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The Wild West of album releases during the COVID-19 pandemic

Lady Gaga did it. So did Alicia Keys, then Sam Smith, Rufus Wainwright, The Dixie Chicks and Alanis Morrissette. The 1975 did it twice; from February to March, and then to late May (as of now).

All of these high-profile artists and others postponed their spring 2020 albums into the summer or beyond due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Some haven’t even set new release dates. But other artists have leaned into the previously scheduled release dates, and some have taken their surprise staycations as an opportunity to record and release new music, like Charli XCX, who announced that she was starting to work on an album that she would record and produce entirely by herself.

At the heart of the matter for most artists is the lost ability to sell physical albums and to tour in support of the album. Many record stores are closed, but even the open ones can’t sell albums that are stuck in warehouses or in the various stages of the production process.

Label decision-makers have even more to consider: Has the album been announced? Has the first single been launched? Has the video been filmed? What about the radio campaign, marketing, digital advertising and press?

“A lot of it is up in the air right now. Nobody knows exactly when things are going to get back to normal,” said Andrew Zarzeski, product manager at London-based label Cooking Vinyl, whose roster includes Gogol Bordello, BABYMETAL, Röyksopp, Gary Numan and Amanda Palmer. “If you announced your album in March and were planning on releasing it in July, you might experience some delays with production at this point. You might not have filmed any videos at this point, and you might have to get creative with how you’re going to film those—or push the entire campaign back a couple of months.”

Any artist willing to release an album now has to be OK with selling only downloads and counting on streaming royalties. Touring ties directly into physical album sales. Each drives the other.

“[For] a lot of us artists, you make your album sales either through touring or through signing the album,” violinist Lindsey Stirling said. “The only reason someone’s gonna buy that CD is if they just really want to support the artists and they want to have that physical thing. Usually that comes from if it’s signed, or if they were excited at the show and got the energy and excitement-bought it because they wanted to take something home.”

The bigger the artist, the more physical albums that artist is losing out on. But some artists are OK with a digital-only release.

“I consider myself a little off the beaten path compared to the way standard things are run in the music industry,” said indie rock stalwart Damien Jurado, who stayed on course and released his new album, What’s New, Tomboy?, on May 1. “There was a time when I used to tour solely based on a new record coming out. I don’t do that anymore.”

Jurado, who lives north of Seattle, has an artist-friendly contract with Portland-based indie record label Mama Bird Recording Co. He’s solely in control of how much music he releases.

Physical sales are important to him, but he’s taking a longer view of the current situation. And he’s relying more on streaming royalties—for the time being.

“It isn’t like we’re dependent on record stores right now, to sell physical copies. We have the ability to stream a record, and most people who are abiding by the ‘stay-at home, stay safe’—as we call that here in Washington State—order; they are in need of wanting to hear new music. Because they can’t get down to Amoeba Records or Rasputin Records,” he said. “I think a lot of musicians are finally happy about streaming services for the very first time, collectively. Music is still getting out there.”

Still, streaming provides only a tiny fraction of income for artists compared to album sales; literally pennies. Jurado said he sees a massive opportunity for streaming platforms to help artists, many of whom are struggling without the ability to tour or sell records, but the streaming giants are not taking the opportunity.

“They should be upping what they’re giving, percentage-wise,” he said. “But they aren’t doing that at all, which I find kind of terrible.”

Jurado has been productive during his shelter-in-place, writing three new albums’ worth of material in the first five weeks. If he decides he wants to, he can release digital versions of the album all this year. If he does, the physical albums will obviously have to wait until after quarantine, just like his new album. But he’s confident that his fans will go and find his album even months later or however long it takes.

“Every musician depends on [physical album sales], but we’re talking as though this thing has been going a year, now. And it hasn’t,” he said. “The records will come out, eventually. Until then, we can depend on streaming services to get the job done for us.”

He pointed to the overall upward trajectory of vinyl, CD and even cassette sales, and said that many music lovers—himself included—always buy the albums of musicians they love in order to have a physical connection to the music, and this pandemic won’t change that. He added that he still sees plenty of fans purchasing records he made almost 20 years ago.

“I can’t speak for the Dixie Chicks or Bright Eyes, but I know my audience are the types that’ll wait for that physical release. “Physical album sales have not been damaged much by the streaming services. You have a camp of people who are willing to buy the physical copy even if they already have it on streaming. … No, I’m not concerned about it at all.”

But what works for Jurado may not work for another artist, which is why labels are working with each artist’s campaign individually. That was the case for pioneering DJ and producer Moby at Mute Records, who will release his new dance-oriented album, All Visible Objects, on May 15.

The label had planned to release a high-energy first single in mid-March that would be connected to a club campaign and numerous remixes.

“Obviously, clubs are closed and that didn’t work out,” said Mona Dehghan, Mute’s marketing and project management senior director. “Also, Moby just felt it wasn’t the appropriate time to go with that song. He, like a lot of us, was feeling very low … about mass debts, mass unemployment. He didn’t feel like it was the right time to be celebrating.”

The label met with Moby over Zoom to discuss the possibility of postponing the album entirely, but in the end, scrapped the original single and instead released “Too Much Change” last week. The label and Moby had one important component going for them: The physical copies of the album were made and shipped to retailers ahead of schedule. That was important for an artist like Moby. On his previous Mute album, 2018’s Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt, physical copies accounted for 30 percent of all sales.

“So even though a lot of stores are closed, they’re doing mail order, and we’re doing Amazon,” Dehghan said. “The record should hopefully be getting out to people in time for the release. Fingers crossed they’ll be getting their record on time.”

Dehghan said that Mute is actually bringing some of its artists’ releases forward to give music fans stuck at home something new to listen to. That goes against what many of the major record labels are doing by pushing the releases of their larger artists to the fall.

“There is concern that this fall is going to be insane with a lot of the mainstream major label things,” she said. “The fall’s already a really busy time for releases. So that was a little intimidating for us.”

Such was the case for Cherie Currie, formerly of seminal ‘70s rock band The Runaways, who wasn’t planning to have her album, Blvds of Splendor, released at all, until her label, Blackheart Records, decided to do it during the national quarantine.

Currie, 60, recorded the album more than a decade ago, in 2011, with the help of friends like Billy Corgan, Slash and Duff McKagan from Guns N’ Roses, Juliette Lewis and drummer Matt Sorum (Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver), who produced it. At first it was delayed because she wasn’t happy with a couple of the tracks. Then it was shelved in 2016 after Currie, who’s a chainsaw woodcarver, nearly died after falling from a hillside scaffold. Last fall, the label released 3,000 copies on vinyl for Record Store Day.

But this is the album’s first wide release. She said she couldn’t be happier and that fans would finally get to hear the album she always wanted to make since leaving her iconic band.

“I really think this is a perfect time for this record to come out,” Currie said. “We do have a captive audience, now, which I think is fantastic. I can’t really imagine that any of us saw this happening, where we would have to shelter in place this long.”

If the digital album sells well enough, Currie said, the label may pull the trigger and order production of physical copies. So in a sense, the quarantine is allowing it to do a test run. In normal times, a physical release would have been extremely unlikely, she said. But because of the peculiar times, with the label’s other artists like Joan Jett sidelined, label executives are able to focus more on Blvds of Splendor.

“I didn’t expect this [quarantine] to continue. I thought that there would be a standard amount of time where this virus would burn out. But that just hasn’t been the case,” Currie said. “So I think it’s terrific that we were able to put out this record now and give some people something really fun to listen to.”

CD and vinyl production delays, which Dehghan guessed is the major reason major labels are pushing back their releases, are affecting all artists caught in the middle of the production process, including Savages vocalist Jehnny Beth’s solo album, which she postponed by more than a month, from May 8 to June 12.

“With factories closing down, it was impossible to keep the release in May without impacting independent record stores,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “To release my album in a way that would leave them out felt wrong to me.”

Beth also wrote that she selected a date on which she can release the physical and digital versions of her record on the same day, something that Zarzeski at Cooking Vinyl said is important to many artists.

“They don’t want to say, ‘This album has been out for three months online and now we’re going to try to sell physical copies.’ That’s going to affect their sales, as well,” he said. “If it’s a digital-streaming-heavy artist, physical may not be as important to them. But if you’re an artist that depends on those physical sales, and having the album available at stores, that’s definitely going to affect the campaign.”

Cooking Vinyl has had to redo budgets and timelines for pretty much every release, Zarzeski said. For some of the campaigns that were least affected, the label is considering spending more on digital advertising about forthcoming albums. But Zarzeski has to balance that advertising with an emphatic tone and not make it seem like artists want people, who may be struggling financially, to spend more money on music.

“It will come off as insensitive,” he said.

Other artists are moving along with a plan to stagger the releasing of digital and streaming albums. Sometimes, as is the case for alt-pop act I Break Horses, that difference is just a couple of weeks. New album Warnings will be digitally available on May 8, while vinyl copies have been delayed to May 22.

“There are often delays with pressing vinyl for a million different reasons. It happens a lot and right now; with shops only able to do mail order, it is often late, anyway,” said Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde, the founder of label Bella Union, which is releasing the album.

Mute will also stagger the releases of several artists, releasing CDs and vinyl later on.

“For a major, mainstream label, that may not be an option or recommended,” Dehghan said. “With more left-of-center or independent [artists and labels], I think your fanbase can be a little more forgiving and a little more loyal.”

Dehghan said it’s often possible for labels to get a sense for how well an artist’s music will sell without a physical release based on the performance of singles and online fan engagement, and that it won’t be detrimental to release the physical record two months later.

“The people that will want it will want it,” she said.

Zarzeski said that if Cooking Vinyl has already announced an album and the campaign is far enough along, the label has more often than not decided to continue with the release date. For albums that were not yet announced, it was easier to push the entire campaign back.

“Some release dates have been pushed a week, some haven’t been pushed at all, some have been pushed three months,” he said, using Oakland blues rock artist Fantastic Negrito as an example of an outlier.

Fantastic Negrito has an album on the way that hasn’t been officially announced yet. Rather than holding off to film a video for first single “Chocolate Samurai,” the artist crowdsourced the video to fit the current uncertain times.

“We were not planning on releasing it as early as we did, and we had to hunker down as a team and see what made sense,” Zarzeski said. “He really wanted to send a message to his fans early in the quarantine that everything is going to be all right.”

As for the album itself? It will be delayed, slightly.

Touring is a major reason some artists are postponing the release of records. While some artists like Jurado don’t depend on the money earned from playing shows, many do.

“A lot of musicians build their tour around a record release, and if they can’t tour, then why release the record?” he said.

Currie said her heart breaks for the younger artists who can’t make a living without playing shows right now. Dehghan said she thinks that the labels postponing releases to the fall are making the assumption that the artists will be able to tour by then, which is a tenuous assumption at this point. Mute artists New Order and Pet Shop Boys are scheduled to tour in the fall, but the tour will likely need to be canceled soon.

“Thank goodness we didn’t have a new New Order album we were pinning to it,” she said, adding that the label was planning to announce a new album by another of its well-known artists for June, alongside a North and South American tour. The tour will get pushed to 2021. The album, which will be announced soon, will still be released this summer.

“We’re not sure when the tours are going to happen or how things are going to align. So we thought, why not focus on what we do have control over?” she said.

Dehghan said despite the countless streams being offered by artists right now, music fans still want albums, especially from the artists most important to them, during these uncertain times. But many artists are in a bind, needing to tour to make an album a profitable endeavor.