Opinion: What does an album cycle look like in 2020?

A promotional image for Dua Lipa’s leaked and subsequently released album, “Future Nostalgia.” (YouTube)

Allison Harris

With only two months left in the year, artists are losing time to make good on their promises of new music for 2020. The timeline of an album rollout has never been murkier.

When COVID-19 struck the world, it upended the plans of musicians everywhere, forcing them to put albums, tours and music video shoots on hold. Some musicians even used the early phases of lockdown to inspire wholly quarantine-created projects. While no longer under lockdown, many artists are still struggling to create and deliver on-time albums that are fully realized and cohesive. 

For current mainstream artists, red tape from their label, times for songwriting and sample clearances and the release date for an album are always subject to change. A running list of scheduled releases on Metacritic even includes a disclaimer at the top: “Release dates are subject to change, and often do.” The list compiles albums either submitted for release by an artist or teased on social media. 

Metacritic’s list goes week by week, as nearly all new album releases happen as the clock strikes 1 a.m. Friday morning. Towards the end of the list, however, are all the rumored and artist-teased releases, often without any real date or details provided. 2020’s undated list is long. It comes to just over 40 albums, many denoted with a sad “title TBA” next to their “release date TBA” stamp.

In the most recent few years, artists have teased and shelved albums, and then teased and shelved them again. Notorious workaholic with a flair for the dramatic (as well as poor politics) Kanye West has become a purveyor of albums that never come to be. In a manic run of years, West has promised and failed to deliver over 10 albums — so many that DJBooth is able to rank them in a listicle. West’s Twitter mentions are rife with fans replying to his (frankly, pathetic) tweets about running for president again in 2024 with pleas for him to release “DONDA,” “Yhandi,” or “Turbo Grafx 16.” 

Leaks from rabid fans do much to deter artists from finalizing a project. While it can be encouraging that their followers will stop at nothing to hear the music their favorite artist has created, the music can become stale if not released with the vision the artist had in mind, and even more so if the tracks are not fully finished. Though sometimes seen as exclusive and legendary in the eyes of the fans, leaks remove agency from the artist and can make the music lose its “magic,” so to speak. An album disavowed by an artist before it is fully finished has nowhere near the power of a project the artist truly believes in. 

Experimental pop artist Charli XCX has had to struggle with this concept in her career. The pop futurist’s unreleased (and untitled, though dubbed “XCX World” by fans) third studio album took on a life of its own after fans leaked it in 2017. Charli XCX has spoken openly about the emotional toll the leak took on her

“It just kind of felt like my work got taken from me, and it was no longer mine,” she said in a 2019 interview with Fader magazine. “That was really sad. I didn’t really get to process it much at the time, honestly, because it was so shocking.” 

Sometimes, through the hard work of the artist and their label’s promotion, the roadblock of a leak can be overcome. On track to be one of the biggest pop projects of the year, hackers leaked  Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia” mere days before its release. In a quick decision from an emotional Lipa and her team, the album was released a week early, so she could begin profiting off official streams of her work instead of fan-released leaks. For the most part, the decision was a success. “Future Nostalgia” was certainly one of the best releases of 2020 and achieved critical and streaming success. 

The presence of the novel coronavirus in the year 2020 has made things especially difficult in planning the release and promotion of music — especially without live music and much fewer glamorous, in-person television or radio appearances. Even for a popular artist, releasing anything at all in this chaotic year is a complete gamble.

This year has shifted so many things about day-to-day life, and music is no different. Going forward, it seems no-holds-barred releases and surprise drops will only increase in popularity. If there was ever a time to begin removing ourselves as music fans from the emotional investment of a month-long album campaign, it is now.

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