Business

Drones, Streams & Instagram: Album Promotion Playbook Adapts in Age of Coronavirus

Illustration by Cathryn Virginia

"This moment in time is about connection," says Atlantic Records exec Paul Sinclair. "We're all humans suffering through a really gnarly human thing right now."

On March 16, when Atlantic Records employees officially began working from home because of concerns about the coronavirus, the label created a virtual notebook so staffers at all levels could suggest ways artists could connect with fans without touring and most other forms of promotions.

"Getting our technology straight so people could work from home was the first thing," says Atlantic Records GM/executive vp Paul Sinclair. Then came the notebook. "We update it every day with ideas from around the company — there are well beyond 150 specific ideas" including content, partners, charity, gaming, wellness and livestreaming.

Amid a shutdown that makes most promotion impossible, labels and managers are adapting swiftly — and under considerable pressure — to keep their artists in front of fans. The situation is especially urgent for acts that have new albums out, like country star Kelsea Ballerini, who released her third album, Kelsea, on March 20.

With traditional promotion, such as live TV appearances and touring, off the table, Ballerini's team had under a month to develop ideas. "Kelsea's main goal was to make sure she didn't lose that connection with her fans and that the release still felt personal," says Jason Owen, CEO of Sandbox Entertainment, the firm that manages Ballerini, Kacey Musgraves, Little Big Town and others. The night before the set's arrival, Ballerini hosted an event on Instagram Live that included remote appearances by album guests Kenny Chesney and Halsey, and her team sent flying drones across Tennessee to deliver copies of the album, sweatpants printed with song lyrics and handwritten notes.

"We only did 10," says Owen, "but it got really loud on social media."

Ballerini's team wasn't the only one that made necessity the mother of inventive promotion: Over the past two weeks, artists have played virtual concerts, participated in online Q&As and even hosted group meditations, such as the one that rapper Lizzo led "to promote healing."

At Warner Records, the first order was "to not blink," says co-chairman/COO Tom Corson. With a wide slate of releases ready, "we didn't see a reason to postpone them," he says. Corson expects the label to shift some release dates for artists whose sales "lean physical, as well as touring acts who would do a ticket bundle." Otherwise, "as people self-isolate, we want to provide those fans with something to do," he says. "People are going to churn through content at a rate they never have before. The fact that there are no sports is huge."

To make sure artists have the equipment they need to stay in contact with fans, Warner Records is coordinating with facilities like SIR and Center Stage to deliver gear — including instruments and recording equipment — to their homes.

At Atlantic, Sinclair says there are "nonstop conversations" about whether to move releases. "Is it someone super-established and really active online versus a brand-new artist who really needs to be out there touring?" he asks. "If the artist can't touch and talk to fans in venues, there's a better time to put out the music." Meanwhile, other performers aren't changing their plans, including rapper Lil Uzi Vert, whose Eternal Atake is spending its second week at No. 1 after coming out March 6, with all 18 of its tracks entering Billboard's Streaming Songs chart dated March 21.

As artists switch to engaging with fans almost exclusively online, label employees are also shifting their roles. Atlantic had its touring department "chase the livestreaming opportunities because there's so many of them," says Sinclair.

Executives interviewed for this story stressed that they're making decisions with extra sensitivity. "Everything we do with our clients is being looked at through a different lens now," says Kristen Foster, president of Full Coverage Communications. For example, as rock band Bon Jovi prepares to deliver a new album currently slated for May 15, Foster says frontman Jon Bon Jovi may find himself talking in interviews — over the phone, of course — more about his charitable efforts to feed the homeless during the pandemic at his JBJ Soul Kitchen community restaurants in New Jersey.

The importance of music at a difficult time is why J Balvin did not postpone his March 20 album, Colores, says Fabio Acosta, who co-manages the Colombian reggaetón superstar with Scooter Braun. Despite losing some promotion opportunities, Balvin felt strongly about keeping his release date. "If you see video of people in Italy, they are really down," says Acosta. "What relieves them is the music."

The one area the coronavirus hasn't hit yet is radio promotion. Although artists aren't visiting stations, label promo reps are continuing to work singles to all formats. "That's business as usual," says Corson. What could change dramatically is radio listening time as almost all commuting ceases for the short term. "You've got a captive audience at home," he says. "I'm curious to see whether radio can compete with Netflix."

Executives say it's far too soon to consider long-term strategies since no one knows how long it will be before a semblance of regular life returns. And while labels will presumably try to monetize some of these online ventures eventually, "this moment in time is about connection," says Sinclair. "While conversations with lots of partners are going on, right now, let artists and fans connect. You don't want things to seem overly promotional. We're all humans suffering through a really gnarly human thing right now."

Coronavirus

This article originally appeared in the March 28, 2020 issue of Billboard.