music’s Biggest Companies Be Doing More to Help Right Now?
“Some of these companies have made a good start — you could call it a down payment,” Kevin Erickson, director of the Washington, D.C.-based artist-advocacy nonprofit group Future of Music, tells Rolling Stone. “But writing a big check is not nearly enough … Responding to this moment can’t just be about getting back to a pre-virus status quo, which was unsustainable for a whole lot of music-industry workers.”
Spotify, Amazon, Warner Music Group, and other major music companies are donating to coronavirus relief — but how do the acts stack up against meaningful measures elsewhere in the industry?
They Were Going to Be Spring’s Biggest Albums — Until COVID-19 Hit
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.
Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys and more have delayed albums due to the pandemic, despite the ability to release music digitally. “If this continues, I think people should push back their records,” says one A&R
Here’s How You Should Support Independent Musicians Right Now
“Being a musician in 2020 was already hard,” synth-pop singer-songwriter Caroline Rose says. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which has shut down all live music and touring for the foreseeable future, thereby drying up the primary source of income for the vast majority of working musicians. For countless touring artists who rely on constant touring income to stay afloat, the next few months will be dire.
“People are going to have to look out for one another, or else this economy will just collapse,” says one indie singer-songwriter about the coronavirus crisis. Rolling Stone asked the music business how fans can help
The Coronavirus Stimulus Bill Gives the Music Industry a Fighting Chance
“Here’s what this boils down to me: They’re going to be eligible for loans and grants and possibly forgiveness of those loans if they can’t make up the income at the end of the year,” Bart Herbison, executive director of the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) and a main proponent of the bill, tells Rolling Stone. “As urgent as the Music Modernization Act was, this is more urgent. This is going to save careers. This is going to give the workers, the creators of music, a support system — it’s going to help them sustain the jobs. We’re talking about tens of thousands of people. This is a local nightclub performer, a sound engineer, a recording artist, everyone.”
Thanks to music advocacy groups, relief package passed by both chambers of Congress will apply to songwriters, sound engineers, independent recording artists, and more
Songs About Coronavirus Are About to Become Big Business
The spread of COVID-19 is boosting a trio of songs across Latin America this week: Mister Cumbia’s brassy “La Cumbia Del Coronavirus,” Kaseeno’s hard-charging “Coronavirus,” and Yofrangel and Fraga’s darting “Corona Virus” are performing well on the Spotify viral charts in multiple countries. This is both bizarre — who needs yet another reminder of the deadly pandemic sweeping the globe? — and entirely characteristic of modern listening habits.
Since it’s nearly impossible to have a conversation at the moment that does not in some way revolve around the coronavirus, a slew of songs have arrived to ride the wave of interest
Recording Academy CEO Talks Industry Relief in Wake of Coronavirus
The Recording Academy and its charitable wing MusiCares announced the launch of the COVID-19 Relief Fund last week with an initial $2 million fund. On Tuesday, streaming services SiriusXM, Pandora, Amazon Music, YouTube Music, Tidal and Spotify announced a joint contribution to the fund. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to take care of everybody in all their needs, period,” says Mason Jr. “It’s going to be very hard to do. So it would be impossible for us to set a number and say we want to raise $500 million to pay back all the musicians who lost their money.”
“I’m concerned for fans of music, because there’s not the ability for our creators to be able to continue to put out the volume of music that they normally do,” Harvey Mason Jr. says
Music Streaming Is Down in the Time of Social Distancing
During the week of March 13th through March 19th — the week restaurants and bars across the nation closed and more Americans self-quarantined — streams dropped 7.6 percent, to under 20.1 billion. Programmed streams on services like Pandora dropped 9 percent to just under 3.5 billion, while on-demand streams (audio and video) dropped 7.3 percent to 16.6 billion. Dropoffs off this magnitude are rare, with the exception being the week after Christmas, as listening starts to return to normalcy after a busy streaming week.
As album sales tank, music streams drop too, down nearly 8 percent last week, according to Alpha Data, the data provider for the Rolling Stone Charts
A Coronavirus Song Featuring Cardi B Is Going Viral — and May Violate Copyright Law
When Rolling Stone reached out, an Atlantic representative said that the label was “looking into it,” but wouldn’t go into any detail. “Me and my management and her management and everybody are in talks,” iMarkkeyz tells Rolling Stone, adding that the teams connected after the song’s release.
DJ iMarkkeyz’s dance track “Coronavirus,” which remixes audio ripped from a Cardi B Instagram post, is rising quickly on the iTunes charts
Music Startup Sofar Sounds Will Pay Artists For Canceled Shows
“Our whole focus right now is in how we can support artists and give them a broader stage to engage with an audience and with each other,” CEO Jim Lucchese tells Rolling Stone, in response to questions about how the team will monetize the new projects, now that Sofar is not able to sell tickets to live shows.
Sofar Sounds said it will pay artists for canceled gigs and work to reschedule them, as well as introduce a Global Artist Fund with an initial goal of $250,000
Coronavirus Is Giving Livestreaming the Chance to Prove Itself
It’s taken some time — and the unfortunate circumstance of a pandemic — but concert livestreaming could finally be having its moment. Amid major festival cancellations and hundreds of tours and concerts getting the chopping block due to COVID-19, artists and their teams are scrambling for new ways forward; and because waiting isn’t much of an option for those who need the income or can’t afford to cancel, the fledgling livestreaming industry is finding itself in the spotlight.
“We are absolutely overloaded — we’ve never had this much interest in our entire existence,” says one livestreaming-company founder, as the previously shunned technology gains steam
Indie Artists Turn to Livestreaming as Coronavirus Crisis Unfolds
Kevin Gordon, who will be doing his own livestreams, agrees that there are some upsides to home performance in quarantine. “The solitude I’m experiencing during the show positively affects the performance — I feel freer, somehow,” Gordon says. “I do prefer the interpersonal connections made at ‘real’ shows, but I find the streaming option to be a close second, one that has its own particular positives.”
How artists and venues are coming up with innovative ways to keep the lights on and the music playing — without leaving the house
Does Music Touring Insurance Cover Coronavirus? It’s Complicated
“Insurance companies are not in the business of paying insurance,” Howard King, managing partner of entertainment-focused law firm King, Holmes, Paterno & Soriano, tells Rolling Stone. “There is very little protection available to artists from insurance companies for a pandemic, unless the artist themselves have contracted the disease and can’t perform. And that is only if the policy was bought before January. Since January, new insurance contracts have not covered coronavirus.” Kevin Kennedy, an industry analyst at research firm IBISWorld, confirms that “infectious disease insurance among event hosts is uncommon” in the first place.
The live music industry and the insurance industry are battling over who’s responsible for canceled shows’ multimillion-dollar losses. A contract obtained by Rolling Stone shows coronavirus specifically excluded in coverage
Coronavirus Could Decimate Touring Musicians’ Livelihoods
“If my tour goes away, it’s like a farmer losing their crops. Anyone who is not a huge superstar, the time right before you go on an album release tour — that’s famine right there. That’s when things are the tightest. All your funds are allocated to press, radio, and merch. We just placed a huge merch order for the album release tour. All that stuff is already paid for. You’ve got everything out there, and the tour is like the tide coming back in.”
Nashville singer-songwriter Caleb Caudle on the tough choices that independent artists are facing under the threat of the pandemic
Quarantine Comfort: The Best Livestreamed Performances So Far
With the coronavirus continuing to force artists to cancel or postpone tours and festivals, many have taken their shows to social media — livestreaming from the comforts of their homes and offering fans a glimpse of their lives. From Brian Wilson to Diplo, here are the best performances so far of the stay-at-home era. Click through and find something to pass all the hours you’ll have to spend inside for the good of yourself and others.
Diplo, Neil Young, Waxahatchee, and others have given fans the next best thing to a live-music show
Coronavirus Has Hammered the Stock Market — But It Could Be Good for Warner Music Group’s IPO
WMG would be an attractive stock in normal circumstances — its recent pre-IPO filing showcased a business with a $258 million fiscal-year net profit in 2019. Now, this appears even more true: with the majority of its revenues generated by an unchanging recorded music catalog, customer spend on Warner’s content, like EA’s, should remain robust, if not actually grow, as consumers become less mobile. And although some minority Warner revenue streams are potentially exposed to the effects of coronavirus — especially the firm’s interest in live tours, plus its merchandising arm — additional key income sources, particularly the licensing of movie and TV content, may now benefit from consumer behavior in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
“Music is evergreen and songs are one of the very few precious assets that have little or no correlation to the wider stock market,” explains music investor Merck Mercuriadis
Behind the Scenes on Tours Shattered by COVID-19
Paul Klimson, a veteran audio engineer who’s worked with artists like Justin Timberlake, the Roots, and Eric Clapton, was putting together a docket of upcoming shows across multiple venues last week. Then, suddenly, they were all axed in one go. A “text came through that wiped out $11,000 in gigs between now and at least April 8th,” Klimson tells Rolling Stone.
As the COVID-19 outbreak threatens live music everywhere, crew members, venue workers, and many other employees are struggling to pay their bills
With Rappers Stuck At Home, the Hip-Hop Features Market Is Booming: ‘Everybody’s Offering Discounts’
A lot of acts are turning to recording feature verses for other artists as a way to stay sharp, stave off boredom, and pad their bottom line during the quarantine caused by COVID-19. “The most understated commodity of this craziness right now is the barter and trade for features,” says Norva Denton, svp of A&R at Warner Records, who works closely with Wale and Freddie Gibbs, among others. “It’s a very quiet frenzy. ‘Hey, how you doin’? You doin’ nothing? How ’bout you do this record I asked you for two weeks ago?'”
“The most understated commodity of this craziness right now is the barter and trade for features,” says one A&R
Amazon Is Halting New CDs and Vinyl Record Sales
Early numbers from Alpha Data, the data analytics provider that powers the Rolling Stone Charts, show that physical album sales were down 6 percent week on week from March 6th through 12th, and are likely to keep dropping as more people spend time indoors and out of stores. Another early sign of bad news came Tuesday, when Amazon announced it was halting incoming shipments of vinyl and CDs from music suppliers in the U.S..
In response to coronavirus, the company announced that it was ‘prioritizing household staples, medical supplies and other high-demand products’ and halting new shipments of other products.
Coronavirus Cancellations: Festivals, Concerts, Tours, Films Affected by the Outbreak
A running tally of music and entertainment events canceled, postponed, or otherwise reshuffled by the coronavirus pandemic
Live Music in Crisis: Scenes From America’s Venues
“The closure of music venues has hit our industry extra hard because it’s not just venue staff and promoters affected but also all the musicians and crew and artist teams,” says the club’s co-owner Will Bridges. “Our staff and resident musicians are worried about how they’re going to support themselves. The music industry has its ups and downs, but it’s what we love and we’re all a big family. Right now, the hardest part is we can’t even be together.”
America’s live-music venues are facing an unprecedented challenge in the wake of the coronavirus, and a tornado that tore through Nashville. See scenes from the clubs, hear from their owners, and find out how you can help.
‘Everything Is in Chaos’: The Concert Business Stands to Lose Billions From Coronavirus
“We’re preparing for everything although we’re hoping that if enough companies and organizations take mitigation tactics seriously, it could be contained by the summer,” Zena White, managing director of independent record label Partisan, whose artists include Laura Marling and Black Angels, tells Rolling Stone. “There’s a social responsibility to try to do what we can to protect the vulnerable, but no doubt this is a huge risk to artists and independent promoters’ businesses. No one has a crystal ball, but the longer we wait to take action, the less likely it will be contained soon.“
Covid-19 has upended both SXSW and Coachella, but more disruptions are on the way as the live music industry scrambles to change course