If the music business were allowed to write its own history, every year’s chronicle would glow with variations on the same theme — the words “transformation,” “revolution,” and “record-breaking sea change” chief among the lexicon — ad nauseam. But in the peculiar shadow of 2020, these bombastic end-of-year appraisals, for the first time, are quite accurate. Without lucrative live shows and a predictable event calendar, the industry — from record labels to artists to jaunty financial entrepreneurs — went off its rails in search of new revenue streams and new points of connection to music fans. As Universal Music boss Lucian Grainge said in an end-of-year email to his company last week: 2020 “will be a year we remember with sadness for what we lost, but it will also be a year we remember with pride for how we weathered the challenges we were forced to confront.” Here are the 12 biggest ways the strange, twisty year shattered the norms of the multibillion-dollar hit-making business.
The ascent of the computer concert
Covid-19 turned livestreaming, once an idea that was widely balked at and discarded as a cheap thrill, into the fastest-growing ecosystem in music. With shows canceled and with nowhere else to go to engage with fans, artists from well-established superstars to amateur talent flocked to livestreaming in droves. It started with casual iPhone sessions aired from their couches. But over the past several months, those have evolved into increasingly elaborate, costly blockbusters. Dua Lipa’s well-received livestream over Thanksgiving weekend, which featured guests including Elton John and Miley Cyrus, cost about $1.5 million to put together. Kiss’s extravagant New Year’s Eve show, streaming live from Dubai, will run nearly into the eight figures.
Animated shows on video games such as Fortnite and Roblox have been head-turners too. Travis Scott’s concert on the former reportedly earned him $20 million — not to mention an unforgettable cultural moment — while Lil Nas X drew in 33 million viewers. Justin Bieber, The Weeknd and J Balvin made up a star-studded investor class for Wave, who produces animated virtual concerts like these. The live music business is clamoring for a return to live shows, many managers, booking agents and artists are confident that livestreaming, cheaper and easier as it is many ways, will be a part of the post-Covid formula. — Ethan Millman
Why bother marketing an album?
In ye olde days, an album’s cycle involved months and months of teasers, magazine covers, talk-show circuits. But in this one year — thanks to a confluence of factors, chiefly the market chaos wrought by a global lockdown — the biggest, most talked-about music of 2020 was either spun out of the wormhole that is online virality (see: the 15-second TikTok hits that buoyed us through spring and summer like pool noodles) or tossed into fans’ laps without warning (see: T. Swift’s twinsies Folklore and Evermore, both of which enjoyed a zero-to-60 trajectory in pop culture, not to mention on music charts). Whether you call it a masterstroke or a mere race to the bottom, the trend of quick, cheap, and grabby momentum for releases will far outlast the lockdown period. — Amy X. Wang
Arti$t$ and their old mu$ic catalog$
Bob Dylan’s decision to flog his song catalog to Universal Music Group for around $400 million was a shock to one-time beatniks — but not so much to hardened music industry observers. 2020 has seen everyone from Stevie Nicks to Mark Ronson, Imagine Dragons, Calvin Harris, Barry Manilow, RZA and The Killers sell at least a chunk of their song rights to well-financed parties. The music market’s most acquisitive player, Hipgnosis Songs Fund, has already spent over $1 billion, and plans to spend billions more. Meanwhile, songwriters are being tempted to sell not only for some sweet price-tags, but also because 2020 has robbed them of live touring income. There’s also the matter of a fast-closing beneficial tax window, with Joe Biden keen on ramping up capital gains tax in the US at some point during his presidency. Such factors won’t be going away in the first few months of 2021. — Tim Ingham
A fair record deal is — maybe, just maybe — possible
It’s always a grubby spectacle when the sale of an artist’s catalog takes place without their approval. That happened to Taylor Swift for the second time in as many years, with Shamrock Capital swooping for her masters for $300 million from Scooter Braun in 2020. However, Swift’s current deal with Universal Music Group, signed in 2018, arguably signposts a bigger trend for the blockbuster music business. Swift owns the masters to everything she’s recorded and released since inking that UMG contract — including last year’s Lover and 2020’s Folklore/Evermore double-whammy. Universal and its Republic Records merely market and distribute said records to earn their keep, without any ownership. Swift’s big fight over her masters coincidentally took place at the same time that her old nemesis, Kanye West, unleashed Twitter rants against Universal and posted confidential pages from his record contracts, financial terms and all. Has the dam broken? Will major label-signed artists have more power over their masters and contract negotiations from here on? The dozens of other artists who’ve spoken up this year against lopsided record deals, largely in response to West or Swift, will be cheering from the sidelines in this fight. — T.I.
Music streaming is not everyone’s best friend
The collapse of live music revenues this year added a new note of urgency to an anti-corporate sentiment that’s been building for years in the industry: Streaming services and their major-label partners may be able to make big money even in a pandemic, but where does that leave the smaller acts that are essential to a healthy artistic ecosystem? For the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, the time was right for a forceful new campaign demanding higher streaming payouts and other Spotify reforms. “[Spotify] continues to accrue value, yet music workers everywhere see little more than pennies in compensation for the work they make,” labor organizers wrote in a manifesto that more than 26,000 artists have signed onto. The growing resentment also left room for Bandcamp to position itself as a virtuous alternative to the big streamers with its Bandcamp Friday series, which raised $40 million for independent artists and labels by forgoing the site’s own slice of sales revenue on designated days. (Bandcamp will also continue Bandcamp Fridays in 2021.) One sign that these campaigns are working? Both Apple Music and Spotify have written big checks this year to support independent labels and music venues, with the side benefit of helping them look less like greedy robber barons. — Simon Vozick-Levinson
Virality for all
New artists who wanted to break out in 2020 had basically one option: Go viral. The pandemic forced people to socially distance at home and seriously hindered radio’s discovery power. TikTok, which undeniably seized popular culture this year, was an obvious solution. People were bored and restless, and an easy-to-use platform with strong video-editing capabilities and an extensive music library was literally at their fingertips. And for the app, the timing was eerily ideal: TikTok, which only became accessible worldwide in the summer of 2018, surged in popularity in 2019 when Chinese parent company ByteDance shut down its lip-sync-video app Musical.ly and merged it with TikTok, shepherding users over in the process. In the last year, active users rose by 60 percent, climbing from 500 million to 800 million — and beyond, as a governmental threat to shut the app down only boosted its popularity. According to TikTok, more than 70 artists that broke on the platform in 2020 received major label deals, including Claire Rosinkranz, Dixie D’Amelio, Powfu, Priscilla Block, and Tai Verdes.
TikTok has also breathed new life into pre-streaming catalogs and become increasingly powerful in the sectors of marketing and promotion. RCA, for example, leans heavily on it with rising star Tate McRae — whose bang-up year included a late-night TV debut, a MTV VMA nomination, and pop radio success. But a smattering of companies that focus specifically on TikTok marketing have become game-changers. One called Against the Grain (ATG) ran around 160 campaigns for labels and artists in March alone. But as Tate and ATG can inform you, it’s not enough to just have an account. TikTok success is rooted in exclusive content, behind-the-scenes looks, clever themes and challenges, and, of course, constantly feeding the beast. — Samantha Hissong
When there’s a will, there’s a brand
What’s a major artist to do when touring, their most lucrative revenue stream, goes away? Global corporate brands, with their unfathomably deep pockets, are more than happy to come to their rescue.
Several agencies who spoke with Rolling Stone this year said they were seeing unprecedented highs in interest for brand deals, and they’ve had to work quicker than ever to get them closed. Travis Scott, the human brand deal, had the most prolific year for these partnerships. He inked partnerships with PlayStation, Nike, Anheuser-Busch and Fortnite, and his much-meme’d about McDonald’s meal led to food shortages at several locations. He hawked a lot of merch in that McDonald’s deal too, including three-feet-tall $90 McNugget body pillow. Elsewhere Bad Bunny and Post Malone partnered with Crocs for their own ugly yet comfortable shoes, and Lady Gaga announced questionably colored Oreos to commemorate her album Chromatica. Along with announcing her investment in ice cream maker Serendipity, Selena Gomez launched a new ice cream flavor to promote her single with Blackpink. Let’s hope for a return to touring in 2021 to bring the astronomical number of deals back down to earth. — E.M.
DIY music completely dwarfs the major labels
Rolling Stone was first to report on an explosion in DIY music uploads during the pandemic, with services such as TuneCore and UnitedMasters reporting huge increases in releases versus 2019. Winding back the microscope, the effect of this rush of new music on the global record industry will be inevitable — a further erosion of global major-label streaming market share, with percentages of the pie ceded to the $2 billion-plus annual indie artist sector. And Midia Research, by the way, estimates that some 14 million people are currently making music around the world, suggesting an even bigger DIY artist generation down the line. How will the majors respond? Market share obsession has driven their cost-heavy frontline A&R strategy for decades, often resulting in an overwhelming spray of weekly releases. Perhaps now, with Warner on the stock market and Universal soon to join them, profitability, rather than market share, will become these companies’ new watch word. — T.I.
But labels also shoot for world domination
Back in 2015, indie labels feared the music industry’s newly-adopted Global Release Day would see a whitewashing of regional culture, and the emergence of American pop hegemony. In the end, the opposite happened: Whether it’s Sweden, France, the UK, Nigeria, or the Philippines, local artists — very often local independent hip-hop artists — are now enjoying unprecedented streaming (and chart) success within their own borders. This trend hasn’t passed the major labels by. In the past 18 months, Universal has launched Def Jam in Africa, South-East Asia, and the UK, while investing in new offices in Morocco, Israel, and beyond; Sony Music, meanwhile, has recently invested new A&R dollars in both East Africa and South Africa, and launched Epic Records in France. The list goes on. These multinational companies understand a golden truism of the modern business: You can’t hope to rule today’s global music industry without dominating its myriad local music industries first. — T.I.
Meanwhile, China shifts the center of gravity
Expect this entry to be a perennial on Rolling Stone’s end-of-year music biz lists forever more. (Well, at least until the point that the Chinese entertainment giant Tencent owns the entire global record industry.) 2020 saw a Tencent-led consortium buy 10% of Universal Music Group and then up that percentage to 20% in recent weeks. Elsewhere, Tencent also bought a minority sliver of Warner Music Group, and increased its ownership stake in Indian Spotify rival Gaana to 34%. Then, in October, Tencent confirmed the acquisition of a minority stake in UK-based Instrumental, whose AI-driven A&R tools seek out the hottest new artists on streaming services (so that labels, or now Tencent, can beat rivals to signing them). All the while, Tencent continues to own around 9% of Spotify, as well as 40% of Epic Games, maker of Fortnite… which, by no coincidence, is starting to host unique music concerts from superstars like Travis Scott. — T.I.
Live music levels up
Does anyone really enjoy a concert experience of muffled and unmixed audio, glitchy delays, and iPhone footage? Truthfully, at the beginning of the pandemic’s shelter-in-place orders, the idea of livestream shows felt more like a gimmick or necessary marketing pivot than an integral and lucrative part of the music business. But that has turned a 180. Multiple livestreaming companies — like Patreon and Maestro — are thriving; the latter went from an average of 50 paid events a month at the start of the year to 200 by summer. And while it might seem expensive to create a high-quality experience, it can be worth it. Production costs for Dua Lipa’s sole virtual show in 2020, which took months to perfect, rose above $1.5 million — but with approximately 284,000 tickets sold at $10 each, the star clearly profited. Even more impressively, BTS garnered around $20 million from one virtual event this year, their Bang Bang Con. But this isn’t a phenomenon reserved for millennial-aged pop superstars already known for their online presence. Even veteran country stars known more for their extensive touring than Internet usage have begun to reap the rewards; Rolling Stone reported in August that Melissa Etheridge, who was livestreaming five days a week via Maestro, was on track to make up to $600,000 in a year from the platform.
Struggling venues that have been shuttered for months see the value as well. New York’s Le Poisson Rouge launched its own subscription service in September. Nowadays, it seems like everyone is eager to support the monetization of livestreaming. To watch electronic music duo Bob Moses’ shows on Twitch, which started as a platform for video gamers, monthly subscription options range from $4.99 to $24.99. But is this all sustainable in the post-pandemic future? Given the worldwide accessibility — and Dua Lipa’s show resulting in a 70-percent increase in ticket sales for her upcoming, in-person tour — we’d say so. Whether or not the subscription model will last as well as one-time payments in this arena is less clear. — S.H.
And the unbundled begins to rebundle
(Say that 10 times fast.) For the last decade, tech startups have been luring customers away from tried-and-true media ecosystems with tantalizing new ideas — free and abundant music, for instance, or cheap access to a cavalcade of movies and TV shows whenever you want them — but now that everyone and their mother gets monthly bills for six dozen separate subscriptions, the companies behind the initial revolution are banding together for another one: mashing all these multimedia platforms back together in a new Jenga tower. Spotify jumped the gun by buying up podcasting companies and partnering with Hulu for a discounted deal a while ago; this October, Apple followed suit by launching multi-tiered subscription bundles for services including Apple Music, Apple News+, and Apple TV+ (under the unfortunate misnomer “Apple One,” but that’s beside the point). Meanwhile, Google own YouTube TV and YouTube Music, Disney operates its own ever-expanding universe of content, and Facebook, a media juggernaut disguised as a benign middle-aged playground for cat pictures, peddles products like the TikTok-imitating Instagram Reels and the new music-production app Facebook Collab. What’s the point of all this? In short: Gone is the quixotic age of scrappy-startup excitement and “Hey, my friend just showed me this cool new app”; major tech companies are mainstream media companies now, they are slowly owning everything, and they’re unquestionably the new court reigning in the castle of entertainment. Oh, and they know everything about you. — A.X.W.