How Much New Music Is There Even Gonna Be In 2021?

I kicked off this newsletter earlier this year by asking whether music writing could survive the pandemic, and near the end of this year wondering whether we’re about to receive drastically less new music from artists next year. Here’s what Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard told me last week while discussing the band’s recent all-Georgia-artists covers EP for Bandcamp Day:

Making music in COVID is virtually all remote, and from our perspective we’re trying to think about putting out another record when we can actually tour again, which I think a lot of bands are trying to do.

He’s right—that is what a lot of bands are trying to do, whether they’ve been open about it or not. I’ve already heard of indie rock bands with very sizable followings that have already turned in new albums to their labels with the understanding that they be held until, at the very least, next fall. A few weeks ago, Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison told me she’s already almost done with her follow-up to this year’s amazing Color Theory, but it also sounded like she was anticipating being able to tour those songs live, too. Earlier this year, Protomartyr’s Joe Casey was even more severe about the future in conversation with me, claiming that the band might not exist in the future at all if touring can’t return at some point in the near future.

It’s not just indie-level acts that are clearly contemplating some sort of hold. Lana Del Rey’s new album has felt like a moving target throughout the second half of the year, while Drake claims he’s dropping a new one near the beginning of 2021 (we’ll see!). Given the industry whispers over the last year, I’d have to imagine we would’ve gotten a new Kendrick Lamar album a month or two ago were it not for COVID-19; I also would’ve put smart money on Billie Eilish dropping something in the late winter/early spring, but she seems most likely to hold off until at least next autumn (especially since her career-mile-marker of supplying the new James Bond song, in filmic form at least, has also been eternally delayed.)

Let’s talk about the logistics of touring coming back next year for a moment—because, I gotta be real, it doesn’t seem likely right now. The biggest indicator that concerts won’t be really happening (not in the way we’re used to, at least) in 2021 is that Elton John’s already pushed back his farewell tour to 2022. What does he know that we don’t? Well, not much, really. Yes, there are vaccines on the way, which is great—but it was always gonna take a while for most of the American public to get inoculated, and that was before we found out that the current administration straight-up didn’t buy enough vaccines for us to get this done quickly.

Also, in the (given the idiocy of the American government and public, extremely unlikely) scenario that the necessary percentage of the population gets the vaxx by the fall, we’re still missing key information that would enable one to get sweaty at a Dogleg show or attend a thousands-strong Justin Bieber concert—like, say, whether or not the vaccine(s) will prevent the spread of COVID-19 and not just getting seriously ill from contracting it. There’s more hope now, even as things are getting just absolutely terrible again, but the timetable for whatever “normalcy” will look like seems slightly fucked up as ever.

What happens when artists release new music without touring in place to promote it? The answer is several-fold, but for starters, that “new music” disappears from the collective consciousness way more quickly, no matter how famous you are. Think of all the “big” albums that came out this year—I’m talking Lady Gaga, Childish Gambino, Drake, Ariana Grande, Hayley Williams—that more or less vanished upon initial impact.

Of course, the fact that, save for Gaga, none of those albums represented the artists’ best work by a long stretch played a part, too. But the promo bump that comes with touring would’ve helped. The changing listening attitudes in the pandemic age absolutely correlate with visibility as well: Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher and Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters would be undeniable masterpieces in any year, but the fact that the music lends itself to intimacy and isolation made both listening experiences a frequent draw for many. (There’s also Taylor Swift’s folklore, an album recorded and explicitly styled promo-wise around the entire notion of disappearing in quarantine.)

Let’s put visibility aside for a moment (especially when, in the age of social media, it takes a lot to translate that into something you can make a living off of) and talk about the big problem with releasing new music and not touring behind it: No touring means no income, since an increasingly scarce number of musicians can afford to make and release music without touring to recoup the cost of, well, making and releasing music.

Making anything close to a living off of selling music has been made impossible by streaming royalty payouts’ absolute financial decimation of musicians’ profits—something that even Spotify’s Chief Executive Asshole Daniel Ek quasi-acknowledged by recently claiming that the only way musicians can make a living is by releasing music constantly rather than, in his words, “every three or four years.” (There’s a level of insidiousness in the fact that Beyoncé—one of the only artists that can afford to release music “every three or four years” under Ek’s model—is largely able to continue allegedly working on projects in such a manner [even through the pandemic] through funding from corporations like Disney and Netflix.)

Livestreaming is, let’s face it, as close to a joke at this point as there is. There’s close to no chance for anyone who isn’t already a millionaire profiting off of it (more on that in a second), I’ve barely spoken to a single musician this year that really likes doing it, and the few that have had positive things to say about it have essentially (and very reasonably) been relieved to do anything other than be in the house doing nothing.

I have a lot of respect for any musician who’s not a millionaire who’s given it a shot this year, and I’ve enjoyed watching a few myself, like Angel Olsen’s acoustic performance in the beginning of the pandemic and Post Malone’s Nirvana covers livestream at, uh, the beginning of the pandemic. But i't’s like so many things at the beginning of all of this, like Instagram DJ sets and baking bread, that really lost the little novelty they even possessed as it became clear that the pandemic would just blare on. There’s fatigue on both sides of the digital performance space.

Or is there? Dua Lipa did a livestream on Thanksgiving weekend, Studio 2054, that cost $1.5 million, drew more than 5 million viewers, and was apparently profitable. (Although it should be mentioned that her management gave a really Netflix-y “We don’t like to talk numbers” response to Rolling Stone about how profitable it actually was, so, like, what’s profitability anyway, amirite?) Justin Bieber is doing a livestream on New Year’s Eve that will assuredly print money. As it turns out, you can make these new ways of living profitable if you were already, y’know, pretty fucking rich to begin with.

Remember that Death Cab Bandcamp Day EP I mentioned earlier? It was for a good cause, all proceeds went to Fair Fight, good stuff all around. But Death Cab being involved with Bandcamp Day at all—a once-every-few-months thing where artists directly receive all sales from Bandcamp that day—started giving me whiffs of Record Store Day, and I don’t mean that in a good way. It reminded me of what Don Giovanni’s Joe Steinhardt had to say to me about Bandcamp earlier this year:

There’s nothing inherently wrong with them as a company, but there’s something inherently wrong with all platforms in the same way that the consolidation of any industry is bad. They have the same problem as Spotify: they want to be the one place for all music. That's consolidation, and that's never good. Labels like mine might thrive more in a Bandcamp-consolidated universe than in a Spotify-consolidated universe, but culture as a whole dies in either universe…Just like Record Store Day, as Bandcamp grows, I'm already seeing more major label artists on Bandcamp. Next year I feel like I'm going to see Harry Styles' new album on there. And why wouldn't that happen? 

Harry’s not on there yet, but as bigger artists inevitably use the platform for something, be it one-off attention-grabbing releases or shifting their catalogs to the platform entirely, Bandcamp as how many people see it—a place for smaller and more strictly independent artists to operate the sale of their music—changes drastically. There also runs the resulting risk that it becomes more difficult for smaller artists to continue gaining a fair share of attention through the platform (although Bandcamp’s editorial component is excellent in shining light on underground and overlooked releases, so a more organic discovery element is still built into the platform for now).

And what if fatigue sets in again from the audience’s perspective? This is a time of extreme financial difficulty across many levels of society, and it’s easier said than done to simply buy more music than ever before. Here’s what DeForrest Brown, Jr. told me recently that stuck with me on this topic: “I know DJs in Brooklyn who are like, ‘You know what, fuck this. Bandcamp Day’s not bringing in money anymore.’”

If that decline is more widespread than he suggests, and felt by artists who need the financial support to continue creating the most—if making any sort of money off of music continues to seem like a game of chance, as touring continues to not exist and every other revenue stream is increasingly only accessible to those who already had access to it—it’s going to be harder for people to make music. It just is. And if that results in less music…then what?