It’s no secret that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had a cataclysmic impact on the music industry. Neither mainstream institutions nor obscure up-and-comers have been able to perform before a live audience in over three months, and as second waves of the virus are raging throughout the world, it doesn’t look like things will return to normal anytime soon. In fact, the state of the world has actually become even more unprecedented throughout the last month as protests against police brutality have taken place worldwide. Despite all of this, there’s still lots of new music being released, and the music industry has had to adapt to these new conditions.
Huge artists who generate a substantial portion of their income from streaming revenue and who were already financially stable before the pandemic hit are not facing an existential threat to their careers. However, for independent labels and artists who previously made most of their money from touring and/or physical sales of their music, the stakes are much higher. Between sudden manufacturing delays at vinyl, CD, and cassette pressing plants, unpredictable mail order schedules, a hobbling music press, and the total inability to promote their music in the live setting, it’s a particularly challenging time to release an independent album.
According to independent labels like L.A. hip-hop tastemakers Deathbomb Arc (known for their work with clipping. and JPEGMAFIA) and the Chicago-based experimental label Hausu Mountain, temporary shutdowns at vinyl, cassette, and CD manufacturing plants for the first couple months of quarantine forced them to pause their release schedules. In Hausu’s case, they ended up pushing back a release by the ambient artist Quicksails all the way into the summer, and now, as some of those plants reopen as states relax their social distancing policies, their schedule is slated to return to “normal” in the coming months.
Deathbomb Arc has recently been uploading many of their projects as Bandcamp-exclusive digital releases, so the manufacturing stoppage hasn’t been a huge hurdle. “Mailing shit, on the other hand, has been a small nightmare,” says Deathbomb owner Charlemagne Lazarus. “Mail times are [at] about two months for domestic, longer for international. It was very stressful at first. I guess we have gotten used to it, though.”
In the world of indie-rock, the venerable Carpark Records (Cloud Nothings, The Beths, Speedy Ortiz) has only needed to make slight adjustments. According to label owner Todd Hyman, the biggest changes in their day-to-day are the pause on their internship program and Hyman having to take on all mail order operations himself, given that he’s the only one coming into the office. However, Hyman says that most of the label’s income comes from streaming, so as long as his artists have music to release, he’s committed to trekking forward with album campaigns. “This pandemic could go on for years so I don't personally see much value in delaying releases,” he adds.
There was no real consensus behind the benefits of postponing albums due to COVID-19, and it’s still too early to tell whether those decisions paid off, both financially and artistically. At the crest of the pandemic, many major label albums like Lady Gaga’s Chromatica, The 1975’s Notes On A Conditional Form, and Haim’s Women In Music Part III had their initial release dates pushed back by their labels, presumably to try and wait out the early months of quarantine in case everything miraculously blew over by the summer. Some of those decisions were perhaps a reaction to the late March report that streaming activity was down in the early weeks of the virus, which put labels at risk of releasing music that would underperform expectations.
However, a Rolling Stone story published in mid-April found that independent artists were uploading noticeably more music on digital distribution platforms like CD Baby, Tunecore, and Vydia. This suggested that artists with less to lose than, say, a multi-million dollar pop release, were trying to experiment with releasing music in a world where people were at home bored and ostensibly hungry for entertainment. It’s been a tough call that many independent labels and artists have had to make, and it’s something that Chicago rapper and label owner Open Mike Eagle has wrestled with—both in relation to his own music and the Video Dave album Week 1560 that he just put out on his label Auto Reverse Records.
“You look at these things like your children,” Eagle says. “It makes the personal stakes really high. And you look at it like, ‘Ugh, do I want to release my baby to a world that’s gonna ignore it? Because one thing you can’t really do is have a do-over. No matter how long you worked on it, if you just did it in the last month or this has been your life’s work, once it’s out, it’s out. And if it came out when people weren’t really listening to music, that’s just always gonna be part of the legacy of that project. So there is a certain thought, too, of holding it and keeping it until things kind of normalize, because you do want to give your project the best conditions to live in.”
Although Hausu Mountain pushed back one release, they also released the latest Fire-Toolz record as planned on May 8. Their reasoning was that they had announced it pre-pandemic and had so many pre-orders locked in with the distributor that they didn’t want to hold their fans’ money “hostage” any longer than necessary. Chicago musician Nnamdi Ogbonnaya (who records as NNAMDÏ) was in a similar position for his new record Brat, which he released on his indie label Sooper Records on April 3, right when quarantine was really setting in and the world was in a chaotic frenzy. Despite that, he says that he never considered postponing the record.
“It’s my one skillset,” he says. “I wasn’t considering not [releasing it]. I’m not a doctor or anything like that. Those people help people actively and this is the one thing I do that I know can make people feel better. I think it would have been silly to not do the one thing I’m good at.”
“It’s my one skillset. [Music] is the one thing I do that I know can make people feel better. I think it would have been silly to not do the one thing I’m good at.” - NNAMDÏ
For him, and for many of the other artists and labels that contributed their thoughts to this article, the last few months have necessitated less of a shift in the literal process of releasing music and more a change in the presentation of it. “Just tonally being empathetic with the situation that a lot of people are going through,” NNAMDÏ says. “The subject matter of Brat was pretty similar to isolation and battling with the importance of your art, so I feel like that resonated with people in general. But I feel like maybe if the pandemic hadn’t taken place there might’ve been a cheerier tone in its presentation. It kind of just naturally shifted to a somber tone. Because I myself was feeling down and the whole world was kind of feeling down.”
Moving forward with the release in pandemic times gave the content of the record a whole new significance to listeners. For NNAMDÏ himself, the experience illuminated the the emotional benefits of releasing art in times of struggle. “It definitely shifted my perspective on reasons why sharing music is important,” he says. “I think it brought to life the importance of music in terms of dealing with traumatic situations and also as a little escape from the stress people feel every day. Although it's not usually an active thought when making music, it’s just deeply ingrained in the whole process.”
However, even if an artist can successfully put out an album and have it sell relatively well like NNAMDÏ’s Brat did, without the ability to tour, the release can still be a huge financial gamble. Open Mike Eagle and Video Dave were in between legs of a tour in mid-March when the pandemic hit the U.S., and the inability to get back out on the road to promote Dave’s record for its initial June 12 release date put a dent in the whole promotion cycle, likely impacting its financial success.
“Me putting out an album and not being able to tour at all is a serious consideration,” Open Mike Eagle says. “Because I’m talking 30-40% more income if I”m able to tour [a release]. It’s really that level of serious business for me whether or not touring can happen. But at the same time, do you hold out until touring can happen, when who knows how dated your project could sound at that point? It’s just a lot to consider.”
However, for most of the sources in this story, the recent protests against racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd have caused more of a change to their rollouts than the pandemic. Eagle ended up pushing back the release date of Video Dave’s record because they didn’t want to be promoting an album while there were more important matters at hand that were, for good reason, distracting potential listeners from new music releases.
“A lot of what it really takes to make a project successful on the indie side is really pushing the thing yourself to your own people and getting them activated,” Eagle says. “And when we’re feeling what we’re all feeling, because of police brutality and the constant racial injustice that we feel so acutely, it became more difficult to say, 'Hey, go stream my song.'”
Hausu Mountain co-founder Doug Kaplan has actively been trying to keep label promotion to a minimum, which is both out of respect to the movements taking place and also a reflection of Kaplan’s feelings on music’s importance during this era of social uprising. “I don’t really even care that much about new releases these last couple of weeks, so I don’t really expect other people to as well,” he says.
Deathbomb Arc didn’t just adjust their promotional tone during the protests, they used the opportunity to reflect and ensure that they do better going forward. “What I do want to see become normal is labels supporting civil rights, always," Lazarus says. “While Deathbomb has been quick to support protests in the moment in the past, I've realized in the past couple weeks that it is a failing that Deathbomb wasn't making sustained efforts. So from this point forward, we'll be donating every month to civil rights groups. Forever.”
NNAMDÏ had a different reaction to the protests that occured in the week that followed George Floyd’s murder. He decided to write, record, and release a three-song EP all within the one week, and donate the proceeds to non-profit organizations and direct community support.
“It just seemed like a necessary thing to do,” he says. “Through all this stress and everything going on I kind of forced myself to finish it because it felt very important to do. I would like to say that it alleviated stress but the whole process was stressful in itself. But I think after the fact, it was worth all the stress that I put myself through to finish it and to finish recording in that short amount of time.”
He dropped the project, titled Black Plight, on June 5, which was one of the monthly Bandcamp Friday events that the digital music marketplace has been hosting, during which all of the proceeds they’d normally take from sales are waived so all purchases go directly to the artists. On that day in particular, many artists and labels on the site were in turn donating all or some of their sale proceeds to various non-profits, and NNAMDÏ's EP ended up being the best-selling digital album on Bandcamp for that entire week.
Hausu’s Doug Kaplan says those Bandcamp days have been “essential” to labels like his throughout the pandemic. He and Carpark’s Todd Hyman mentioned that mail order sales in general have been way up for their labels throughout the last few months (while store sales have understandably shrank). In fact, Hausu Mountain has had some of the most successful releases in their label’s eight-year history in 2020; a peculiar yet promising success story for an extremely niche small business during this period of economic turmoil.
Kaplan’s theory is that many of Hausu Mountain’s artists don’t perform live in normal times, and from the comments he’s seen in the various livestream chats they’ve co-hosted in recent months, many of their fans don’t care for live shows either. Therefore, the halt of live music doesn’t necessarily affect their audience.
“Many of our artists don’t like playing live but do because they think that that’s what they’re supposed to do,” Kaplan says. “For the Fire-Toolz [virtual] release show, there were people talking in the chat about how they don’t go to shows because they live in either rural or suburban areas, they have jobs that don't let them go to shows, they get anxiety from being in crowds or from the loudness. Going to shows is like going to a party, which is not an environment that is for everybody.”
Hausu Mountain is uniquely suited for an industry that’s shifted almost exclusively to the online realm, but even a label like Deathbomb Arc isn’t worried about adapting to this new terrain. “Deathbomb and the artists on the label all have such deeply connected relationships with listeners that it doesn't affect us much if press outlets change; if record stores change,” Lazarus says. “Both Deathbomb and [their distributor] Fat Beats are always working towards making this music available in whatever new ways audiences are interested in, so change is just a part of the passion in doing this.”
For working musicians like NNAMDÏ who rely on income from their art to live, it's essential to find ways to keep making money from music and have successful releases in a post-coronavirus world, just so they can pay their bills. “People can’t afford to stop doing their jobs, it’s been like three months,” he says. “Eventually people are going to have to go back into it. I know a lot of people won’t be ready to consume music in the same way, but there are also so many people that are hungry for it, so I think it’s just learning how to balance and how you present yourself without seeming like you’re pandering to anything.”
Being an independent musician or record label wasn’t a stable career path before coronavirus. The vast majority of independent artists absolutely had to tour many months out of the year just to scrape by, and in a music economy that revolves around competing with major artists on streaming services with egregiously low pay rates-per-stream, running a truly independent label was just as tricky. It’s a tough business, and that was the case before coronavirus struck.
“Nothing was predictable before,” Kaplan says. “This is a huge event, this is probably the most fucked global event either of us have lived through. But in the music industry everything’s been changing forever, [from] Napster [to] every manner of technology changing all the time. So this is just one more thing that we have to react to [of] the many things that we’re going to have to continue to react to, as both small businesses and art entities.”