Three weeks ago, the Internet collectively rejected a pitchy celebrity cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Spearheaded by actor Gal Gadot, the star-studded clip was meant to uplift fans and promote unity. Instead, it did the opposite. With many Americans losing their jobs and loved ones, the last thing people want is millionaires’ pity. The question for entertainers, then, is what would actually be helpful? Artists at all levels of the music industry have responded with different approaches.
In lieu of the press and performances that make up a typical album release cycle, many artists (including The 1975, Willie Nelson and HAIM) have delayed releasing new music altogether. Sam Smith not only pushed back their album’s release date, but also decided to change its title, as it was originally titled To Die For. Lady Gaga’s highly anticipated comeback has been postponed as well. In an announcement to fans, she explained that Chromatica, which was expected on April 10, was supposed to be launched alongside a secret Coachella set.
Artists’ hesitation about releasing new music in a time of crisis is understandable. I’m reminded of Kesha’s 2012 single “Die Young” which swiftly exited US radio playlists in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting. In a similar vein, hyperboles like Smith claiming their album is “to die for” would certainly be interpreted differently in the middle of a pandemic.
These delays in new music amid COVID-19 shed an interesting spotlight on the importance of spectacle in the music industry. In her announcement, Lady Gaga acknowledges music’s healing power, but remains unwilling to contribute to that process by making Chromatica available. I don’t intend to diminish the fundraising Lady Gaga has engaged with in the meantime, but the strategy involved in her decision-making is obvious. Moments like the now-canceled Coachella set are meant to bolster a curated image, an image used to perpetuate more sales and streams. This equation is just as important as the music itself. Of course, Lady Gaga’s image-building has always been intrinsic to her artistry. It wouldn’t be a Lady Gaga album launch without a few outrageous outfits, evocative performances and a smart business strategy.
Still, many artists have proceeded by releasing music as scheduled. For example, Selena Gomez dropped a deluxe edition of her latest record Rare on April 9, but not without an explanation. In an Instagram post she reassured fans that, despite the cheekiness of her new single “Boyfriend,” having a boyfriend “is nowhere near the top of (her) priorities.”
For the most part though, quarantine has actually meant giving fans access to more music than usual. Dolly Parton’s actions represent the less tech-savvy approach to providing extra access. On April 10, she added six of her previously inaccessible albums to all streaming services. Garth Brooks, notorious for keeping all of his music offline, has opened up his catalogue by hosting the TV special “Garth and Trisha Live” with wife and fellow country singer Trisha Yearwood. Countless other musicians of all genres and degrees of popularity have made their music more available in a less conventional way: livestream concerts.
In addition to putting their concerts online, many singers have taken the opportunity to put more of themselves online too. Lately, my Instagram feed has been full of Q&As, screenshots of Zoom songwriting sessions and sneak peeks into the production process. One trend is to participate in the #unreleasedchallenge or #demochallenge. These call for a snippet of an unreleased demo, along with its backstory, to be posted on social media. There’s also Tim McGraw’s #deepcutchallenge which invites artists to cover their favorite relatively unknown song. These quarantine-inspired projects are a chance to see a less filtered side of your favorite stars. Similarly charming are artists’ homey performances on late night shows and TV specials like ACM Presents: Our Country and the upcoming One World: Together at Home on April 18.
It’s only been a few weeks of social distancing and there has already been a lot of change. Artists who rely on touring have lost their main source of income. Tons of workers behind the scenes, from tour crew members to sound engineers, are now unemployed. Fans are unable to gather to grieve the artists we’ve lost, including Kenny Rogers, Bill Withers and John Prine. But if one thing is for certain, artists will keep figuring out ways to connect with their fans, and fans will keep finding ways to listen.