How the lockdown is affecting new music

Image: RTÉ Brainstorm
May 20 2020 Posted: 15:58 IST

Author: Emer McHugh, O’Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance

Analysis: artists are already changing both how they make music and how they get it to fans during the pandemic

The ongoing pandemic has had a devastating impact on the music industry. As well as the postponement and cancellation of several concert tours and festivals, many upcoming and eagerly awaited albums have been put back. These include Lady Gaga’s "Chromatica", The 1975’s "Notes on a Conditional Form", Alicia Keys' "Alicia" and the Dixie Chicks’ "Gaslighter".

In thinking about the reasons why for postponing, Elias Leight broke down the process of releasing new music in Rolling Stone"Videos need to be shot months in advance, TV appearances need to be wrangled, streaming service curators courted, press opportunities locked down, tour dates and radio station visits and record store appearances lined up. Without these components, artists risk releasing music to an uninterested, unaware, or simply overwhelmed public."

With the ban on mass gatherings, it is hard to envision when we might attend a music concert again – and indeed, concerts are where many artists get most of their revenue. Some artists rely more on physical releases rather than digital, and access to producing vinyl and CD copies varies, depending on the artist and record label.

Postponing is often simply for personal reasons. Talking to Zane Lowe, Alana Haim explained the rescheduling of Haim's album "Women In Music Part III" to late June. "Things were changing so quickly that when we were supposed to put out our record, it just didn’t feel like an appropriate time to do so. And now that it feels like we’ve settled into this weird quarantine new normal life, we really just want to put it out."

So what about the artists who have chosen to push forward their releases instead of postponing - or those who have reconfigured how they share and make music? Fiona Apple's fifth album "Fetch the Bolt Cutters" was released in mid-April, following Apple’s decision to bring the release forward and her refusal to participate in a traditional release cycle later in the year.

On the new album, Apple builds on the dynamic, exhilarating use of beat and percussion that first surfaces on 2012’s "The Idler Wheel". She exhorts "blast the music! Bang it! Bite it! Bruise it!" on "I Want You To Love Me", perhaps a manifesto for how she finds new ways of using and creating percussion and rhythm on this album. Here, Apple uses found objects (and unlikely backing singers) alongside more conventional instruments. Dogs bark on the title track and on "Newspaper", "Bolt Cutters" features a metal butterfly and a chair is used on "Drumset"; Apple even tapped on a box containing her dog Janet’s bones.

Many critics have commented on how Apple’s house becomesan instrument here, something which Apple is cognisant of (she’s known for rarely leaving her home, after all). "I moved into this house in 2000, and I’ve always felt like [it] doesn’t want me to go anywhere", Apple recently told Rachael Handler in an interview. "So I’m like, "All right, I’m going to give you what you want, house. I know you deserve to be the record. I’m going to make you the record."’ It is fitting, then, that this album, very much of Apple’s home, is released as many of us have become more acquainted with remaining at home for the foreseeable.

Other artists have also chosen to get their music out to its listeners in either a shorter or altered timeframe. As with Apple and Haim, there’s a desire to not sit on new music for too long. Laura Marling’s "Song For Our Daughter" was released in April with five days’ notice, having been initially planned for a late August release. In a message to her fans, Marling commented that she "saw no reason to hold back on something that, at the very least, might entertain, and at its best, provide some sense of union." 

Hayley Williams chose to reconfigure the release of her debut album "Petals For Armor" In light of the new circumstances, releasing new singles such as "Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris" and "Why We Ever" one by one. Speaking to Billboard about the release of her single "Over Yet", Williams said that it "helped me tremendously, because it gives me something to focus energy into. Each song is a catalyst for more conversation and connection, which we're all desperate for right now."

Both Marling and Williams particularly emphasise wanting to connect with listeners throughout the crisis. Elsewhere, other acts have used new music as a way to contribute directly towards coronavirus relief. Funds raised from Beyoncé’s remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s "Savage" go to the Houston non-profit Bread of Life, whereas the Bon Iver single "PDLIF" was released in aid of Direct Relief.

Other artists are using time in lockdown to create new music. Charli XCX has announced the release of her fourth album "How I'm Feeling Now", having been working on it throughout the lockdown: "it’ll be very DIY — I’ll make it live from scratch, very indicative of the times we’re in." Charli saw "How I’m Feeling Now"as a way to process her new circumstances, telling fans that "it’s important to do this for me now to make something that feels really authentic, and real and representative of what I’m going through".

On the other hand, The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle saw making and releasing a new album as a way to support his band and collaborators. In an interview with NPR, Darnielle explained that "everyone in the Mountain Goats has a side hustle, but our touring is our gig — that's how we make rent - and I feel a profound responsibility to my band." Darnielle recorded new album "Songs for Pierre Chuvin"on a Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox (which he had used for the Goats’ earliest recordings) over 10 days. "For the first time in a long time", Richard O'Brien writes, "Darnielle is alone with his tape recorder, doing what he can without outside assistance."

Many of these new songs, even though the writers could not have predicted so, resonate in unexpected ways. On "I Know Alone", Danielle Haim sings "days get slow like counting cell towers on the road / I know alone and I don't wanna talk about it." From "On I Go" from Apple, there is "up until now in a rush to prove / But now I only move to move." 

It would be trite to end this essay with "we still need music". Of course we do, but we do not know for certain what the industry will look like after this pandemic. Yet already, artists are changing the way they make music, and changing the way they make it available to listeners.

Marketing and Communications Office