How COVID-19 is changing the way we listen to music

Music sales and streams have dropped, tours and festivals have stopped, but social media has filled in the void — is this the new norm?

With sales and streams down and touring on hold, is an uptick in social media enough to fill the void?

Toronto rapper Tory Lanez hosts one of his Quarantine Radio streams on Instagram Live. His use of live streaming during the pandemic has resulted in an increase in followers for him. (Instagram/@midjordan)

When a global pandemic was declared on March 11, we watched as many forms of entertainment toppled like dominoes. Professional sports were put on hold (unless you're a wrestler in Florida), movie release dates were pushed back and music festivals and tours were postponed or cancelled. 

As we entered a period of self-isolation, we also began to drastically change the way we consume our media. Netflix subscriptions are way up, for example, with the service adding almost 16 million new users this quarter. Music, on the other hand, hasn't fared so well.

By the end of March, album sales had dropped as much as 29 per cent in the U.S., according to Billboard. It marks the lowest sales point since tracking such figures began in 1991, and Billboard even suggests it could be the lowest period for music sales since the boom of the 1960s. 

And just when you think streaming music would be at a high, with everyone remaining at home and, presumably, looking for things to do, it's proven to be the opposite. On the week ending March 19, overall streaming was down nearly eight per cent, according to Rolling Stone. Recent data from BuzzAngle puts the decrease for total streams — which includes platforms like Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora — down 10 per cent.

It's a decrease that is extremely rare in the music industry, except for the one week following Christmas, when listening habits drop from a holiday peak. But while that post-holiday decrease returns listening habits back to a natural plateau, this current drop is more like a chasm, one that seems increasingly harder for musicians to climb out of. 

More than anyone, it's new artists who are suffering the most from this decrease. Streams for songs released in the past eight weeks decreased 14.5 per cent, which Rolling Stone says is twice the drop off that one could expect as a popular song slowly works its way out of heavy rotation. It suggests people are turning to older catalogue music — comfort songs — instead of what's new and popular now.

In fact, only three genres saw an increase in streams: classical was up 1.5 per cent, folk 2.9 per cent and children's music 3.8 per cent. Kidz Bop, which features kids performing covers of popular songs, has seen an increase of about 10 per cent, which makes sense when you consider parents are looking for ways to entertain children at home. At the same time, pop, rap, R&B and Latin music saw a decrease. 

A report released earlier this month by Nielsen Music / MRC Data stated that, since COVID-19 hit, 49% of respondents say they are spending less time with music. One reason given was the absence of commute times, but almost half of respondents said they were simply spending more time with other forms of entertainment, primarily video. 

Likewise, tours and festivals have ground to a halt, leaving musicians very little recourse to make a living. However, while the traditional music industry model seems to all but crumble around them, musicians have been turning out in record numbers to one last hope: social media. 

A new era of live streaming 

Across platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, live streaming has boomed, and the artists who have been successful engaging with audiences online are seeing returns. 

Twitter's head of music, Kevin O'Donnell, told the Associated Press that the platform has "never been in this type of space before, and it's really incredible to see artists coming together to figure out ways that they can bring joy and comfort and happiness to their fans given this crazy time that we're living in at the moment." 

There are currently so many musicians hosting live streams that CBC Music set up a page to track them on a daily basis. The National Arts Centre also introduced a $100,000 fund, which has now grown to $700,000, to pay Canadian artists $1,000 each to host a Facebook live stream. 

Toronto rapper Tory Lanez began hosting a live DJ set every other day on Instagram, dubbed Quarantine Radio, and after some surprise guests dropped in, like Justin Bieber and Drake, his show became the hottest ticket around. During the March 31 session where Drake joined Lanez on his live stream, they broke an Instagram audience record as 310,000 people tuned it at once. Before the show went on hiatus in mid-April (Lanez says it will be back this week), he was regularly pulling in viewers north of 250,000, up to as much as 350,000. 

For Lanez, who was promoting the release of his newest album, New Toronto 3, that growth on Instagram translated to a more than 30 per cent increase in Instagram followers over the past four weeks (he currently has more than 9 million), which in turn helped him with his Spotify streams. Sales on New Toronto 3 were lower than some may have expected — although still within the average drop during this period — but it still debuted at number 1 on the Billboard top rap albums chart and number 2 on the Billboard albums chart, right behind the Weeknd's After Hours

"Laughing at the people calling 55-60k unit sales for 'New Toronto 3' an 'L' for Tory Lanez," wrote Noah Miller, a well-known music marketer, on Twitter. "Unit sales are 20% down right now for any artist. … His streaming numbers doubled, but let's not talk about that."

Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, doesn't provide specific data for how much usage has increased during the time of isolation, but they are "seeing a significant increase in both Instagram Live and Facebook Live usage as more people are turning to these channels to stay connected with their communities," according to Erin Taylor, communications manager at Facebook Canada, in an email. 

But Lanez isn't limiting himself to Instagram, and his April 10 DJ set on Tik Tok broke a live streaming record there, too. 

The power of Tik Tok 

Tik Tok, which is built around 15-second videos designed to be shared, mass-consumed and mimicked, has already proven itself to be a music kingmaker with the success of Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" in 2018, which was a hit on Tik Tok before it became the longest-running number 1 single in history.

Since COVID-19 hit, Tik Tok has also been seeing a big increase in usage, whether its people engaging in various music-themed isolation challenges, such as washing your hands to Gloria Gaynor for the #IWillSurvive challenge, or following along to Drake's simple dance instructions —  "right foot up, left foot slide" — on the way to his song "Toosie Slide," released April 3, becoming his seventh number 1 hit. 

"We at TikTok have since observed a spike in content featuring daily life in isolation. These include hacks, pranks, cupboard cooking, dance challenges, home workouts – and, of course, popular TikTok songs," the company wrote on its blog

The "Toosie Slide" challenge, which features people dancing along to the instructions in the song's chorus, has accounted for more than three billion views, making it the fastest music trend to hit the billion mark on the app. The accompanying music video, which features empty downtown Toronto streets and Drake dancing around his empty house, has also amassed over 50 million views on YouTube

At the same time, the #fliptheswitch challenge, which started on Tik Tok in early March, is still going strong. The challenge is based on a lyric from the Drake song "Nonstop," and it features couples turning off a light switch, only to reappear with their clothes exchanged. To date it has accumulated more than 3.9 billion views.  

Meanwhile, Curtis Roach's quarantine-themed song, "Bored in the House," which began as a 15 second clip uploaded to Tik Tok at the beginning of March, has turned into a social isolation anthem. Rapper Tyga teamed up with Roach to turn the clip into a full song, which was then released by Sony Music on March 28. That song has amassed more than 200,000 streams on Spotify, and the #Boredathome challenge has already racked up 5.6 billion views on Tik Tok.

Music is a small part of what happens on Tik Tok, but "it plays a special, emotional role," a Tik Tok rep wrote over email. "Hashtags and songs are punctuation for building trends. TikTok has become a powerful promotional platform for the discovery of breakout music, leading to significant off-platform success for the artists who've gotten their big break via the platform."

The traditional music industry model that relies on things like album sales and touring may be under threat while stay-at-home rules are in effect, but social media's capacity to provide immediate, low-cost DIY options for musicians and fans to connect seems ready-built to help tackle such obstacles. 

When tours and festivals do resume and music sales and streams (hopefully) increase, it will be interesting to see how much more integral social media, and live streaming in particular, becomes for musicians. Especially since, for now, it seems to be the only option.