How Will The Coronavirus Impact Country Music?

Image from Johns Hopkins Medicine

It takes a lot to drown out all the shouting in the world today, but it looks like COVID-19 has done just that, with the World Health Organization officially declaring that the virus has become a pandemic. With most large gatherings canceled and many organizations (including my own employer as of today) switching to telecommuting and other methods to encourage social distancing, the world will feeling the effects of the coronavirus for quite some time.

While much ink has been spilled over the effects of this outbreak on Nintendo (the Switch may become hard to find thanks to supply chain disruption, E3 has just been canceled, etc.), much less has been said about the potential impact on this blog’s other focus: country music. While the radio might seem like the perfect instrument for social distancing, the genre will not emerge unscathed from this pandemic. Some potential impacts:

  • Artists are going to take a substantial hit to the pocketbook. With labels tightly controlling revenue from physical and digital sales and streaming revenue still too small to consider, much of an artist’s annual haul comes from touring, and banks on the artist’s ability to pack arenas, amphitheaters, and concert halls from coast to coast. However, both traveling and gathering in large groups are going to be strongly discouraged for the foreseeable future, meaning that either a) crowds and ticket sales will be substantially smaller, or b) events will be canceled altogether. This means fewer and less lucrative concerts, and thus smaller paydays for the artists performing at them.
  • Don’t expect to see too many artists introduced over the next few months. When a record label wants to introduce a new face with a new song to the public, the most-popular vehicle for this is the radio tour, where said new face crisscrosses the country to meet with radio station personalities, give a bunch of sit-down interviews, and plug their new single as the best thing since sliced bread. (Radio may be losing power in other genres, but it’s still a major force in country music, so the radio tour remains the go-to method for building support for new music.) Eschewing such a tour can have a huge negative impact on radio’s reception to a new artist, but not eschewing such a tour in these uncertain times can have a huge negative impact on the health of both the artist and the radio personnel they come into contact with. As such, I expect labels to keep any new artists they were looking to launch this year in their pockets for a few extra months, and let the coronavirus play itself out before they embark on a big media push.
  • In contrast, current and former artists could see a small boost as radio fills the gap. No one’s pushing to cut the length of the day from 24 hours, so any slack left by not pushing new artists will need to be picked up by artists and music that has already been released. This means you may say a slight lengthening of current album lifecycles (maybe we’ll start seeing fifth single releases again?), and recurrent/gold lists could be stretched a but more to bring some former artists back into the spotlight. (In fact, if you’re an aging artist who doesn’t need a radio tour to increase your name recognition, this might be the optimal time to drop a new single and try to restart your career, although the optics of such a move might not be great.)
  • In place of the conventional radio tour, look for the transition to alternative methods of pushing new music to accelerate. You’re already seeing things like stream counts being trumpeted as a barometer for future radio success, so if radio tours become a health risk, look for labels to turn even more to streaming as a way of gauging the public’s response to a song (and in turn tout those metrics even more in Country Aircheck ads and other advertisements).
  • Look for the vibe of country music over the next year to be a more somber. Party songs have already been waning a bit since their Bro-Country peak in the mid 2010s, but there’s no buzzkill like a fast-spreading virus with a concerningly-high mortality rate. Songwriters will reflect this uncertainty and fear in their writing sessions going forward, so I expect their work to be a bit more in line with the gothic traditions of the genre: melancholy, reflective, and focused on loved ones both departed and still around. Party songs won’t go away entirely (there will definitely be that one tune that declares “we’re all gonna die, so let’s get trashed because nothing matters,” and it will probably be HARDY that writes it), but they’ll feel more than a little tacky given the circumstances.
  • There’s a chance songs also sound a bit more synthetic this year. Studio musicians are supremely-talented individuals, but they’re also potential carriers for COVID-19, so if a label takes social distancing to an extreme, they may limit the amount of people involved in studio recording sessions. Given how drum machines dominated the 2010s, drummers are probably most at risk of being told to stay home, but any instrument that can be reasonably simulated on a laptop may be at risk. (Thankfully, technology has progressed to the point where people don’t have to be all together in the same room to record, but this outbreak conceivably gives a label cover to push a cost-cutting measure as a safety precaution.)

No one can truly say what’s going to happen (any more than we can say how the coronavirus might spread in the future), but given the wide-ranging consequences of the pandemic that we’ve seen thus far (RIP my 401K), it’s safe to assume that country music in 2020 will be shaped by how things play out over the next few months. All we can do at this point as wash our hands, cover our mouths when we cough, stay home if we’re feeling sick, and hope this storm blows over quickly.

(Editor’s Note: You can find the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19 here.)