Will concerts come back in 2021? And other music stories to look out for

By Mark Savage
BBC music reporter

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The future of festivals and concerts is still uncertain - but organisers hope shows will resume by the end of 2021

If 2020 had one saving grace, it was the music. Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga spirited us out of lockdown to an alternate universe where sweat-glistened club nights weren't terrifying vectors of disease; while Drake and Phoebe Bridgers helped us process our feelings.

UK rap had (another) banner year, thanks to Headie One and AJ Tracey; and even Fiona Apple came out of semi-retirement with the most disorientating, courageous and inventive album of her career.

Sure, there wasn't a gig in sight, and Glastonbury missed its 50th anniversary party. On the upside, lockdown propelled some artists into a frenzy of creativity. Charli XCX made an album in six weeks and received a Mercury Prize nomination in return; Paul McCartney finished a trilogy of records he started 50 years ago; and Taylor Swift released two new albums in the space of five months.

So what does 2021 hold? Predictions are a fool's game in the middle of a pandemic - but here are a few suggestions.

1) Virtual gigs will become more ambitious

Image source, LiveNOW
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Dua Lipa's Studio 2054 livestream was a huge success

The early days of lockdown were a voyeur's wish come true, as the world's biggest pop stars invited you into their living rooms, kitchens and bathrooms to play some tunes (highlight: The Rolling Stones' Charlie Watts playing drums on his armchair). By the end of the year, the productions had become a little more ambitious.

In November, Dua Lipa's Studio 2054 set a new bar for livestreams, with two dozen dancers, gigantic Day-Glo hula hoops, even more gigantic glitter balls, a roller disco and a generous helping of special guests - from Kylie and Miley to Sir Elton John, harrumphing his way through Rocket Man.

The concert cost $1.5m (£1.1m) and took five months to put together - but it more than made that sum back, with 284,000 ticket sales and streaming deals in India and China. In the end, the concert was seen by more than five million people worldwide.

"We'll definitely do it again," Dua's manager Ben Mawson told Rolling Stone. "Certainly for the rest of our artists, we'll do more."

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Travis Scott's concert inside the video game Fortnite reached millions

The payday is certainly a factor. US rapper Travis Scott reportedly earned $20m for a single, nine-minute concert inside the video game Fortnite last April. By comparison, his 58-date Astro World tour in 2018-19 grossed $53.5m.

But virtual gigs don't just make financial sense: Fans who can't afford to travel to big cities like London and New York can suddenly attend an exclusive show - and, because the audience is huge, tickets are more affordable (Dua's prices started at £7.50).

We can expect to see them become part of the regular tapestry of the music industry, even when concerts resume. Speaking of which...

2) Concerts will come back... but not as we know them

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Newcastle's Gosforth Park held a series of successful socially-distanced gigs in the summer

Depending on who you ask, live music will be back by Easter, or maybe the summer, but it could be the end of the year. And even with a vaccine, it will be a while before tours can go back to normal.

While bands like Steps and Little Mix have announced arena shows for November, others, like Nick Cave, have already cancelled their 2021 tour plans.

Initially, at least, social distancing will be enforced at indoor venues, with enforced one-way systems to the bar and toilets.

Image source, CBS / The Late Show With Stephen Colbert
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The Flaming Lips experimented with playing shows where everyone - the band and the audience - were inside Zorb balls

Rapid turnaround Covid-19 tests at festival gates is another prospect, although the idea isn't foolproof. Other proposals include thermo scanners, spraying fans with a disinfectant "fog" as they enter a venue, and interactive wristbands that vibrate to indicate a lack of social distancing.

Ticketmaster has also been looking at whether it is possible to link digital tickets to your vaccine status or a negative Covid test through a smartphone app.

However, the company stressed it could not enforce such measures - which would be enacted at the discretion of the event organiser.

3) Taylor Swift will share dozens of new old songs

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Swift has been busy re-recording hits like Shake It Off and I Knew You Were Trouble

Pop's greatest diarist Taylor Swift took a U-turn this year, recording a two-album set of escapist folk tales - and earning herself an album of the year nomination from the Grammys in the process.

Her next project is either her most ambitious or most foolhardy: re-recording every single song from her first six albums. Why is she doing this? To regain artistic and financial control of her material, after her former record label sold her master tapes for a reported $300m.

Swift will retain control of the new recordings, meaning that when a film or TV show wants to use her music, she will get the royalties - not the hedge fund who bought the originals.

The first snippet from the sessions - an near-identical copy of 2008's Love Story - was revealed in November, so hopefully we'll get more chances to play spot the difference in 2021.

4) Adele and Rihanna won't release albums

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Just get on with it, you two

Like teenagers with a piece of coursework, Adele and Rihanna have been saying, "I'll finish it later, mum," for the last three years.

After once releasing seven albums in seven years, Rihanna's turned her attention to other things - fashion, make-up, donating millions to Covid-19 relief, dancing awkwardly on Instagram - while work on her ninth album progresses at the speed of a sloth wading through treacle.

In the meantime, she's taken to trolling her fans about it. Last December, she joked on Instagram the record was ready, but she was "refusing to release it". When a fan inquired about the album's whereabouts in May, Rihanna replied: "I lost it."

Adele's fourth album appears to be missing in action too.

In June, her manager Jonathan Dickins told Music Week the record was indefinitely delayed and would be "ready when it's ready". Adele later scolded a fan who asked if the album was coming this year: "Of course it's not. Corona ain't over," she wrote. "Wear a mask and be patient."

So, after three years of predicting new music from RiRi and Adele, I'm officially giving up - in the hope they'll put something out just to prove me wrong (they're definitely reading this, I'm sure of it).

5) But Drake will...

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Drake still managed to score four hit singles in 2020, despite taking time off to work on a new album

After a relatively quiet year, Drake is back in January with a new album, Certified Lover Boy (I think we would all like to see photographic evidence of said certificate).

It's his first studio record since 2018's Scorpion, and the star says it could divide opinion - much like his 2016 album Views.

"They hated on Views just like they will CLB," he said during an Instagram live in November. "But it's music to evolve to."

Other hotly-anticipated albums for 2021 include:

  • Lana Del Rey - Chemtrails Over The Country Club
  • Foo Fighters - Medicine At Midnight
  • Travis Scott - Utopia
  • London Grammar - Californian Soul
  • Arlo Parks - Collapsed In Sunbeams
  • Weezer - Van Weezer
  • Evanescence - The Bitter Truth
  • Paul Weller - Fat Pop (Volume 1)
  • Teenage Fanclub - Endless Arcade

Also in the studio are: Cardi B, Lorde, Billie Eilish, Twenty One Pilots, St Vincent, Noel Gallagher, Sinead O'Connor, Zayn Malik, Arctic Monkeys, Robert Plant, Machine Gun Kelly, Chvrches and The Cure.

6) Musicals will be big business on screen

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A chorus line of movie musicals is waiting in the wings for 2021, with Everybody's Talking About Jamie, In The Heights, West Side Story all destined for a cinema/streaming service near you.

And, thanks to the success of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, the floodgates have opened on musical biopics, with up to a dozen completed or in production.

Jennifer Hudson plays Aretha Franklin in Respect - a role she was hand-picked for by The Queen Of Soul herself, more than a decade ago.

"We met in New York, and one of the first things she said to me was: 'You're gonna win another Oscar for playing me, right?'," the Dreamgirls star told EW last year.

"Imagine Aretha Franklin looking you in the face and saying that! I was like: 'Eh, uh, eh… I can try.'"

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Baz Luhrman's Elvis sees Austin Butler filling Presley's blue suede shoes and Tom Hanks as the star's combative manager, Colonel Tom Parker; while Lucy Boynton, who co-starred in Bohemian Rhapsody, will play The Rolling Stones' muse Marianne Faithfull in Ian Bonhôte's Faithfull.

The United States vs Billie Holliday, due out in March, explores how the blues singer was targeted by the FBI over political messages in her music. Directed by Lee Daniels (Precious, Empire), the film marks the big screen debut of singer Andra Day in the title role.

We can also expect to see David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Teddy Pendergrass and Leonard Bernstein depicted on the silver screen, while Madonna is busy writing the story of her life for a film she will also direct.

7) Gracey and Holly Humberstone are ones to watch

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Gracey and Holly Humberstone look set to have major chart success in 2021

Around this time every year, the music industry gets together and predicts the artists they think will break through to the mainstream in the next 12 months. And if you look at lists like the BBC's Sound Of 2021, MTV's Push awards, and Amazon's Ones To Watch, a few names will keep cropping up.

So keep an eye out for DIY pop singer Holly Humberstone, whose Falling Asleep At The Wheel EP was called a "staggering debut" by the NME, and Bree Runway, whose bold and boisterous songs literally burst out of your speakers.

South African newcomer Baby Queen raised the bar for pop lyrics this year with smart, satirical songs like Buzzkill, Medicine and Pretty Girl Lie. The singer's sugar-coated melodies are a Trojan horse for discussing topics like mental health, social media and body dysmorphia - including the killer line: "I get more likes when I don't look like me."

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Fans of Sampha and James Blake will fall in love with Berwyn - a London-based singer, whose triumph over abandonment and homelessness fuels his sensitive, soulful music.

And keep your eyes on Brighton-born pop alchemist Gracey, whose single Alone In My Room (Gone) became a lockdown anthem in the first half of 2020. Her recent EP, The Art Of Closure, is an all-killer, no-filler sign of great things to come.

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