How COVID-19 exposed music industry fault lines and what can be done

28 September 2021

By Marisa Henderson, Chief, Creative Economy Programme, and Amy Shelver, Public Information Officer, UNCTAD

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The music industry is one of the creative industries that suffered as a result of the coronavirus crisis © Song About Ammer 

As more creative goods become services traded online, the creative economy is undergoing a shift that can learn a lot from one of the first creative industries movers to embrace digitalization: the music industry.

But we are also learning that if music was the early adopter, it can also be the canary in the creative coal mine.

COVID-19 exposed the serious fault lines that exist across the creative industries. But for the music industry this was a painful reckoning of what is and what isn’t working, at the centre of which are the benefits and pitfalls of digital transformation and streaming.  

Demand for digital booming

The demand for creative services – delivered digitally – has never been greater than right now.  

Last year, UNCTAD published an analysis that found that, aside from depending on the internet to do our jobs, to go to school, do shopping, and keep informed and connected with others during COVID-19, it also become the main source of entertainment.

Who creates that entertainment? The creatives: Musicians and artists.

During the height of the pandemic, creatives turned to digital platforms more than ever to offer respite to their fans and followers, but also to regain some of their lost revenue as their paid gigs and performances came to a staggering halt.

At the beginning of the first lockdown in 2020, we also witnessed a new movement in online performance. Thousands of musicians, from small-time performers to stars like Chris Martin and John Legend, gave intimate home concerts.

Big-time mega-producers such as Andrew Lloyd Webber struck deals with the likes of Universal to take musicals from stage to screen, and in the early lockdown days a different West End musical was screened every Friday at 7pm.

There was solidarity and camaraderie, and most of the entertainment part of this was delivered by the world’s creatives and performers.

When the music hits you, you feel no pain

Yet the momentum behind the entertainment-driven unity started to wane as reality set in and the dark side of the pandemic revealed itself.

Artists reeled as all their income-generating gigs, events, tours and shows were cancelled.

Streaming platforms became the saving grace of artists globally, whose revenues come not only from live performances, but also royalties for music played in public spaces such as bars, restaurants, clubs and shops, most of which were shuttered across the world in waves of lockdowns.

But streaming is not unproblematic. For wealthier countries, where internet access, data and electricity are abundant and affordable, streaming is the answer. But for developing countries it comes at a much higher cost – and increased vulnerability and inequality.

According to UNCTAD, in least developed countries, more than 55% of the people do not have adequate access to power. There is no unlimited streaming for these, mostly, African audiences.

Streaming platforms’ business models have also been called into question. Some artists have hit out at an “archaic” streaming model that allows major labels to maximize their revenue while some musicians struggle to make a minimum wage.

The big streaming platforms have extolled the virtues of streaming, and very few artists would argue that these powerful platforms saved the music industry during the pandemic.

Music streaming in the United Kingdom, the government says, now brings in more than $1.3 billion (£1 billion pounds) of revenue a year. But artists get paid little out of this mega-machine, receiving just a minuscule portion of the cost per stream or as little as 13% of the income generated. This is only offset by the potential of scale and a global audience.

But even getting streamed requires investment and access that many emerging and unknown artists simply don’t have.

COVID-19 hit the industry, not just artists

The collapse of the live industry affected not only artists, but the thousands of people who work alongside them. This includes everyone from road crew and sound engineers to security guards and transport and equipment companies – and not to mention all the venues and the staff they employ.

A July report by the International Dance Music Summit on the impact of the pandemic on the international dance music industry said it saw a 54% decline in value in 2020, down to $3.6 billion dollars.

Then, a December 2020 report from the Nashville Chamber of Commerce showed how much the coronavirus affected the famous music city's industry. 74% of musicians said they had experienced unemployment since March 2020 and saw their annual income plunge by $10,000 to below $36,000 a year.

Nashville's many music venues lost 72% of their revenue costing the industry $17 million in lost wages and delivering a $24 million hit to Nashville's GDP.

Then there is the fact that during the rolling lockdowns many artists globally couldn’t even get into a studio to record to take advantage of the shift to digital.

The great digital-musical divide

During the height of the coronavirus crisis, it also became obvious that there is a major gap between established musicians and new and emerging artists.  For the more vulnerable artists, COVID-19 has been devastating.

The multiple waves of the coronavirus, new strains and stalled and slow vaccine roll-outs, especially in the developing world, spells disaster for artists already on the breadline in poorer countries.

In Kenya last year, a survey by the HEVA Fund found that more than half of creative industry players estimated their COVID-19 income losses to be “severe”.

Musicians surveyed said they had turned to digital platforms but that it was difficult to get attention because of the oversaturation in the online market and that electricity and internet connectivity issues frustrated their streaming experience.

Kenyan artists turned to online and homegrown platforms like DundaLive and the Mdundo, which helped mitigate pandemic losses through strategies like ringtone downloads.

Mdundo said music downloads have been rising steadily on the continent. But profitability for both African producers and the platforms requires time and scale that is just not there.

Making music in the UN International Year of the Creative Economy

2020 was tough for the music industry. This situation has largely continued in 2021, the UN International Year of the Creative Economy for Sustainable Development, as musicians, promoters and venues fight to get back to normal.

Staging a comeback for the music industry will not be easy for those in developing countries. It’s critical that we find mechanisms to support musicians and the whole industry to embrace digital transformation, explore new revenue and investment models, be more sustainable and inclusive, and rebuild and recover from COVID-19.

Right now, we need to count the costs of the pandemic on the music industry But we must also co-create a way forward that’s pro-industry and pro-investment in fairer digitalization of it, for all.