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Opinion: Women musicians are leading industry innovation

Musicians faced a conundrum last year – how could their performance art carry on safely amidst a global pandemic? Some artists remained on standby while COVID-19 persisted, but those who took on innovative ways to create and share their music have defined a new wave of music. In the process, we have seen women artists leading the way, and not just seeking to make their mark, but to dominate the music industry. 

One of these innovators is Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams. In the midst of promoting her solo project, she put a pause on releasing new singles for her album. However, as the pandemic continued to spiral out of control, Williams changed her decision, instead releasing her LP song by song. Eventually, she would drop her entire debut solo LP, Petals for Armor.

Although distributing songs like this is not a completely new concept, the decision to do so during a pandemic was a brilliant move on Williams’ part. It gave fans something to look forward to in times of uncertainty. Williams also capitalized on the chance to engage with her fans about her music, as she took to social media weekly to answer questions about the songs she released.

Beyond its initial release, Williams continued to reshape her plans for the album. Instead of touring, Williams gave her fans behind-the-scenes clips and incorporated them into her music videos. She also performed stripped down versions of songs on Instagram, and even developed a workout video for her song “Over Yet”. 

Williams has led this movement of rethinking traditional music production and promotion, making it clear that engaging with fans can be done in more ways than one. But she is definitely not the only artist to do so.  

Singer/songwriter SZA also had a remarkable artistic year. After the massive success of her debut album, Ctrl, back in 2017, fans highly anticipated SZA’s return. As 2020 progressed, she made the strategic decision to have her comeback coincide with the pandemic.

In September 2020, she released the single “Hit Different,” and followed it directly with a music video. To further appeal to the excitement among fans regarding her return, the video’s end teased the release of another song, which fans would later discover to be called “Good Days.” 

This teaser made fans crave more, and they bombarded SZA with tweets begging for updates. After such a shockingly huge response, SZA would release “Good Days” on Christmas Day 2020. The song soon reached the top 10 tier in the Billboard Top 100 List.

SZA’s return to music amid the chaos of COVID-19 has innovated what a comeback can look like. Responses to her music have been outstanding and fans have even shaped the music to the current events, making “Good Days” a sort of pandemic anthem that inspires hope. 

The work of artists like Williams and SZA during this pandemic has shown that fan engagement is becoming increasingly important to the music industry. However, the expansion of fanbase involvement is not the only benefit of these innovations. These changes to music release and promotion have also given artists more time to blossom creatively.

William’s debut album was vulnerable in itself, embracing a newfound femininity and female rage while tackling topics of depression and anxiety. The Petals for Armor album was iconic in these ways, but the creative explorations behind this new sound would only continue for Williams. 

Her time spent at home, rather than on tours and interviews, gave Williams time to reflect and create. She eventually released a follow-up LP titled Flowers for Vases/Descansos in early 2021 that presented a softer side to her sound. And this was the first album for which Williams wrote all of her own music and lyrics. 

SZA experienced a similar growth in her own music. With Ctrl, SZA’s music showed fans a unique sound and internal vulnerability. The album dealt with her relationships, their conflicts and the insecurities she had within it all. In her latest releases, she has built on this sound.

For example, the lyrics of “Good Days” present themes of living in the present and embracing the wonders that youth has to offer. Besides exploring new paths of vulnerability, SZA has explored new and unique sounds, as the music itself is dreamy and angelic, which is a bit atypical for a pop hit single.

Williams and SZA are among many women artists who are changing the music industry. Others have been releasing music on never-before-seen timelines, like Taylor Swift, who released two sister albums, Folklore and Evermore, just months apart. Rethinking engagement and performance has also been trending — take artists like the three-piece sister rock group HAIM, who have engaged with fans via Zoom, teaching them their signature dance moves. 

In times of uncertainty, art becomes a very important outlet. This is true not only for consumers of art, but for artists themselves as well. Over the past year, women artists have innovated the music industry by engaging with their fan bases in new ways, shifting how performance is done and most importantly, setting new standards for creative exploration in music. 

Over arguably the worst months of the 21st century so far, we have seen music bloom because of the groundbreaking ideas and sounds that women artists have set out to create.