Rock

A Year Later: Billboard Revisits Young Artists Whose Careers Were Derailed by COVID

Sammy Brue
Pamela Littky

Sammy Brue

From timed merch drops to livestream variety shows and complete re-brands, all eight artists had to get super creative over the past 365 days.

Back in early April 2020, Billboard reached out to eight young artists whose budding careers screeched to a halt by the COVID-19 pandemic, which had just caused the entire world to go into lockdown mode. At that time so much was unknown: how long would the novel coronavirus be with us and when we would be allowed to go out again? What would concerts look like once it was over and would the promised vaccine make everything normal again?

The artists we spoke to -- who ranged from unsigned DIY bands to indie acts and major-label newbies -- were lamenting lost tour dates, missed connections with fans, and meticulous, months- sometimes years-long plans fallen by the wayside. They worried about their own health and that of their fans, about what would become of their best-laid plans, and most crucially, about when things would be back to the way they used to be -- or if they ever would.

Over the past few months we re-connected with all the acts to find out what their year of isolation has been like, how they tried to stay relevant during lockdown and what the future holds once they can ditch the Zoom and get back on stages. Check out their stories below.

Gracey

The British singer, 23, ended up back at her family home during lockdown after her planned debut tour and festival gigs were postponed indefinitely in early 2020. Stuck in her teenage bedroom, the Polydor signee started posting silly memes on her Instagram to stay connected with fans at first, but soon she did what so many fellow artists did during the pandemic: she improvised.

For Gracey, that meant rolling out a series of covers, remixes, behind-the-scenes videos, dropping special merch bundles, a TopShop Christmas ad campaign, releasing a mini-album, playing a few socially distanced gigs and starting a weekly e-mail blog for fans. "Who knew a global pandemic was what I needed to take off?," the singer laughs to Billboard.

The year before, she'd lost her voice and recovery from vocal cord surgery required three months of silence, which ended up being perfect practice for staying put and finding ways to make it up as she went along from home. After writing songs for Rita Ora and Jonas Blue at 16, Gracey had been waiting years for her debut as a headline artist -- and all that pent-up energy made her even more determined to find a way.

Luckily for her, a 220 KID remix of her song "Don't Need Love" released in Dec. 2019 began to pick up steam and went top 10 in the U.K. in June 2020 -- a month after she filmed a bedroom video for her Ruel collab, "Empty Love." "Everyone being inside made us address things we can't shy away from," she says. "That helped me a lot as a writer and producer... I wrote so much and was being my most creative."

Sure, some days she just binged New Girl for 10 hours, but on others she prepared for the time when she could finally hit the stage -- with a few gigs penciled in for later this year -- by sending her extensive mailing list of followers long, Carrie Bradshaw-like like letters about what she's bingeing, writing and thinking about as a way to keep the connection strong. "It was a letter about what I was doing, watching, listening to... like [a chat] with my mates," she says of the missives, which were admittedly "oversharing," but in the best way.

More recently, she launched the "Gracey Vs" series, in which she takes on tasks including learning how to make pancakes and skateboarding for the first time. "It's chaotic and fun -- which is me summed up in two words," she says of the series, which followed on the heels of November's release of her second EP, The Art of Closure.

She's also spent the past few months experimenting with new musical ideas and releasing the dance-heavy, full-production video for her single "99%," which she says made her feel like a "true little pop star." The work seems to have paid off, with "Don't Need Love" notching almost 60 million streams on Spotify to date -- a huge jump from her most streamed song of 2019, which had just 1.5 million streams on the streaming service.

With 40-50 new songs written so far, Gracey says she can't wait to hit the stage and properly party. "I was super down a lot of the year, but I feel proud of what I could achieve given the circumstances," she says. "I was dealt not ideal cards in terms of being a new artist -- but I put myself out there as much as I could, and I hope it connects with people."

Sammy Brue

When we last spoke to singer/songwriter Brue, 20, he was also living back at home with his parents in Ogden, Utah, lamenting the loss of a SXSW gig and wondering what would happen when his sophomore full-length, Crash Test Kid, dropped in June. He's still living at home, but things are totally different in every other way.

The pandemic inspired Sammy to backburner his solo material, and form the electric power rock trio BRUE with a pair of friends -- as a way for him to "let loose," and exorcise all the built-up lost pandemic year tension and frustration. "I won't completely stop putting out solo songs," he says, describing plans to record some "somber" stuff in his bedroom and more rocking tunes in the studio with drummer Landon Gwynn and bassist Kip Congo. "I'll be switching back and forth depending on my mental state."

"It's been interesting man, a bit exhausting," he continues, describing his efforts to reconfigure his career plan from home, including leaving his label, New West Records. Brue's also been taking an online film course to learn everything he can so he can shoot his own videos. "That's what I want to get across," he says of his Sammy 2.0 project. "A DIY attitude with an overlying message of love."

Freed of his contract, Brue says he's looking forward to dropping new music as it's recorded, with several sneak peeks of the BRUE sound already available on his Instagram. And, after doing a few livestream shows for fans over the past year, Brue has reached out to the company that set them up so he can also learn how to run the board himself for future online shows, as part of his determined plan to be a one-man content machine.

For now, he's sitting on two, maybe three unreleased solo and BRUE albums. Getting emotional at times recalling the big changes and feelings he's had over the past 12 months, Brue says he's learned that "there are no rules" anymore about how to use social media. He also feels like he's found the sweet spot between showing everything and selectively sharing with his distanced fans. "I'm very selective with what I post," he says. "I don't want to be super-duper personal to the point where I'm letting everyone know exactly what's going on every day, but I do want to [share how I'm] quietly making stuff."

He got a crash course in how much he means to those fans after a group of Brue-sters joined him for an unexpectedly poignant "Crash Test Kids" Instagram chat earlier this year. "It blew my mind, like, 'What is this? This is amazing!'" he says. "They were just freaking out and talking about how much they like my music and talking about my new group." He was so impressed, in fact, that he offered to FaceTime with them and play some new music in a 30 minute private show. "That was such a blast to see their reactions," he raves.

Rich People

The Philadelphia-based DIY emo-pop rockers didn't have a label to help them through lean times when everything stopped in early 2020 and they lost a series of highly anticipated opening slots for bigger indie bands. At first, they pivoted to Instagram Live shows and more frequent merch drops -- but after splitting with their drummer and bassist, founder and singer/guitarist Rob Rich and guitarist/vocalist Blake Horner regrouped to chart a path forward.

Following a "major" depression in the early days of COVID, Rich says the band bounced back last summer by taking advantage of Bandcamp's revenue share program during a 24-hour flash sale of their pandemic album, Harmony, which they used to donate to bail funds for people arrested during 2020's social justice protests.

"Our streaming doubled this year -- and though we never thought of having a home studio, we pivoted completely to a nice [one]," says Horner of their new set-up. In addition, a server they set up on the community platform Discord allowed them to chat with fans, which turned out to be good for band morale as well. "As indie artists we really have to push to get stuff out there," says Rich of their varied arsenal. In the past year, that's included the surprise album drop, a 40-minute Instagram Live stream, and occasional merch releases that have kept the lights on -- as well as the "Midconvo" series of in-depth interviews with friends in other bands.

Rich People also produced several episodes of their popular "play through" videos, in which Horner showed fans how to perform some of their most beloved songs on guitar. The pair recently released the single "Real Close," and, in early March, surprise dropped the poppy single "Apropos."

For now, they're just focusing on recording the best songs they can and hoping to see their fans again in person again later this year. "As an independent band you're always trying to figure out how to get an edge," Rich says. "There's a get-rich-quick vibe and it's easy to forget the main thing is the music."

Movements

Over the past year, Movements singer Pat Miranda, 25, says social media has been his melodic hardcore Orange County, California band's saving grace. Eager to keep fans interested as they geared up to release new music, the Fearless Records group decided to hire a social media management team to help them develop a more streamlined, predictable posting schedule. "We were good at posting on tour -- and when we did merch drops when we were active -- but otherwise our social would go into limbo," he tells Billboard, noting that the band now has four scheduled posts every week across their platforms to keep interest stoked.

Those posts range from questions and Instagram polls to giveaways and contests, livestreams, Q&As, and a presence on the growing Pillar community. On the digital fan club app developed by the band The Maine, Movements fans can subscribe for a monthly fee that includes exclusive behind-the-scenes footage and access to livestream concert tickets, one-on-one chats with band members and unique content not available to the general public.

Pillar has already brought in 500 paid subscriptions for Movements at tiered pricing points, which Miranda says has kept the band on their creative toes. "We have a hybrid relationship with them, we come up with most of the content ideas and they facilitate it," he says of the Pillar team.

Because of their hustle -- which included selling branded face masks, posting throwback concert pics, "Behind the Song" clips, playthrough videos and the drop of their second full-length album, No Good Left to Give, in September -- Miranda says the group's social engagement stats have never been higher. They got proof of how eager fans were to hear the new music when they gathered in the same room for the first time all year for a day-of-release livestream in September -- and a second Pillar-only, full-production show in December that blew their feeds up.

"We are just doing the things [on social] we feel are subtle enough that we don't come across as corny... or trying to just get clicks and engagement," he says -- noting that fans can't seem to get enough of the playthrough videos, which they drop once or twice a month.

For now, they plan to start writing new material in the spring with the goal of playing some outdoor, distanced shows this summer. "I'm fine with that," says an eager Miranda.

Rookie

The Chicago rock band was also slated to hit SXSW last year for their first official showcases, and then tour with veteran alt-rockers Twin Peaks and Brendan Benson. The shows evaporated, but the group still managed to drop their self-titled debut album on Bloodshot Records as they pivoted to offering private music lessons on Tikly -- and, because they were quarantining separately, doing the occasional solo livestream on their phones for whoever tuned in. "But after a while there was no life to that, and we decided to stop doing [it]," says guitarist Max Loebman, 23.

Instead, they waited until they could film a sweltering rooftop July gig from the Virgin Hotel in downtown Chicago and then another one later in the summer from the driveway of keyboardist Justin Bell's parent's house. They also played a gig in November from the hometown club Fitzgerald's with an audience of 3-4 crew members.

"It was definitely not the same, but we had to make the best of what we could," he says, pointing to the upside of the "tons" of songs each member has written during quarantine, and the 15 or so keepers they recently began recording in guitarist Chris Devlin's basement. For the most part they were able to hang on to their day jobs -- which range from dog grooming to subbing at local high schools -- and keep the band together amid creatively trying times.

"There were definitely moments of, 'What are we supposed to do, and how do we go forward?'," he admits. But after slowly getting together again in mid-2020, they hit a familiar groove after years of non-stop touring, which had previously honed their chemistry to a high polish. "We were rehearsing in a garage, super spaced apart -- whereas at gigs we were normally very close together," he says. "But it did come back together and we were all in good spirits."

With vaccines rolling out across the country, Loebman is also looking forward to some outdoor shows this summer, even if he's unsure what it will feel like. "In September we played with Mt. Joy at Lakeshore Drive-In and that was a blast, just seeing live music and playing was such a thrill," he says. "But I also wonder, when we perform... we all feed off the crowd energy, and I wonder how it will look in a room when everyone is spaced out, if the energy of the show will be completely different."

The Jacks

The groove-rocking Southern California band wrote, produced and recorded their first full-length record during lockdown, a feat bassist/singer Scott Stone says was super satisfying. Signed to Universal Music Group-distributed Edgeout Records, The Jacks kept fans interested with the singles "Have You Heard The News," "I Don't Mind" and the Remember You EP and the holiday track "In the Bleak Midwinter."

In addition to hitting the virtual show circuit and creating the "Let's Hear It" YouTube series in which they dive into their favorite albums, musicians and rock movies, they also rolled up more than 60,000 TikTok followers with a mix of original song snippets and silly bits. "TikTok turned out to be a great creative outlet because we built up a sizable fans base in just a few months," says Stone of a bright spot amid some "tough" months.

They lost a manger and picked up a new one, spent a lot of time together, and were able to avoid looking for day jobs thanks to revenue from lucrative sync and sponsorship deals. "We've been so focused on the album... we did a full rebrand of our look and sound. For a while we didn't know what kind of band we wanted to be," says Stone, 27.

During COVID, the group that formed in 2016 as a more straight-ahead rock quartet re-emerged with a "more modern" sound he describes as a poppier, more alternative mash-up in the realm of the Arctic Monkeys-meet-Harry-Styles-and-The Neighbourhood, which they're excited to share on the album due out this summer. "So for now, we're focusing on our digital content and bumping up our streams," he says, "so that when touring opens back up, potentially we'll be able to tour sizable venues."

My Kid Brother

The melodic Virginia rock quintet missed out on a chance to open for their hero Tom DeLonge's Angels and Airwaves last year. So the Fearless Records act leaned into Instagram trivia contests, Tiger King-themed dance parties, cooking demos, Twitch gaming streams and livestream shows to keep fans interested. Singer/guitarist  Christian Neonakis, 32, says they've been taking their time working on a strategy and using his and keyboardist Piano Whittman's film backgrounds to produce a 16-minute, "nonsensical" Christmas special to keep people entertained while they were locked down at home.

"We decided we like to make funny stuff, and part of our social media [look] is doing goofy stuff that people seem to like and is an honesty portrayal of who we are," he says. They also "went hard" at writing, with a three month stretch of meeting up five days a week -- with half the band in the living room and half in a bedroom -- for sessions that produced 20-30 solid song ideas. After slow-releasing five songs over the course of the year, they dropped their version of "White Christmas" on vinyl in December, which ended up getting airtime during a Sunday Night Football game between Green Bay and Atlanta. ("That was one of the coolest things ever, because I'm a huge football fan," says Neonakis.)

In addition, they played five livestream shows sponsored by media outlets which elicited questions and comments from fans from Canada to Portugal. The hard work has already paid off it seems -- with their Spotify figures last August breaking through the one million streams level for all their EPs so far, for what Neonakis called their "holy crap!" moment of realizing that they'd grown from their early garage band days to a group potentially on the cusp of something bigger. With most members living together in two separate homes just minutes apart in Leesburg, Virginia, and all of them in each other's bubbles.

"It's just a matter of me going into [roommate guitarist] Dylan's [Savopolous] bedroom to record, or going over to Piano and [drummer] Sam [Athanas'] house, which is two minute away," he says. "The pandemic had definitely made us feel closer."

Grayscale

The Philly alt rockers managed to release their second full-length, Nella Vita, and play nearly 100 shows before things shut down, filling the cash gap in the meantime with planned bi-monthly merch drops that served as their financial "safety net." But singer Collin Walsh says when the pandemic went on way longer than they anticipated, it was time to stop dreaming up new shirts and get back in the studio.

The group spent a month and a half recording in Los Angeles earlier this year, after spending endless hours writing new material as they waited for touring to open back up. After months of commenting on their digital hockey team's season on Twitch, then pivoting to the livestream "S--tshow" faux late night show that included a three-song live set.

"We realized it [touring] wasn't going to pick up again, so we changed our timetable and moved up the recording process," he says. At the time he spoke to Billboard several weeks ago, Walsh said they were beginning to mix the as-yet-untitled collection after narrowing it down from 50 demos to 11 of the most solid tunes. That will be news to the Grayscale nation, since the band mostly went dark on social media in November for the first time in years, rarely tweeting and posting a series of moody pictures on Instagram with no captions for the majority of 2021 so far.

The "S--tshow" was fun, but Walsh says that the idea of doing the same kinds of livestreams and Q&As that all their friends were doing seemed like a dead-end -- so they stockpiled songs as they quarantined together and took the "scary" flight to L.A. After rapid COVID tests, they rented an Airbnb, created their bubble with the album's producer, double-masked on the plane and hoped for the best. "There's a good reason people are worried about traveling, and we definitely wanted to make sure we were only doing it if we could do it in the most responsible way and everyone was as safe as possible," he says.

Whether touring picks up by the fall or not, the band has already dropped some jewels with the super-poppy "Diamond," a one-off single they dropped in October. "Our first record was straight rock, and the next one was pop rock, and we've been on a journey of refining our sound more and more," he says, calling "Diamond" a fun experiment to write a straight-up pop song.

"We're just playing it by ear for now to see when touring picks up," he says.

Travis Barker Tags Kourtney Kardashian in Not-So-Subtle Sexy Instagram Post | Billboard News