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How to thrive after the pandemic: Can today’s musicians learn from the past?

From protests against a lack of government support in Parliament Square to the Chancellor advising those in the arts to retrain, life certainly hasn’t been easy for musicians through the pandemic. With tours cancelled for the foreseeable future, and social distancing making it nearly impossible (and ever more expensive – as smaller artists have to hire larger recording studios usually reserved for larger bands and orchestras) to record, produce and release music, even the most popular artists are feeling the financial stress of lockdown. However, this isn’t the first time artists have stopped touring and releasing music with some household names taking breaks from the industry.

Can today’s artists learn anything from those in the past? And, more importantly, can the industry thrive in a post-COVID world?

Possibly the most notable break from music was the King of Pop himself Elvis Presley. In 1958, two years after the release of his self-titled debut album sold 300,000 copies, Elvis was conscripted into the US army, opting to be a regular soldier rather than to entertain the troops. He served in Germany for two years, where he met his future wife Priscilla Beaulieu and began the drug addiction that would lead to his untimely death in 1977. Many would be right in thinking a two-year hiatus from any musical involvement would ruin an artist, just as their career was taking off, so how was The King able to recover and become the best-selling artist we all know today? The answer is simple really – he threw himself head-first back into the industry.

Once honourably discharged from the army on March 5th, 1960, Elvis headed to Nashville to record his new single ‘Stuck on You’ and ‘Fame and Fortune’, which at this point had over 1 million advanced orders. He then headed by train to Miami, greeting fans as he went, to appear on the Frank Sinatra Show titled “Frank Sinatra’s Welcome Home Party for Elvis Presley.” This managed to keep, Elvis’ short career alive. In fact, in many ways it was elevated: not only did Elvis retain his young fans with new music and TV appearances, but his service in the army gave older listeners who resented his outlandishly modern style a fresh perspective on the Mississippi native.

Elvis went unchallenged at the top of the US best-selling artists for almost 35 years, until a country legend by the name of Garth Brooks took the music scene by storm in the early 90s. Every single Brooks released between 1990 and 1995 charted in the Billboard Hot Country Songs top 10. Two world tours in 1993 and 1996 led to the best-selling live album of all-time “Double Live”, released in 1998. The noughties seemed like Brooks’s decade to overthrow the King as the greatest of all time. However, after becoming increasingly annoyed by the work-life balance of superstardom, Brooks announced his retirement on October 26th 2000, releasing his final album “Scarecrow” 13 months later. The King of Country returned in 2009 to take a residency at Encore Las Vegas and in 2015 completed his third world tour.

During his retirement, Brooks kept some ties to the music industry, founding his record label Pearl Records in 2005. However, more surprisingly, he also tried his hand at Major League Baseball. Despite being unsuccessful in spring training camps with the San Diego Padres, the New York Mets and finally in 2004 with the Kansas City Royals, Garth Brooks showed his versatility, managing to find new avenues when he believed music was no longer viable for him.

Am I saying Harry Styles should join the Navy, or that we will be seeing Taylor Swift training with the New York Yankees? Of course not. However, I believe that both Elvis and Garth Brooks are two fine examples of recording artists that were able to retain and even increase their fame through both forced and voluntary breaks from the music industry.

My message for struggling artists is a simple one: keep busy. Whether it be through music or other activities allowed during this hard time, use it effectively and creatively. Promote your image, hone your craft and focus on the brighter days to come. This is even easier in 2020 when compared to the time of Elvis and Garth Brooks, as social media allows a more intimate connection with fans. Ultimately, when one day things return to normal, you can look back on this year as the time when your music career rocketed, as you have time like never before to focus on your art and have music ready to tour and release when allowed.

Josh Russell

Outside of his degree, Josh enjoys sports and music, including football and golf. He was written articles in the Old Veseyan and enjoys reading modern history books, especially post-WW2.