The Music Industry Adjusts to the Coronavirus
7 min read

The Music Industry Adjusts to the Coronavirus

Hello everyone, it’s good to be back after the holidays. I informed my Patreon subscribers a couple of weeks ago but I’ll no longer be doing any work on Patreon. I’ve left it open so folks can still support the newsletter but I have no plans to publish on it for the foreseeable future. Now, the main feature of the Patreon was being able to preview the upcoming newsletters, so I’ve modified it into this Google doc, which outlines future Penny Fractions newsletter topics. Subject matter and weeks off may change but check it out if you’re curious. I have more to announce in the near future but for now let’s get to the main topic at hand.

Headlines about Covid-19 can induce whiplash. Excitement rushed with early data on vaccine effectiveness but skyrocketing hospitalizations across the United States and many parts of the western world quelled that buzz. New virus variants are emerging from the United Kingdom and other countries and the return of societal closures presages what will be another long pandemic winter. Unfortunately for the live music industry, none of these news stories have changed the known foreseeable forecast of no concerts, performances, or shows.

Touring is still on pause domestically, much less internationally. Music festivals that delayed last spring were pushed to the fall, only to never resurface. Many plopped dates in for 2021, although no one really thinks Coachella will be happening this April. And the Grammy’s just pushed the ceremony to March, so folks might want to start canceling another round of festivals. The fantasy of a quick return to live music, which I critiqued last year, is still revealing itself to be a desperate, though understandable, delusion. Live Nation took on another $500 million of debt to endure this continued downturn. Vaccination and warmer weather may offer relief for smaller businesses and folks hiding away during the cooler months but the path towards live music’s return remains unclear.

Did We Save the Stages?

One of the most impressive feats of music political organizing last year came from the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), which formed last year to provide a voice for many non-Live Nation/AEG venues. They along with a little help from one of Washington DC’s largest law firms, Akin Gump, successfully passed the Save Our Stages Act passed within the most recent batch of Covid relief funding. The bill offers $15 billion in grants for music venues, museums, and film production companies to weather the pandemic downturn. Interviews with elected officials acknowledge that this is a stopgap measure and that more will be needed if music touring remains unavailable until 2022. Pollstar ran a piece that pointed out the fact that there are still many operations and venues that aren’t covered by the bill. Still, even if the program’s effectiveness will be tested over this long winter, there’s a bit more certainty within this space than last spring.

Even with these measures, there is still a sense of dread setting in for many venue owners and artists alike. Complex reported that, especially in the American South, there are indeed concert venues still operating with a limited capacity. The artists interviewed in the piece expressed a need to keep making money and even saw this as an opportunity to be on stage at a time when most artists are not. I don’t agree with the decision to perform and tour during a pandemic, but for many parts of the live music industry that aren’t connected to large multinationals or within the very scope of venues within the National Independent Venue Association’s bill, the impulse is somewhat understandable.

A recent study funded by Primavera Sound, a Spanish music festival, concluded that indoor concerts are safe, assuming that a set of conditions (that are practically impossible to sustainably recreate) are in place. Much of the anxiety around live music is filtered through the perspective of either small business owners (i.e. venue owners) or musicians that are big enough that taking the chance to perform during a pandemic is monetarily worth it despite the risks. Even in the UK, where this newest coronavirus variant is causing much alarm around the world, we see UK Music, which represents a number of UK unions and music organizations, theorizing about a summer return. This seemingly contradictory vision is one shared across the world where the music industry’s various interests are heard unequally. The concerted voice of classical performers is heeded with government cash, middle-class catering venues are propped up, and yet the thousands of independent contractors and oft-forgotten live music workers are entirely ignored.

The Business Techno Twitter account, which highlights DJs who continue to perform despite the pandemic’s persistent global spread. Some run to the defense of musicians who are facing a lack of work available to them and inadequate government support. However, as Jean-Hugues Kabuiku mentioned in an essay (What the Dance Music Industry Can Learn From Italian Operaismo?) for Dweller, what does it mean to DJ during a pandemic when it involves gathering people within communities that have been hardest hit by the virus? The prolonged closure of a fully-functioning live music industry still allows for more time to consider these questions around who benefits from these shows, who governments are choosing to support, and what kind of future is in store for live music in 2022 and beyond.

Unheard Labor

The New York Times reported on the ongoing labor and management within classical and fine art spaces. This sector of the arts is heavily unionized and trying to fight pay cuts and layoffs from institutions that while facing some financial hardship are often funded by individuals and foundations that continue to see their wealth rise during this crisis. The heightened tensions in this community become exasperated when institutions like the Met Opera hire non-union labor, but luckily the union and Opera were able to come to an agreement. Meanwhile, at a national level, the American Federation of Musicians approved a contract to allow streaming residuals for musicians that perform on live TV shows. Lastly, do check out a report put out by the Music Workers Alliance, a newish musician labor group, which shows just how deep the devastation of the pandemic has been to American musicians.

A Note of Financialization

Tencent led a consortium to buy another 10% stake in Universal Music Group, which places them at 20% of the Vivendi-owned music giant. Dubai-based investment firm Shuaa Capital bought an undisclosed percentage of Anghami, one of the bigger Middle Eastern music streaming platforms. (Just for context, Anghami’s previous rounds of funding arrived from a cluster of UAE / Saudi Arabian telcos and private equity firms.)

Merck Mercuriadis’ firm bought Jimmy Iovine’s production catalog, Lindsey Buckingham’s songwriting catalog, and half of Neil Young’s work, though he still holds the right of refusal to its usage. The company also raised another $200,000,000. Primary Wave purchased the catalog of songwriter Dan Wilson, and KKR, a private equity company that partnered with BMG back in 2009, acquired a majority stake in Ryan Tedder’s publishing catalog. (In 2013, Bertelsmann did purchase back its share of BMG Rights Management from KKR.) Then last but not least, Round Hill Music purchased the catalog of the songwriter Jim Vallance. Cash movement is not slowing folks.

Thunder Only Happens When It’s Raining: How Social Media and UGC Could Decide the Future of the Music Industry - Synchtank / Record Labels Reap Billion-Dollar Bonanza From Tunes on Social Media - Bloomberg (Subscription)

Think of this as a teaser for next week’s newsletter. The 2020s are already shaping up to be a decade with lots of attention placed on alternative, beyond-streaming methods of revenue generation for artists. Social media, though a bit abstract, shouldn’t be overlooked by the same artists and organizations looking for a fair streaming rate. Concerns over streaming payouts can overlook the amount of money transferred between social media firms and record labels, don’t forget to follow that trail.

Tracks Music Library Is a New Kind of Local Listening Experience - The Indy

A nice story highlighting a digital music library that got started last spring in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I’m a huge fan of these projects by Rabble, who’ve done similar work for years across the United States. While criticism and fights against streaming companies or record labels are certainly important, establishing long-lasting alternatives is also key.

A Year in Music on TikTok - Pitchfork

Cat Zhang tours through 2020’s TikTok memes and trends, even though the app’s capture by major labels is nearly complete with more deals getting signed and more cash flowing to influencers. There are still several small niches within the app that point towards slightly less corporate modes of musical expression.

The Rise of the Fan-Centric Music Streaming Service - Water and Music (Subscription)

There continues to be a desire to figure out the “next streaming” within the record industry. Bas Grasmayer suggests in this piece that the future will be seeing more ways to produce artist-to-fan monetization options and thinking beyond the traditional framing of streaming. Hopefully ideas proposed here could flourish outside of major platforms so that artists and communities can better negotiate the terms of these new practices. Little point in “fan-centric” streaming if power still sits with a handful of billion-dollar firms.

A ‘Great Cultural Depression’ Looms for Legions of Unemployed Performers - The New York Times (Subscription)

A wide lens look at the crisis facing American artists that’s become even more acute because of the coronavirus.

Just One of 2020’s Top Songs Came From a Solo Songwriter - Rolling Stone (Subscription)

If anyone from Rolling Stone is reading this, I’d be interested in reading more analysis of songwriter data. Would be interested to parallel this information with the increased financialization of music publishing. Could be a fascinating topic to examine!

Blog Roll

New year, new updates to the Blog Roll. I’m going to be removing Art + Museum Transparency: The Newsletter, First Floor, Heated, and the Tech Worker Coalition Newsletter. These are still great projects worth supporting but I wanted to include some other voices to kick off the year. This includes two music co-ops, both of which I support, Ampled and Resonate. Then I also wanted to include the black-led music festival/blog Dweller that publishes vibrant writing on music’s broken political economy, along with a great collection of archival pieces on the black roots of techno.


Art and Labor

Buy Music Club



Notes on the Crises



Water & Music


My name is David Turner and I started Penny Fractions back in November 2017, as a way to think through various topics within the world of music streaming. Since then, the newsletter, which is delivered every Wednesday morning (EST), has grown to reach over four thousand subscribers with an archive that can be found right here. I’m currently a Program Manager at SoundCloud, so all thoughts here represent me, not my employer. Prior to this, I wrote for Music Business Worldwide, Pitchfork, the New Yorker, Noisey, Rolling Stone, and Spin. I also create content on Patreon to help cover email billing costs and to compensate my copy editors, Mariana Carvalho and Taylor Curry. Artwork is produced by graphic designer Kurt Woerpel. If curious, here is the newsletter’s budget sheet and publishing schedule. Any comments or concerns can be sent to