RE­LEASE OR DE­LAY?

Mu­si­cians with new al­bums search for the best pan­demic strategies

Calgary Herald - - YOU - AL­LI­SON STE­WART

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.

DAVID BLOOM

“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.

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