In March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown changed the world as we knew it. By the end of the year, over 114 million people were out of a job. Quarantines, travel restrictions, and limitations on social gatherings completely devastated the economy and impacted virtually every industry.
Today, the vaccine has given us a glimmer of hope, but by no means are we ready to say goodbye to “The New Normal.” Now more than ever, people cling to entertainment as a way to escape the chaos and uncertainty. In the music industry, artists and labels are forced to get creative in order to stay afloat and keep supplying the world with new music. Of course, concert venues are among the countless businesses closed by the pandemic, which brought the concert-touring industry slamming to a halt. This is especially tragic on account of how live performances are the main source of revenue for most artists. And the numbers are no joke– the global music industry is worth a cool $50 billion.
One of these musical victims is singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy, who shared his thoughts on the matter with The Wall Street Journal. “The pandemic has utterly decimated the live-music industry,” Tweedy said. “There’s been almost an entire year now of absolutely zero revenue. Live music is going to come back, and people are going to go to concerts again. There will be places to play. But the landscape won’t ever look the same. I imagine that a lot of the more intimate music venues will be gone, just like a lot of small businesses and restaurants. Hopefully those voids will be filled by something new.” Sadly, this pessimistic outlook is too real.
The collapse of the live music industry combined with the loss of PRS earnings (the money gained from being played in licensed venues like stores and restaurants) has many musicians living in a surreal nightmare. And of course, the effects of the pandemic are also felt by the thousands of people who work alongside these musicians, including road crew, sound engineers, security guards, and haulage companies.
But through it all, musicians remain both hopeful and creative, the perfect recipe for great art. In an article he wrote for NPR, music writer John Paul Titlow states, “As the live music industry awaits an economic lifeline… some are using the standstill to creatively rethink the functionality and economics of live music.” He adds, “While nobody expects new formats like socially distanced, limited capacity shows to address the industry’s bigger, more systemic threat, the experimentation may yield clues as to how to safely experience live shows before a full reopening is possible.” Beyond this, artists have also had all the time in the world to write and have proven that they can still produce great music even under these enormous creative constraints.
Within the first month of quarantine, the music business swiftly learned to adapt. In a conversation with entertainment lawyer Doug Davis, Music Business Worldwide reported that artists and execs are making every effort to adjust to “the new live-stream dominated, concert-less and self-isolated world, while at the same time trying to maximize revenue opportunities where they can.”
Basically, they are using social media more than ever before. From musicians signed to major labels to indie performers, artists have been quick to set up paid-for livestream concerts to support their bands and crew members. Musicians such as Neil Young, Cardi B, and Melissa Etheridge have been focusing on subscription platforms to provide fans with paid-for behind-the-scenes content and music. Social media (mainly Instagram, Twitch, YouTube, and TikTok) is a lifeline to creatives and absolutely fundamental in any form of commercialized engagement.
The industry soon caught on and the number of users watching and creating livestreams was exploded. Forbes reports that “Viewership on video sharing platform Twitch, specifically their Music and Performance Arts Category, rose by 524%, from an average of 92,000 viewers to 574,000 viewers.” Experts were more than happy to take advantage of this and jump on the bandwagon. The article goes on to add that from February to March of 2020, there was a reported “70% increase in Instagram Live video streaming in the United States,” and “Alongside Instagram Live, YouTube Live is another platform that has amplified artist’s efforts to connecting instantaneously with fans.” Additionally, with social media, there are just as many musicians being scouted, if not more.
In fact, though it may seem like the pandemic has savaged the entire industry, this is not true at all. Record company trade group the Recording Industry Association of America reports that since the beginning of the pandemic, sales of recorded music grew 9.2% to $12.2 billion as subscriptions to streaming services have surged. 2020 marked the music industry’s fifth consecutive year of growth. This is owed to music streaming, which accounted for 83% of total revenue.
The question on every musician, exec, and fan’s mind (besides “when will things go back to normal?”) is “how will the pandemic change the industry?” The answer is that it already has. Today, we are far more likely to use Siri and Alexa to listen to our music than we were this time last year, when the in-vehicle music experience was most common. Social media is growing exponentially, with new platforms like Nugs.net, StageIt, BandsInTown, Bandzoogle, Memberful, and Beatstars constantly being pumped out in order to meet fans’ and artists’ ever-growing expectations.
As tragic as it has been, the pandemic has taught us that the industry is resilient. Artists and their teams have displayed a kind of innovation and togetherness that we haven’t yet seen. As they think up new ways to turn fan engagement into profit beyond the arena, they push themselves to be better. When the pandemic does end, it is clear that the music industry is more than prepared to embrace change while holding onto these new ideas that already have shaped the industry forever.