2020 is the year that put the whole world on shuffle, it seems. One for the history books, seminal novels and probably many future therapy sessions. There’s so much that can be covered here – the divisive politics, advancements in science and technology, a look at how economics works under fractured circumstances and much, much more. Thankfully, all I do here is edit the music section, so I get to ignore all that and look at what’s been really interesting this year.
There’s a split, it seems, among musicians. Many of them have found a new spring of creativity in the isolation, with one study finding that nearly 70% of independent artists took the opportunity in lockdown to spend more time writing or making music. What I’ve found, however, is that many people have succumbed to lockdown apathy, particularly those who’s music revolves around having a space – a club, a certain crowd in a set of venues. It’s been a creative blow to many.
On the other side of the speakers, the way we’ve listened to music has changed. Many of us have explored new genres, discovered new artists or started purchasing music in a different way:
How Have we Listened?
Streaming Service subscriptions, perhaps unsurprisingly, saw a boom in the early days of 2020, leaping up to almost a third more than mid-2019, in a spike that defies the relatively gentle curve of previous years. It makes sense. If there’s anything that’ll compound the frustration of being stuck inside all day, it’s hearing an advert in the middle of your let’s-forget-what-year-it-is playlist. As of 2020, streaming services made up 67% of music industry revenue.
Streaming services aren’t the only distribution that took financial gain in 2020, however. Vinyl sales continued to increase from years before and, for the first time in years, outstripped CDs in terms of revenue in the US, achieving their best annual total since 1980. With the massive increase in streaming subscriptions, however, Vinyl’s overall contribution to industry revenue has fallen, growing by 3.6% this year while the industry as a whole grew by 5.6%.
While Vinyl overtaking CDs is partly due to a slump in CD sales in the first quarter (possibly attributed to physical shops closing), these sales picked up later in the year, although CD sales continue to decline overall. Cassette sales also saw a major increase, more than doubling their revenue from 2019. I thought this might be from smaller labels offering cassette exclusives to keep revenue coming, but it seems this isn’t the case – the top 5 cassettes sold came from 5 Seconds of Summer, Lady Gaga, The 1975, Selena Gomez and Dua Lipa.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that Discogs, an online marketplace for physical music sales, saw a flurry of activity at a time of closed high streets and record physical music sales, with a 33.83% increase in sales in the first half of 2020. In keeping with the trends of the year, vinyl took the lions share of the growth with a 33.72% increase in sales, but CDs and Cassettes weren’t far behind with +31.03% and +30.52% sales respectively.
Interestingly, despite the fact that we’ve been streaming and purchasing music more than ever before, no single album made it to platinum in 2020 – the first time this has happened since 1973. This seems to point to more music being released by a range of artists, with diversified listener tastes to suit.
How Have Artists Coped?
Even without a global pandemic, musicians often find themselves struggling to pay bills and stay afloat. Streaming services, the main source of industry revenue, are notorious for paying very little to the people who actually make the music. With 90% gigs and tours cancelled in 2020, the main source of income went out the window for many.
Online events took off this year, however, with events from Notting Hill Carnival to Creamfields streaming sets and performances online, alongside with a flurry of smaller events and club nights. These ranged from fully immersive VR experiences to sets live-streamed out of bedroom studios.
Many artists seem to have flocked to Patreon, with 50,000 new artists joining in March alone, raising their number of creators from 150,000 to 200,000. For those who aren’t familiar with Patreon, it’s a place for people to get exclusive content from creators in exchange for a monthly membership fee – like OnlyFans, but without the smutty implication.
Patreon seems to be thriving off something which seems to have benefited hugely from people being shut inside: home music production. For this reason, many of the people I’ve seen on there are electronic artists who offer various levels of exclusive tracks and samples, personal production tutorials and, in higher tiers, track feedback and help with mixing and mastering at a higher monthly fee.
Splice, a service that has artists contributing audio samples in exchange for royalty payments, also saw a massive boom in 2020. In the US alone, Splice saw 1.1 million sample downloads a day during the first lockdown and paid out $11 million in artist revenue. 11 million isn’t much for overall revenue, highlighting a trend that seems to have accelerated in 2020: surviving off a single income stream as a musician doesn’t tend to be viable.
To put this in perspective, streaming services like Spotify make 6,500 artists who released music on Spotify for the first time in 2020 crossed the 100,000 monthly listeners threshold, a nearly 180% increase from last year. While this sounds great, 100,000 streams nets around $760. It seems likely that the alternative income streams we’ve seen thrive in 2020 will continue to grow into the future.
What Did our Team Think?
We all have our own journey with music, particularly in times of isolation like these. I asked around the ‘office’ to see how the year played out for the team:
Charlie Colville – Arts Editor
What caught my attention the most this year was the resurgence of vintage styles and aesthetics, in particular those of the 1970s and 1980s. With many artists embracing these decades as the base concept for their music releases, we got to witness a renaissance of disco, electro bass, and the synthesiser. Music videos were also quick to pick up on the trend, showcasing singers in colourful suits, flares, miniskirts, and a shedload of glitter.
Pop music was at the forefront of this revival, defining the releases of artists like Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga, Doja Cat, BTS, and The Weeknd.
Dua Lipa’s album ‘Future Nostalgia’, despite being released in 2019, has produced consecutive hit after hit in 2020. Taking inspiration from the music her parents listened to, the entire album is comprised of references to previous decades that spark a sense of nostalgia in older listeners while bringing something fresh to the table for younger generations.
The release of the single ‘Physical’ back in January is a great example of how artists sought to blend older music with a contemporary edge, as it references a multitude of 80s pop iconography. With a title that pays homage to Olivia Newton-John’s song of the same name, a bassline reminiscent of the Flashdance soundtrack, and a whole workout routine straight out of a Jane Fonda video, Dua Lipa’s music helped to make retro sounds and aesthetics cool again.
For me, these releases also revived a new appreciation for the music of the past. Many of my playlists featured music from the likes of CHIC, Shalamar, Wham!, and Whitney Houston (to name a few!), and I can see them staying there well into 2021.
Jake Williams – Contributor
Despite its generally dark tones, 2020 has birthed a lot of really nice stuff. I’ve really appreciated some of the really mellow, chilled summery vibes that have kind of been the antithesis of everything that’s been happening around us. Gorillaz’ new album had a couple of good tunes, namely Momentary Bliss and Valley of the Pagans, although I thought the rest of the album was pretty ropey. Mouse Outfit have been releasing as ever, exploring their own brand of relaxed hip-hop in stand-out tunes Feel and Sunrise.
Disclosure are the absolute stars of the show this year for me; they brought out so many new tracks in so many different styles – Birthday, My High, and Mali Mali are worth checking out, to name a few. Brian Jonestown Massacre are also up there for me in 2020, having brought out a plethora of good shit – an insane amount of material with a mellow psychedelic rock vibe. I’m not gonna name tunes, just say check it out for yourself.
It’s nice that none of this stuff talks about covid, which has dominated so many conversations this year. As a producer I think this time has been really good for us. As dry as it’s been money and gig wise, it’s given us loads of time to pursue our arts, so there’s been a lot of good stuff coming out of the year despite how awful it’s been.
Jake releases music under the name ‘Cornershop Cat Piss’ – you can check it out here.
Sanni Pyhänniska – Illustrator
During the pandemic my relationship with music, much like my clothing, turned into something lazier, and more comfortable. In the past I have created a thousand and one playlists for all imaginable occasions and moods, but slowly I lost the energy to be constantly looking for new songs and artists. Eventually I even grew tired of my trusty mellow ‘Mmmm’ -playlist, and to be honest, of the ‘Mmmm 2’-playlist as well.
In September, one Spotify playlist, a soundtrack from one of my favourite tv series, became the ultimate winner during the hours spent working in my room: ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race Lip Syncs’, a playlist that collects all of the best party songs in the world. In its simplicity it encapsulated everything I was missing – going out with my friends and dancing! The playlist is made out of songs by both old and new female artists creating a perfect combination of iconic powersongs (I’m Every Woman by Chaka Khan) and guilty pleasures (Party in the USA by Miley Cyrus). The playlist is made up of high energy songs that never fail to get me hyped for another day of working from home. Positive energy is what most of us need right now, therefore I have returned to this playlist more than I care to admit, because it holds both a lot of nostalgia from drunken nights with my friends but also excitement for a time when we get to live like that again. I cannot wait to put this playlist on repeat when me and my mates get to have our first proper post-pandemic predrinks and boogie all night long to Britney’s Toxic.
Robert Carden – Mouthing Off Contributor
It’s said that in times of societal trouble, people like to revert to what’s comfortable or nostalgic. Folk music is a genre which doesn’t require whistles or bells to be powerful. Its simplicity is its strength. It’s usually just lyrics and some beautiful instrumentation, and although it’s one of the less subscribed-to genres these days, there are still some titans of folk knocking around in a relatively recent folk-revival. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was locked down in Bologna in Northern Italy with just a friend, my guitar and an internet connection, and without music to keep us company we would have gone insane. We were very lucky to have had access to the new Bob Dylan album, Rough and Rowdy ways, along with the new (at the time) Laura Marling album Song for Our Daughter.
These two albums, both from the Godfather of modern folk, and a really unique more modern voice were both incredibly important to me as fundamentally familiar sounds funnelled through a new lens. Of course many people have no interest in returning to life exactly the way it was before the pandemic, and this time of great discomfort and change has forced us all to cut some of the fat from our lives, but it’s also offered an opportunity to appreciate and look at what’s great, and what we’ve got to be truly thankful for. Even if the music industry itself has struggled in this trying period, it’s important to remember that great work is still being produced. I have no doubt we have a lot more of it to look forward to as we all continue processing the difficulties and experiences we’ve weathered alone, and also shared in together, as we move upwards and onwards.
Rebekka Katajisto – Instagram Director
My top three pop-albums of 2020 are ones that have I will long remember as the soundtracks to my lockdown experience. Cape God emerges as Allie X’s best work yet, combining beautiful melodies, catchy fun beats and melancholic lyrics with an ‘experimental edge’. Detailing young Allie’s inability to leave her room due to a chronic illness, June Gloom perhaps predicted the quarantine we all would find ourselves in. Grimes’ Miss Anthropocene did not disappoint fans, the ethereal nu metal album described by the artist as an attempt to “make climate change fun”. 4ÆM, a drum and bass track with Grimes’ otherworldly vocals, takes inspiration from a Bollywood movie. Rina Sawayama’s debut album Sawayama was one of those rare albums where I instantly loved each track, experiencing a strong Y2K flashback on first listen. As a carefully curated mix of a variety of genres, it feels like a fresh breath of air.
Paul John Bailey – Busker & Contributor
My name is Paul John Bailey, a 26 year old busker from Bristol UK. The covid pandemic put a stop to live performances, but for the most part of the summer months, busking was still allowed, as were market stalls and other such things. People were glad to hear outside music while they could, as a love for the arts seem to have peaked during the iscolation of the crisis. As long as we worked towards not allowing a crowd of people to gather, we were fine and felt like we were fulfilling a need that was absent in peoples lives more than ever.
As the winter months rolled in, I kept indoors and became a more active listener than I ever have been, listening to at least an album a day through Spotify. I felt a need to turn my studies inward to the roots of my own country, as politics and our position on the globe seemed more bold than ever before. I studied the history of folk in the UK, and how it resurfaces in modern forms. Artists such as Dizraeli, Hozier, Cosmo Sheldrake & Ben Howard were some favorites.
You can check out Paul’s music here.
Ethan Fenton – Fenti (DJ)
It’s one thing as an artist to watch your opportunity for live performances being inhibited, it’s another to see your industry being hammered so aggressively that it has a knock-on effect on your own personal motivation. Personally, I’ve questioned my progress towards goals in this time and wondered when my efforts might feel like they’re for a purpose again. The challenge this year was searching for inspiration within the confines of our own homes. I can’t speak for others, but there is not a lot of thought-provoking scenarios between my four walls, and the result has been a slurry of unfulfilling 8-bar loop concepts that have all been discretely slid into my trash folder.
There’s been such an amazing response in what we’ve seen from the scene this year, however, in the way that everyone has adapted to the climate to further the culture. If you’re someone who has been struggling creatively like me, trust in the determination of music lovers in the UK and let it inspire you to carry on. I have high hopes that the industry will be more invigorated than ever when we can return in flocks to our favourite venues and there will be plenty of artistic fuel when that happens.
You can listen to Ethan’s music and mixes here.
Oskar Smith – Music Editor
2020 has been a bit of a rollercoaster, musically speaking. Between working from home and upgrading to Spotify Premium, the year facilitated a helluva lot of musical discovery for me, and I can’t say I didn’t throw myself into it, setting myself goals like listening to the whole discography of everyone who’s ever had a release on Hessle Audio, or spending a week listening to nothing but psytrance and gabber (which lasted a couple of fairly upbeat days before I gave up). Clubs being closed meant I spent a lot of time round my mates house where we’d show each other tunes. This introduced me to DakhaBrakha, a group that blew my mind on first listen and inspired my first article for Mouthing Off.
I was one of many, it seems, who discovered Discogs this year. It seemed like every few days a new package of discs would arrive, ranging from 99p to a few pounds each, and through this I discovered even more gems, including a couple of tunes that I couldn’t even find on youtube. I can’t link them for obvious reasons, but copping a ditially undiscoverable gem is one hell of a feeling.
My favourite album released this year is almost undoubtedly Pinch‘s Reality Tunnels. It’s a nice blend of wacky breakbeats and upbeat techno, pensive dub and cooling ambience, with the odd grime MC thrown in for good measure. The mix of eerie freneticism, empty space, and soothing darkness seems to sit perfectly with the mindset I find myself in most days. In particular, the calming bliss of Making Space rolls over isolation like sweet butter on burnt toast, while Inezi’s vocal on Change is a Must feels like the perfect lube to ease the rough fucking of the lockdown blues. That last one’s probably the top tune of 2020 for me, but there are many, many gems on the album, and with a broad range of sounds and styles the whole thing is a bit of a journey.
I definitely found myself leaning a lot towards the weird and atmospheric side of music this year, often writing to the sounds of Cosmin TRG at 2am and spending afternoons lying on my floor listening to the likes of Burial and Aphex Twin, doing sweet nothing and letting my mind drift. Creatively, I found myself moving away from the usual club-oriented tunes I make. I finally bought some decent decks before the first lockdown and taught myself to mix and beatmatch, but found myself leaning more and more towards playing physical instruments. My mate leant me a pair of bongos after we started jamming in the summer and that’s how I passed a lot of hours stuck inside – tunes blaring out the speakers while my hands beat out rhythms.
As for what the future holds? I’m finding myself drawn into a lot of atmospheric 90s jungle mixes at the start of 2021 – Peshay and Total Science mixes seem to be setting the scene for my year, and I’m not particularly planning on deviating from that. The calm energy and erraticism touches something that needs to be soothed, and there’s a lot of it to explore out there.
Illustrated by Sanni Pyhänniska