If these were normal times, singer-songwriter Jason Isbell would celebrate the debut of his new album, “Reunions,” the way he usually does, by visiting famed East Nashville record store Grimey’s on release day.
But the coronavirus shutdown measures have left Isbell stuck at home, wrestling with the same quandary facing many of his peers: How do you release an album during a pandemic? For artists such as Lady Gaga, Sam Smith and the Dixie Chicks, who have postponed their album releases, and for artists such as Pearl Jam, Kenny Chesney and the Weeknd, who have pressed on, the coronavirus crisis presents opportunities, difficulties and the potential for career-ending humiliation in almost equal measure.
For Isbell, postponing “Reunions” was never really an option. “It’s important to keep people interested in what you’re doing, because there’s so many distractions and so many different forms of entertainment that it’s really, really hard to keep people’s attention,” he says. “For me, I think putting out an album full of strong material is a really good way to remind people, ‘Hey, I’m still here. I’m still making music. Even though we’re all locked in the house.’ “
All music genres have struggled during the pandemic, although not equally: Many rap artists, generally less dependent on physical album sales and live performances than their rock and country counterparts, are thriving, buoyed by newer hitmakers such as DaBaby and YoungBoy Never Broke Again.
As many musicians are discovering, a captive audience isn’t necessarily a receptive one. “People are distracted, and people are freaked out,” says Roy Trakin, a contributing editor at trade publication Variety. “It’s really hard to get people to concentrate. Streaming (numbers are) up, but the statistics show that streaming is not up for new releases. Streaming is up for classic stuff, comfort music. Is it the time to introduce new music, are people ready for it? On the one hand, they’re at home, they’ve got plenty of time to concentrate on things. But it’s such a weird time.”
Artists with scheduled corona-era releases weigh conflicting concerns. They worry about competing with the virus for the nation’s attention; they worry that their music, if delayed, will no longer feel relevant to them; they generally dread album rollouts and want to get them over with.
“I was very overwhelmed by both options,” says Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams, who released her solo debut, “Petals for Armor,” earlier this month, and who, like Isbell, had to scratch plans to spend her release day at Grimey’s. “If I postpone it, I’m just gonna feel bloated with it for God knows how much longer. If I put it out now, what if it’s not sensitive enough? Will I look egotistical? Eventually, after the strange grief of it all, I just decided that I would be really pleased to get some new music from one of my favorite artists. If Bjork wanted to drop something right now, I’d live.”
Mikel Jollett, frontman of the L.A.-based rock band the Airborne Toxic Event, was forced to contemplate canceling both the release of his new memoir, “Hollywood Park,” and a soundtrack album of the same name. Because the complicated architecture of a dual book-album release was already in place, and because the Airborne Toxic Event hadn’t issued a new album in five years, they decided to proceed as planned. “It was more like, ‘Let’s just go, we got this,’ “ Jollett says. “Waiting a year — who knows where we’re gonna be in a year, and that’s part of the practical considerations of all this. When you started, you might have thought, ‘OK, let’s put it out in the fall.’ But now, you would have had to move it again. And then you think, ‘Oh well, maybe in the spring,’ and then you might have to move it again. ... You don’t want to have to move it twice.”
Many superstars who initially delayed their albums are cautiously returning to the fray, including Lady Gaga, whose latest release, “Chromatica,” will drop at the end of the month. In their absence, artists bubbling under the A-list, such as indie band Car Seat Headrest, are stepping into the attention vacuum.
When things open back up, the thinking goes, competition for venues, publicity and airtime will be fierce. Car Seat Headrest’s new album, “Making a Door Less Open,” debuted to the biggest sales of the band’s career when it was released earlier this month. “People stream, a lot these days, anyways,” says Mike Scrafford, the band’s manager. “So we just felt like if we got the music out and let people live with it, then it’s probably better than waiting for some unknown time period and, you know, potentially dealing with a lot of competition in that time period for attention, because you’ve got to think that there are probably a lot of people doing that.”
For singer-songwriter Alec Benjamin, whose debut, “These Two Windows,” is set for release May 29, nothing can compensate for his inability to tour. “There’s pluses and minuses” to releasing an album during a pandemic, he says. The closure of schools, where his music spread through word of mouth, wasn’t great, he figures, but those kids are now home, waiting to be entertained. “It often depends on how optimistic you’re feeling that day,” Benjamin says. “Sometimes I’m really bummed, you know? I waited my whole life to finally be in a position where I can play shows.”
If there’s one thing music industry experts agree on, it’s that nobody really knows anything. The industry’s few remaining gatekeepers appear ill-equipped to sift through the avalanche of new acts. Radio play, for example, means less when fewer people are listening on their way to work. No real consensus has emerged on whether artists should release albums or postpone them, or how they might best gauge the national mood. It’s easier than ever for an artist to do the wrong thing, to seem self-promoting, or too earnest, or not earnest enough. No one wants to be seen as not taking the pandemic seriously, or jockeying for advantage during a plague, but no one wants to be the target of a Gal Gadot-singing-”Imagine”-style cancellation, either. “People are already growing tired of ‘We’re all in this together,’ “ Trakin says.
Pop hasn’t yet had its “Tiger King” moment, a unifying (virtual) water cooler smash, although the era has a handful of winners: R&B superstar the Weeknd’s March album, “After Hours,” is an unreserved hit. Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is widely considered the first great work of the era, although it fell out of the Billboard Top 100 within a month of its release; even successful albums feel strangely ephemeral in the age of the coronavirus.
The pandemic has created an unlikely breakout moment for Bob Dylan, who landed his first No. 1 hit in April (granted in the specialty category of “U.S. rock digital song sales”) with “Murder Most Foul,” a 17-minute song about the Kennedy assassination that is comfortingly familiar, but grave enough to meet the national moment without appearing to try to. He also recently announced that his 39th album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” will be released on June 19.
Other, mortal rock stars are muddling along as best they can. For Isbell, who has a 4-year-old daughter at home and a wife, singer Amanda Shires, with a heart condition, there are bigger things to worry about than album sales. “I don’t know if everybody feels this way, but I can write another album,” he says. “I could write you another album this week that would probably be pretty good. I’m sorry to say that, but I know how to write a song and I could do it again. So, if I need to write another album and put one out next year, I’ll just do that. It’s not that big a deal.”