Several Artists Gamble, Win Amidst Covid-19 Pandemic

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

It’s no secret, 2020 threw the world a sucker punch and the music industry took that punch square on the nose. 

Being as the Covid-19 / Coronavirus arrived in late winter; it could not have come at a worse time. You see, the music industry works on a very large, very calculated calendar often one to sometimes three years out. Album release dates are penciled in. Festivals are planned. Tour dates are routed and booked. A myriad of plans are put into place. While it might seem like it, the truth is artists don’t just work when they want. They work hand in hand with their management and record label to create a very detailed plan built around a lot of things including (but not limited to) sales trends, marketing and sponsorship partnerships, tour opportunities, the rest of the artists on the label and more. Additionally, when it comes to album releases most artists, both major label and indies alike, try their best to stay out of each other’s way not necessarily for the greater good but to ensure nobody is in their way when they make their grab for the golden ring.

When Covid came along early this year, nobody knew what was happening. All we knew was one day life was clipping along and the next, the rug had been yanked out from underneath.  It didn’t matter if you were on the road or in the studio, everyone had to go home immediately and wait for further instructions.

As days turned to weeks, weeks turned to months with nobody knowing what to do. These were uncharted waters. Nobody was allowed to tour and as more time went by, the bleaker the outlook got. At first it was a few weeks of shows being cancelled. Then months. Later it became apparent there’s a good chance there won’t be any tours this year. 

Those with album releases slated for March, April and May were the first to be faced with the conundrum of what to do. Do they go ahead and release the album hoping for the best or do they push it back? Not being allowed to travel didn’t just mean not being able to play live shows, it also meant not being able to truly promote the album. No visiting radio stations to chat and play live on the air. No going on any TV shows. No sporting event pop ins, sponsor appearances, etc. Nothing. With so many promotional opportunities no longer available to them, many artists decided to wait. They pushed their release dates back hoping things would eventually let up. 

Not all artists decided to wait, however. 

Some held their calendar while others decided to carpe diem and made the bold decision to move their release date up. Major artists like Dua Lipa and The Weeknd kept their original release dates but with so many opting to wait, that opened up a lot of marketing opportunities for smaller artists to take advantage of.

For example, Spotify

While most music lovers know it primarily as an avenue to hear music, to artists it is so much more. It’s one of the biggest marketing tools going these days because Spotify is where the bulk of their fans are. You’ve heard the saying ‘get in front of the parade?’ Spotify is the parade with millions of people taking in everything they have to offer on a daily basis. Whether it’s more available real estate on press editorial calendars, or more openings on playlists, indie artists are now able to benefit from the pullback on larger releases.  

Philadelphia rockers Mt. Joy were one of those artists who rolled the dice and pushed their release date up. Canadian folk singer-songwriter Laura Marling was another. Sara Dempsey, Global Head of Sales for Partisan Records, was part of Laura Marling’s decision-making team who made the gutsy call to move the release for Song For Our Daughter up from August to April. 

“I deal with the streaming world,” she explains. “Everything about the streaming world is metrics and algorithms and it takes time to prime those numbers. When I was first approached about this idea I really hesitated because it was against everything I had done to date.”

A good cause for concern, especially when that hesitation is coming from the big chair. Still, they opted to take a chance in part because Spotify came to the table with a lot of marketing muscle Marling has never been privy to. 

“We got a Times Square billboard; we got a global mobile marquee. I think it would be fair to say there was less competition. Because there are fewer big-name artists putting out records, there’s more room for the indie artist who is willing to do something different.”

As it turns out, the gamble paid off in a big way. In Laura Marling’s case, her monthly listeners were up 40%. Average streams per day were up 92%. Average catalog streams up 91%. ‘This Is’ playlist daily avg users up 102%. 

Much like any advertisement you see on TV, results may vary but according to Spotify, Marling isn’t the only indie artist enjoying the increased elbow room of their marketing spotlight. Enter Jeff Stempeck, Lead, Artist & Label Marketing for Spotify.

“It’s been really encouraging,” says Stempeck. “What we’re seeing is regardless of the pandemic, fans still want to support the artists they love, and Spotify has been able to strengthen that connection. 

“Laura Marling is a really good example of an artist who made a tough decision but an interesting one. Her album was originally slated for August but she knew it was a tough time for her fans. That album is incredibly soothing and a real nice piece of work. She moved that to early April and as a result, we saw that as a cool notion for her fans. Obviously she’s an artist we were going to support in August but we came in big and did a ton of good stuff in the sense of how we push records from our team; a combination of out of home looks in NY, a lot of notifications, home banners, marquee tool /homepage takeovers across a bunch of our territories on our platform. Basically, we wanted all of her fans and followers on Spotify to know about the album. 

“Then of course we worked with our teams that actually program the playlists to make sure she was first and foremost on a bunch of those key spaces and all over our big news and playlists. In general, it was all pretty massive across the board and we’re seeing that for a ton of different artist types who aren’t afraid to release during this time and their fans are still hungry for it.”

It’s not just Marling’s album, Spotify is seeing successes in other areas as well. In a world where businesses all over the country (and the world) are seeing record losses, according to Stempeck, Spotify’s numbers are trending up.

“We saw massive, really strong user growth numbers for both monthly active users and subscribers compared to Q1 of last year. So despite all of this happening, we know that people are still on Spotify and still listening which is great for us because our team is really just looking for interesting artist stories to support.”

Spotify has always been revolutionary in their artist marketing efforts and they continue to grow those opportunities for smaller artists.  For example, Pollen is an audience-based playlist that avoids genre and puts cutting edge, marquee artists like Tyler The Creator next to exciting, new developing indie artists. Other times artists fit better inside their broader emerging artist development program Radar. The fact is Spotify isn’t just built for the major players. They want to highlight artists on all tiers and for the ones figuring out how to make it work for them and their music, it’s working in big ways.

Given the success Marling saw, as did Mt. Joy, Goth Babe and a host of other artists releasing new music now, this pandemic may force some changes on the album release model that has been in place for decades. Of course, nothing is one size fits all when it comes to music, but with all these positive results it’s possible the old way of doing things might see some major revisions going forward.

“We’re having a lot of those discussions,” says Dempsey. “There is a feeling that all bets are off. Why don’t we experiment? I think this is also a good time for artists to experiment. 

“The album cycle has existed this way for a long time. Multiple singles, pushing to radio and press, leading into the album launch. Who says that has to be a certain length of time? It could be shorter it could be longer. I think people are also experimenting with live streaming and what Laura did with guitar lessons on Instagram. What are other ways to talk to your fans? I think each campaign is very individual and you have to consider the artists fans and the artist themselves. 

“Everything is on the table now.”

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