RELEASE OR DELAY?
Musicians with new albums search for the best pandemic strategies
If these were normal times, singer-songwriter Jason Isbell would celebrate the debut of his new album, Reunions, the way he usually does, by visiting famed East Nashville record store Grimey’s on release day.
But the coronavirus shutdown measures have left Isbell stuck at home, wrestling with the same quandary facing many of his peers: How do you release an album during a pandemic? For artists such as Lady Gaga, Sam Smith and the Dixie Chicks, who have postponed their album releases, and for artists such as Pearl Jam, Kenny Chesney and The Weeknd, who have pressed on, the coronavirus crisis presents opportunities, difficulties and the potential for career-ending humiliation in almost equal measure.
For Isbell, postponing Reunions was never really an option. “It’s important to keep people interested in what you’re doing, because there’s so many distractions and so many different forms of entertainment that it’s really, really hard to keep people’s attention,” he says. “For me, I think putting out an album full of strong material is a really good way to remind people, ‘Hey, I’m still here. I’m still making music. Even though we’re all locked in the house.’”
All music genres have struggled during the pandemic, although not equally: Many rap artists, generally less dependent on physical album sales and live performances than their rock and country counterparts, are thriving, buoyed by newer hitmakers such as Dababy and Youngboy Never Broke Again.
As many musicians are discovering, a captive audience isn’t necessarily a receptive one. “People are distracted, and people are freaked out,” says Roy Trakin, a contributing editor at trade publication Variety. “It’s really hard to get people to concentrate. Streaming (numbers are) up, but the statistics show that streaming is not up for new releases. Streaming is up for classic stuff, comfort music. Is it the time to introduce new music, are people ready for it? On the one hand, they’re at home, they’ve got plenty of time to concentrate on things. But it’s such a weird time.”
Artists with scheduled corona-era releases weigh conflicting concerns. They worry about competing with the virus for the nation’s attention; they worry that their music, if delayed, will no longer feel relevant to them; they generally dread album rollouts and want to get them over with.
“I was very overwhelmed by both options,” says Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams, who released her solo debut, Petals for Armor, earlier this month, and who, like Isbell, had to scratch plans to spend her release day at Grimey ’s. “If I postpone it, I’m just gonna feel bloated with it for God knows how much longer. If I put it out now, what if it’s not sensitive enough? Will I look like an egotistical a-----e?”
Many superstars who initially delayed their albums are cautiously returning to the fray, including Lady Gaga, whose latest release, Chromatica, will drop at the end of the month. In their absence, artists bubbling under the A-list, such as indie band Car Seat Headrest, are stepping into the attention vacuum.
If there’s one thing music industry experts agree on, it’s that nobody really knows anything. The industry’s few remaining gatekeepers appear ill-equipped to sift through the avalanche of new acts. Radio play, for example, means less when fewer people are listening on their way to work. No real consensus has emerged on whether artists should release albums or postpone them, or how they might best gauge the national mood. It’s easier than ever for an artist to do the wrong thing, to seem self-promoting, or too earnest, or not earnest enough. No one wants to be seen as not taking the pandemic seriously, or jockeying for advantage during a plague, but no one wants to be the target of a Gal Gadot-singing-imagine-style cancellation either. “People are already growing tired of ‘We’re all in this together,’” Trakin says.
Pop hasn’t yet had its Tiger King moment, a unifying (virtual) water cooler smash, although the era has a handful of winners: R&B superstar The Weeknd’s March album, After Hours, is an unreserved hit. Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters is widely considered the first great work of the era, although it fell out of the Billboard Top 100 within a month of its release; even successful albums feel strangely ephemeral in the age of the coronavirus.
“It’s important to keep people interested in what you’re doing,” Jason Isbell says, “because there’s so many distractions and so many different forms of entertainment that it’s really, really hard to keep people’s attention.” The musician’s new album is called Reunions.