After COVID-19 hit the music industry in 2020 with what Nashville music venue owner Chris Cobb called “extinction level” impact, countless bands and solo artists were forced to face hard lessons about live music performance when they were left asking three questions:

  • “What the hell just happened?”
  • “What am I supposed to do now?”
  • “When will I get to play live again?”

Nobody needed to write a report about the first question. The world media was writing that report every day. To help answer the last two questions, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and Exploration Group released the Music Industry Report on Dec. 10th, 2020.

The first of its kind, the free 240-page report combines discoveries and metrics from 75 music industry stakeholder interviews, findings from a survey of 2,589 people, and input from national and international music organizations to provide clarifying data on:

  • the full impact of COVID-19 on the music industry and artists
  • how industry and artists are managing
  • insights about the future

Given the scale and scope of the report, artists and music industry workers may not have time (or desire) to read 240 pages. So, here are some salient points, along with other relevant industry findings:

Half of Music Listeners Did Not Enjoy Livestreamed Music Performances

With few live performance opportunities during the pandemic, over 82% of bands tried either ticketed livestreamed performances or free performances to promote music streams and/or sales between March and April of 2020.

The problem was, 50.2% of music listeners found livestreams nowhere near as engaging as the real experience. This lack of engagement impacted ticket sales for livestreamed performances and eventually caused performances to drop off. So, livestreaming largely did not generate revenue and/or promotions anywhere near the degree to which many artists wanted or needed.

Had Spotify been set up differently in its payments for played music, artists may have had a better shot at offsetting lost income. Yet well before COVID-19 became a household word, Spotify—the top music streaming platform during the pandemic (and before)—had already established itself as a business effectively acting as an important but unpaid promotional channel for artists.

Spotify Made Money – Artists Basically Did Not

During the pandemic (and before), most artists made peanuts from music streaming services like Spotify. Despite Spotify’s claims to stakeholders and the public that artists do make money, Tim Ingham (founder and publisher of Music Business Worldwide) points out in his Aug. 3rd, 2020 article for Rolling Stone that the number of artists making any real money from Spotify represents an extremely small group of the world’s biggest superstars. The majority—98.6% of artists on Spotify—make an average of $12 a month. Reflecting this meager number at a time when artists needed much more than spare change to get by, 47% of Music Industry Report respondents reported participating in crowdfunding or donating to another source of supplementary income for artists during COVID-19.

Contrasting this, Statista released findings on Jan. 8th, 2021 showing that Spotify made over 1.98 billion euros in the third quarter of 2020, and earnings had steadily grown since 2016. Against the struggles faced by artists, the Music Industry Report understandably found that 81.9% of respondents agreed with the following statement:

“A disparity exists between the value listeners get from music and the revenue that creators get for the use of their music.”

The report further says, “COVID-19 highlighted areas of considerable pre-existing weakness in the music industry. If the music industry is to exist, capital must return to those directly responsible for it: creators.”

The report could not be more correct. Yet music streaming services are businesses first, and businesses are always motivated by profit growth. Therefore, it’s difficult to image music streaming services being truly motivated toward the report’s assertion when they’ve made so much money through good times and bad, and shareholders only have more to gain. So, within this framework, the question for artists becomes, “Until real change happens with music streaming services, if anything happens at all, how do I market my music better and begin to build income that does not rely on revenue from music streaming services?”

COVID’s Hard Lessons About Live Music Performance

Naturally, income from live performance has been a mainstay for artists since music began and will remain so, and that’s the good news for artists. Audiences cannot wait for the pandemic to end so they can attend live shows again. So, now is the time for artists to be rehearsing for when venues reopen.

Yet for artists to remain in a state of sole reliance on live performance for income going forward from COVID-19 is to remain in the same eggs-in-one-basket position by which COVID-19 so easily and completely hammered artists, because things will always happen outside of extraordinary events like pandemics that cannot be controlled:

  • Gigs get cancelled
  • Band members quit
  • Family, work, or health situations come up

Variables will always be unavoidable. So, hedging against their economic impact comes down to diversity. Just as people invest in broad retirement fund portfolios to hedge against any single investment having too much of an impact against the whole if market conditions shift, artists do the same when they make live performance part of other activities. A few examples:

  • Recording and promoting music on sales-enabled sites like Bandcamp or their own eCommerce sites, which offer artists better potential to make money in the age of streaming
  • Licensing recorded music for use in films, television, and other media
  • Offering production services to other artists, as well as businesses seeking media services
  • Imparting experience to other artists through workshops and music lessons
  • Offering music and/or lyric writing services

The list is long, but you get the point. The more an artist diversifies activities beyond live performance and purposefully directs their recorded music in a manner befitting the compensation creators deserve, the more an artist helps create economic stability while simultaneously fostering exponential opportunities for a more sustainable creative future.

In short, now is the time for artists of all stripes to ask themselves questions they may never have asked themselves before and consider what they do as more than the sum of a live show, and sure. COVID’s sudden and unexpected hard lessons about live music performance left many artists moving forward in uncertainty and doubt. Yet as author and songwriter Diamante Lavendar once wrote, “There’s something about hardship. If you can make it through the dark places, it has a tendency to lead you into glory.”