Coronavirus

Why Holding an Album Until Touring Resumes May Be a 'Bad Move'

concert audience
Daniel Pockett-ICC/ICC via Getty Images

As 2021 looks more likely for live music to safely return, agents argue that releasing music -- and finding new avenues for engagement -- is more important than ever.

Had everything gone as planned, Margo Price’s anticipated new album, That’s How Rumors Get Started, would have arrived this Friday -- but due to the ongoing pandemic, everything changed.

At the end of March, Price announced on Instagram that her album would be delayed, saying "Life is postponed until further notice," and that a summer release seems more realistic. "I want to be able to play this album live and tour with my band all over the world and I know that time will come."

Price is far from the only artist to delay an album for the foreseeable future -- there’s Lady Gaga, Sam Smith and Dixie Chicks to name a few -- though Price falls into a category of touring-based artists who rely more heavily on the live sector not only as a revenue-generator but also for fan engagement. (In mid-March, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention banned gatherings of over 50 people, Price tweeted "now would be a great time to buy an album or some extra merch.")

However, Jonathan Levine, Paradigm's Nashville co-head and senior executive agent whose clients include Price, Kacey Musgraves and Sturgill Simpson, says, "Touring is a big part of [Margo's] career, but it's not the only part of her career."

As it seems unlikely that the live industry will roar back in any capacity this year, more and more artists, Price included, are now having to explore or lean on other avenues for engagement — and, more importantly, figure out just how long they can and should wait to release their albums. Levine believes that decisions surrounding the timing of new releases and rescheduled tour dates come down to two primary factors: who the artist is, and what tools or ability they may have between now and a TBD postponed date to stay engaged with their fans.

Paradigm client Lauv, for example, released his debut studio album ~how i’m feeling~ in early March with a summer tour planned to follow.

"Now, I don’t know when we’re going to be able to do the tour," says Matt Galle, a senior agent at Paradigm and president of New York-based indie label Photo Finish. "It might be spring or summer next year, we’re waiting to figure it out, but he’s going to have much more content -- EPs and maybe even a new album -- out by then."

As a result, Galle says the new music will inform a "totally different vibe and vision for the tour and what the production is." His best advice to artists is to follow a similar plan, and "just snowball the music and put two albums out rather than wait a whole year on one. You still need to engage your listeners and fans… they want something."

Haim realized as much; the trio first postponed its April 24 release date for Women In Music Pt. III to late summer, but on April 29, revealed on Twitter that they'd changed their minds. 'The original plan was to release wimpiii later on this summer well fuck that we are gonna release it on june 26th … we can't wait." With the announcement came a new single and accompanying socially-distant filmed music video.

Meanwhile, a handful of artists including Dua Lipa (though she moved her album up a week after it leaked online) and The Weeknd never delayed their release dates at all.

Still, as Lady Gaga and many more have yet to reveal new dates for their postponed albums, Galle predicts a heavy fourth quarter for releases and a potentially over-saturated market.

CAA’s head of music, Rob Light, agrees, saying: "If everyone waits and then drops a record in January, have you created more of a problem? You may have more outlets, but you also have 50 pieces of product out there, so what are you competing against? Smart people are stepping back and looking at each project and saying, 'What are the tools I have and how do I use them?'"

Levine sees a similar challenge in the live space, saying how at one point it looked like every tour and festival would be rebooked for fall 2020. "It was going to be a real cluster of too much activity in a short window," he says, "and that could still plague us in early 2021 — and it could even be beyond that. I’m involved in multiple conversations along those lines as we speak. There is still no right or wrong answer.”

As some 2021 tour dates begin to lock in, Galle says artists and their teams still have to consider the right time to announce, once “fans can wrap their heads around going outside again and buying tickets to a live event.” But no matter when touring does in fact resume, Galle assures that holding an album until that time comes "seems like a bad move."

Levine and Galle both stress the importance of keeping fans interested now more than ever. "If touring is now sidelined for the time being, then what else can you be doing?" asks Levine. "Not just to stay engaged, but are there other ways to still make a living? In many of the cases of the artists that I represent, their income comes from what they do on the road and touring and merch, it’s not from how many records they sell or stream or get downloaded."

He reiterates that, in the case of Price, "performing is just one of the spokes in the wheel, whether it's livestreaming or guest-DJing on Gimme Country." Since postponing her album, she released a John Lennon cover on YouTube, launched a radio show called Runaway Horses and, according to Levine, has been working on her memoir. Levine recalls a recent conversation he had with Paradigm's literary department head about the potential surrounding Audible Originals, which he says "has a huge appetite" right now. He cites James Taylor's Break Shot: My First 21 Years as one successful example of a how artists can use the platform to “tell stories and get into details of their lives that will reach both an existing group of fans -- and hopefully new fans.”

Galle agrees that publishers are definitely interested in not only autobiographies, but coffee table books, too. And artists in general, he says -- whether they’ve postponed an album or not -- are just eager to keep busy until the live scene can safely return, while also staying top-of-mind among fans. "People are constantly pitching stuff that’s just sitting around on their hard-drive saying, 'Hey, here's everything,'" says Galle. "More artists are being like, 'What can we do with fashion, or animated voice-over work? Any brand integrations? What can we be doing on Twitch?'"

"Right now, it’s about being innovative and listening to any new tech or ideas that people have," he continues. "There may be new ways of engaging and entertaining when we come through this, and you want to be at the forefront of that riding the wave rather than playing catch up."

As Levine says: "I don't think that anything will ever replace the experience of live music, but I do think while we are figuring out what life in the new normal looks like that there are countless ways to be engaging right now. No matter what you’re doing — releasing a record or promoting a single or putting a digital livestream on — it comes down to that degree of engagement with your fans."

Editor's note: After this story was published on May 6, Lady Gaga announced her album Chromatica will be released May 29

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