Delivering Music: How the Music Industry is Adapting in 2020-2021

Courtesy of Pxhere.
Sarah Sallee
February 17, 2021

“Music has healing power. It has the ability to take people out of themselves for a few hours.” – Elton John

Music connects people across the world with its ability to communicate and capture emotions in the space between notes and lyrics. However, musicians across the world had to adapt quickly after COVID-19 safety procedures called for the cancellation of in-person performances. Hundreds of concerts in venues large and small and meet-and-greets were canceled as the world rallied to face the pandemic. Millions around the world turned to music for comfort and familiarity. As a result, the art has once again acted as a unifier, crossing bridges and oceans to connect hearts worldwide with chords and melodies.

One of the first musical events to kick off quarantine was the One World: Together at Home, an eight-hour global broadcast and digital special on April 18, 2020 that raised funds to support healthcare workers and the World Health Organization. The special consisted of seventy-one performances featuring artists including Lady Gaga, Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, Taylor Swift, Andrea Bocelli, John Legend, Billie Eilish and Finneas, Keith Urban, Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes, Eason Chan, Jennifer Hudson, Jacky Cheung, Jennifer Lopez, and many more. How can an eight-hour musical event take place in the midst of quarantine, though? Audio, filming, and musical equipment were shipped in advance to the homes of performers, and artists were asked to use instruments already available to them when preparing their work. Performances ranged from impromptu Zoom songs to full-fledged backyard extravaganzas. No matter the performance setting, the overall message remained clear: the world was grateful and eager to support healthcare workers; people can overcome challenges and find ways to connect despite the limitations of a pandemic; and music can travel wide distances and unify people worldwide.

Following the global broadcast, hundreds of artists from all levels of the music industry endeavored to continue delivering music while remaining at least six feet apart. Over the summer of 2020, musical performances took on a new appearance. Fans watched siblings Billie Eilish and Finneas host a free virtual concert from their childhood home to highlight how viewers can support small businesses, while Lewis Capaldi delivered a twelve-minute set from his home for iHeart Radio’s “First Responder Fridays,” a four-part series that featured ways to support healthcare workers on the front lines. In July, 2020, James Bay raised awareness for the Save Our Venues campaign by holding an hour-long virtual livestream concert at the Omeara Venue in London. Four months later, Niall Horan performed at the Royal Albert Hall in West London to raise money for the We Need Crew organization, which supports touring crews who have been unable to work their regular jobs. Horan’s event was live streamed four times to reach viewers in different time zones, generating the sale of over 120,000 tickets to fans in over 150 countries. At Bay’s and Horan’s events, film and lighting crews embraced the audience-free atmosphere, capturing 360 degree shots of the performance while enhancing the mood of the set with clever lighting placement.

After the temporary halt of the in-person concert experience, streaming services such as Spotify have skyrocketed in popularity as listeners continue to enjoy music from home using digital services rather than physical records or CDs. Nevertheless, behind the scenes, producers and artists continue working to develop new ways to produce music, create music videos, and deliver performances for television. 

Through the use of drones, social distancing, and many more “tricks”, artists such as Luke Combs, Justin Bieber, Chance the Rapper, Pitbull, Liam Payne, Little Mix, and BTS have found ways to create enjoyable viewing experiences for audiences while complying with social distancing requirements. Awards shows such as the American Music Awards, the MTV Awards, and the American Country Music Awards, along with televised programs such as Saturday Night Live and regular late-night shows, forged ahead in working with artists to perform via services such as Zoom. 

In a powerful display of the magic of film, numerous artists have relied on basic lighting and close-up video to convey an intimate atmosphere when performing for charity organizations. In contrast, televised programs have featured wider camera angles to film artists on their quarantined stages and create a grandiose sense of a musical show. Artists such as Justin Bieber and Billie Eilish have gravitated towards the pre-quarantine production setting, choosing to safely perform live with dancers and musicians. (Choreography and staging were shifted to meet social distancing requirements and all crew besides singers wore masks during the performance.) In contrast, artists such as Alicia Keys and Dan & Shay have allowed the cameras to build a dynamic relationship with their performance settings, moving between close-ups and long shots to effectively create a more intimate feeling while maintaining an elevated production level comparable to an in-person performance.

In addition to performing older sets, though, musicians must continue producing new music, but how are they doing so when separated from their bands, studios, and regular equipment? A prominent example of producing music from home can be seen with renowned artist Taylor Swift’s release of her eighth studio album, Folklore. The album consists of sixteen songs, and in her documentary, Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions, Swift discusses how the entire album was created in quarantine. Producer Aaron Dessner, from rock band The National, and producer Jack Antonoff, who also works with Lorde, Lana Del Rey, and more, both collaborated with Swift. All three musicians recorded their parts for each track in their own homes; Swift recorded the majority of her parts in a bedroom converted into a studio. Before the filming of Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions, which took place in Hudson, NY, the three had never played the songs live and while together in one room.

Through events ranging from virtual dance parties to TikTok trends to quarantine documentaries to an entire virtual Hamilton cast reunion performance, the music industry is very much alive around the world. It has rolled with the punches as the dedication and passion of artists and their teams continue to drive music production forward and inspire new ways for all levels of musicians to create and share their music worldwide. This enthusiasm for breaking the musical mold can be seen in the recent popularity of sea shanties. “Wellerman,” a shanty by artists Nathan Evans, 220 KID, and Billen Ted, has broken ground on TikTok and topped the Capital FM’s Big Top 40 chart in the United Kingdom.

At a time when many professional and amateur musicians must work from home, the world is drawn to those whose creativity embraces the challenge of entertaining and transporting listeners across space and time. Whether it is through live performances or at-home listening, music continues to delight and inspire the world, opening hearts through chord progressions and soulful symphonies.

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