How do you make a hit song into a hit act? Typically this age-old question has been answered on the road. The playbook for quite some time was to shove a newly signed act into a van for a year. Those scores of gigs in countless dives, those millions of mind-numbing miles and too many convenience-store burritos, those post-show booze-ups, were the crucible in which great bands were forged—getting tighter, gaining the confidence to win any crowd, becoming more cohesive as a unit.

At first, legends are made one fan reaction at a time; that eye-to-eye connection in a club or ballroom, while grabbing the mic and pointing at the electrified crowd, has always been key to the magic. We’ve all seen it hundreds of times—these are the moments in which stars are born.

For all their hundreds of millions of streams, how do Arizona Zervas, Powfu, Surfaces and BENEE become important artists beyond their splashy hits? Typically, artists getting mad traction on the streaming charts would be hustled into rehearsal to develop their live presentation and then rolled onto the road with all due haste.

Despite the impressive strides made by these and other emerging acts in the digital space, the live side is a crucial part of the artist-development story, as it has been for the past several decades—from clubs to ballrooms to sheds to arenas and stadiums in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany, Japan and elsewhere. And with no festival exposure or radio shows happening, these young acts are missing key opportunities to extend their reach and their brands.

And consider an artist like Dua Lipa, who has conquered streaming and radio; this would be precisely the moment when a headlining tour would catapult her to the next level—and possibly superstardom. How will she and her team keep the momentum going until then?

All of the above exerts more pressure on artists, managers and labels to build that all-important fan engagement and branding while the stage lights are dark. It’s also pumped new energy into the radio-promotion sphere, which previously seemed to have ceded much of the discovery process to the DSPs.

Radio is supporting many of these new discoveries now, after resisting the ingress of streaming hits for ages, with promotion becoming the tip of the spear again. As Capitol promo gunslinger Greg Marella says, “It’s all about marketing until Tuesday rolls around.”

But even without support from radio, a great many of these emerging acts have seen success on the road after gaining traction on the DSPs.

Can the social-networking model, if used shrewdly, have enough impact to fill the gap? In some cases, it can—Lil Nas X is a perfect example of a hybrid hip-hop artist who might’ve been overshadowed by his own mega-smash (i.e. never gone from song to act), had he not devised a vivid brand for himself. Lil Nas accomplished this with dexterous use of the socials. (label boss Ron Perry, meanwhile, kept the copyright fresh with a string of canny remixes.)

But for most emerging acts, the question remains: Where do fan engagement, branding and loyalty come from when live performance is marginalized? How much more important will media, especially radio, the DSPs and TV exposure, become?

Speaking of TV, will the Grammys—slated to be cross-promoted with the Super Bowl on CBS, though all scheduling is now up in the air—feel more important in a post-pandemic world, or more like a relic of a bygone era? Will Ben Winston and the new production team dream up a formula to make it freshly relevant?

TAGS: I.B. Bad