To Bump or Not to Bump? Music Biz Split on Waiting Out Pandemic for Album Releases

The Weeknd, Sam Hunt, Dua Lipa and Kenny Chesney are among the stars holding firm to album dates, but Lady Gaga, Sam Smith and others are choosing to move off the launch pad.

Music Biz Split on Keeping Album Release Dates or Waiting Out Pandemic

As recording artists face tough calls about whether to stick with their imminent album release dates or postpone them indefinitely, the two top dance-pop divas of the moment provided divergent examples of which way to go. On March 23, Dua Lipa tearfully took to Instagram Live to tell fans how conflicted she felt about releasing new music during the coronavirus crisis, but said she finally decided to bump her “Future Nostalgia” release ahead by a week, not back by months. The next day, Lady Gaga went the other way, putting “Chromatica” on ice with no new date scheduled. “While I believe art is one of the strongest things we have to provide joy and healing to each other during times like this,” she said, “it just doesn’t feel right to me to release this album with all that is going on during this global pandemic.”

If Gaga and Lipa and their teams can’t agree on the best way forward, what are the hundreds of artists with albums scheduled for the next couple of months to do? Music industry pros remain similarly split on whether it’s better to go forward with albums that are already in the starting gate or pull them back. And emotions and business sense are tangled, whichever way the decision goes.

The question came up late last week in a Zoom web conference for industry insiders presided over by former Gaga manager Troy Carter. Carl Chery, head of urban music at Spotify asked if artists already in the starting gate should “hold it, or just drop it and have the tour come later? I’m not sure.” Ray Kurzeka, VP of digital strategy at Troy Carter’s Q&A company, responded that superstar acts may want to delay albums because if their tour on-sales are being pushed back too, they can no longer count on the controversial ticket/album bundling practice to get to No. 1. Forgoing bundling and losing “70,000 of your first week [official album sales] is gonna make or break that,” Kurzeka said.

Artists sticking to their launches say they’re servicing distressed fans. Hot newcomer Jessie Reyez tells Variety she went ahead with her March 27 date for “Before Love Came to Kill Us” “because, man, I’ve been for the people forever! In my bedroom when I’m sad, I make music selfishly — but I don’t put it out selfishly, so I wanted to put it in their hands now.”

Lipa says she struggled and nearly went in the opposite direction that she ultimately chose for “Future Nostalgia”: “It’s very tough to know exactly what to do, because we’ve never been through anything like this before. I didn’t want to put it out when people were really suffering, so I was thinking to maybe put it out at a happier time. But the fans are so excited, I thought I’d be doing them a disservice to delay it, especially during this time.”

The Weeknd proved it was possible to have a mammoth album launch amid national and global shutdowns. “After Hours,” released March 20, surpassed 100 million worldwide streams on the album’s first day of release and a billion global Spotify streams in its first week. A source in the Weeknd’s camp says they were acutely aware of shifting winds and growing expectations that major artists will opt for postponement — but, having briefly considered it, the star “ignored any fear and pushed on anyway,” and feels vindicated in that choice by the remarkable numbers.

But is the world that bullish on everyone’s new music right now? Overall streaming took a 10%-20% hit in the weeks after the city- and state-wide shut-ins began, with increased time spent at home not making up for the lack of listens that come with a daily commute. Yet some debuting hip-hop artists seem especially unaffected; it’s hard to imagine Lil Uzi Vert doing even bigger numbers than he has. There’s no concern about fans not being able to get to his store to buy a CD; he, like many rappers, didn’t even bother putting out a physical edition of the album, in a genre that’s close to 100% digital. “If I had a hip-hop artist, I wouldn’t think twice” about releasing music now, says manager Larry Ciancia.

But Ciancia does have a client, the ’60s-styled British pop singer Rumer, who just put her impending album (“Nashville Tears”) on hold, rather than subject her planned comeback after years off the scene to the whims of an uncertain marketplace. “Some older-demographic artists are still selling 70%-80% physical, believe it or not,” Ciancia says — which is to say, they did, before the pandemic all but shut off those opportunities. And some international territories also still skew far more toward the physical than others. But “no one’s allowed to go into stores,” he says. “Amazon said they’re not gonna accept any shipments of non-essential products, then they did a 180 on that, but we don’t know how fluid anybody’s shipping will be.” That’s assuming the product is ready to be shipped out; when the shutdowns began, some indie artists had their CDs already shipped to distributors but the more covetable vinyl was still sitting in factories, awaiting final assemblage.

Even for artists who rely almost entirely on digital sales or streaming, if an international launch is in the picture, it’s nearly impossible right now to coordinate a simultaneous promotional rollout, with every territory facing its own changing crises — a key element in postponing Gaga, an insider says. Artists who have already announced album postponements range from Sam Smith and Alicia Keys to Haim and Margo Price. They’re soon to be joined by other stars who are said to be waiting for the right moment to let eager fans down gently.

Yet Aaron Sawyer, a manager with Red Light, cautions that smaller and mid-level acts may have good reason to stick with Plan A, rather than postpone and get lost amid a glut that will be unleashed when the world begins to open up again — the same problem the theatrical film world will eventually face when restrictions lift. “There’s just going to be just so much out there,” he warns. “There’s going to be a rebound, and it might not be a pretty rebound. Every venue is going to be booked seven days a week,” full of bands competing for the same dollars and attention, he warns. “I might have had a different opinion if we were sitting on record that hadn’t been announced yet. But for those that have, I’d rather have the energy of a label and a partner right now, even if the band can’t tour, versus a maxed-out label when the band can tour.”

Sawyer admits he “had a moment of panic” thinking about at least a three-month delay, and probably more, between an album release now and anyone’s ability to tour, but his clients Margaret Glaspy and Watkins Family are forging ahead anyhow. “It just feels dystopian to be working a record now. ‘Rock and a hard place’ might be an understatement. Some facets of an artist’s career are more impacted by this than others. Writers are still writing and still covering music, and the press that had committed to run it right on top of street date will not necessarily be able to embargo. Radio stations still want to talk to and support the artists that are active right now, even though they can’t leave their homes.”

For artists that rely on TV exposure more than radio to promote their new releases, it’s definitely not an optimal time. “I’m thinking about Jimmy Fallon,” says a veteran publicist. “They’re still going live from home, but I’ve seen a lot of personal friendships play out. Jimmy Fallon had Lin Manuel Miranda on as one of his first Skype guests, but they’ve become pals over the years. I don’t know that I could effectively pitch ‘The Tonight Show’ on an artist that doesn’t already have a relationship with Jimmy, based on the way they’re doing things.”

Industry insiders have mixed feelings about the wave of live-streams that seemingly every major, minor and unknown artist is suddenly doing to promote new releases, stay relevant or just connect. “There’s so much noise out there, with 35 or 40 live-streams a day that you might want to tune into,” says the publicist. “You’ve got to be smart and diligent about how you plan it. When you’re on tour, you’re only competing with the other acts that might be in town that week. When you’re live-streaming, you’re competing worldwide for eyeballs.”

But Warner Nashville GM/EVP Ben Kline worries about the glut that is to come when concerts and personal interactions in general freely resume. “Everyone’s going to be trying to jam 12 months’ worth of product into six months. It’s just going to be a wildly competitive landscape out there,” Kline says. That’s one reason Warner is sticking with a May 1 release for Kenny Chesney, the first for the country superstar since he signed with Warner. Another is how fans would take the delay.

“People have been wanting new music from Kenny Chesney for over 20 years, so there’s an expectation, and when they think they’re close to getting it, I don’t think I want to be the one to say, ‘Nah, sorry. Let’s take that away from you,'” Kline says. “But if I had a different artist where the crux of my marketing and awareness was based on television appearances and things that just quite frankly can’t take place, that’s a different set of circumstances, and that’s why we’re viewing every single release on a case by case basis.”

The mood is right, or about to be right, he feels. “Everyone has been glued to news cycles, but between now and May 1, there’s going to be even more of a thirst to get back some normalcy, and music can play a huge role in that. In terms of what we’re seeing with fan interaction, people are craving — dare I say it — distraction states.”

“I know it’s gonna sound completely like I made this up for this call,” the Warner exec says, “but today in Nashville is 75 degrees and sunny after about 150 days of rain. And I sat in my driveway in the sun in a folding chair with my headphones on and listened to the Kenny record start to finish. And it was a wonderful escape. II can see people on May 1 doing that with a drink in their hand on their back patio. Now there will be a time, probably this weekend, where I’ll also say, ‘Damn, I want to get internal,’ and I’ll listen to some really dark s—. But today in the sunshine, after everything we’ve been through, it just felt right.”

UMG Nashville president Cindy Mabe is also sticking with an April 3 release date for Sam Hunt’s “Southside,” his first album in six years. “We’ve taken each release impacted by the coronavirus and discussed the implications on that release, she says. “We all felt like there wasn’t an upside to moving (Hunt’s) back. Fans have wanted it for such a long time and there is no better time to feed music fans than when they are as engaged as people are right now to discover new music and content as they are trapped in their homes… Most of our release schedule stayed as planned, but some had massive media campaigns and are counting on a bigger physical base or a ticket bundle, and those may move back based on the current marketplace issues.”

The Universal exec says she’s not overly worried about those first reports that streaming declined after the shelter-in-place orders kicked in. “There was an initial dip in streaming consumption overall,” Mabe says, but “the belief is that it will rebound over the next few weeks as a new norm sets in and people go back to their habits. That seems to have been the pattern in both China and Italy — initial dips, then a rebound. And every week that passes creates another way to engage and interact with the fans. It makes sense for us to have the music in the fans’ hands as they are looking to find something to move them during this time.

“There is a reality that people are dying,” Mabe says. “But as the seriousness of the virus continues to show itself and becomes real, people need music for healing, as well as for escape. Both serve a vital purpose right now.”