To Release or Not to Release? Debating Whether to Put Out New Albums Under Lockdown

With tours on hold, streaming down and record stores struggling, should artists be releasing new music in the age of self-isolation?
To Release or Not to Release? Debating Whether to Put Out New Albums Under Lockdown
For devoted music fans, albums can be a source of comfort during difficult times. With the world on lockdown due to coronavirus, however, the public has increasingly turned to films and TV instead of albums. Music streaming has declined, while both YouTube and Netflix have reduced their video quality to deal with the huge spike in viewership.

For artists planning to release new records, this presents a near-impossible dilemma. On the one hand, releasing a new LP can keep fans engaged while the concert industry is on hold; on the other, albums run the risk of coming in second fiddle to marathon viewings of Tiger King. Big-name artists like HAIM, Sam Smith and Lady Gaga have been among the many to delay their albums, and more are sure to follow.

"I'm mostly a live guy, so my career depends on gathering together large groups of people," Alberta country songwriter Corb Lund tells Exclaim! His album Agricultural Tragic had been due out next week (April 24), but without being able to support the release through touring, he pushed it back to June 26.

"A lot of people have expressed disappointment, which was a bit of a surprise to me because I assumed people would forget about music in the face of the current health/financial situation," Lund admits. "But everyone seems to understand that plans have to change."

Much like Lund, Vancouver garage duo the Pack A.D. have built a long career on the strength of their electrifying live shows. Rather than delay their farewell album, It was fun while it lasted, they've decided to proceed with the April 17 release as planned. They can't tour, for the time being, but they've been active on social media by streaming video games on Instagram Live and interacting with fans.

"With all the craziness in the world, we do think it's important for folks to have something to look forward to, and we know our fans have been stoked for it," explains drummer Maya Miller. "We're halfway sold-out on the pre-order of the vinyl alone, and we'll be trying our very best to get those out to fans when we can."

The question of whether to release an album during coronavirus lockdown is a question without a right answer, especially if you're an artist who relies on music as an income and doesn't have a financial safety net. Record labels are having to make difficult strategic choices with their rosters; the explosion of livestreams has created new opportunities for fan engagement — but what's the value of fan engagement if distributors have shut down and record stores are barely scraping by?

Ryan Dyck, label manager at Mint Records, points out that, even though mail orders have remained fairly consistent throughout lockdown, this hasn't made up for the lost sales at the merch table during live shows. With many fans out of work (or worried about losing their jobs), handing over money for vinyl isn't always possible. And as for the reduced streaming numbers, that's easily explained.

"I think a lot of people listen to new music on their commutes, which are no longer happening," Dyck says. "Also all the stores and restaurants that would be streaming music all day are not open, so there are a lot of inactive accounts."

Peter Carruthers, a marketing coordinator at Arts & Crafts, concurs.

"We're especially aware of the fact that music is now more than ever competing directly with Netflix, Hulu, Crave and cable TV for people's attention," he says. On the bright side, however, "Some analysis is showing an increase in radio listening, so that may play into some strategy shifts in the next few months as well."

Everyone Exclaim! spoke to for this piece agreed that livestreaming presents new opportunities for artists to interact with fans. It's not a one-size-fits-all replacement for concerts, however; Dyck points out that most Mint artists are loud rock bands whose live shows don't translate well into acoustic livestreams. And while fan interaction is all well and good, social media engagement alone doesn't put food on the table.

"For now, it seems like there is lots of excitement about livestreaming video concerts, but I honestly don't know how long this will last," Carruthers concedes. "I've long been a proponent of livestreaming as an untapped revenue stream. Over time I think you'll see an increase in donation buttons and various versions of a paywall — Side Door, Twitch subscriptions — as artists come up against the need for direct cash influxes."

Artists and record labels alike are having to juggle their release schedules and re-strategize about how and when to release albums. But even if right now might not be the optimal time to release your new masterpiece, it just might be the perfect opportunity to share some B-sides and rarities. Sales and streams can provide some income in the short term, and fostering fan loyalty can pave the way for a successful post-coronavirus career. Artists like Cloud Nothings, Eleanor Friedberger and the Mountain Goats have all spontaneously released raw recordings for their fans within the past couple of weeks.

"There are lots of reasons you might want to delay a full album release, but if you have B-sides or alternate versions of your already released music, now is a great time to put those out," Carruthers says. "These are special and precious things to your fans; it may be just your biggest fans who listen, but that's who is most important. People need joy in their lives, and music brings great joy to many. I think that, right now, music can be a great escape from this waking nightmare and a welcome break from the endless pandemic news coverage."

And that's the one thing that all labels, artists and fans can agree on. The financial outlook for many musicians is grim, but finding joy in Canada's music community is more important than ever.

"Things have changed slightly in our strategy," says Miller about the Pack A.D.'s plans, "but we know that people need music and art and something to look forward to, more than ever before."