This is Hear Us Out, a column charting the storylines and releases that mattered — to us, and hopefully you — in the world of music over the past month.
Earlier this week, I mentioned I had to put together this month’s edition of “Hear Us Out” to someone, and he responded, “That should be a three-word column: ‘There’s still nothing.’ Or ‘Everything’s still closed.’”
He’s right, to a certain degree; two months after the coronavirus pandemic forced us all inside, the music industry remains largely at a standstill, crippled for the foreseeable future by cancellations and devastating financial burdens. But despite that, artists have continued to make music, releasing new albums, settling in to a new normal and adapting with ticketed livestreams and a more concentrated effort to rally Congress for help. So yes, everything is still canceled and the outlook is grim, but May saw glimmers of hope and several fantastic albums that’ll help us get through these trying times. With that in mind, these are the biggest storylines and most notable releases from the past month.
Independent Venues Need Your Help
Last month, we highlighted how independent record stores have been devastated by the virus, and this month we turn our attention to another aspect of the industry that has been hit equally hard. May saw independent-music-venue owners band together and demand help from the government. The newly formed National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) — which includes over 1,450 independent venues across the nation — estimated at the beginning of the month that 90 percent of its members will be unable to survive more than six months without federal intervention.
“It’s really depressing what the landscape looks like,” NIVA board president Dayna Frank told Rolling Stone. “We are in a low-margin business just like the restaurants, but it is a high-liability business and capital-intensive business. We have massive spaces of retail — giant storefronts and high rents. We are located in popular neighborhoods and most of our members are in expensive districts. We still have to carry insurance, because we know that when the economy gets bad, people get more litigious. We are still rearranging shows and trying to return product, but most people are carrying full health insurance benefits for furloughed employees and we still have HVAC repairs, capital improvements, debt obligations. We have sales tax, property taxes. And we have zero cash flow.”
Many venues, like Boston’s Great Scott, have already closed for good, and with live music likely to be one of the last things to return whenever we can finally get back to normal, the ones that are still hanging on have a long road ahead. To support NIVA’s #SaveOurStages initiative, you can visit their website and fill out a form to contact your local representatives and urge them to take action. And in the meantime, many venues have set up GoFundMe pages you can donate to in order to help them stay afloat, like LA’s legendary Troubadour.
With venues still shuttered for the foreseeable future and many independent musicians looking for some source of income during the pandemic, artists have gotten creative with livestreamed concerts. We’ve come a long way from the hastily produced Zoom performances or Instagram Lives, and two months in to the pandemic, there seems to be a better understanding of how best to optimize technology for an at-home gig.
Waxahatchee, for example, announced a new series of ticketed livestreamed gigs in which she’ll perform her entire discography beginning June 1.
“This idea was born as a way to help support my band and crew through this time where we’ve had to cancel and move shows, thus causing a huge financial burden,” she said in a statement. “I’m also donating a portion of the ticket sales to indie promoters around the country who have been so warm and hospitable to me over the years but are now facing a huge strain on their business.”
Brandi Carlile announced a similar plan to play ticketed shows in which she’ll perform each of her albums in its entirety online, with proceeds going to her band and crew. “We haven’t laid off anyone from our band and crew,” she said in a video announcement. “We’re continuing to pay salaries and to pay everybody, and everybody is out of work. So I am honored and excited to be able to donate all proceeds from our livestream to pay the band and crew who are out of work this summer. So I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support.”
That charitable element doesn’t only apply to current artists. The Prince estate recently streamed a show from the Purple One’s iconic 1985 Purple Rain tour to raise money for the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for the World Health Organization. Members of the Revolution joined the official watch party and chatted virtually with digital concertgoers.
And beyond livestreamed sets, Wilco recently demonstrated what a late-night performance could look like in this era, putting together a video of Jeff Tweedy and co. playing their new track “Tell Your Friends” at home in quarantine. (All proceeds from the track on Bandcamp go to chef José Andrés’s organization World Central Kitchen.) Tweedy also did a more traditional stripped-back performance of “Jesus, Etc.,” reminding us that song can still get the ol’ waterworks going nearly 20 years later.
Lana Del Ray Puts Her Foot in Her Mouth
Last week, Lana Del Rey caught some heat for a controversial Instagram post in which she singled out artists like Doja Cat, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Kehlani and Camila Cabello while lamenting the fact that her music has been accused of “glamorizing abuse.” The internet pounced on the optics of Del Rey calling out artists of color while insisting that “there has to be a place in feminism for women who look and act like me,” and the singer had to double down with a second lengthy post and a six-minute Instagram video clarifying her points and declaring that she’s not racist.
It’s not the first time Del Rey has lashed out at critics, and while this latest controversy was exhausting (there’s a decent point about the way we view female artists buried somewhere in her original post, but she botched the delivery horribly), it also served as a welcome distraction — a shred of normalcy to remind us of a time when an artist getting caught in dumb internet drama could dominate a news cycle. We’re still months away from the music industry getting anywhere close to “normal,” but it still felt good to have something not at all related to coronavirus to focus on for a few days.
This month at InsideHook, we wondered whether coronavirus would kill the “Song of the Summer,” caught up with the legendary Mavis Staples in quarantine and looked at why Hollywood insists on presenting the work of Joni Mitchell as “mom rock.” (You can find all of our music coverage here if you’re curious.) But beyond our own work, there were plenty of fascinating pieces in May that are all worth a read, including Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires’s frank conversation with the New York Times about the way his new album tested their marriage; Peter Guralnick’s remembrance of Little Richard, who passed away at the age of 87 on May 9, for Rolling Stone; and “Woods Became David Berman’s Band. Then They Picked Up the Pieces,” Grayson Haver Currin’s look at how the band dealt with its grief following Berman’s suicide.
Key Album Releases
Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius)’s fifth album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, is easily his best work to date. That’s not a knock on anything he’s done previously — albums like 2017’s No Shape are also essential listens — but this sprawling new effort sees him firing on all cylinders, sounding dreamy as ever while staying grounded lyrically, turning his attention to the physical on “Your Body Changes Everything” and “Describe.” Bodies are a recurring theme in Hadreas’s music, but Set My Heart on Fire Immediately feels especially focused on the subject at hand.
Jeff Rosenstock, NO DREAM
This surprise release from Jeff Rosenstock, whom Pitchfork has dubbed “New York’s most anxious punk,” could not have come at a better time. We’re still a long way away from being able to rage in a sweaty pit at a show, but NO DREAM is the next-best thing, and lines like “I hate coming home, I hate leaving home” hit especially hard when we’re all quarantined. But despite drawing inspiration from heavy topics like mass shootings and consumerism, there are moments of levity as well, as on “***BNB,” aimed at various Airbnb hosts. “Sam, your mom has secretly been renting out your home/I used the shower sponge when you went to Spain alone,” he sings before noting that the place is “running low on bread and other amenities” and telling another host that “Al, your elevator looked in hella disrepair.”
Jaime Wyatt, Neon Cross
A lot has happened to Jaime Wyatt since the country singer released her excellent 2017 album Felony Blues, chronicling her eight-month stint in jail for robbing a heroin dealer (after seven years of sobriety, she relapsed after the deaths of her father and a close friend). That grief was paired with the uncertainty over coming out as gay. Fortunately, Wyatt’s sober again, and she was able to channel all of that into Neon Cross, her new Shooter Jennings-produced album. The record features some heavy hitters — Jennings’ mother Jessi Colter appears on “Just a Woman,” and the late Neal Casal is featured on guitar, organ and harmonica throughout — but ultimately, it’s a leap forward for Wyatt as she comes into her own.
Other notable releases: Chromatica by Lady Gaga, The Mother Stone by Caleb Landry Jones, Do You Wonder About Me? by Diet Cig, Reunions by Jason Isbell, Dream Hunting in the Valley of the In-Between by Man Man.
Songs You Need to Hear
Ariana Grande returned to the charts with not one, but two massive collaborations: the quarantine-themed “Stuck With U” with Justin Bieber and the dance-pop duet “Rain On Me” with Lady Gaga; Dolly Parton, who donated $1 million to COVID-19 research back in April, released “When Life Is Good Again,” imagining what our world will be like post-pandemic; UK punks IDLES tried to pump us all up with “Mr. Motivator”; we got our first taste of Eight Gates, the forthcoming posthumous Jason Molina album; The National’s Matt Berninger released the first single from his Booker T. Jones-produced solo album; and Interpol’s Paul Banks released a new track with his group Muzz. You can listen to all that and more in the playlist below.
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