‘At the start I thought… this is going to be devastating’: What Happens When You Release Music During a Pandemic?

Joshua Burnside

‘At the start I thought… this is going to be devastating’: What Happens When You Release Music During a Pandemic?

Releasing new music is normally accompanied by a run of concerts, but what happens when you can’t gig a new recording? The Journal of Music spoke to four artists who have recently released new singles and albums to find out how they dealt with it.

Even in the pandemic new music is appearing online. In one sense, it’s the perfect time because there is such a demand for entertainment and new listening. And yet, it comes with a lot of challenges. For musicians who have released new music over the past two months, how has the pandemic affected them, and how have they adjusted?

Belfast-based indie-folk singer and songwriter Joshua Burnside had months of planned concerts cancelled as a result of the pandemic. Instead, during lockdown, he has been writing and recording new music from home. ‘At the start I thought… this is going to be devastating to me,’ he says.

Once the gigging goes, you’re kind of relying on building your music online. For a modern-day independent musician that can be a really scary prospect because you’re relying heavily on the live side of things.

Last month Burnside released a new EP Far O’er the Sounding Main and this month the single ‘Whiskey Whiskey’. Far O’er the Sounding Main is a collection of five tracks, four of which are folk songs including ‘Come My Little Son’ written by Ewan MacColl, and a slip-jig ‘Kitty May’ composed by Burnside. 

Creating a record of folk songs was an idea Burnside had already been toying with, but the forced down-time of the pandemic spurred him to do it. Although he has received financial support via donations from live streams with the PRS and Hot Press, he prefers to create and release new music for fans to buy: ‘I’d rather give something and say, here, if you want to support me at this time, buy this music’. 

I’ve been quite lucky in that I’ve been doing a lot of live streams and people have been donating on Patreon and PayPal… It’s been really moving to be supported by fans and other venues and other institutions… It’s a weird one because it’s such a terrible, awful time, that the best of people comes out. 

New skills
Limerick-based songwriter Emma Langford has been hosting weekly digital concerts on her social media channels, collaborating with different musical guests including Niamh Farrell of indie-pop group Ham Sandwich, Paddy Casey and indie singer Sive. She has just released a new single ‘Mariana’, the profits of which are being donated to Safe Ireland, a charity that helps people living through domestic abuse. The single is part of Langford’s upcoming album due to be released in September. 

She had planned to tour the album and for her the biggest challenge is not being able to collaborate with musicians face to face. ‘Last year I set up collaborations with people from other counties specifically, because I wanted the experience of travelling around the country with them and going to… their local venue.… Now, with this new album, and if I want to play… just even from Limerick, I can’t really. That’s upsetting.’

Initially I found [the lockdown] really limiting and I was really backed into a corner in terms of having to figure out the technology of live streaming and the technology of recording. But actually, being backed into a corner has forced me to develop skills that I wouldn’t have developed before now. I have shied away from going near technology too much, and now I just have to, otherwise I just can’t reach people and I can’t make music. So, what was a challenge has become an opportunity.

Altered plans
Dublin four-piece The Scratch had planned to release their debut album in late May. However, the cancellation of their scheduled gigs caused them to reevaluate their release plan and launch a digital release of their album Couldn’t Give a Rats in late March.

‘We had a plan originally, which was… quite typical of how most artists would release music,’ says Conor Dockery, the band’s guitarist. ‘Put out maybe two or three singles, put out some videos, announce a release date for the album… You’re kind of building up over the course of two or three months to this release date. All the work you put in is to kind of maximize your return on that day or that week that it comes out.’

After a live-stream concert on St Patrick’s day at the beginning of the pandemic, however, the band saw significant engagement with their fans and decided to release the album digitally later that month.

When we saw the reaction to that live stream, it made us realise… now is the time to take a risk, you know…  We had a bit more insight into what people needed, and also what we needed…

Couldn’t Give a Rats has received a positive response – Andrea Cleary in the Journal of Music described it as having ‘Intricate melodies, complex timings and commanding rhythms… these are playful songs masterfully played’ – but, like the majority of musicians right now, the downside is still not being able to perform. 

Initially it was great to have stuff out and have people react to it so positively … Then it kind of sinks in that you don’t know when you’re going to actually gig the stuff. So, that’s definitely… the biggest challenge and still is the most difficult part of all this.

Violinist and leader of the Irish Chamber Orchestra Katherine Hunka released her debut solo album Piazzolla, Schubert, Schnittke on 17 April and was due to tour Ireland, performing with the orchestra, when all concerts were cancelled in late March. ‘That was devastating,’ says Hunka, ‘that was really hard… I’ve got used to the cancellations now… but initially there was always hope that we would find a way.’

The ICO were planning concerts between 22 and 25 April in Ennis, Portlaoise, Sligo and Dublin.  

The performances of the music … it’s like a celebration together that can’t happen. You can’t be delighted together… it’s very similar to having a birthday … but there’s no party. But I do think… even though it was absolutely devastating to hear that I wouldn’t be allowed out during this release time, it has been so much better than I thought it was going to be, just in terms of people giving it their attention and reviewers listening to it that never would have done before. That’s been a plus.

Go for it
The experience of most of the artists illustrate that releasing new music during the pandemic is similar in some ways to how it has always been, in that they write and record, promote it online and release it digitally and often physically with vinyl or CD. The most significant difference is the inability to perform in front of live audiences, work with venues, interact with fans, and, ultimately, earn a living from gigging. For artists out there thinking of releasing new music though, it seems the advice is: go for it. We don’t know how things will develop, and, while the new social distancing measures are preventing live music from happening, music fans and musicians alike still want new music. 

To purchase the music mentioned above, visit the following links: Joshua BurnsideEmma LangfordThe ScratchKatherine Hunka and Irish Chamber Orchestra.

Published on 15 May 2020

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