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Lockdown Listening and the Independent Artist

Cover image for Lockdown Listening and the Independent Artist
Photo of Mark Mulligan
by Mark Mulligan

After an initial lockdown lull, streaming levels are – on the surface – beginning to normalise. Underlying the macro-level normalisation, ‘lockdown listening’ is in fact resulting in dramatic shifts in listening behaviour, from using the commute time for activities other than listening to music, through using smart devices to listen at home to spending more time on YouTube. (MIDiA clients can access our latest data on these trends in our latest report COVID-19: Lockdown Listening). 

Some of these shifts will have long-term effect while some will last little longer than the lockdown, but now that many artists are losing between 50%-70% of their income with the cessation of live, no artist can afford not to jump on the unique opportunities lockdown listening is throwing up, however fleeting they may be. Moreover with recording studios closed, projects getting put on hold, releases pushed back, not enough music is getting to market when it is needed most. This disruption to music’s supply chain is not going away until lockdown is and independent artists are beginning to look like they could be best placed to respond.

A COVID bounce for independent artists

In 2019 artists direct (i.e. those without record labels) was the fastest growing segment of the total recorded music market, growing by 32.1% in 2019 to reach $873 million, representing 4.1% of the total market, up from just 1.7% in 2015. Momentum was already with independent artists before lockdown, now there is a growing body of evidence that they are prospering in the lockdown listening era too. In Sweden – streaming’s bellwether – indie distribution platform Amuse saw one of its independent artists get 19 of the Top 50 tracks on Spotify’s daily chart in Sweden on March 11th and overall DIY user uploads rose 300% year-on-year for the whole month. Although daily Spotify charts need treating with some caution – especially the Swedish one which seems to routinely throw up disruptive outliers – the underlying trend is clear: independent artists can get a seat at the top table, in fact they can get a lot of the seats. Frequently this then results in majors snapping up artists, such as Lil Nas X and Arizona Nervas. 

Release schedule disruption

What is unique about lockdown listening is that we are going to start to see gaps in release schedules. The longer that studio and mastering facilities remain closed, the wider the release schedule gaps will become. Right now, labels still have schedules filled with music that was written, recorded and mastered prior to lockdown. As more lockdown time passes, the more that stockpile will be eaten into. Big label artists have big label sounds. They are teamed up with top-tier writers, session musicians, producers and production facilities. This pre-lockdown advantage becomes a hindrance during lockdown. In contrast, independent artists that are accustomed to doing some or all of their recording and production themselves, lockdown listening is an opportunity to get ahead by releasing music more frequently and consistently than big label artists can. Independent artists platform CD Baby noted it had seen a 30%-50% increase in the amount of music being released since mid-March.

Live streaming to connect with fans

Lockdown may have seemed to have thrown the dynamics of artist careers upside down but in many ways, it is in fact compelling artists to get back to basics of the most important thing: the relationship with their fans. One of the growing failings of the streaming environment has been the demise of places where artists and fans can truly connect. Facebook became a place for labels and managers to sell stuff, Instagram a place for filter-perfect artificiality and streaming just a place for listening. Although there are platforms that nobly break these new rules – Bandcamp especially, fans increasingly relied on live as the place to connect. The immediate cessation of live has seen a surge of live streaming as artists look to maintain that connection. Bandsintown data shows that the number of live streamed shows continues to accelerate, up from less than 400 per day in late-March to more than 2,000 a day by mid-April.

A new artist-fan relationship

With so many live streams and no ‘programming guide’ or meta-schedule, artists have had to double down on social media activity to keep their fans informed. They have also realised – superstar missteps aside – that during these times, fans value seeing their favourite artists without the production values, without the Instagram filters, as people just like them getting through this. This taps into the psychological phenomenon where our brains respond in a particular way when we see someone that we are used to seeing in professional media contexts suddenly looking like someone just like us. 

There is a real opportunity here for artists big and small to take these newly redefined relationships into the post-lockdown world. There is a dilemma though: if they don’t, they may face fan backlash, but if they do, they will have to rebuild a new artist persona that trades less on the enigma of star quality than their human qualities. This would mean an entire rewriting of the nature of fame and fandom. 

Throughout the history of recorded music, artists have been one step removed, with air of mystique and otherness. The last decade has seen this softened but lockdown may be catalysing a far more dramatic shift. If it does, what we may see may actually be a normalization of fan relationships. Newer, independent artists usually depend on a deeper, loser connection with their fanbases, so many of them already arrived at this point before lockdown. Lockdown is pushing the independent artist rulebook for fan engagement mainstream.

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