On December 10 morning, American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift announced on Instagram that she would be putting out her next album Evermore by midnight. It was her second surprise album of the year, coming just five months after the overnight release of Folklore.
Swift wasn’t the only example. Earlier this year, rapper Eminem’s Music To Be Murdered By, hip-hop singer Childish Gambino’s 3.15.20 and folk-rock legend Neil Young’s Homegrown were all released without advance notice. In these days of streaming, some musicians have come up with the alternative strategy of releasing new material unannounced. The idea is to create a buzz after making their new album available to the public on the digital platforms, rather than building up expectations weeks in advance.
This trend may have a two-fold impact. One is that consumers often respond more proactively to surprises, especially from familiar artistes. More importantly, it prevents any chance of leaking the songs before the actual release date. Hard rock greats AC/ DC, for instance, had announced weeks in advance that their new album Power Up would be out on November 13. However, it was available illegally on some websites 10 days earlier, and though it was overwhelmingly received, some dent in streams and sales would have definitely been created by the leakage.
It remains to be seen whether more artistes release surprise albums in 2021. And though only a few known acts followed the practice, it was clearly the most obvious trend noticed in a year badly affected by the Coronavirus and lockdowns.
The other noticeable trend was that musicians kept releasing albums as though nothing had happened. Till the week ended December 12, some 954 album releases were listed on Wikipedia, at an average of 19 albums a week. October itself saw 134 new records. This was much above the figure of 757 albums released in 2019, at an average of 14 or 15 albums a week.
The surge in album releases can be attributed to the fact that with live concerts pushed indefinitely, artistes had more time to complete older recording projects and work on new ones from their homes. Though there were some lacklustre albums – most notably, Smile by Katy Perry and Cyr by the Smashing Pumpkins – a bulk of releases had the right content.
On Spotify, the most streamed album globally was YHLQMDLG by Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny, with 3.3 billion streams. Completing the top five were After Hours by Canadian star The Weeknd (who strangely didn’t make it to the Grammy shortlist), Hollywood’s Bleeding by American rapper Post Malone, Thin Line by British singer-songwriter Harry Styles and Future Nostalgia by British sensation Dua Lipa.
The Weeknd’s Blinding Lights was the most streamed song on Spotify, followed by songs by Australian singer-songwriter Tones And I, rapper Roddy Richh, the DJ-rapper collaboration of Imanbek & Saint JHN and Dua Lipa.
Korean Pop, or K-Pop, continued to emerge stronger. Popular bands BTS and Blackpink continued their wave of success, with the former releasing Map Of The Soul 7 and Be, and the girl band releasing The Album. Both these groups also sold hugely the physical form, with Map Of The Soul hawking 4 million units. Other groups like Ateez, Everglow, Dreamcatcher and NTS 127 expanded to newer regions beyond the Far East, and even Time magazine said a slew of Korean artistes produced their best work to date.
In other regions, the legends continued to make the news. Folk-rock great Bob Dylan’s June album Rough And Rowdy Ways were greeted with the best critic reviews since Time Out Of Mind in 1997. The album sadly didn’t make it to the Grammy nominations but hit the headlines when he sold publishing rights of 600 songs to the Universal Music Publishing Group for $300 million.
Country star Willie Nelson, rock bands Deep Purple, Blue Oyster Cult, Bon Jovi and AC/ DC, and American star Bruce Springsteen released new albums, which were well-received by old-time fans. Neil Young’s Homegrown involved the fresh release of songs recorded 45 years ago. The iconic James Taylor revisited the old classics on his album American Standard.
Female singers continued to do well. Besides Swift and Dua Lipa, there were new releases from Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, Lianne La Havas, Alanis Morissette and Alicia Keys, besides 50-plus veterans Kylie Minogue and Gloria Estefan. American singer Billie Eilish, who turns 19 on December 18, created waves by sweeping the major Grammys, and also sang the theme song for the James Bond film No Time To Die, receiving a mixed response.
A positive sign was the increase in vinyl record sales, despite the lockdown. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, vinyl records accounted for $232.1 million of music sales in the first six months of 2020, whereas CDs have only bought in $129.9 million. This was the first time in 34 years that vinyl outsold CDs. And though the year-end figures will be declared only in early 2021, this was definitely good news, as some kind of physical sales were happening.
Yet, despite the plethora of releases and the general impression that artistes have been active during the lockdown, a few things plague the industry. Observers say there hasn’t been any consistent marketing strategy, and a majority of releases go unnoticed even though they are available on the streaming platforms. The reason cited is that new music is just dumped on the streaming sites, and doesn’t get noticed unless they make it to the platform’s playlists. Artistes depend heavily on social media, but that has its limitations.
Secondly, the number of hit songs has reduced. On paper, some songs like Dua Lipa’s Physical, BTS’ Dynamite, the Lady Gaga-Ariana Grande song Rain On Me, Miley Cyrus’ Midnight Sky and The Weeknd’s Blinding Lights were huge. The killing of Afro-American Floyd George spawned some powerful protest songs, including Perfect Way To Die by Alicia Keys. However, there was nothing of the scale of the Camila Cabello-Shawn Mendes 2018 hit Senorita or even last year’s Old Town Road by Nas Lil X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus.
Finally, and most importantly, most artistes haven’t gained much from their releases. According to the website Digital Music News, research by British regulators is unearthing some depressing statistics. According to a survey of The Ivors Academy and the Musicians’ Union, both based in the UK, 82 per cent of artistes earned less than £200 (around $270) a year in 2019. The data reveals the appalling state of artiste royalty payments from music streaming services, it says, and adds that the list includes some artistes who have wracked up millions of streams worldwide.
Though similar studies for 2020 are yet to be published, the truth is that in the absence of live shows and the fall in CD sales, many musicians are depending in some way on streaming platforms. Ticketed online shows may not be a replacement for live shows.
The next few months are obviously crucial, both in terms of artistes’ output and how the industry is able to cope with the aftermath of the Coronavirus. What’s the point releasing so much music if one doesn’t attract the right ears?