While COVID-19 has thrown nearly every aspect of our lives into upheaval, few sectors have been affected by the pandemic quite like the music industry. With packed concert venues all but a wistful memory, artists who would normally be on the road promoting their latest album – and making a living from that vital touring – are facing new challenges.
Usually the album cycle rolls out like this: write, record, tour, promote – and repeat. The digital devaluation of music over the past decade has meant musicians, from local indie acts to bigger headlining bands, have had to put out more music and tour widely more than ever – a grind many admit was unsustainable.
So what does releasing a highly anticipated album look like in 2021, after artists have spent months toiling over a new record, only to be faced with a global pandemic that doesn’t allow for sharing that music in person?
“I guess we’re all a bit at odds as to how to replace touring,” says Mike Milosh, a.k.a. R&B singer Rhye. The L.A.-based, Toronto-bred musician’s new album, Home (the title was chosen pre-pandemic), came out at the end of January, and while he’s known for his soulful live performances, he’s been reluctant to do the now-ubiquitous livestream instead of a proper concert, noting the overhead for a high-quality online show can start at $15,000.
Instead, he’s been engaging with fans online, collaborating with infamous producer/DJ Diplo and making his own music videos.
“I’m creating music with the intention that it hopefully becomes a binding agent for people to come together over something – at concerts, that’s very natural, where you’ve got thousands of people together in a room listening to music as a shared experience,” he says.
“I guess the idea is that you try to get enough people to know about the music you made so that when we can tour again, maybe it’s going to be like the Roaring Twenties, where we’re going to be going to concerts every single night,” he adds with a laugh.
Toronto singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman, who performs as The Weather Station, finds herself hoping for the opposite – while recognizing she finds herself uniquely lucky, even during the pandemic. Her pensive, poetic new record, Ignorance, has been lauded around the globe amid its release last month, with glowing write-ups in The New York Times and Pitchfork – the kind of reception that would normally see an artist tour internationally and travel for press junkets and performances on the late-night TV circuit.
Lindeman, however, had already been thinking about the carbon footprint of touring as she began to reckon with the implications of climate change in recent years. The pandemic, she says, could offer the music industry a chance to re-examine the previous paradigm.
“People talk about artists having a lot of pressure to tour, but they talk about it as though it was a choice,” she points out. “It wasn’t really working for anyone – it wasn’t working for artists from a health standpoint or a financial standpoint, and I don’t think it was working for audiences, because I think there was so much music happening on any given night that people were a little burned out and the experience wasn’t special anymore.”
Whenever musicians get back on the road, Lindeman says she’d prefer to see “quality over quantity” – instead of flying across the pond several times to try to promote an album, acts could stay longer in the places they travel to and play fewer but more meaningful shows.
Until then, the positive press has given her a chance to spread the word about the new record through thoughtful discussion – something she also appreciates in her own pandemic life while taking the extra time at home to read and reflect.
“I think that’s the purpose of art and ideas, really – just to feel companionship,” Lindeman says. “This time has been really lonely, but those sorts of connections go deeper in the absence of physical and human connections.”
Toronto indie-rockers Kiwi Jr. are sorely missing that connection – amongst themselves. The jangle-rock quartet were living every band’s dream with their signing to Seattle tastemaker label Sub Pop for their sophomore album, Cooler Returns – but being stuck at home during its January release was not exactly what they’d anticipated.
While the record has received plenty of acclaim, leading to lots of requests for virtual radio and video sessions, the band isn’t able to get together to record those spots, as they live in separate households and can’t meet up under current lockdown restrictions.
“Normally we would be playing these songs live and testing them with crowds to gauge feedback,” vocalist/guitarist Jeremy Gaudet says. “But we’ve been given an opportunity to release our album on a label like Sub Pop, so it’s not like we are uploading it into the void, un-promoted and unannounced.
“I think the real question is how to maintain any buzz that you’ve generated about the album in the time after you’ve put it out. You have to just trust people to keep playing it on the radio, and keep tweeting and Instagramming, I guess.”
Staying connected with listeners online is also something Montreal jazz singer Dominique Fils-Aimé has been doing while promoting her new album, Three Little Words, the final part of a trilogy exploring the history of African-American music. Though she’s aware some might be experiencing screen fatigue, she was recently able to launch her album with a special livestream, broadcast from the studio where the trilogy was recorded.
“In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have had the chance to share this beautiful studio space with our audience,” she notes. “Looking for ways to turn the online experience into an opportunity seems to be the name of the game for everyone right now.”
While the onscreen experience may not be able to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle energy between performer and audience at a live show, trying to translate music into striking visuals can still be one way to bridge the gap – just ask Montreal/New York instrumental sextet Bell Orchestre. Featuring members of Arcade Fire, the group is set to release House Music in March – their first new album in more than a decade.
“Rehearsals and tour dates transformed into creating video content and brainstorming about different ways of bringing the music to people’s ears and eyes,” says violinist Sarah Neufeld, who’s also releasing her third solo album in May.
Luckily, the group had begun making the album well before the pandemic, which allowed them to film all the tracks live in a lush forested area outside Montreal – beautifully crafted videos they’ve been rolling out in advance of the record’s release.
“Of course we still hold hope of performing live as soon as that’s safe and feasible – there really isn’t anything like being in a room full of humans making music,” Neufeld says. “Perhaps this will generate more change out of necessity. I don’t think the world wants to live without music.”
The majority of artists depend on touring, not only as a source of income, but as a key component of an album campaign, explains Kieran Roy, president and co-owner of Toronto indie label Arts & Crafts. “Touring helps drive awareness, garner press coverage, and a lot of music lovers purchase LPs at concerts,” he says.
Joint research findings released in February by Music Canada (an industry trade group representing the country’s major labels) and Abacus Data found that Canadians are keen to return to live music when the time comes, but are also concerned about the long-term impact of the pandemic on the music and arts sector.
Many live venues have either closed or are in danger of permanently shutting their doors during the pandemic, says Evan Newman, managing director of Toronto’s Next Door Records, which released The Weather Station album.
“Overall, the music industry, when it comes to making records, is optimistic – music consumption is high and platforms like Bandcamp are giving artists direct access to their fans to sell their wares. But the live sector is gloomy, and it will take a long while for the club scene to regain its footing,” he says.
While the industry anxiously rides out the crisis, artists point out the pandemic is perhaps a good opportunity for the music business not to simply await a return to normal, but to rethink a system due for an overhaul.
“The music business has been broken down and sold for parts so many times that there’s very few paths to just living a normal middle-class life financially as a musician,” Lindeman says. “In the past, you could be a gigging musician and have a living from that, and now that’s very difficult,” she adds. “It’s been that way for many years, and the pandemic has exposed that – along with so many other things.”
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