In absolutely every aspect, the public sector has been severely affected by COVID-19. Unemployment is reaching heights unseen in years and the anxiety filling the atmosphere is smothering us all. No market or sector is safe, and the music industry is no exception.
SXSW was the first major music event to go. Scheduled to take place in Austin, Texas between March 13th and 22nd, the annual event typically draws 400,000 punters. Local officials declared a “local disaster”, ordering a cancellation issue. According to last year’s sales, the loss for 2020 comes in at around $356m. This announcement was soon followed by the postponement of Coachella, itself worth over $1bn globally.
Spain’s Primavera Sound Festival, due to be held in Barcelona between June 3rd and 7th, has also been postponed. Meanwhile the UK’s Glastonbury followed suit on 18th March, cancelling what would’ve been its 50th anniversary event. 135,000 people had already paid £50 deposits. General admission costs £265, and tickets for 2020 sold out in 34 minutes, with over 2.4 million people registering. The Irish Times have completed a comprehensive list of confirmed cancellations and postponements of events that were due to take place on our own home soil. For now, the nation turns its lonely eyes towards boutique festivals old and new in wait of the inevitable.
Of course, it’s not just financial loss affecting the music industry. Touring musicians are most active during the summer and festival season usually comes with the promise of guaranteed income. The opportunities for up-and-coming acts during this busy period are invaluable. Unfortunately, this year’s absence could prove to have the most devastating impact on the industry. Although public health and safety is paramount, these announcements are no less upsetting for any artist that thought this year would be the one to launch their career.
One would have thought that in lieu of a better way to support artists, streaming would hit an all-time high. However, Music Business Worldwide found that international streams from Spotify’s Top 200 chart dropped by 11% from the seven days beginning March 13th. A significant date, as this is when a number of countries began closing shops, bars, and education & childcare facilities to enforce social distancing. This is the lowest streaming volume since the last week of 2019 and first week of 2020. Two weeks usually marking music industry downtime. New releases are fewer and people aren’t working.
In financial terms for artists, this is no great loss. With Spotify’s reported payout range somewhere between $0.006 and $0.0084, it takes millions of streams to see any monetary reward. Most acts make their living through touring and merchandise sales, so the loss of festivals means that many will be left short. SXSW, in particular, has a proven track record as a career launchpad. With the arrival of streaming platforms, and piracy, live shows have been the only way for artists to make a decent living.
But while headliners like Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar have little cause for concern in the wake of all these cancellations and postponements—their return shows will no doubt sell out—the boost in streams that festival exposure would have brought will be a huge loss for lesser-known acts. These smaller acts will have to hold out for a later opportunity to demonstrate the fruits of their labour.
Sales figures are also in bad health, with physical and digital album sales, and single sales, all in a slump. However, some hope remains. Spotify have launched their COVID-19 Music Relief Project and with it their COVID-19 Hub for tailored playlists and news podcasts so listeners can stay informed during the ongoing crisis.
Meanwhile, video streaming is booming. While audio streaming services have seen a decline, the week of audio’s biggest lull saw video streaming spike by 14.5%. Radio, too, has seen a renewed interest from the general public. BBC report that their own properties have seen an increase of 18% listenership. Elsewhere, Global saw a 15% increase in online radio streams from March 9th to 17th.
This is probably down to a shift in media consumption habits and needs the world over. The lack of a need to commute has seen a shift from Spotify to YouTube and Netflix, with the latter company re-forecasting its annual subscriptions growth. Elsewhere, the Amazon-owned Twitch has seen a significant growth in viewership. The upward shift in radio listenership is likely down to a need for news updates and background noise.
The full impact of COVID-19 on lesser-known acts, and the music industry at large, remains to be seen. The immediate deadening of financial rewards goes without saying. There have, however, been pushes towards supporting those at a loss.
Bandcamp were the first company to make such a gesture, waiving their commission charges on March 20th and allowing purchases on the platform to be given directly to artists. The Spotify COVID-19 Music Relief Project has also gone live. Goals include boosting essential resources and providing financial & informational support for artists at risk of experiencing a loss due to the pandemic—with a vow to match the amount of money raised by public donation up to a maximum of $10m. Similarly, Apple have launched Come Together, hosting a number of playlists, music videos, and selected content from Beats 1 Radio.
Artists have also taken the initiative themselves, opting to stream performances online. Christine and the Queens and Ben Gibbard have been broadcasting daily performances from their respective homes, while jam band Phish and alternative rock giants Radiohead are offering free livestreams of archival live footage. Other virtual concerts like the iHeart Radio Living Room Concert for America and Together at Home hope to entertain the public and promote social distancing.
With COVID-19 resulting in the cancellation and postponement of events, mass gatherings, festivals, concerts, tours, and album & film releases alike, one could not be blamed for fears that we might see a world without art. While these gestures and initiatives are few—small at best, opportunistic and shameless PR at worst—they are indispensable during these times.
If you’re in a position to help, you can do your bit for Irish music too. Check out our recent piece on supporting Irish artists during COVID-19.