Header image for A few positives for indie music from 2020

A look back on music in a tough year

Look, 2020 sucked. That shouldn’t be a controversial take at the end of a year with a seemingly endless string of challenges, setbacks and generally terrible news almost every day. The global COVID pandemic hit nearly every industry square in the jaw, with workers in numerous fields out of work due to temporary (and in some cases permanent) closures.

The music industry didn’t avoid the blow. With touring ceasing entirely for most of 2020 and the foreseeable future, countless venues have closed their doors for good. Artists who have relied upon income from live performances for their day-to-day livelihood have had to look elsewhere.

But while 99.99% of 2020 has been awful, we here at CD Baby are eternal, glass-half-full optimists. In that spirit, we wanted to celebrate a few of the bright spots for both independent artists and the music business as a whole. Live music will bounce back eventually, whether in 2021 or beyond. It might not look the same as it did in the Before Times, but as the iconic holiday song goes, someday soon we all will be together, shoulder to shoulder at a dingy bar, soaking in some tunes at deafening volumes. At least I think that’s what Judy Garland was singing about. Until then, let’s take a look at some positive ways the music industry changed this year in light of the world almost collectively falling off a cliff.

1: The evolution of live streaming

Live streaming has been around for a lot longer than most Twitch users realize. But it’s really only in the past decade or so of it’s quarter-century history that live streaming became an increasingly popular means for viewers to take in live video.

It’s been a slow and steady evolution for the medium. That is, until this year. With in-person gatherings nixed in compliance with stay-at-home orders, musicians the world over needed a way to approximate the experience of a real live gig. So they turned to live streaming, bolstering an already quickly growing medium and turning it into the de facto way for music fans to watch their favorite artists perform live.

Live music websites like Bandsintown pivoted to live streaming almost entirely early in lockdown, eventually seeing 75% of all events created by artists being a live stream, totaling 45,000 this past summer. Amazon integrated Twitch into their Amazon Music for Artists feature. And Spotify added a feature for artists to promote their live streams on their artist profiles.

While it may not be quite the same as the real experience, the cool thing about live streaming is that you can watch in the comfort of your own home without having to elbow your way through a throng of sweaty bodies or worry about someone spilling beer on your pants. (Or maybe you still do. I won’t judge.) I can personally attest to headbanging by myself like an absolute maniac in my basement while watching one of my favorite death metal bands play a live stream on YouTube.

2: Virtual tip jars became vital

Another revenue source eliminated by the disappearance of live performance is the age-old tradition of tipping artists. Remember when you’d buy a cool shirt after a particularly great set and kick in an extra buck to the band’s coffers just to make sure they could get to the next gig or maybe buy some Taco Bell?

With in-person tipping impossible, artists instead turned to virtual tips through payment apps like Venmo and PayPal. What’s really groovy is a mega platform like Spotify got in on the action. They were rumored to be working on adding a virtual tip feature to artist profiles earlier this year, but they increased the priority on development and launched in April right as it was becoming we’d all be staying home for longer than expected.

Not only that, but this summer HearNow added a donation link option for artists to add to their smart-links. So you can collect all your streaming links and accept a few extra bucks from your fans. And don’t forget about accepting tips on your own website!

3: Artist became creative with merchandise

Maybe merchandising isn’t entirely where the real money is made like Yogurt claims, but it’s a pretty major source of revenue for artists. Looking for another source of revenue to focus on, artists leaned into merch to entice fans.

When you buy merchandise from an artist, they not only make some money for bills and stuff, but they’ve also sold a literal walking billboard that advertises their music. And you get a rad wearable to show off around town (okay, maybe not actually outside, but a Zoom call perhaps?). Everyone wins!

I’ve probably bought more merch in 2020 than any other year, as tons of the bands I love released limited press tees and delightfully hideous longsleeves to horrify my wife. Mission accomplished!

If you’re not in the merch game yet, remember that you can sell merchandise commission-free when you build a website with Bandzoogle!

4: We get new music sooner

Artists can only live stream so many times before they want to start working on new music. The combination of being stuck at home and the availability and affordability of recording equipment has led to many artists writing, recording and releasing new songs this year in lieu of touring.

Heck, Taylor Swift has released two new albums in the past six months! And I personally know quite a few bands who have either released albums they wrote and/or recorded in quarantine or are hard at work on new material due out soon, with many other artists no doubt following suit. All of which means 2021 is going to be absolutely stacked with new music from all across the genre spectrum!

The lesson? Don’t put off writing and recording new music, especially right now. People are stuck inside looking for new media to consume. The traditional model of write, record, release, tour, repeat doesn’t apply right now, so release as much new music as you can. Got a single or two? Awesome. Maybe enough for an EP? Great. It doesn’t need to be a full-length album like T-Swift to capture fans’ attention. The important thing is to plan a release strategy and stick to it.

5: Appreciating what we have

If there’s one thing we learned this year, it’s just how much we rely on music to soothe our anxiety and comfort us in times of uncertainty. Jazz drum legend Art Blakey liked to say “jazz washes away the dust of everyday life,” but he could have just as easily been referring to music in general. Music elevates our best moments and acts like a salve for the most difficult ones, and there were plenty of those this year.

2020 reminded us to be thankful for those things in our life that act as distractions when the world seems to be falling apart around us. As challenging as this year became, it taught us to never take music for granted.

But seriously, world, get it together in 2021.