While recording Letter to You with the E Street Band on his farm in Colts Neck, New Jersey, a year ago, Bruce Springsteen had no idea he’d have to promote it while stuck at home. Like AC/DC, Eagles, Blue Oyster Cult, Yes and numerous other classic artists putting out albums this fall, Springsteen thought he’d be on tour by now, rocking out the new tracks to tens of thousands of fans every night and drawing extensive media coverage in every city. “Being able to announce and execute a tour in the same time frame as a new album has been a staple since time began — and certainly remains the case for us,” says Jon Landau, Springsteen’s manager. “Because of the virus, we, like everyone else, lost that tool.”
Instead, Springsteen has had to refocus his rock ‘n’ roll energy. He hosts a SiriusXM radio show; contributed use of “The Rising” to the Democratic National Convention and “Streets of Philadelphia” to filmmaker Don Winslow for a Joe Biden campaign spot; put out a new Apple TV+ documentary based on Letter to You; appeared on Fenway Park’s video scoreboard for a Dropkick Murphys livestream concert; and, according to Landau, is in the middle of a 70-interview Zoom schedule, from the New York Times to the U.K.’s Graham Norton Show. “Knowing that there’s not going to be a tour, he doubled and tripled how much personal commitment he made to making people aware of [the album and film’s] existence,” Landau says.
In recent years, younger, contemporary stars like Post Malone, Drake and Billie Eilish have dominated recorded music, while older artists such as The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Elton John make most of their revenue from touring. But with touring on hold, those acts have had to change their mindsets. “It drags the artist into the future — or into the present,” says Carl Mello, Newbury Comics’ director of brand engagement, citing Springsteen’s SiriusXM presence and AC/DC’s recent appearance on Dean Delray‘s Let There Be Talk podcast to promote the upcoming album PWR/UP. “It’s prepared them for the world that we live in, and made it a necessity rather than a choice.”
The lack of touring revenue has devastated the music economy throughout 2020, but many of the biggest veteran stars can absorb the financial blow — their focus is more on making sure fans are aware of new projects. The Symbol Remains is Blue Oyster Cult’s first studio album in two decades, and the hard-rock band had been planning to tour extensively. But like Springsteen, they’ve spent this unusual fall doing media interviews and releasing music videos made at a high school studio in the band’s longtime Long Island, New York, home base. Plus, the band played two shows, a drive-in and a socially distanced winery event.
“The opportunity to spread the word via touring would be a blessing, but not available at the moment,” says Steve Schenck, the band’s manager, who reports that the independently released The Symbol Remains logged 600,000 streams in its first week in October, landing the album at No. 10 on Billboard‘s Album Sales chart and No. 192 on the Top 200. “We’re not standing still. We’re taking advantage of what we can do and not sitting around moaning about what we can’t do.”
The benefits of touring to promote a new release are both promotional and financial. Veteran blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa, who released Royal Tea in late October, says he sells 3,000 to 4,000 CDs at merch tables for each tour, and the notoriety of being on the road usually results in at least 20,000 sales the first week of a new release. In September, he held a pay-per-view livestream concert, charging $20 to $65 per ticket and grossing $700,000 overall. “You go, ‘OK, there’s that gig — where’s the next one?'” says Bonamassa, by phone from his Los Angeles home, where he and his team have been pushing the album to a social-media following that he estimates at 5 million fans. “You get the word out eventually.”
Some artists are even finding advantages to promoting a new release without touring. “We’re doing exactly what we would have done for any other album — with the exception, of course, of having the tour at the same time,” says Martin Darvill, manager of Yes, which released The Royal Affair Tour: Live From Las Vegas in early October. “The only difference is the tour isn’t mentioned in a press release and the guys are doing their interviews from home rather than hotel rooms.”
With widespread touring unavailable, classic artists can look to somewhat bleak case studies for marketing inspiration: Some are dead. And some bands have broken up. Yet they continue to market, sell and stream recorded music. Prince and the Grateful Dead have promoted new releases via YouTube livestreams and pre-shows; Tom Petty‘s team made a new video for a “Wildflowers” demo to promote the new Wildflowers & All the Rest reissue, drawing more than 600,000 YouTube Views; and an upcoming Aretha Franklin box set will benefit from two upcoming films, the Respect biopic and National Geographic’s pandemic-delayed Genius: Aretha series. “Touring isn’t always an option when it comes to promoting our releases,” says Kevin Gore, Warner Music Group’s president of global catalog, recorded music.
Creativity remains the best alternative to touring. To cope with the pandemic and make up for lost shows, veteran British indie-rocker Nick Cave recorded a livestream in London’s 1870s-era Alexandra Palace, where the Rolling Stones performed in 1964, then packaged the concert as an upcoming film and album called Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace. “That’s how people need to look at this,” says Lonny Olinick, CEO of AWAL, Cave’s distributor, “as an interesting challenge to try to solve.”