The tricky thing with historic moments is that the people who are actually living through them rarely realize that this is the case. Maybe 2020 will be such a historic turning point in history, maybe not; it’s still too early to tell. But one aspect of historic importance is the actual aspect of change that will happen in the aftermath of these specific points in time. Following a full-year of Corona-pandemic-caused habit changes we all witness various effects on us. Most of us are fed up with restrictions, depressed by the long winter, tired of the countless cancellations of social life, endless Zoom calls, the Netflix programme and rearranging our living rooms multiple times. We long for a silver lining on the horizon and although it’s actually there if you take a closer look (fingers crossed for next summer and functioning vaccines) one can’t help but feeling a bit burned out and exhausted from this year with its constant overflow of information and ‘high alert’ vibe on all levels.
Covid-19 affected pretty much all parts of society, from political and economical aspects straight to our personal lives. Some of these effects might be only visible in a few months. I don’t dare to say something like ‘the music industry suffered the most in 2020’ as this is simply not true. But since it’s the professional field I’m operating in I can’t help but being confronted with its struggles throughout this entire time. It’s frustrating, it’s painful and it’s still pretty sure what will come out of it in the end, how the music industry will actually look like once Corona is under control (which could be most likely in a year from now). I spoke with people, I heard their thoughts, had a few discussions along with personal opinions, resulting in the following six findings from 2020 that I think are the most essential ones for me personally after these twelve months.
#1 The live dependence is a fragile one
The live music and event industry was the first one that had to shut down and will most likely be the last one to open again, at least in a carefree way. And I don’t know about you but I prefer a sweaty and intense live experience over a pandemic-conform seated concert anytime so that’s the goal we should be aiming for. However, being forced to shutdown for an entire year brought many companies and artists on the brink of bankruptcy. Over the past years the shift toward live shows as main source of income, especially for smaller acts became common sense in the music industry but that focus turned out to be a fatal decision. Even before the pandemic this lead to an increased competition with more and more festivals and tours popping up in the past years. The scene, especially in the big capitals, was sated and maybe even without the pandemic that bubble would’ve burst eventually. And it might take a moment to make big crowd gatherings normal again for people. Next year’s Brexit will also have an effect especially for British artists and the impending climate catastrophe will affect the live music scene to a certain degree in the next decades. Endless touring has been the rule for many years but that era might be over for multiple reasons. Turns out, everybody betting on the same horse isn’t as efficient as it used to be. Artists had to learn it the hard way this year, but that realization takes us directly to the second finding …
#2 We need to talk about streaming royalties and the value of art
Because if you can’t rely on live shows entirely you need to talk about altenatives. I already addressed the issue of streaming fees in a separate article a few months ago because it still appears that nobody (or at least not many) wants to talk about the elephant in the room – Spotify’s non-transparent and unfair royalty politics. There is a reason why Bandcamp’s second (or third) coming was so well received because there is an overall demand under musicians for fair payment and a new discussion on the value of art in the face of a Corona crisis. We’re all told to stay at home and consume music, films, TV shows, books and other pleasures that keep us sane while social life is frozen. But what’s the value of it? Is a monthly 10-euro-fee enough to have access to a century of pretty much all the music ever released? And shouldn’t artists get more out of their music from the provider of that content who also benefits from it? If I constantly hit the repeat button on a new album on Spotify for months, shouldn’t the responsible band get more here? A “superfan” bonus instead of a voluntary donation button? It’s questions like these the industry and every artist should ask these days but the majority remains silent.
Companies like Spotify and Apple Music created a system of dependence and 90% of the people in the industry I talk to are fed up with it -so, well, why the fear to break out of the system? I’m really worried about the servility of the artists here. It’s a fatal sign. We need to talk about the value of art – with the audience, with politicians but especially with the companies that heavily benefit from that art.
#3 Sorry, but livestreams are here to stay
I hope we can all agree that no live stream show can replace an actual live concert in terms of intensity and an almost religious element of coming together for a joint celebration of music and the artists. Dozens of really bad livestreams throughout 2020 were the actual proof of that. However, there have also been good examples, ones were artists took these shows as an opportunity to exchange with their fans, create special, intimate moments of fun and togetherness. In a time of social distancing these things were crucial and these moments proved that live streamed shows can actually be good and I think they will stay. They might not replace a plain and simple live show but they can be a great tool to stay in touch with your fanbase, provide special events and moments together. Such special fan events are the ones where the people are also willing to pay. There are dozens of bands I would pay a digital ticket for when they would come up with a show á la “Hey, we play old B-Sides and answer fan questions exclusively here”. If you design live streamed shows the exact same way as an analogue show they are destined to fail. If you envision them as something else, they can be a great opportunity … which takes us directly to the next finding.
#4 Don’t underestimate communities – foster them, especially if you’re an artist
When a band that usually plays in front of 200 people ends up having a live streamed concert with only 15 people watching you know that the old rules don’t work here anymore. And you might question your fanbase in genelra. Who to turn to in a time of crisis? It’s an essential question and I’m sure each and everyone had to ask it at least once this year. Having a stable community around you helps on so many levels and it’s about time for musicians all over the world to accept that as an efficient method to not only face a crisis but to also not deal with the algorithms of Social Media, Spotify and the constant pressure to perform live. Crowdfunding platforms like Patreon slowly got more attention over the past months and if you need to know why community work is so essential I strongly recommend to read our interview feature with Amanda Palmer from 2019. She truly perfected the art of community work and is not only “the queen of Patreon” but also a role model when it comes to artistic stubbornness if you ask me. Instead of seeing fans and follows as a grey, undefined mass musicians should embrace them as loyal supporters and a way of freeing their art from the handcuffs of the modern music industry. Yes, this can ultimately lead to creative and economic freedom but please try to not see it as a business model. In the daily work of my agency I see this issue all the time. There is a great new possibility of becoming truly independent but it takes a lot of work and effort first and your mind must be ready to think this way as well. And far too many artists appear to be scared and overwhelmed of taking this path. I’m convinced that this is the future and following the crisis we will see more artists creating communities of their own and foster them instead of trying to exploit as many people as possible.
#5 More is not automatically better
I already complained about the recent release of Taylor Swift‘s second album within a few months in another article. Although being a direct result of her own quarantine and a creative way of coping with it, I question whether this was actually necessary aside of egoistic and economic reasons. With the shutdown of the live industry I witnessed an increased desire to release even more to make at least a bit money in 2020. So, yeah, we not only got the normal albums, but also the demos, alternative versions, quarantine albums, cover EPs, countless live sessions, streams etc. and I partly lost track here, even with some of my favourite acts. Those displacement activities might be comprehensible from the artist’s point of few but I think in the long run it neither helps the audience nor the industry. Throughout the year my entire inbox was overloaded with new music, new releases, more and more of the same stuff. Multiple times I lost track on the actual releases. Instead of valuing the art many people decided to let quantity triumph over quality. And for a music media that tries to keep track that’s quite frustrating. As you might already sense all these findings are connected to each other and I know this happens due to the paid fees from streaming services but also due to the fact that artists want to give something back to their fanbase. Maybe a release on a smaller scale would be helpful here. A constant flow of creative output is harming creativity and art itself, taking us right back to the debate about the value of art. More is not better, if the capitalistic nonsense of the past decades learned us one thing than this, right?
#6 2021 will be both – horrible and glorious
So, yeah, it’s safe to say that 2021 will not automatically be better right from the start. The new year will begin with a strict lockdown but from here on things will slowly get better (and we’re also getting rid of Donald Trump along the way). Vaccines will arrive, the weather will get warmer, science will make progress and towards summer things will get a bit more normal again hopefully. Restaurants will re-open, events will happen. We don’t know yet how it will look but the event industry had months of learning new things and will come up with solutions for the first half of the year, for example combining tests with ticket purchase. On the other hand we will get tons of new music next year. While 2020 has mainly given us material that was recorded before the pandemic, the next year will see the result of all the lockdown-based creativity. Usual gaps between album releases won’t matter anymore, we will see surprise releases in many forms and by the end of summer the concert schedules will be packed again, with multiple shows happening simultaneously on one evening. Sounds like paradise? Or like plenty of stress? It’s hard to tell yet and there is a danger of overcompensating everything and getting back to normal way too fast when that ‘normal’ was actually already far from being ideal.
Things do change; often in a natural way and speed that is hard to predict. That’s the thing with these crucial points in history. We all sense that we are at one right now, not just with the pandemic, but also with the climate catastrophe, digitalization and the understanding of democracy. There’s just no map that will guide us through the next steps. It’s upon people to make the changes and move this entire thing in the right direction.
At the beginning of the Corona pandemic we all thought this could be a chance for fundamental change but that might have been a bit illusive. We are still witnessing that desperate clinging to old rules and patterns, just because it’s more comfortable. But the longer we do, the more frustrating it will be to turn the wheel of time back. 2020 taught us that nothing is safe and we shouldn’t see that as a threat but rather a chance. This year also showed us that we’re more flexible than we thought we could be and that building a better future is a thing that works better it’s done in the company of like-minded people. Sorry for being a bit dramatic in the end … blame it on this rollercoaster ride of a year. I’m looking forward to whatever is next, and by now it’s totally fine to face this future with a certain amount of hope as well. See you on the other side.