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The initial response within music marketing to lockdown was to charge into livestreaming – seeing it as a way to plug at least part of the hole created by mass concert cancellations. Several weeks in and things are very different. We look at the campaigns that have managed – with incredible nimbleness – to adapt and contort themselves into whole new shapes. We also hear from the marketers charged with starting campaigns again from scratch about what they did and how they did it. It is important to stress that this is a period of great uncertainty and that things are changing all the time. But for now, here are some of the best campaigns created during lockdown and just some of the lessons learned.
If you ever wanted proof of the disparate nature of the music industry, even as digital platforms become ever-more global in their reach, you need only look at the response of artists, managers and labels to the coronavirus pandemic.
Lady Gaga delayed the release of her sixth studio album, Chromatica, from 10th April to 29th May, claiming that it “didn’t feel right… to release this album with all that is going on with this global pandemic”, while Laura Marling brought forward the release of her seventh studio album, Song For Our Daughter, to 10th April, arguing that she “saw no reason to hold back on something that, at the very least, might entertain, and at its best, provide some sense of union”.
At an executive level, things are similarly divided. Chris Anokute, a one-time major label A&R who now runs the artist development company Young Forever Inc., told Rolling Stone that he thinks “big, big” release campaigns should “hold a beat”, while Warner Records COO Tom Corson argued on the same site that people in the music business should “think long and hard before you move something back”.
“There are good reasons to do that [in some cases], especially if you have a disproportionate share of physical sales,” he said. “But, if you can, get a plan together and encourage everybody in our ecosystem to engage.”
Play or pause? Finding the right moment to release a record
Phil Christie is president of Warner Records UK, which recently released Dua Lipa’s second studio album, Future Nostalgia. That album was originally scheduled for release on 3rd April 2020 but was brought forward by two weeks after leaking online, coming just at the start of the global lockdown.
Christie explains that the label had serious doubts over what to do. “We’d always planned to put the album out in early April, but when we saw how serious things were getting with COVID-19, there were some conversations around whether this was still the right timing for an album like this,” he says.
The main concern, Christie explains, was how an album of joyful pop music was going to land tonally. “It’s such an uplifting album, and there was so much tragedy around us and we didn’t want to be insensitive to that,” he says. “But after conversations with Dua and her management, we all agreed to keep going – and we actually ended up bringing it forward a week after a leak.”
This, clearly, had a huge effect on the album’s promotional roll-out, with Dua Lipa unable to travel for promotional appearances, to tour or even to visit a photographer. Obviously, this was far from ideal. And yet Christie says that the situation made the label “look at creative ways of doing things and to be more dynamic and opportunistic in our thinking”.
“In many ways, we have also followed Dua’s lead,” he says. “We’ve helped her amplify non-traditional tactics like performing from her flat, live streaming, podcasts and joining other artist livestreams.”
He adds, “Traditional promo spots like The Late Late Show with James Corden have become opportunities for innovation. Because she couldn’t travel, Dua did her first at-home performance with her band via split-screen and that really resonated with people and took on a life outside of the show itself. It’s definitely helped that Dua is such a natural communicator as she always finds ways to speak to her fans in an authentic and personable way.”
The result for Dua Lipa was a hit album. Future Nostalgia has sold more than 1m copies and she was the most-listened-to act on Spotify in April, according to Bloomberg’s Pop Star Power Rankings. Christie says that the album has cemented Dua as a truly global superstar.
“Everyone understands the comfort that music can bring and we really saw this with Future Nostalgia,” he explains. “It’s struck a chord with people and has given them the uplifting soundtrack to the lockdown that they needed.”
Lock ’n’ roll: making a brand new album in lockdown
Jamie Ahye, senior marketing manager at Atlantic Records UK, says that the response from Charli XCX fans to How I’m Feeling Now – an album recorded in Charli’s home studio in Los Angeles during the lockdown period and released on 15th May – has been similarly welcoming.
“Overall the reaction has been really positive,” he says. “Charli’s fanbase are totally engaged with everything she does, so the announcement of a new album and having the ability to see a lot of the process happen and be a part of the decision making is one they embraced.”
Adapting to the new reality
Of course, now more than ever – during a global pandemic that has upended so many of our fundamental beliefs about how things should be – is no time for one-size-fits-all thinking. The fact that Dua Lipa and Charli XCX have enjoyed such success with their new albums during this period certainly doesn’t mean that it is right for everyone.
There is, of course, no set answer as to whether or not artists should release new music during the pandemic. The most important question is whether or not the artist feels it is appropriate. But it is also worth bearing in mind your typical sales mix: an artist that tends to sell a high percentage of physical music would probably be better off delaying their release until after the lockdown eases and record stores open again. Equally, artists who rely heavily on touring to sell records – either at the DIY end of selling albums at gigs or at the Rolling Stones stadium level, where the new album is an excuse to tour – should probably delay their new release until live events return.
For artists who do decide to go ahead with their new album release, both label and artist will have to adapt to the new reality. And that means radically changing your promo plans.
“The traditional ways of doing things are out of the window but, aside from IRL [in real life] live gigs, a lot of these marketing drivers remain in place, with online press and radio putting emphasis on digital content, be it a session filmed or broadcast from the artist’s home, a video interview or hook up on Instagram Live,” says Dave Grinnell, head of marketing for Believe UK.
US singer-songwriter Kehlani recently spoke to Pitchfork about how she rose to the challenges around releasing her second album, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, during the pandemic. Her label, Atlantic US, apparently suggested she delay the album from its planned 8th May release or take charge of the promotion herself. Picking the second option, Kehlani moved photographer and videographer Bri Alysse, a long-time collaborator, into her LA home and got to work.
She told Pitchfork, “[It] took me out of my comfort zone. I had to learn a lot. I usually have a team: a makeup artist, hairstylist, stylist, and two videographers, not just [Bri Alysse]. All I have to do at that point is show up to set and be in the photo or the video. So getting on YouTube and looking at makeup tutorials to learn how to do my makeup for a camera? I had no idea how that even works.”
DIY FYI: why lockdown lo-fi can be a new aesthetic
The payback for going ahead with an album campaign in the pandemic is a slight drop in quality, which is no slight on Kehlani’s makeup skills; rather it is a reflection of the inevitable fact that a video interview with James Corden or a Zoom chat for a podcast will be of a lower audiovisual standard than a professional studio creation.
For some stars, the DIY route might be unwise – who wants to see Beyoncé on a Zoom call, after all? – but Grinnell says that, on the whole, there is a higher acceptance for DIY content among the public.
This, in turn, has led to more opportunities for emerging artists. “Initiatives such as Dork’s Homeschool Festival are a brilliant way of exposing emerging artists to captive audiences at home without incurring any costs,” Grinnell explains. “Given that marketeers in other industries also struggle to create content and keep customers engaged, brand partnerships have proven to be an additional revenue stream and also an interesting way of reaching new audiences. We’re working with several artists who are creating content remotely which is then rolled out across the brands’ social properties – a win-win situation.”
Rita Ora’s ‘How To Be Lonely’ interactive experience is a fascinating example of how marketing plans can adapt to – and even thrive in – the lockdown, with a planned physical exhibition based around the video for her track of the same name being forced to move exclusively online.
Sean Ward, audience manager at Atlantic Records UK, explains how the switch happened.
“When I first saw the deck that Wonderland [the agency who partnered on the exhibition] had sent over detailing the build, I mentioned to management it would be fantastic to digitise, as only a small amount of people in the London area would have been able to see it in person,” he says. “When we realised it would not be possible for anyone to attend, I started to pursue the digital alternative. Myself and a videographer went down to the site and shot and filmed each room in detail so we had a super-accurate representation of the interior. I then sent all footage to the developers at Pretty Good Digital and worked in collaboration with Warner Music’s Firepit Tech to complete the brief.” The reaction, he explains, has been “incredibly positive”.
“Many have praised Rita for bringing something real world into the digital landscape for them to enjoy in this particularly turbulent time,” Ward says. “The sentiment is that they would have loved to experience it in real life but understood the safety restrictions and have enjoyed exploring through the various rooms virtually.”
Globe, Universal Music UK’s creative agency, production company and sync team, took a similar approach when the Great Escape conference in Brighton in the UK was cancelled, taking Globe’s traditional showcase with it. In response, Globe created Label Mates, an online showcase featuring artists from different Universal UK labels. Lucie Avery, Globe’s general manager, says that with physical activations cancelled, “the team worked tirelessly to curate and deliver this innovative online showcase”, adding that discussions have already begun with brands who tuned in.
Understanding the ‘captive’ audience
Ward says that there has been a “more emphasised shift towards digital channels in this lockdown landscape”. “Artists are now addressing a ‘captive’ audience, so engagement rates are often higher due to fans looking for distraction during this difficult period,” he says. “Media outlets are looking for new ways to partner with artists in order to post captivating, engaging content for people to digest.”
Ahye explains that the media “are all chomping at the bit for content” during the lockdown, with much of their own filming being halted.
“It does feel like that gives more opportunities to artists, who perhaps aren’t always at the point of being booked for bigger TV or radio appearances, to get involved with these shows and their audiences in a more organic way,” he says. “It’s also pushing teams to think about what content they make right now. There is so much noise: how can we continue to make the content that really cuts through that?”
Grinnell also mentions the boom in digital consumption. “There’s been an increase in premium streaming subscriptions and an increase in the use of social media, broadening our reach across these platforms,” he says. “Furthermore, it’s made advertising on social media and YouTube a lot cheaper, with CPCs dropping across the board due to other industries cutting back on advertising, meaning we can reach more people for less spend.”
Grinnell believes that this shift in music consumption during the lockdown, with streaming services putting a bigger focus on mood playlisting and promoting playlists that help fans to cope with day-to-day lockdown life, can also offer an opportunity. “Ranging from up-tempo workout playlists to calming relaxation playlists and focussed study playlists, this shift in focus has put a bigger emphasis on niche genres, which have grown more popular in recent weeks,” he says. “This naturally provides an opportunity to push back catalogue and allows us to promote artists to new audiences.”
Acts bring fans closer
There is also the argument that these unprecedented circumstances have encouraged artists and labels to become more creative in their marketing, while the bond between act and fan has been strengthened by artists opening up their every-day and creative lives, offering everything from live Q&As, to fan requests and listening parties during the lockdown.
“With traditional live gigs essentially removed from the campaign for now, we are actively encouraging all artists to maintain a consistent release schedule, alongside a supporting stream of content for socials and YouTube to keep fans engaged,” says Grinnell. “We’re also using the YouTube premiere functionality a lot, with the band in the chat room during the premiere. As well as live streams on platforms like Instagram Live and YouTube.”
Charli XCX, an artist who already felt close to her fans, is arguably the prime example of an artist using the lockdown to engage with fans, recording and releasing her new album in collaboration with fans, posting lyrical ideas to Twitter, sharing demos with fans, screen-grabbing texts from her producers and crowdsourcing ideas in mass Zoom calls.
“Part of me is like, ‘I don’t know why I haven’t made an album like this before,’” she told the BBC at the end of April. “I’m enjoying not travelling and being still and focusing on my music. That’s something I never did before. It was always one million things going on at once, and taking a day here and there to record. So I think that will change because I love recording like this.”
Ahye says that Charli “has this great network of friends/ collaborators and [the album] just started coming together so naturally”.
“I think people really liked seeing Charli trying new things, sharing and having fun,” he adds. “For the album, Charli had the idea and came to us early on. It took two calls and then we were off. She announced her idea on socials straight away and everyone was running from then to pull everything together.”
Hard lessons from lockdown
In spring 2020, with the lockdown in some countries easing slightly after weeks of concentrated confinement, no one knows how the coronavirus pandemic will play out globally, let alone how it will affect music industry marketing. And yet two months into this upheaval we can, at the very least, take stock, look around and see what we have learned about music marketing when all the certainties disappear.
Ahye says the lockdown has helped him to question his whole working process.
“We perhaps get caught up in the details of elaborate music videos, styling boards, complicated rollouts and constantly trying to ‘elevate’,” he concludes. “All these things have their place, but they shouldn’t be the default. Perhaps we automatically just start making certain content for an artist, but I think this time of ‘starting again’ is making us question why we do each of these things. What’s the real value in them? What message are we putting out in the world? Who do we collaborate with? How can we stay focussed on the fact that a great song can connect so many people from different walks of life?
“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that, first and foremost, a brilliant song can change everything; sometimes letting that do all the talking is the best thing we can do.”
Believe’s lockdown belief
Dave Grinnell, head of marketing for Believe, on how two of their artists are getting creative during lockdown.
The Hunna (pictured) have done a fantastic job of keeping fans engaged during the lockdown and run-up to the release of their new album [I’d Rather Die Than Let You In, due in October] with regular Q&As on Instagram Live & live streams from their living room of fan favourites, drum sessions and covers.
In the absence of live-action videos, stock footage was used for their latest single ‘Dark Times’ [a track written last year about feeling bewildered and overwhelmed with the world, that is particularly poignant now], and they also released an Instagram filter ahead of the release of the single that made the song title appear as a tattoo on the user’s face, alongside the band’s trademark pollution mask.
They have also furthered their relationships with brands, performing for BrewDog’s recent live stream during the Bank Holiday weekend.
Erland Cooper has teamed up with BBC 6 Music’s Chris Hawkins for a totally unique feature called Sounds Of Change. Now that traffic and machinery have hushed and the land is quieter, we’re noticing birdsong and other calm sounds from nature and elsewhere during our mornings.
BBC 6 Music listeners have been encouraged to send in their own recordings of the “sounds of change”, whether it was something they came across outside in the park, their garden, or just some singing birds from their windowsill. Erland has sampled these entries and created a brand new piece of music. It debuted on 6 Music on 21st May as a part of Mental Health Awareness Week