Looking out at the rest of the year, at the beginning of 2020, early spring was full of exciting releases. Lady Gaga’s sixth album Chromatica and Haim’s Woman in Music Part III were set for April, and May would bring the Dixie Chicks’ first album in 14 years and new music from Alanis Morissette. But then the coronavirus pandemic hit, severely altering daily life, and the daily news cycle was filled with exhausting images and stories of isolation, unemployment, and death. Suddenly, it didn’t seem like the best time to deliver new music.
“I think collectively we’ve worked really hard to bring you something that will bring you some joy, especially at a time like this,” Dua Lipa said, sobbing on Instagram Live when she announced she’d be releasing her then-leaked sophomore album Future Nostalgia early in March, just as the threat of covid-19 had shuttered people inside. “I’m not sure I’m even doing the right thing, but I think we need the most at the moment is music,” she continued.
Several artists seized the opportunity Dua Lipa didn’t have and chose to push back their releases, sometimes indefinitely. “It just doesn’t feel right to me to release this album with all that is going on during this global pandemic,” Lady Gaga said when she announced Chromatic would be delayed. “We feel this is the best decision given the current state of things,” Haim announced when advancing their release to sometime in the summer. The Dixie Chicks album would have to wait, too.
But as the weeks went by and the fantasy that weeks of social distancing would return the world to an acceptable place to embrace new pop, the waiting game made less sense logistically. The artists who’d paused releases set new dates. Chromatica eventually dropped in May, Haim’s album is set for June, and the Dixie Chicks’ new album will finally be out in July. According to a handful of music publicists and representatives I spoke to, finally putting that music out into the world, no matter how the pandemic changes it, is the practical move.
“In mid to early March when people were realizing that this was going to be a global phenomenon that was going to impact music and especially live music, there was a lot of consideration [into moving dates] just knowing how so many artists make their living off of touring and largely use their releases as a means to tour and earn that income,” a co-founder of a Los Angeles-based PR firm tells Jezebel. “It pretty quickly became clear to most people that it would be a much longer process than [a few weeks], and I think that was really the sort of driving factor to not wait. There was no finite end date for this.”
Just like others who were cooped up, those in the music industry realized they would have to adjust. “You’ve made this music. What is actually going to happen if you push it back?” a Los Angeles-based music publicist tells Jezebel. “That was a big question mark.”
While holding movies back in the absence of theaters made sense, releasing music seemed like less of a pressing dilemma: why hold back an album that fans could listen to from the comfort of their own homes? Fans are still listening to music, whether it’s escapist pop or albums that speak to the dark reality of this moment. For some artists at least, the horror of the pandemic did not align with cheery material, as Lady Gaga felt with Chromatica, an album designed for dancing. But trying to time the release of your work with the tone of the virus has proven futile. “This pandemic is clearly going to change everything about the way we live in a lot of ways,” says the Los Angeles-based music publicist. “And I think the music made before this time only gets less relevant.”
Other artists who announced release dates—or were planning to—may not have actually completed albums, which was the case with the Killers, who were in the latter stages of mixing their new album when covid-19 hit. But the biggest concern facing artists with finished albums is the prospect of not being able to tour, especially smaller artists for whom touring money makes up the bulk of their income. “I think in most cases it is the loss of touring which will play the biggest role,” says a publicist for a UK-based record label. “Many of our album releases, in particular those of the higher-profile artists we work with, are carefully coordinated alongside touring plans and with those being postponed it seems logical to postpone the album releases also.”
The L.A.-based publicist says, “You want an album to be as close to a tour as possible because there’s that sort of latency effect. An album coming right before a tour, in theory, drives ticket sales because this music feels fresh and people want to see it.”
Since touring also contributes to an album’s chart success, artists typically take advantage of what’s known in the industry as “bundling”—when ticket sales or merch for a tour also include the sale of an album—which boosts its overall sales and influences an album’s chart placement. So if you’re a fan who buys the album, then buys tickets to a concert that are bundled with the album, and then buys a sweatshirt that’s bundled with the album as well (as is the case with nearly all of Lady Gaga’s merch, for example), you technically bought that album three times. As of June, Lady Gaga still has tour dates up for this summer, and tickets for stops in America and London include a CD copy of her album with a maximum of eight albums per household.
“I think to some degree when you’re operating at that scale, with the ability to tour and to potentially bundle tour tickets with your album sales,” the PR firm co-founder says, “for artists for whom chart placement is a priority I would guess that factored into some of those decisions.”
People are streaming music less in isolation, possibly because people aren’t listening to music in their cars; and competing media like television is grabbing their attention. But big-name albums released during the pandemic have not suffered chart-wise. Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia debuted in the Billboard 200's top five and Lady Gaga’s Chromatica debuted at No. 1. Chromatica sold 274,000 equivalent album units its first week, which is more than Joanne sold in its first week (201,000 album equivalents).
Gaga likely did not need to push back Chromatica, which ended up coinciding with Black Lives Matter protests across the country upon its release, which only emphasizes that there will never be a “good” moment to release new music. Any artist dropping an album in 2020 will suffer to some extent, devoid of a fandom to play it to and a news cycle that might properly promote it. But for those with fully realized projects, holding them back suggests that there will be an appropriate time and incorrectly presumes that normalcy is in the near future. While people stuck at home don’t necessarily require new music from pop artists, it doesn’t feel right either to hold that material because the world won’t respond to it the same way it would have in 2019.
For most musicians, the dream of live-touring in 2020 is dead as the music industry pins its hopes on 2021 for proper tour plans. But if they keep holding back an album waiting for the moment in which the world is normal again, they might be waiting longer than they think.