Illustration: Esmée Finlay / @efinlayillustration

In this third report, detailing the findings of our musicians’ survey carried out in partnership with The University of Liverpool, we look at responses relating to releasing music and self-promotion during the months of lockdown. The findings illustrate a desire within artists to keep releasing music and retain visibility despite challenging circumstances, yet the ability to retain profile proved difficult with the greater emphasis on social media.

The ensuing Covid-19 pandemic has seen venues close and changed the music industry as we know it. When the situation took hold in March, musicians were somewhat forced to take stock and evaluate their next steps moving forward.

Was releasing new music a good idea when the opportunity of playing it live and testing the reaction was not possible? With everyone stuck at home, was lockdown a good opportunity to work on developing a greater online fanbase? The first lockdown came as a key crossroad for how some musicians operated day-to-day.

Of the 175 respondents that took part in our survey, 39 per cent changed plans to release recorded music due to the impact of Covid-19. Of those that decided to change their plans, 73 per cent delayed their releases, put their release schedule on hold or cancelled their plans entirely.

Out of the respondents that continued with plans, 52 per cent released a single, 28 per cent released a full album and 31 per cent continued with an independent physical release.  Additionally, 40 per cent of artists that responded had no intentions of releasing recorded music.

For some, the hours of work that went into the studio production for releases – the nights toiling over the writing of songs, the days spent in practice spaces and the collaborative efforts from artists, managers and the press to help promote the release – all had to be put on hold as artists felt the climate was not conducive to releasing new music.

The great uncertainty of what was to come in the following months was enough for some artists to delay releases until more sustainable times. One respondent said: “We put all plans on hold until we had an idea of how long this was going to last and what changes there would be.”

Another common reason was the lack of practice spaces, live shows and recording opportunities to develop new tracks before releasing, as potential changes were unable to be resolved without band members being in the same room. “A series of singles were to be recorded over the last few months with the band, but this hasn’t happened as we wanted to all be physically present when recording. We may have to abandon these plans altogether and do things differently,” one respondent said, with another adding: “With no live shows to promote the songs we thought it would be best to delay the releases indefinitely.”

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The problems weren’t only limited to independent artists. Acts signed to labels faced similar problems as three respondents with label support also delayed the release of an album, with one changing it from early summer 2020 all the way to 2021. Others described the impact as “playing the waiting game”, “a damned shame” and a “total headache”.

However, lockdown still proved an opportunity for some to weather the storm and keep going with intended plans. 21 per cent went ahead with their intended release schedules with 16 per cent of respondents starting new PR campaign.

Although the inability to perform on a stage was damaging to some, others, as we saw in our last article, took to online streaming gigs as a means to continue the promotion of their music. Innovative use of online social media, more time to focus on music and the continued release of material allowed the momentum to keep going and for artists to have the ability to put their music in front of fans who were also stuck at home.

Of those that continued releasing, 38 per cent cited momentum as a key reason as they didn’t want all the hard work they did before to go to waste.

For some independent artists who don’t follow the stricter set-ups of label release schedules, lockdown proved to be a time to test out new ideas and to see what worked. Halting operations completely could do more harm than good for an artist just starting out. “Why not?” said one respondent. “We finished two pieces of music we were really happy with and we’re still kind of starting out, there was no reason not to continue, really.”

“There had been a lot of planning and money put into the release of the album. We wanted to also avoid the potential backlog of everybody else pushing back their releases until the end of the year,” another added.

Birkenhead art-rock trio SPQR are one band that has remained active over lockdown, pressing on with putting out an EP, a 7” and uploading a collection of early tracks on streaming services via their own label Nuthin Gud records. Lockdown gave the group a break from touring to focus on recording new material which proved positive for their artistic motivation. “Having that time to write and record has given me confidence,” said the band’s Peter Harrison. “I’ve never felt I’ve written anything this good as I’ve never had this much time [to put towards music].”

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Although the negatives and frustrations of not being able to perform live were present, Harrison saw a positive side moving forward. “Lockdown is just another setback that we have to get over,” he added. “We’ve had to go through a lot to get to where we are and this is just another challenge.”

Before lockdown, social media was a key aspect of artist development as it provided an opportunity for them to connect with fans outside of a live music setting. Not all artists used the platforms to their full potential. However, as lockdown removed the opportunities of physical interaction, social media became the only way for artists to connect with fans.

Across our respondents an average of 40 per cent saw a growth in their social media interactions during lockdown, yet 19 per cent saw a decline.

Looking deeper into the data displays some more interesting results: 31 per cent recognised they had actively engaged more on the platforms by adding more content, with 14 per cent showing a specific boost after live streaming activities. Additionally, 19 per cent saw change when they released new music. Contrastingly, 22 per cent added less content with five per cent taking a social media break altogether seeing it as an opportunity to reassess and practice more on their music or personal lives.

Artists engaged with the platforms in multiple ways, from posting video content in the form of covers, music videos, live streaming gigs and, in a few instances, even a DIY festival. Instagram Live proved a useful feature with artists using the platform for polls and quizzes and a unique opportunity to live stream performances and direct fan Q&As.

One respondent saw the opportunity to watch videos and educate themselves on how to use social media effectively as “the one reason they were grateful for lockdown”.

“I didn’t feel like it was suitable to promote myself when people were dying”

Peter Harrison of SPQR related to these frustrations of not being as active online as others and having concerns. “All of a sudden you’ve had to move from someone who writes songs to being a ‘content creator’ and a lot of us [musicians] just aren’t that at all,” he said. “I felt like I wasn’t doing enough online and I was worried the band would disappear. But then I thought ‘what does it actually mean?’

“If you’re spending all your time on social media, it might not do you any favours. If I was posting every day to stay relevant it might not work because that’s not what me or the band is about.”

However, reflecting on the impact of social media interactions on streaming figures produces mixed results. The continuing push of Spotify links proved successful as 29 per cent of artists saw a growth in streaming figures on the platform, with an 11 per cent rise on Apple Music and 26 per cent on YouTube. Across all respondents only four per cent reported a decline in figures and around a third remained unchanged.

Much like social media, the artists that saw growth on streaming platforms were the ones that were posting the most content and knew how best to engage. Although it might be frustrating for artists who don’t know how to manage online promotion to its highest potential; in a data driven, online streaming age social media is an essential tool for artists in search of popular appeal.

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A key aspect of this study was to show compassion and understand the opinions of the artists behind the data. For some artists, not being able to perform and share their talents had a profound effect on their mental health as their creative worlds and livelihoods were dramatically changed.

The resultant months of uncertainty became a crossroads for artists as it was a test of their abilities to conduct and promote themselves as a musician effectively at home during lockdown. A prevailing negative in the data shows a great lack of overall optimism with 65 per cent saying they were not confident operating themselves at home, compared to only 32 per cent who were confident.

The technical side of operating at home was the stand-out aspect of pessimism: 41 per cent said they were not confident promoting themselves online from home. However, many expressed their lack of technical knowledge of social media platforms led to demotivation, with some avoiding it altogether. The moral questions surrounding promoting music during a global pandemic and times of increased social unrest made some feel “pushy” or “intrusive” for putting themselves out there for personal gains in collectively troubled times.

One respondent said: “I was freaked out and didn’t feel like it was suitable to promote myself when people were dying.” Another, discussing their frustration with social media, said: “It just doesn’t cut the mustard and it’s not what music is supposed to be about. I don’t understand how anyone has time to make music with the amount of social media musicians are expected to do in the best of times, so switching to a world where it’s the only outlet for music/performance is grim.”

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Additionally, 11 per cent described themselves as “live based artists” and therefore were unable to operate effectively at home and another 15 per cent stated live performances were key to their promotion and live streaming was not an effective method for them. One artist said: “I have managed to keep practising, but the lack of physical audience and other musicians makes for an existential crisis. It’s hard to justify your niche when you’re competing with literally the whole world on a given platform.”

The results paint a depreciated picture for some artists during lockdown as many felt left out of the online circus of social media due to lack of technical know-how, motivation or ability to conduct themselves effectively. This suggests a need for more support and education for artists during crisis so they can learn the skills of how to effectively promote themselves online without causing frustration or dismay.

Lockdown is a temporary yet very frustrating setback for artists who choose not to become digitised. The mystique behind the music can sometimes feel lost when artists compel themselves to post on social media every day and broaden yet somewhat saturate their appeal.

Reflecting on his feelings towards the past few months SPQR’s Harrison profoundly concluded: “I hope this lockdown will help artists to realise that it isn’t all about rushing around and the business side of it all. You’re still an artist if you’re at home making your art. Just because you’re not at a gig or there aren’t people watching you doesn’t make your music or art any less legitimate.”

Lead researchers & data analysis: Dr Mathew Flynn & Richard Anderson, University of Liverpool

Read parts one and two of our Playing In research project report.

Issue 111 of Bido Lito! is out now in print. Sign up as a member to get the next issue delivered to your door or become a subscriber to our weekly newsletter.

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