The Music Industry Is Trapped in a Void Year

The void year may become a void period, with several years of stillness yet to come.
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“Today at school old Henderson said that no one really knows what holds the world together. And nobody knows why everything doesn’t just fall apart. Everything, all at once. Some stuff does fall apart. What’s weird is that it doesn’t fall apart because it’s moving. A lot falls apart because it’s not. Old Henderson calls that entropy.” –Timothy Hunter, Books of Magic #1

In a “normal” year, under “normal” circumstances, the first seven months of 2020 would have played out differently for recording artists, managers, A&Rs, journalists, and all other members of music media. Globally, no business or livelihood has gone unaffected by COVID-19. Still, American music has explicitly experienced a rare kind of stillness as a result of the devastating pandemic that continues to affect the world at large.

The music industry, like all forms of entertainment, exists in motion. Its entire ecosystem is constructed upon consistent album rollouts, tour announcements, release parties, studio sessions, constant travel, and various forms of gathering and community. Only during that end of the year period—starting with Thanksgiving in November, running through Christmas in December, and ending with the beginning of a new year in January—does the industry slow down to give all participants who keep the machine moving a collective break.

A time of rest is necessary for an industry that spends 10 of the 12 months engulfed in flames like a candle burning at both ends. Due to this constant operation, a significant number of recording artists, managers, A&Rs, journalists, and all members of music media, especially Black women, have historically been overworked, underpaid, mistreated, devalued, and crippled by a capitalistic system that takes more than it gives.

In 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the holiday slowdown period forced the music industry to cease its model of constant motion. This is why cracks in the music business armor are being exposed, why skeletons buried in backyards are resurfacing, why the racial and gender disparities in terms of power, economics, privilege, and opportunity that exist in the shadows have been brought to light.

In terms of media, there’s a long list of issues that needs to be addressed publicly and privately if this industry intends to do right by its men and women of all nationalities, with emphasis on the Black men and women who contribute their blood, sweat, and tears to this business and culture. I don’t have the answers, but I do know solidarity and action are requirements of progress.

I have been thinking a great deal about what Atlanta rapper Grip told me back in March when I interviewed him just as America was adjusting to the state-mandated social distancing. “My route always seems harder,” he said, expressing his frustration with the cancellation of a scheduled tour that was set up for him to open for popular R&B act Brent Faiyaz.

Like so many emerging artists who had their plans derailed by COVID-19, Grip felt stuck. There was the harsh realization that he wouldn’t be able to make money on the road—money he thought was guaranteed. That’s the other side of inactivity in the music business: a financial drought. The streets run dry. For all artists, COVID-19 or not, if you stop moving, you stop eating. It’s the mantra of capitalism.

In reaction to his sudden stillness, Grip, in his home studio, made a six-track mixtape, entitled Halo, which he dubbed a “Quarantine Pack” for his fans. During our interview, the Atlanta rapper drove home a specific point: this release was not planned. It’s not a follow-up to his stellar sophomore album, Snubnose. From his perspective, Halo doesn’t even count toward his overall discography.

Following my conversation with Grip, I interviewed Ethiopian-American singer-songwriter Mélat in May. The Austin, Texas resident shared a similar sentiment about the music she was making while adjusting to the changing world: “I don’t know what’s happening. Why did I choose this career?” Her initial reaction to watching all the promising plans she made decay into nothingness was raw.

Much like Grip, Mélat adjusted and began making music at home. 2020 has surprised everyone with the same shocking realization: things are due to fall apart. And unfortunately, in the music industry, all it takes is a few unforeseen circumstances to disrupt all concepts of control and comfort. This reality is not unique to emerging artists. Everyone, even the biggest superstars, is feeling the upending of normality.

Without formal announcements, we already know albums have been push backed; songs have been shelved, money has been lost, and no one knows when this will end. It’s like we’re trapped in a void, forced to face ourselves, our ideas, and our ideals as the turbulence of change shakes the system we thought we knew.

2020 is a void year, wholly separated from all the years that came before it. The void year may become a void period, with several years of stillness yet to come. Certainty is collapsing. It’s going to inspire writers to pen stories they never thought of writing, of directors shooting movies they never thought of filming, of rappers making songs they never intended to make.

Realize, in 10 years, when we look back on 2020, on the pandemic, on the presidential election, the murder of George Floyd, and the protests that sparked a movement, Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” will be mentioned. Not because it was a great song, but it was one of the most timely. Lil Baby, born Dominique Jones, went to the studio and spoke from the heart with a swiftness perceived as opportunistic, but what else can a rapper do as the world is burning?

Jeezy’s third studio album, The Recession, was an album that spoke on the times. The music wasn’t a massive departure from Jeezy’s debut or his sophomore album, and yet, he found all the right words, all the right beats, and all the right ad-libs to speak directly to an America going through it.

We’re all going through it. Again. We’re getting hit from every angle. What happens in this void is affecting everyone. Metaphorically, not everyone is going to escape this void unscathed. Some celebrities will enter the new year less popular; the same goes for recording artists, managers, A&Rs, journalists, and all members of music media. You don’t have to do anything; you don’t have to speak. Just remember, the people are watching. They’re going to remember what you did, what you said, what you didn’t say, and what you created when we were all still.

Thankfully, I believe the world will move again. I think we’ll all escape the void. When? I do not know, but I do know this: We’ll never forget 2020.

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