The Weeknd has biggest week yet; so why WOULDN’T artists release their albums as planned amidst COVID-19?

(March 29, 2020).  Especially if it’s already finished.

Just ask artists like Dua Lipa, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Pearl Jam and OneRepublic, all of whom have forged ahead with album releases on their originally scheduled dates (even beforehand in one case…more on that in a moment).

The most relevant artist to take that gamble in recent weeks has done so and won…big.

The Weeknd’s After Hours is the new No. 1 album in the U.S. with 445K units consumed.

Pop superstar The Weeknd (née Abel Tesfaye) reportedly bucked his executives at XO/Republic Records and released his latest full-length studio album, After Hours, on Friday, March 20, amid the rapidly worsening coronavirus pandemic.

The Republic Records label bosses reportedly had asked that Tesfaye delay the release because it couldn’t be properly promoted with traditional marketing avenues all but shut down in the wake of the virus.  With the talk-show circuit and live touring essentially at a stand-still this month and for the foreseeable future, it’s understandable that those record execs – and many artists – would be antsy about their new product being lost in the shuffle of all things COVID-19.

That’s not to mention the seemingly genuine concern that some artists have expressed about the public’s health and safety and the need to focus on the virus and protecting themselves and those around them rather than on a new music release from their favorite artist. 

Indeed, two big names in the business – Alicia Keys and Lady Gaga – expressed that sentiment as both announced delays of their latest projects.  Keys’ new album ALICIA was due March 20 – the same day as The Weeknd’s – but was postponed to a date TBD. 

Lady Gaga’s highly anticipated new Chromatica, her first studio album since 2015’s Joanne and first overall project since 2018’s A Star Is Born soundtrack, was scheduled for an April 10 début, but is also postponed now to a date uncertain because of the virus scare.

Gaga’s fans are reportedly crushed over her decision to postpone, which the “Stupid Love” singer announced via Twitter on March 24 with the following statement: “This is such a hectic and scary time for all of us, and while I believe art is one of the strongest things we have to provide joy and healing to each other during times like this, it just doesn’t feel right to me to release this album with all that is going on during this global pandemic.”

Enter The Weeknd, whose After Hours dropped nine days ago in a decision that, by all accounts, has handsomely paid off.  

The new release now owns the biggest consumption week for any album so far in 2020 with 444,000 album-equivalent units registered in its first week – a figure that takes into account album sales, digital downloads, plus audio and video streaming from on-demand and subscriber services, including Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora and YouTube.  

Most of After Hours’ numbers are due to traditional album sales – about 275,000 units – with individual song downloads (60,000 purchases equating to 6,000 album-equivalent units) and streaming (221 million on-demand streams) making up the rest. However, songs from the album have reportedly already been clicked a billion times worldwide in just one week-plus. 

Needless to say with those lofty figures, the album also enters the Billboard 200 chart (dated April 4) at No. 1, becoming The Weeknd’s fourth No. 1 album overall (including three full-length studio albums and an EP).

The Weeknd gambled and won, achieving his 4th No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.

It stood to reason that a new album by the superstar might do well in a market where streaming is the main source of music consumption and people don’t have to leave their homes to do it. But After Hours’ traditional sales figures were surprisingly high.

With more than a third of the country in voluntary or mandated lockdown due to COVID-19 concerns and other entertainment options severely hampered – no professional sports are airing live events these days and first-run TV shows are soon grinding to a halt – it would seem automatic that a superstar act could release a new album and see its streaming numbers skyrocket.

That’s apparently what The Weeknd was banking on with After Hours, despite reports that the first week of nationwide shutdowns from the virus scare saw streaming numbers actually drop by 3.5% (during the week ending March 19 – just prior to release date for Hours).  That’s not to mention the more precipitous drop in physical album sales, the result of brick-and-mortar stores – the few that actually still sell vinyl albums or CDs – closing their doors to normal business.

Overall consumption, factoring in both streaming and more traditional means, was down 12.3% that week, but none of that swayed The Weeknd from charging ahead. 

That previous week’s drop could’ve been due to several factors – all of which are speculative – including the nation’s fixation on all things COVID-19 as various states and localities began to ramp up their executive orders and the White House task force began its daily briefings in earnest. It didn’t help that there were few big-name releases on March 13 – the beginning of the survey period feeding last week’s charts.

Now, with the nation settling into its new normal – for now – and routines slowly being figured out, and with breaking news each day not being much different in sentiment than the day before, people may have been tuning out the coronavirus coverage and itching for a distraction like new pop music from one of the past decade’s biggest stars to take them away from it all…especially younger fans that form the bulk of The Weeknd’s audience.

The Canadian singer likely captured lightning in a bottle with After Hours given the project was already finished and was the highest profile release on deck for March 20.  It also didn’t hurt that he was the last musical guest to appear on SNL just two weeks earlier as the show has been on hiatus since March 7 as a precaution.

That night, The Weeknd performed two of the album’s tracks including “Blinding Lights,” the song that will battle for No. 1 on this week’s Hot 100 with Roddy Ricch’s “The Box,” which has reigned all year so far.

Plus the songs are good. After Hours has received widespread critical acclaim from critics and fans alike, which likely helped propel it to generate Tesfaye’s biggest opening streaming and overall consumption week yet.

Not all other artists will be so lucky as The Weeknd, though.  While one has to believe that the projects by Keys and Gaga were finished or near complete when their releases were postponed, other albums likely are not.  With quarantine measures surely preventing music and video producers in recent weeks from working to complete scheduled projects, we could see fewer announcements like Tesfaye’s and more like Keys’ and Gaga’s in the coming weeks and months.

Gaga, in particular, is the type of artist whose album releases are more like events than those of most other acts (just check the first single and 2000’s-era video from Chromatica – “Stupid Love” – which dropped a month ago and immediately made a colorful splash with fans).

Now, suddenly, venues that were once available to Gaga – like her own planned Chromatica Ball tour plus potential festival spots like Coachella – aren’t there right now.  And the production of future music videos is out of the question with workers now in self-isolation mode.  These things likely factored heavily into her and her label’s decision to wait, along with concerns for her fans’ safety.

So was it insensitive on The Weekend’s and other artists’ parts to forge ahead with new albums the past two weeks?

Popular reggaeton singer J. Balvin took to Twitter earlier this month in an emotional tweet to ask his 36 million followers if he should go ahead with his planned album Colores, which he ultimately did.  Childish Gambino also released a surprise album last week.

British singer Dua Lipa could have the next No. 1 album after The Weeknd.

Pop singer Dua Lipa, whose smash single “Don’t Start Now” peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100 just two weeks ago, joined several other artists with new releases on March 27th.  Her aptly titled Future Nostalgia was actually released a week ahead of schedule with the following stated intent, as the British singer recently told NPR: “I just want people to be able to take a moment away from what’s going on outside and I hope it gives them some happiness and some moments of fun.”

In the end, both The Weeknd and J. Balvin expressed concern for their fans who might have a tougher time grappling with the health (and economic) crisis.

Said Balvin: “Colores is the way we want to  help (bring) relief (to) people around the world.”

And The Weeknd said upon his album’s release on March 20: “Let the music heal us all during these dark times.”  He’s doubled down on that approach this week with a new deluxe version of After Hours on March 27, featuring even more tracks.

Given the variety with which we’re all responding to the public health emergency, perhaps all parties are right – and none are wrong.

Stay strong everyone and congratulations to The Weeknd on his latest career achievement.  Dua Lipa is likely next.

#AloneTogether

DJRob

DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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