In a time where concerts have become a rarity, some of young people’s favorite music artists have been reaching their fans in visually creative ways beyond virtual concerts…
There’s no doubt that live music has been one of the top industries that continues to be transformed by COVID. Throughout the pandemic artists and bands have postponed and cancelled tours—and had to quickly pivot to reach fans in other ways. We told you that while music marketing was already starting to transform, the pandemic accelerated it. Livestreamed and virtual concerts quickly became a trend taking over the digital music space—and remain popular to this day. Our Future of Experience trend research found that more than half of young consumers are interested in attending live virtual events in the next six months—and platforms like Fortnite and Roblox have made it easier to collaborate with artists for live virtual concerts. While the live music industry temporarily saw a brief moment of revival over the summer, those were thwarted as new variants introduced new threats. Music artists and venues have been cancelling and postponing their tours (again) creating more uncertainty in the industry. Even the 2022 Grammy Awards announced earlier this month that they were postponing the ceremony due to the rise in COVID-19 cases.
Of course, artists and bands have always been able to rely on selling souvenirs to coincide with their tours—but when those got cancelled, the merch had to pivot as well. The Wall Street Journal reported that when the music industry realized fans were still eager to snap up clothes and products to “commemorate digital moments,” they took the opportunity to explore new avenues. For example, Harry Styles premiered “buzzy music videos” for his second album and launched an online shop with limited edition capsule collections full of t-shirts, hoodies, beach towels, and prayer candles dedicated to each of those videos, while Dua Lipa sold exclusive merch tied to her livestreamed “Studio 2054” concert.
But during this live music shortage, it’s not just livestreams and virtual concerts that have provided music fans a new way to connect with their favorite artists. Some musicians have been changing up the way they market their music and reach their fans in creatively visual and cinematic ways, elevating the long-standing tradition of the music video to new heights. YPulse’s Pop Culture Redefined trend report found that 13-39-year-olds say the release of a new album / song is one of the top pop culture moments their generations care about, and Gen Z and Millennial artists are making these moments even more, well, momentous. While many concerts and tours continue to feel out of reach, musicians have been offering up new formats of performance that are redefining music content. Here are a few of the trends they’ve started:
Pre-Recorded Concert Specials
While livestreamed and virtual concerts have been a hit during the pandemic, some artists have gone the way of releasing pre-recorded concert specials around new album releases that have been exclusively released on streaming services and cable networks. When Taylor Swift released her folklore album in 2020, she came out with an accompanying Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions on Disney+ where she was pre-recorded singing songs from the album at a cozy, isolated recording studio in Hudson Valley, New York, while discussing the creative process of each track with collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner. When Billie Eilish released her Happier Than Ever album last summer, she also released Happier than Ever: A Love Letter to Los Angeles on Disney+ where she performed every song at LA’s iconic Hollywood Bowl, and was joined by her brother FINNEAS, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Brazilian guitarist, Romero Lubambo. Meanwhile, ahead of the release of her album 30, CBS and Paramount+ released Adele: One Night Only, a pre-recorded concert special that was filmed at the Griffith Observatory in LA, and featured songs from the new album as well as hit singles from her past albums intertwined with clips from an interview with Oprah Winfrey.
While Adele, Swift, and Eilish opted for stripped down, pre-recorded concert specials in one central location, some musicians are going the visual album route. Think of them as different “scenes” representing each song and culminating in one overall storyline or theme. Beyoncé’s Lemonade from 2016 is perhaps one of the biggest examples that set the bar for succeeding visual albums. It was released on HBO and is regarded as one of her biggest (and best) projects to date, nabbing several Emmy nominations that same year. But the trend has certainly accelerated in the last two years. In July 2020, Beyonce released another visual album Black is King on Disney+ to go with her album The Lion King: The Gift. Self-directed by Beyoncé, the visual album follows the journey of a prince’s self-discovery, which served as symbolization for the African diaspora. After its premiere, we told you that fans praised the film for its depiction and celebration of Black people. Other musicians followed suit last year with their own visual albums, including Kacey Musgraves who released one on Paramount+ in September for her sophomore album star-crossed. The visual album was inspired by Musgrave’s recent divorce, and depicted grief and the breakdown of a marriage in three acts. The following month, Halsey released a visual album on HBO Max (and in IMAX theaters) for their If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power album. Produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the hour-long film experience stars Halsey as the young and pregnant Queen Lila who “wrestles with the manipulative chokehold of love.”
Meanwhile, Taylor Swift continues to be busy. Ahead of the release of her highly anticipated Red (Taylor’s Version) re-recorded album release, the singer-songwriter teased the uncut, 10-minute version of her hit song “All Too Well” with a self-directed short film to boot. Swift’s song tells the story of a couple whose relationship (which fans have alleged is inspired by her own brief relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal) eventually falls apart by the end of it. Divided into several chapters, All Too Well: The Short Film features Dylan O’Brien and Stranger Things star Sadie Sink as the star-crossed lovers, and follows them through all the phases (and quite literally, the seasons) of the relationship—from when they first met to the arguments that caused their downfall. Swift even makes an appearance at the end, playing the adult version of Sink’s character. The singer-songwriter clearly knows how to grab her devoted Swifities’ attention. The short film currently has over 57 million views on YouTube—and it premiered at the AMC Theatres in Lincoln Square in New York City and was screened in several major cities for a limited run. Critics called the short film a “masterpiece,” giving it positive reviews for its direction, cinematography, and Sink’s performance, while others praised both the song and short film for its honest depiction of relationships with “unequal power dynamics.”
Intimate, Tell-All Documentaries
Sure, visual albums have given music artists the opportunity to be more cinematically creative with songs, while pre-recorded specials have given young fans the opportunity to experience full albums in concert-form. But many music artists have been releasing more documentary films and docuseries that give young fans more of an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at their lives and careers more so than performing music. Like visual albums, documentaries about musicians and bands have existed for years and aren’t an entirely new concept. For instance, director Jon M. Chu’s Never Say Never from 2011 and Believe from 2018 examine the early years of Justin Bieber stardom. But Entertainment Weekly reported how today’s music documentaries have been “undergoing a fascinating, intimate overhaul,” and according to one executive producer, many of the movies and docuseries are “built around a moment or a phase of the artist’s career that is really core to the artist.” At the beginning of 2020, Netflix released Miss Americana, which we told you built up a significant amount of hype ahead of its release, and was described as an “raw and emotionally revealing look” at Swift, that focused on her struggles including her past battle with eating disorders, her mom’s cancer diagnosis, how the toxic internet culture took a toll on her mental health, and her decision to go public with her political views. Netflix also released Excuse Me, I Love You, which gave audiences a behind-the-scenes look at Ariana Grande’s life when she’s on tour. In the last two years, other streaming services have also released their own projects on young music artists: Apple TV+’s The World’s a Little Blurry centers on the anxieties Billie Eilish has about her music career, YouTube’s docuseries Dancing With The Devil explored Demi Lovato’s near-fatal overdose and journey to overcoming her drug addiction, and Prime Video’s A Man Named Scott documents the struggles and breakthroughs that Kid Cudi has encountered in his career. But perhaps one of the most anticipated upcoming music documentaries comes from Netflix (again) who recently released a first look at its three-part documentary jee-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, which looks at the last 20 years of the rapper’s life and career, and will premiere in theaters and on the streaming platform next month. YPulse’s celebrities and influencers research found that nearly a quarter of 13-39-year-olds say music celebrities are the most relatable—and documentaries are certainly a way for them to connect with their fans in ways they aren’t able to in person.
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