The Pandemic Changed How Artists Release Music — but Will It Stick Around?
The OBGMs, Dizzy and ELIO discuss the struggles — and creative rewards — of keeping pace in an industry dominated by streaming algorithms
Published Jul 12, 2021The OBGMs entered 2020 with a new record and something to prove. It had been three years since the Toronto-based band released new music and the group feared being forgotten. Like everyone else, though, their plans were wiped out by the pandemic. The trio nevertheless released The Ends in October. "We couldn't let another year or two go by, without showing people that we still do music," says Densil "Denz" McFarlane, the band's singer and guitarist.
The album received glowing reviews, but the inability to tour left them unable to capitalize on the hard-fought achievement. So, in a somewhat unorthodox move for what is, at its core, a garage punk project, they leaned into their love of hip hop and dropped The Outsah Tape in January featuring Toronto-centric remixes of The Ends' opening track. Says McFarlane on the decision, "We needed to find ways to bring people back to this music."
It's a common conundrum.
Over the course of the pandemic, artists have struggled to find new and creative ways of engaging fans. Many have dug into their (not so distant) past, reworking, remixing and recycling material to make what was old new again.
"[Streaming services'] business model is 'new content,' and there are 60,000 pieces of new content every day," says McFarlane. The need to regularly churn out new music is just a fact of the modern music business. "If it's older than 10 days, it's old."
This dynamic has been born out in both one-off releases and full-blown albums like Small Sins' recent orchestral version of this year's Volume II, Jeff Rosenstock's ska makeover of last year's NO DREAM, or McCartney III Imagined featuring covers and remixes of Sir Paul's latest LP. But, as the pandemic subsides and artists are once again able to bring their music to the masses IRL, will extending a record's press cycle in this way continue to be a viable — and creatively fulfilling — way to keep an artist top-of-mind? The answer depends on whether you consider such projects as an act of art or commerce.
Deconstructing and rebuilding songs from their component parts is a decades-old art form. But the ease of home recording — plus changes to the way Billboard tabulates its Hot 100 singles chart, allowing remixes to count towards a song's placement — democratized and incentivized the practice in a way not previously seen. Remixing a song as a means to getting it to No. 1 (and keeping it there), à la Lil Nas X or Megan Thee Stallion, is great for pop's one percent. But for the other 99 percent, who, just a few years ago, might have scoffed at the idea of remixes (especially artists outside of electronic music and hip-hop), it's more about just keeping pace with the algorithm.
"The game now is: a lot of content," says McFarlane. "Turning it around more is algorithmically better for you. So do it. The artists that can do that will thrive. The artists that can't will have trouble adapting to this."
Katie Munshaw, singer for Oshawa pop-rock group Dizzy, agrees. "You put the album out and it's supposed to be all this content. Then one song from that album gets playlisted and the rest don't get streamed." Unable to tour last year's The Sun and Her Scorch, Dizzy took the free time they'd been handed and recorded Separate Places, an EP of collaborative versions of its songs with artists like Luna Li and Overcoats.
While content might be king in the digital streaming world, that doesn't mean that it can't be as creative — or as challenging — as writing all-new material.
Munshaw and her bandmates have had their music remixed in the past, but found the process creatively unsatisfying. "We just send the stems off and you get back what you get back." Separate Places allowed them to "hold on to the songs a little longer" and be part of the process. "Touring really exhausts a record in a way that you'll never want to hear it again, and we didn't get that experience with The Sun and Her Scorch." It was also a chance to make connections with artists they admired at a time when human interaction is a rarity.
This was certainly the inspiration for future-pop artist ELIO's recent ELIO and Friends: The Remixes album. "I'm addicted to releasing stuff and getting creative with videos and artwork," says the singer. "It was a really great way to do it and also collaborate with my friends," including co-manager Charli XCX.
Both Dizzy and ELIO's records were pandemic conceptions, but they can hardly be described as afterthoughts. "It was a lot of work," says ELIO. "It was a really hard thing to put together, following up, sending stems and getting artwork not only for myself, but other artists."
Even if the need to rework old music is superseded by a return to the road, the long-tail changes to the industry are already taking shape. All the artists interviewed for this story indicated that the various remixes and reimaginings are already influencing the direction their music will take moving forward. For Dizzy, that means embracing the more "pop-centric" sound on their next album, while the OBGMs hope to continue linking Toronto with other cities on future remixes. ELIO, meanwhile, hopes to make collaboration a more permanent part of her songwriting. She says, "It's made me want to have more features on original songs, which I was a little scared of before."