opinion Opinion March 24, 2020

Artists are finding tech-savvy ways to engage fans in the isolation-age [op-ed]

Artists are finding tech-savvy ways to engage fans in the isolation-age [op-ed]

Donald Glover played it perfectly, as usual.

With no advance fanfare, and with most of the world on lockdown, he launched donaldgloverpresents.com, a mysterious website which was streaming what appeared to be his first album since 2016’s Awaken, My Love!

There was no tracklisting, no credits, no online acknowledgement from Gambino himself  – just 57 minutes of music, streaming on a loop. It seemed like the ultimate gift to restless fans, locked in their own homes, starved for something to get excited about.

The website appeared at 4am on March 15, and disappeared twelve hours later. “Was it all a dream?”, fans wondered. “Am I corona-hallucinating?” – “If so, do I get co-writing credits?”

The speculation as to what on earth this website was – whether it was a leak, a security breach, or simply a suite of music we would never hear again – acted as perfect pre-hype for the ‘official’ release of the album (named 3.15.20) onto streaming services a week later.

In 2013, Glover spoke of fighting his label to release his record Because The Internet in mid-December, usually a wasteland for major releases. His argument was that, during his own childhood, the Christmas break was usually the time when he would delve most deeply into an album, with the hours of holiday downtime, forced family gathering, and halt in regularly scheduled TV, all making for the ultimate time to put headphones on and escape the festive cheer.

Considering the clear effort put into this album, there is no way that its release was anything more than fortuitous timing, unless Glover really can see until 3005. But, with musicians in lockdown along with the rest of us, and any tours, festivals, and live shows cancelled until further notice, many artists are finding savvy ways to use technology to communicate with their fans.

Nashville star Clare Bowen is performing song requests over on her Instagram page. Today, Camp Cope is headlining a cross-continental streaming festival, Distant Together 2: Lost In Your Living Room, featuring over twenty acts from three continents. James Blake played an Instagram Live concert to his fans, while Jens Lekman is Skyping individual people who sign up, playing one song to them and them alone, then moving on to the next caller. Thee Oh Sees live-streamed a full band rehearsal of their next album, which will no doubt have higher fidelity than the actual album, judging by their ramshackle catalogue.

The Smith Street Band took advantage of Bandcamp’s fee waiving last Friday by releasing their first-ever live album – the proceeds of which will go to their road crew, who were financially reliant on the band’s forthcoming tour. Sufjan Stevens pushed forward the release of his latest album, while Liam Gallagher simply filmed himself washing his hands while singing altered versions of Wonderwash, Soapersonic and Champagne Soapernova – a public service if ever we’ve seen one.

Some artists are performing tongue-in-cheek covers of lyrically-relevant tunes: Billie Joe Armstrong covered ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ from his bedroom – the idea of 48-year-old Armstrong holed up in his bedroom like a sullen teen is only funny if you let it be.

Some artists are going large. Chris Martin, in his ongoing bid to out-Bono Bono, has teamed with Global Citizen, the World Health Organisation, and artists such as Common, John Legend and Vance Joy for a series of #TogetherAtHome concerts, which “aims to ease people’s minds, and bring them joy and a sense of shared humanity as public shutdowns and social distancing take effect” — but also lets you hear a stripped-down version of Yellow.

This week, Alex Lieberman, who curates daily business newsletter Morning Brew, explained how in times of restriction, innovative ways of using existing and nascent technology can help these platforms become the new norm, introducing new ways to effectively do business.

Zoom, the video conferencing software, has seen its users skyrocket since businesses have been on lockdown, forced to communicate remotely. Home-schooling is coming fast, and online university lectures will be commonplace within a few months. All of this will force us to examine our previous ways of doing things.

No doubt a lot of CEOs who have felt only a minor speed bump in the operation of their businesses will be currently wondering why they lease a two-storey office building in the heart of an expensive city. We will see this change in the music industry too – with live streaming concerts and the like becoming the main part of a musician’s promotional push for a new album –  not just a fun novelty.

Hopefully, it never replaces actual live touring, but acts as a supplement for those in far-flung regions, or who cannot afford to get to a gig. For those feeling the distance at the moment, such intimate performances from out-of-reach artists help to ease the growing sense of isolation.

For any fan, there is a thrill in seeing someone you love, sitting in their lounge room, playing an acoustic set, and using the same technology you usually use to drunkenly Skype your friends. Look, they have the same Scarface poster as me! Is that a photo of his kids on the mantlepiece? It’s both a savvy promotional tool for artists, acting as a ‘don’t forget me’ in these lockdown times, and a generous act that makes us all feel less alone. 

As Chris Martin said, it’s a sense of shared humanity. Now, go wash your hands.

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