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Why Warner Records Is Still Releasing Big Albums Amid COVID-19 Lockdown

As artists postpone releases amid a market slowdown, one major record label is finding success sticking to its original plans. “Music is very of the moment — it captures a time,” says Warner Records COO Tom Corson

PartyNextDoor's Believe It, feat Rihanna, was released at the end of March.

Warner Records

It was not on my list of expectations, when interviewing Los Angeles-based Chairman and COO of Warner Records Tom Corson, to be greeted by a quote from the German soccer coach, Jurgen Klopp. But these are, as those serotonin-sapping global headlines keep reminding us, unpredictable times.

“Football is the most important of the least important things.” That was Klopp’s quote (accurately recited by Corson), when the Liverpool Football Club manager was recently quizzed over the sports-cancelling impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. Corson told me these words resonated with him not only for offering a spot of mirth during an oft-bleak period, but also because he humbly disagrees: Music, says Corson, is, by far the most important of the least important things — especially right now. With this essential credo set in stone, he permits me to quiz him on the fact that Warner Records is having hit records… during a particularly abnormal few weeks.

The company released two flagship albums simultaneously on Friday, March 27th: Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and PartyNextDoor’s PartyMobile. The latter album, issued in partnership with Drake’s OVO Sound label, was boosted by the same-day release of a single, “Believe It,” featuring Rihanna’s first new vocal for three years.

The notability of a major record company ramping up activity in the current climate — when the likes of Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, Sam Smith and more have postponed scheduled album releases in a market depleted by COVID-19 lockdown — isn’t lost on Corson.

“Music is very of the moment — it captures a time,” he explains. “To say, ‘Let’s push these releases back a number of months,’ which we did consider, felt very risky from the standpoint that we had momentum and great music that people wanted to hear.”

Future Nostalgia went Top 5 in the US last week with over 62k equivalent sales, which Corson suggests was “an even stronger start than expected”. At the same time, two singles from the album, Don’t Start Now (Number 2) and Break My Heart (Number 7), have gone Top 10 on Spotify’s global weekly rankings. Meanwhile, Believe It became the worldwide lead track on Spotify’s Today’s Top Hits, and racked up over 20m streams on the service in its opening seven days.

This all happened amid creeping industry trepidation over the buoyancy of the recorded music market, with record store shutdowns and sagging streaming volumes upping the likelihood of more album delays. Yet, according to Corson, social distancing is also creating opportunities for new music — catalyzed by the fact that, thanks to a drought of blockbuster releases, the likes of Spotify and Apple Music have a lot of limelight to give. Says Corson: “We did a lot of calls with our [streaming] partners, setting everybody up for this [double release], and there was a real excitement of, ‘This is just what we need!’ Like everyone, those partners have businesses to run, keeping people engaged on every level, and you can’t do that without great content.”

Corson acknowledges that Dua Lipa’s album was brought forward by a week due to the record leaking on torrent sites — a decision over which the British star publicly agonized. Still, the exec says that the possibility of delaying both Future Nostalgia and PartyMobile was explored and ultimately dismissed. (He clarifies that, with both releases being “heavily digital” in consumption, Warner Records could have “put a pin” in either in the week of their scheduled arrival without catastrophic financial fallout.)

Of Future Nostalgia, Corson says that the decision was made to press on because, in terms of her escalating popularity, “Dua is one of the hottest artists in the world.” With PartyNextDoor, he says, the decision to stick with a March 27th release date was only further ratified by the news that OVO had convinced Rihanna to jump on Believe It which, he says, has “caused an incredible uplift in momentum” for the LP.

Promotional plans had to pivot fast, of course, with the artists unable to face human audiences — whether in venues or on key television chat shows. In PartyNextDoor’s case, there was a Twitch livestream listening party, and the star is using the Community app to directly message millions of followers. For Dua Lipa, in addition to tearfully informing her fans via Instagram Live that her album date was switching, she performed with live musicians (and dancers) in a smart webcasting stunt on James Corden’s Late Late Show.

Another Warner Records release, NLE Choppa’s Walk ‘Em Down with Roddy Ricch, came a week earlier (March 19th) and is currently climbing global charts (Spotify play-count: 19.5 million streams). Signed by Warner Records Chairman & CEO, Aaron Bay-Schuck, NLE Choppa has been personally delivering groceries in his hometown of Memphis, and has called on others to help those in need.

“I would encourage my friends and competitors in the music business to think long and hard before you move something back,” Corson says. “There are good reasons to do that [in some cases], especially if you have a disproportionate share of physical sales… but, if you can, get a plan together and encourage everybody in our ecosystem to engage. Consumers still want fresh music, and [that newness] has a shelf life. Don’t assume everything will be the same if you delay a release.”

Warner Records is joined in sticking to its release-date guns by the biggest artist on the planet: Drake’s new tailored-for-TikTok single, Toosie Slide, arrived Friday (April 3) via OVO / Republic, and landed straight at No.1 on the US Spotify chart.

Corson argues that there’s currently “a thirst out there for distraction and entertainment”, especially amongst younger consumers. He suggests that blockbuster record releases will not only help provide quarantined fans with “optimism and incredible content” during difficult times, but they will also help support a creative community that’s been hit by the closure of live music venues, not to mention the songwriters and producers who worked on the records.

This sentiment is echoed by Warner Music Group’s global CEO of recorded music, Max Lousada, who saw WMG’s other leading label, Atlantic, release not one but two records from Lil Uzi Vert in the first half of March (one an album, one a mixtape), as the global impact of coronavirus began to spiral.

Says Lousada: “Music is not a cure, but it is a comfort. It’s a source of hope, strength and connection. During these troubling times, we’re focused on keeping our people and our artists safe, sustaining their livelihoods, and supporting the music ecosystem.”

Tim Ingham is the founder and publisher of Music Business Worldwide, which has serviced the global industry with news, analysis, and jobs since 2015. He writes a weekly column for Rolling Stone.