Has the pandemic changed the role of dance music artists forever?

With the rise of Twitch, fan subscriptions, NFTs, live streams etc, the possibilities for artists are now endless. Are these things here to stay? Or are they just temporary fixes?

Being an artist has never been easy. Throughout modern history they’ve often existed at society’s margins, and musicians in particular have frequently struggled to cobble together a decent living, even when their work has been critically acclaimed. Over the past two years, that struggle has become particularly acute, as the pandemic cut off (and continues to disrupt) most artists’ primary source of income: touring and live shows. Many have tried their hands at new ventures, experimenting with things like livestreaming, fan subscriptions, NFTs and expanded merch offerings in an attempt to make ends meet. 

It wasn’t just fringe artists either. Chart-topping London duo Disclosure launched a series of production tutorials on Twitch, and techno stalwart Blawan was tapped by online platform Home of Sound to host a three-part production masterclass. UK bass veteran Plastician became a full-on Twitch personality, going live several times a week with DJ sets, studio tutorials and even quiz shows. Chicago house iconoclast Hieroglyphic Being began offering subscriptions through Bandcamp—anyone who signed up would receive all of his upcoming releases—and at one point he was dropping two album-length offerings per week. Jordan GCZ, also known as one half of Juju & Jordash, also tried out subscriptions, setting up a Patreon account where fans could sign up for both exclusive tracks and a bespoke series of production classes. UK producer Mosca took a more direct route, founding a new, Bandcamp-only label called Rent and deciding not to send promos to anyone.

That’s just a partial list, and doesn’t include any of the hundreds of artists who minted their first NFT last year. But as the pandemic has lingered on and the electronic music community’s collective “we’re all in this together” spirit has waned, the long-term feasibility of these experiments has come into question. Are these projects temporary band-aids? Or signs of a more permanent change? For decades, artists have been thought of as people who simply make music and play shows, but in a world where the supply of content is seemingly unlimited and people’s lives are increasingly lived online, perhaps the definition of being an artist is due for a rethink.

When looking at the challenges of today’s electronic music industry, it’s tempting to look back at the past (often with rose-colored glasses) and pine for eras when artists didn’t have to contend with streaming, social media and a consumer culture dedicated to the idea of instant gratification. “Before, you maybe only had to do one release a year,” said Elijah, who’s been running London’s Butterz label alongside his partner Skilliam for more than a decade. Together, they manage fellow UK acts Swindle, Flava D, Royal-T and DJ Q. They miss aspects of the way things used to be, but Elijah doesn’t see much use in nostalgia. “No one coming up now has grown up in that ecosystem,” he said. “They might have consumed music in it, but they haven’t created in it.”

Martyn, a Dutch DJ and producer who’s long been based in the US, is another artist who’s lived through that transition. The 3024 label founder has plenty of reverence for the past—in fact, he cites the ’70s punk and hardcore movement as one of his biggest inspirations—but he refuses to be hemmed in by it, and has radically transformed his practice in recent years. Although he estimates that DJ gigs accounted for 60 to 70% of his income prior to the pandemic, he’d been seriously looking at other creative outlets since he’d suffered an unexpected heart attack in 2017. When a planned Asia tour was scuttled by COVID-19 in early 2020, just weeks before the whole planet went into lockdown, he realised the world was in trouble, and put into motion an artist mentorship program he’d been marinating on for some time.

“When I started I thought there were going to be like 15 people,” he recalled. “I literally thought it was going to be a couple of hundred dollars per month that would add to whatever other income was already coming in from other sources.” Nearly two years later, the program, which he runs through Patreon, has almost 200 subscribers. There are multiple tiers of involvement. The top level includes monthly one-on-one sessions with Martyn himself. The program has been an unabashed success, with a curriculum that includes group sessions on topics like production, the music business and mental health, plus access to a private Slack community and monthly Deeper Dive Q&As with special guests such as James Holden, Donato Dozzy and RP Boo. Those guests are paid for their time, and last year supporters’ fees also financed a sprawling threevolume compilation, It Was Always There, which showcased music from participants in the program.

“The cool thing about the Patreon is that apart from the percentage that they take, most of the money stays within the music community,” he explained. “People pay into the mentorship program, but I’m then able to invest in other things,” whether he’s paying a mastering engineer or simply buying people’s Bandcamp releases. In his mind, that community orientation has actually been key to the program’s success: “Most of the successful projects that have survived the pandemic are things where there’s more interaction between people rather than just one-way conversations.”

Martyn’s artist mentorship program generates solid income, and he’s also increased revenue by expanding 3024’s merch offerings and doing digital-only releases. Even with all those things going well, though, they don’t bring in enough for him to discard DJing entirely. If the program continues at its current levels, Martyn estimates he’ll be able to accept two fewer gigs per month (if and when normal touring resumes), and though that may not sound like much it makes a real difference, especially when so many of his shows involve travel and long-haul flights. “I would never want to play as many gigs as I did before the pandemic,” he said, “not just because of the mentoring program, but for other reasons as well, like the environment. The way the whole industry was going before the pandemic started was so in the wrong direction.”

Many artists share these concerns, but even after two years of lockdowns, cancellations and club closures, their dependence on live shows remains largely intact. Elijah estimates that before COVID hit, the artists he works with were earning approximately 80% of their income from live shows and DJ sets, and thinks that as long as touring remains a viable option (or at least seems like it will be a viable option if/when the pandemic subsides), there’ll be obstacles to artists expanding their craft. “The problem that you have for the people that work close to me, or those who are at the same level, is that the financial disparity between the gig and everything else is too wide,” he said. “You’re not going to see your superstar DJ go, ‘Actually, I don’t really feel like doing shows for ten grand. I’m going to do this other thing instead.’ That’s just the way incentives work sadly, because I think DJs could be doing more interesting stuff than DJing.”

Outside of DJing (and live shows), artists do have plenty to do these days although it isn’t all necessarily interesting. Between interviews, radio shows, online DJ mixes, social media and other promotional activities, the demands on artists’ time and energy have undoubtedly increased in recent years, which makes the work of someone like Emily Gale particularly important. The head of press at Triple Threat Mgmt, she also personally manages object blue and LCY, and her days are frequently dedicated to helping artists navigate the challenges and pitfalls of the music industry. In the earliest days of the pandemic, that meant filling the void created by the sudden absence of live shows. “Everybody had to rethink what they were doing and the way that they were connecting with their audience as well,” she said. 

Part of that rethinking process also involved trying new things: “Doing livestream virtual festivals is something that we probably never would have done beforehand, but since there was absolutely no way to go perform in front of people in person, we did look at those opportunities, and we did a few of them, and they were very successful.”

For object blue, virtual performances were a vehicle for her to develop a new live AV show with partner Natalia Podgorska, which they have since taken into the real world. Elsewhere, nearly every artist on the Triple Threat roster has made a sample pack in the past two years, and some acts have also done brand collaborations and/or refined their merch offerings. And it’s not just younger artists who’ve left their comfort zone. Gale explained that house veteran Roger Sanchez started extensively using Twitch during lockdown. “​​It’s been really evident from the offset that his audience has grown dramatically since he’s been using it more throughout the pandemic,” she said. “It’s giving him another opportunity to connect with his fans in a way that they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”

Dominic Flannigan, co-founder of the LuckyMe label, mentioned Baauer as another artist who unexpectedly found a home on Twitch, gaining more than 15,000 followers. “He was very quiet on social media and wasn’t really comfortable with it, but he’s quite natural on Twitch,” said Flannigan. “In some ways, it’s a much more revealing and more public platform, but you also feel like you’re speaking to a diehard fan. If someone is going to pay attention to a two-hour video, they probably already really care about you. That’s built his confidence and he’s really boomed from it.” Twitch brings in income for Baauer that the label doesn’t touch.

Although LuckyMe has largely remained focused on its core business during the pandemic, the label has also experimented. The London-based outpost notably dipped its toes into the world of crypto last year with “Promise,” a song from Canadian producer Jacques Greene that was released both as a single and an NFT, with the latter conveying the publishing rights to the track. (Just this month, Greene announced that his upcoming Fantasy EP would also be available as an NFT.)  Flannigan was pleased with the results of “Promise,” even if he’s not yet ready to go all-in on Web3. “We are very interested in it and are keeping an eye on it, but I’m not brazenly jumping into the deep end,” he explained. “As that space matures it’ll be about trying to find where we fit in and thinking about what the LuckyMe brand means within those spaces.”

Although Flannigan is open to new ideas, he also made clear that LuckyMe’s philosophy and business model isn’t rooted in the idea that modern artists need to do a hundred different things. “For us, it’s really important to stand in resistance to that narrative that artists shouldn’t make money from their music,” he said. “We structure our budgets in such a way that even on a 50-50 net profit deal, the artists should be making a profit on the record from the second statement onward, about a year after release.”

Aside from the music, merch is part of what LuckyMe does, but even that is something that Flannigan insisted they see as supplemental income. “I don’t think we want to get entirely into that frame of mind where we’re having to make a physical thing for everything that we do,” he said. “It’s better for things to have their own reason to exist.” The label makes a point not to oversaturate the market, and finds that many of its artists want to take a similarly measured approach. NYC artist Doss, whose 4 New Hit Songs EP was one of 2021’s most acclaimed electronic releases, spent upwards of nine months deciding on and preparing her merch offerings, and since they were announced in December they’ve flown out the door.

Shall Not Fade, a UK imprint headed up by Kieran Williams, has also found success with merch during the past few years. When the label started in 2015 it was actually a vinyl-only outpost, but nowadays merch is a major source of income. Many Shall Not Fade releases are now accompanied by limited-edition clothing and other items, and ever since the label opened its own record store in Bristol last December, merch sales in the shop have been brisk. All of this has happened gradually—Williams insists that there’s no merch-centric master plan or business strategy at work—but it does speak to the community that’s formed around Shall Not Fade, and its passion for the label.

Calling Shall Not Fade’s offerings broad is an understatement. The label now has 11 different series, and last year dropped somewhere between 60 and 100 releases. (A couple dozen more are already in the works for 2022.) Oddly enough, Shall Not Fade has thrived during the COVID era, increasing its activity during a time when many labels were cutting back. “At the beginning of the pandemic everybody was afraid,” remembered Williams. “Nobody was pressing anything. We went the complete opposite way. We just said that we were going to continue with all the stuff we had planned.” At one point they were issuing up to 10 records a month, although the global vinyl-pressing backlog has since slowed things down a bit.

Even before vinyl turnaround times skyrocketed, Williams learned to embrace the digital side of things, which included streaming. “There are people who five or six years ago probably wouldn’t have even had a Spotify account, would only buy records and would have said, ‘Spotify is the devil’ and all this stuff,” said Williams. “But I think people now are having to adapt to it, especially us. The one thing I’ve massively learned in six years is the importance of digital and radio. That is what really elevated our business, and what allows us to put out records by people who have 10 followers on SoundCloud. That’s what allowed us to invest money into artists.”

Vinyl remains key to what Shall Not Fade is doing, and though vinyl sales across the industry have continued to reach new highs in recent years, the format has its limits. Releases are pressed up in the hundreds, which means that profit margins remain small, even when the label manages to sell every single copy. And while streaming often won’t help much in terms of income—unless something really blows up—it does have other benefits, especially in terms of getting the music to countries and regions that don’t generally buy records, and likely never received any physical copies of a release in the first place.

Streaming has been a thorny issue in the music world for some time, and while its financial shortcomings and numerous inequities have been well documented in recent years, most artists see it as something that can’t be ignored. “It might even be a higher priority than before because the numbers are public,” said Elijah. “If an artist’s Spotify numbers look low, they’re going to try and make them look bigger, even though it might not be financially smart or make sense for them.” That question—what makes sense for a particular artist—is something he thinks many people aren’t really considering, adopting instead a one-size-fits-all approach to finding success.

“The internet has made people feel like whatever they do is bigger than what it is in real life,” he said. “If you make hard, fast techno and you go online and see some clip of a DJ with people screaming and hollering, [some DJs] think, ‘I’m sitting at home. I haven’t got any bookings.’ But who the fuck actually wants to listen to this shit en masse? You might, and there might be people that want to listen to it in certain clubs, but at least here in the UK, most clubs on Friday and Saturday are playing pop music, R&B and hip-hop. That’s going to be 90% of the clubbing audience. People that do niche, abrasive stuff feel like they’re not getting the wide kind of audience, but their music is literally not designed for a wide audience. They still promote it in that way and expect pop results, which is always strange.”

Martyn agrees. “When I think about people like me trying to get up on the Spotify ladder, it’s almost like a ’70s punk band—aside from the Sex Pistols—trying to get into the Top 40,” he said. “Why would I do that? If you have your own economy just use that and get big in that smaller world, rather than being really small in that big world. That’s something that you can do in electronic music, and it’s more sustainable than trying to play a really big game with all of the marketing and other nonsense that comes with it. Even if you do that stuff, there’s still very little chance that you’ll ever get to the top.”

Keeping things in perspective is also a priority for LuckyMe’s Flannigan. Although he sees the label as something that’s “taking shots across the bow of pop culture,” he noted that many of pop music’s more frequently touted metrics are less valuable than they might seem. “Something that comes up all the time in our internal conversations is, ‘OK, so they’ve got a viral, but does anyone care? Will anyone care if they move off that platform? Do they have a fan base? Are they exciting? Where does this go from here?’ And because we’re haters we get to be very reductive all the time and say, ‘No, that viral probably doesn’t guarantee a career for that person.’ It’s never as simple as the numbers make out. Headline numbers and how much money you actually make are two entirely different things.”

Even for artists who aren’t angling for pop success, making a living often requires expanding their craft. Emma Sainsbury, AKA Eluize, said that she’s always been a “slashie” (i.e. someone who simultaneously juggles multiple roles), and aside from her work as a DJ and producer, the Berlin-based Australian has also logged time at radio stations, venues, booking agencies and record labels. She’s also done mentoring and coaching for people interested in audio engineering—a practice she formalized with a Patreon once the pandemic hit—and more recently has been hired as a product specialist for Beatport, hosting tech tutorials for their Beatport LINK service.

Although she’d never previously thought of herself as a “content creator,” she’s learning to embrace the role, and sees value in picking up new skills, even if things like how to properly light and edit videos don’t directly relate to her work as a musician. “I always see experimenting with new things as trying something that I’m not necessarily going to do forever,” she said. “With every new skill I learn and every new thing I try, I pick up a little something that I can go along with and add to something else in the future.”

Like most artists, Sainsbury has seen a lot of change during her decade-plus in electronic music, and while her different experiences have taught her all sorts of things—good and bad—they haven’t corrupted her core practice. “I just make the music that I’m compelled to make, and I hope that people will like it and listen to it,” she said. “I will keep doing everything on the side so that I can continue to make it.”

Striking that balance can be challenging, and artist burnout continues to be a serious issue, but having the right support team can help to ease the burden. “My approach genuinely has always been don’t do too much, restrict the supply, keep the demand high, and don’t overwork yourself,” said Triple Threat’s Gale. “The music speaks for itself, and if it is promoted correctly when it comes out, you can go quiet for a few months and then come back.” Artists may think they need to be doing something—and publicizing it—all the time, but Gale sees that mentality as not only unhealthy but unnecessary, at least when management is doing their job properly. “If you’re placing other bits in between major events and milestones,” she explained, “it never feels quiet, even though your artist could be just touring and maybe writing a few tunes.”

As a label head, people might expect Flannigan to seek out every possible monetization opportunity, but he actually loathes the idea of pushing artists into activities they’re not comfortable with. “As the label, we’ve got to work out what the model is,” he said. Although artists certainly have a role to play in marketing and promotion, Flannigan sees the heavy lifting as his responsibility. “As long as the core intellectual property is really good and the music is great,” he said, “then you should be able to find the right ways to exploit it.”

At the same time, if artists aren’t willing to do more than make tunes and play shows, they ought to be realistic about their expectations, especially if they’re just starting out. Elijah, who made waves last year with a daily series of thought-provoking, industry-focused posts on Instagram (a practice he’s resumed in 2022) is one of the few people who’s willing to speak hard truths and publicly dig into the numbers: “With British artists I say, ‘This is a list of every city in the UK you can play.’ If you are the hottest act in the country, there are 33 cities you can play once a year, tops. Then what? There are 330 days left in the year.” COVID restrictions have made expansive tour plans impossible, so when it comes to gigs artists may be forced to think locally for a while, a challenging prospect when only a handful of cities in most countries have consistent niche music nights.

It doesn’t help that much of electronic music doesn’t have what Elijah describes as “accessible touch points for the average person.” He rhetorically asked, “If someone doesn’t want to sit down and listen to your two-hour NTS show, how the fuck would they interact with you?” That doesn’t mean that he thinks every techno artist should suddenly become a TikTok personality or launch their own subscription service, but new avenues should at least be considered, and for what it’s worth, he does see the subscription model as a particularly worthwhile endeavor. ​​“It’s the best system because it’s self-reliant and it’s honest,” he said. “The nature of the music industry is entertainment and mystique, but if you can just say, ‘Hey, I’m putting out work, this is where it’s going to be,’ that’s a very transparent way of doing things, and I like that.”

Subscriptions aren’t for everyone, as Triple Threat’s Gale is quick to advise her artists. “If you’re going to be very successful on any sort of subscription-based model,” she said, “you have to be very committed to saying, ‘OK, I’m going to do a mix every week,’ or something else like that, and it’s a lot”—especially when many artists already have so many things on their plate. Moreover, launching subscriptions also requires artists to swallow their pride, at least initially, because there’s a perception out there that few things are less “cool” than directly asking fans for money. “Even people that do YouTube,” said Elijah, “they have to start from zero… they have to do that in public. It’s uncomfortable at first, but the artistic community has got to foster that zero being an acceptable part of the process.”

Some artists may resent the idea of diversification, but it seems likely that music—and culture in general—is headed in that direction. “My favorite artists are people that do a lot of different things,” said Martyn. “They write a little bit, they design clothing, they make music. Their lives are the art.” Elijah mentioned the late Virgil Abloh as someone who paved the way for a new sort of artistry. “A lot of people didn’t like the way he did stuff, but actually the modern creator is going to look more like him than anyone else,” he said. “He was literally a DJ, and did that on top of all this other stuff. He used that medium to communicate what he was selling to the rest of us.”

Looking to the future, one thing is clear: the music landscape will almost certainly be much different from the one that exists today. “There was a period of time for 30 years when an album was the format,” said Elijah, “and now the format is the artist, whatever they choose to do.” Multi-hyphenate creators are often celebrated as rare or unique these days, but younger generations are already enthusiastically embracing a borderless model of expression, casting aside traditional genre boundaries and unashamedly trying their hands at wildly diverging artforms.

“No one’s going to be interested in just a techno DJ playing techno,” hypothesized Elijah. “You’ll probably see something like a techno/skater/painter, and the art they create and the community around them will be interesting, because it’ll be something that we haven’t seen before. The most interesting DJ/producers will maybe only release a song per year or one song every couple of years, but their work that you see day to day will be the point of interest.”

Many people—especially those brought up in a paradigm where most successful artists do one thing well and otherwise stay in their lane—might cringe at these predictions, envisioning a world in which narcissistic dilettantes are constantly hawking their latest half-baked idea to a small army of sycophantic fans. That sort of stan culture already exists around pop stars—why would artists want to import it into all corners of music and art? The idea of mystique, as ephemeral as it seems, is something many artists hold dear, and it’s hard to imagine it remaining if they themselves become the product.

At the same time, even if the creative marketplace is moving toward a model in which the artist is elevated over the art they make, that doesn’t mean their work (or their personas) need to be vacuous or inauthentic. New tools have made the “1000 true fans” theory more plausible than ever before, especially for niche creators, and as things like subscriptions grow and become more normalized, artists won’t necessarily have to sell themselves to as many people as possible. Fans, particularly the ones providing direct financial support, will likely expect regular engagement, but artists may find that other responsibilities, such as social media, talking to the press and battling platform algorithms will begin to recede into the background.

Artists today are often encouraged to “think bigger” and “grow their brand,” a pressure that frequently leads to ill-advised creative decisions and doomed attempts at crossover success. However, if their success instead depended on the support of their own unique communities—a prospect that seems increasingly likely in the emerging landscape of subscription platforms, exclusive merch drops and hyper-specialized Web3 bubbles—authenticity, or at least perceived authenticity, would become more important than ever. ​​“If you are marketing yourself to a very small, select, dedicated fan base,” said Gale, “if you go off-piste and do something that feels inauthentic your fans will know and not buy into it.”

As new models of success and sustainability emerge, artists will potentially have more choice than ever before about their career path. Rather than following an established (and possibly outdated) roadmap, they’ll need to consider what role they ultimately want to play in the larger music world. Making these choices is not always easy, but it’s something artists like Martyn have already been doing for years. “I could have done 15 ‘Broken Heart’ remixes in a row, all sounding exactly the same, and I would probably be bigger,” he said, referring to his seminal remix of TRG back in 2008. “Some of my friends made that choice, and they’re a lot bigger than me, play much bigger shows and make way more money. But at the same time, I feel like they’re not as valuable to the music community, while I’m valuable to 100 or 200 people by doing what I do with the mentorship program.”

That sort of thinking won’t work for everyone, but that’s the point. Although artists, many of them already feeling exhausted and overworked, may view new communication outlets and business models as a burden, these things also represent an opportunity to break from convention, follow their instincts and try something new. “An artist shouldn’t ask me three times in a year to listen to their new EP,” advised Elijah. “If they ask me once about an EP, once about a gig, once about a WeTransfer link, once about an NFT and once about a t-shirt, then they become interesting to follow.”

Not everyone is up for taking on what they see as new obligations, but Elijah suggests that they alter their perspective. “It’s not about having to,” he said. “All these things are on the same computer. It’s an opportunity for different kinds of creative disciplines to talk to each other, overlap and collaborate. That’s what makes an interesting ecosystem.”

That ecosystem has yet to come to fruition. As of now, even the most promising initiatives and experiments that have emerged during the pandemic are looking more like additions to existing practices than full-on disruptions of the status quo. Most artists are still dependent on gigs for survival—a prospect that becomes increasingly dicey as the pandemic wears on—and while new business models make for intriguing talking points, widespread adoption is still a ways off.

Change takes time, and though its arrival inevitably causes tension and prompts worries about the death of creativity, artists always find a way to adapt and get their work out into the world. Sainsbury, whose multi-hyphenate existence has long supplemented (and influenced) her work as Eluize, seems ready for whatever is coming down the pike. “When it comes to being an artist, the tools will change and maybe what it looks and sounds like will change, but the actual process of creating and sharing will always be the same,” she said. “That’s what art is: translating an experience, sharing it and getting people to feel.”

Words: Shawn Reynaldo 

Design: Olesia Li