Major album releases used to be put through a Large Hadron Collider of marketing, but now almost everything making those promotion particles accelerate has been switched off. So how do you push an album when the beamlines are down?

Concert cancellations were the first consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, but the music industry was hoping streaming could become a silver lining in an economic dark cloud. It was mistaken. The Official Charts Company (OCC) reported in the last week of March that audio streaming in the UK was up just 0.4% from the previous week. It added that 82.3% of the album chart came from streaming, up from 75.3% two weeks earlier. But streaming has only grown its share because physical sales have fallen. And while early numbers would naturally skew as people acclimatised to home working, the New York Times reported on 6 April that combined streams of the Top 200 on Spotify in the US slipped for the third consecutive week – hitting their lowest point of the year.

The music business is a highly interconnected ecosystem. Remove one part and everything else sways like a Jenga tower in a hurricane. Months of teasing, dropping singles and doing interviews are carefully synchronised to set up a release, and the next year-and-a-half is spent whipping along that momentum with more releases, touring and TV promotion. But now those failsafes have crumbled. It is partly why Dua Lipa brought her album forward before the promotional bridge completely collapsed. It is also why Lady Gaga and Sam Smith pushed theirs back in the hope that things will return to something resembling normal when they finally drop.

With physical sales now at a slow dribble, first-week chart performances – normally boosted by limited-edition, fan-seducing formats – are entering the 100m dash with their ankles tied to their wrists. Dua Lipa’s album was beaten to No 1 in the UK by 5 Seconds of Summer, who had pre-sold a glut of cassettes to fans and nosed ahead. That marketing trick will not happen again for a while.

Even if the public are less interested in the charts than ever, they remain a powerful industry barometer of commercial success, showing those outside of record labels (radio, TV, live) that a campaign is working. The rest of the industry loves jumping on a proven hit but it flinches when it starts to smell like a miss.

The music industry, inured to gravitational shifts two decades after Napster, will find ways to fill the nothingness. Much of this is likely to come from artists on social media – like Charli XCX who is writing and recording an album in lockdown – who will push albums out from the vacuum of space until everyone can hear them stream.

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