Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa and More Innovated In the Pandemic — But What Strategies Will Stick?

"Cheers,” says Taylor Swift during the opening scene from her Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions Disney+ special, clinking her wine glass against Jack Antonoff’s mug and Aaron Dessner’s cup while huddled around a cozy fire. Though the trio made one of the year’s most acclaimed albums — Swift’s stripped-down folklore, which she surprise-released in July — they had never all been physically together while creating it.

Due to the pandemic, Swift had set up a home studio for the first time, sending files back-and-forth while working remotely over FaceTime with longtime collaborator Antonoff and Dessner, a member of The National whose work she had long admired. For folklore’s first and so far only performance, Swift and Antonoff met Dessner where much of the album was created — at the lattermost’s upstate New York studio, Long Pond — to film the November special.

Everything about folklore’s creation and promotion was unconventional for Swift, yet it scored the year’s biggest debut on the Billboard 200 — becoming her only album to spend its first six weeks at No. 1 — as well as a Grammy nomination for album of the year. And while folklore, which Swift calls a “product of isolation” — along with its surprise “sister album,” evermore, released Dec. 11 — are perhaps the most notable examples of how the pandemic forced a creative shift that resulted in massive success, nearly every major 2020 release had to pivot in some way.

When Dua Lipa’s second album, Future Nostalgia, arrived in March, she became one of the first pop stars to release an album amid global lockdowns, forcing her team to “rethink everything” promowise, as Wendy Ong, president of TaP Management (Lipa’s management team) and TaP Records, U.S., told Billboard at the time. Instead of embarking on her headlining tour — now rescheduled for 2021 — Lipa delivered a record-shattering global livestream, Studio 2054, in November to over 5 million viewers and rave reviews. The month prior, she released Club Future Nostalgia, a remix album with The Blessed Madonna that features Missy Elliott, Gwen Stefani and others. It was planned, executed and delivered (and likely in part made possible by everyone having extra time at home) amid pandemic restrictions.

Songwriters and producers have had to adjust too, moving from the studio to Zoom. (According to Zoom’s second-quarter results for fiscal year 2021, its total revenue was up 355% year over year as a result of work-from-home mandates.) “In the beginning, some clients were game and some were not at all,” Kobalt Music GM of creative Sue Drew told Billboard earlier this year. She says while it has been much easier for writers and producers to work remotely with collaborators with whom they already had relationships, as opposed to forging new ones, there have been some exceptions: Songwriter-producer Jennifer Decilveo “has absolutely nailed it on Zoom” this year, says Drew, scoring first-time work with Marina (co-producing “Man’s World”) and Miley Cyrus (co-writing the Plastic Hearts track “High”).

Similarly, Sony/ATV Music Publishing president/global chief marketing officer Brian Monaco notes that in 2020, those who once had a harder time traveling were suddenly able — and even encouraged — to hop on a session without so much as moving off their couch. Monaco says he has called Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen in particular with requests for anything from a virtual co-write with someone in Nashville to a quick guitar solo. “Normally that would be a lot of scheduling,” says Monaco, “and all of a sudden these people were able to connect on Zoom and kind of become friends.”

Monaco has also had to shift his highly successful “synch camps,” which he has led in various music hubs for nearly a decade (when hosting in Los Angeles, he’d often rent out the Foo Fighters’ Van Nuys rehearsal space), to a virtual environment for the first time. “I had rooms going and everyone was working together and it was very collaborative,” he says. “Then when COVID happened, we brought it down to smaller Zoom co-writes, three or four people. It gets too difficult if you add more than that — you’re trying to throw ideas back-and-forth, and there’s always a delay, or someone’s technology isn’t as good.”

As Lee Foster, partner/GM of New York’s iconic Electric Lady Studios, says, “There is no replacement for real human interaction and connectiveness in music making.” Which is why the studio — which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year — quickly established safety protocols that included advance COVID-19 testing, on-site screening, mask mandates and socially distanced sessions. “We began booking unattended mix sessions, then cautiously graduated into overdub sessions and finally larger, more typical sessions from there,” he says, adding that regular clients like Antonoff, Mark Ronson, Andrew Wyatt and others (as well as the studio’s dedicated 15-person staff) helped prop up the space this year. Without that core community, he says, “we could have been in real trouble.”

Foster believes Zoom sessions will continue on an as-needed basis in the future, saying, “I found it inspiring that music found a way forward, as well as how quickly we pivoted to an alternative path.” Antonoff — a Grammy nominee for producer of the year, non-classical, for his work with Swift this year — is less certain. As he says at the beginning of Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions: “I’ve never worked on an album like this — I don’t know if I ever will again.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2020 issue of Billboard.