Independent artist creativity and innovation in the age of COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the music industry upside down in many ways but among the direct artists community there have also been signs of resilience and creativity in the face of adversity. For these ‘unsigned’ artists, 2020 is both the best of times and the worst of times. 

Self-releasing artists are not bound by industry promotional cycles, and in many cases, today’s artists must not just create their music but ‘sell it’ as well. If you have the drive to create music there is very little stopping you from writing, recording, producing and indeed releasing that music. All the tools and platforms are available. 

It’s been a boom year for music making – from record Fender guitar sales to yet another peak in streaming demand. Yet there’s never been a tougher time competitively—with 40,000 tracks released daily, cutting through the clutter is a very real challenge. The age of ‘create it and they will come’ never really existed, but today’s music market started to obliterate the notion completely and COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst for the changes that were already taking place.

For MIDiA’s latest independent artist survey report in partnership with artists services and distribution company Amuse, we interviewed 346 artists around the world during the heart of lockdown to get a unique view of how the crisis is affecting artists. What we found was anxiety mixed with aspiration and creativity. The full report is available for free here but we’ve pulled out here five key themes for artist success:

1 – A sector with real scale: Artists direct (i.e. those without record labels) generated $873 million in 2019, up 32% from 2018. These independent artists represent the fastest-growing segment of the global recorded music business, a segment of global scale with real impact and influence. They are also more streaming native than label artists.

2 – Lockdown was a unique creative window: Nearly 70% of independent artists took the opportunity in lockdown to spend more time writing or making music, and a further 57% created more content for social media. Artists took full advantage of being away from the spotlight and the treadmill of promotion, to dive back into their creative spaces and make new music. In terms of releasing music, artists were split – with 46% releasing more music, but 40% putting projects on hold.

3 – Collaboration: 36% of independent artists reported working more on collaborations during lockdown than before. Music is becoming more of a collaborative undertaking than ever before and a whole ecosystem of digital tools and services is emerging to meet growing artist demand, providing more structured and networked process than many labels ever can. An unintended consequence of lockdown is that it has compelled more artists to explore ways of doing remote collaboration and many of these new learned behaviours will persist beyond the pandemic. A new way of making music is being born.

4 – Independent artists need side hustles like never before: Artists need to work multiple revenue streams to build career momentumFor independent artists, streaming is their primary source of income at 28%. Live revenue is second at 18% (which means they are less exposed to lockdown’s impact than established label artists). But the key for today’s artists is to make revenues from multiple sources including publishing, teaching, session work, sponsorship and merchandise. Artists’ need to work multiple revenue streams to build career momentum. The number of artists offering online tuition has grown hugely during the pandemic, as has artists selling their old kit. Additionally, artist skill platforms will only grow as the number of aspiring creators grows, and, as with live streaming and making sound packs, is yet another revenue stream for artists. Artists are small entrepreneur businesses. They need four or five income streams to get off the ground.

5 – Marketing IQ is becoming key: Half of all direct artists do their own marketing, with one third managing their own marketing budget, but less than one in five are working with a distributor or label on marketing activities and 40% spend nothing at all on marketing. Artists are self-reliant but still inexperienced with marketing and most are not making the most of the tools available. While almost two-thirds of artists are using Spotify For Artists, few of them are using any other marketing related tools. The independent artist must know that marketing is about research, experimentation and persistence and is even more important for independent artists that do not have labels to do this work for them.

Making and marketing music is both getting easier and harder at the same time. Easier because artists can be in control: releasing music when you want to, growing and using social media, seeking out like-minded artist collaborators and sponsors, not having to rely on paymasters or gatekeepers. Easier also because artists can go global right from the beginning. 

On the other hand, the road to a career is longer and possibly never ending. The gap between artist and fan, creator and consumer is narrowing. Equipment makers are having a boom year, and one of the many things people have done with more time on their hands is fulfil their passions. So, for aspiring independent artists, a whole new wave of competition has arrived in the form of talented amateurs, armed with the tools and the time to make their own entertainment. 

The independent artist sector had another boom year in 2019 and the early signs are that it has not only weathered the COVID-19 storm but has made the best of a bad situation, seeing lockdown as an opportunity to create, experiment and innovate. Which should not surprise us, as after all these are some of the defining characteristics of one of the most important and exciting elements on the modern music business. Pathfinding through the pandemic requires innovation and patience and it looks like the direct artists sector has plenty of both. 

Where did Disney and Live Nation’s missing $10 billion go?

In both economic and pandemic terms, we are in a relatively quiet period compared to the first half of the year. COVID-19 is at much lower levels in most countries and there are multiple sectors, such as housing and auto, that are reporting booms. These positive indicators will likely be both a pre-recession bounce and the lull before COVID-19’s second peak. However, there is a crucial subtext here, which is that one sector’s loss is often another’s gain. COVID-19 saw winners and losers, as any post-recession recovery is defined by ‘scarring’ where some companies and formats build where others have failed. For entertainment companies that lost revenue during the first half of the year, the question is whether they will regain that revenue or whether their lockdown legacy will be a long-term contraction.

Live Nation and Disney (because of its theme parks) were two of COVID-19’s biggest and highest-profile entertainment company casualties. Live Nation’s revenues fell from $3.2 billion in Q2 2019 to $74 million in Q2 2020, a 98% decline. Disney’s fall was less in relative terms (-38%) due to having a diversified business but more than double Live Nation’s loss in actual terms. Between them, Disney and Live Nation lost nearly $10 billion of revenue which can be bluntly equated with $10 billion of consumer entertainment spend that went unspent in Q2 2020. The big question is whether that spend remains dormant, waiting to be tapped when doors open again, or has it gone elsewhere – and if so, can it be won back.

The lockdown winners were companies that could trade on consumers being cooped at home: games, video, home shopping, video messaging etc. Some of these were stop-gaps that consumers turned to in order to fill the void; others represent long-term behaviour shifts. Here are some of the places consumers shifted their spend, and how it might impact recovery for entertainment businesses:

Home improvements: One of the areas to see strong lockdown growth was home improvements – people stuck at home staring at the DIY jobs they had always meant to get around to doing and now had both the time and the money to do them. Home Depot saw its Q2 2020 revenues increase by $7.2 billion, nearly three quarters of that lost Disney and Live Nation revenue. Obviously, these are not like-for-like shifts as different geographies are involved, but the direction of travel is clear. The beauty of the home improvements business model is that there is always another room to do, another project to start. The risk for entertainment companies is that a portion of these new home improvers may have got the DIY bug and will have less spend to shift back to entertainment.

Home shopping: Amazon was a huge lockdown winner, growing quarterly revenues by 42% compared to 2019, representing an increase of $38.3 billion. Those revenues include, among other things, its cloud business, which rode the wave of many of lockdown’s other success stories. Additionally, the shift to home shopping has been pronounced. Amazon’s growth has extra implications for entertainment companies. Its subscriptions were up 29% which largely refer to Amazon Prime, which of course comes with music and video bundled in and will in turn compete directly with pure-play propositions like Spotify and Netflix. This will take on added significance during the recession: when cost-conscious consumers are forced to cut back on spending, an all-in-one entertainment bundle that includes home shipping looks a lot more cost effective than a handful of standalone subscriptions. Amazon Prime is not recession proof, but it is certainly recession resilient.

Changing of the guard: Some of most interesting shifts are actually within entertainment. For example, AMC cinemas saw quarterly revenues fall by a catastrophic 99%, representing a quarterly loss of $1.5 billion while over the same period Netflix gained $1.3 billion. Again, the geographies are not directly comparable but the direction of travel is clear: old video being replaced by new video. A similar changing of the guard is happening in digital advertising. Alphabet, the powerhouse, saw revenues fall by 2% while Amazon saw its ad revenues grow by 40%. Turns out that advertisers will pay a premium to reach customers that are one click away from a purchase. Who’d have thought it…

The list of examples of lockdown shifts goes on and on. In fact, so much so that MIDiA is currently working on a major new piece of research exploring these shifts and what the long-term implications are for entertainment businesses. We’re calling it ‘Post-Pandemic Programming’. There will be a series of in-depth reports for clients and also a webinar and podcast mini-series. So, watch this space!

But returning to the above findings, the key takeaway is that companies that lost entertainment spend during lockdown should not assume that this spending is waiting in consumer’s bank accounts, ready to be spent as soon doors open again. Pent-up demand will ensure much of it will but some of it is probably gone for good, allocated to new habits developed during lockdown but that will persist long after. This is not to say that those companies cannot return to previous heights, but to do so they will need to unlock new spending from new customers. Which may not be the easiest of tasks during a global recession.