Music News

The Seven Biggest News Stories From Music's Weirdest Year

Bob Dylan captured his first No. 1 hit in nearly 60 years.
Bob Dylan captured his first No. 1 hit in nearly 60 years. David Gahr
The music industry as a whole experienced a fairly rough 2020. From the closure of local venues to cancelled tours, it's been a test of the industry life never before. But big news still broke across 2020: some good, and some bad, but all of it proves that the business will march on despite everything else.

Here are seven such news stories that we didn't want falling through the cracks.

Bob Dylan's First No. 1 Hit

It's a well-established fact by now that chart position is mostly irrelevant. Even some of the best music in the world never sells, and as such, it's a silly way of discerning "good" music. Unless, of course, we're talking about Bob Dylan. This past April, some 59 years into his career, Dylan scored his first No. 1 song with "Murder Most Foul," a 17-minute epic exploring the JFK assassination (per Deadline). Dylan's come close before, having hit No. 2 with "Like a Rolling Stone," and even penned chart-toppers for other acts (The Byrds' "Tambourine Man" and Peter Paul & Mary's "Blowin’ in the Wind"). Yet a No. 1 song after all these many decades feels like a celebration of a massively influential artist and a way to recognize that great songwriting and artistry will always have its day. It's also proof that Dylan's efforts still mean something amid a mostly chaotic and noisy modern music scene. Add in his Nobel Peace Prize in Literature from 2016, and it's a good time to be the Bard.

crommelincklars/CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Billie Eilish Makes History

And speaking of somewhat meaningless music accolades, singer Billie Eilish made history with her monumental wins at the 2020 Grammys (per The Hollywood Reporter). That night, Eilish, then just 18 years old, became the youngest artist and first female in the awards' 75-year history to take home the four main prizes: best new artist, album and record of the year (When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?), and song of the year ("Bad Guy"). The singer is only the second artist to nab the honor since Christopher Cross in 1981. Admittedly, the Grammys aren't always the best gauge of what's happening in pop music, but with Eilish they clearly recognized both a sense of artistry and her popularity among young music fans. Add in the fact that Eilish's wins mean something from the point of greater representation, and it feels like the Grammys transcended their limitations and achieved something nearing relevance. Awards should be about real, organic feel-good moments, and this was a chance for the industry to show it might be keeping pace with the great pop upheaval.

The Kanye West-Taylor Swift Feud Exploded

Talking about the Kanye West-Taylor Swift feud in 2020 feels like still proudly owning a rotary phone. But this year, seemingly out of nowhere, their beef reignited. Swift and West started feuding at the 2009 VMAs following an awkward on-stage interaction. They seemingly buried the hatchet in 2015 — only for West to call Swift a "bitch" in 2016's "Famous." Despite that initial outrage, West's wife, Kim Kardashian, leaked clips from a phone call where Swift apparently approved of the line, as the BBC reported. But as we learned this past March, the full phone call reveals that Swift never gave her permission and the West-Kardashian clan may have manipulated some sound bits (per Variety). Does any of this matter at all? Not in the grand scheme of things, no. But, it does show how pervasive and never-ending the best celebrity feuds can become. And it also proved to be a delicious, if not entirely temporary, distraction to this year's true horror show.

fictures/CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Guitar Sales Spike Amid COVID

As the world spent 2020 on lockdown and isolation, folks found solace wherever possible. But there was one development that proved especially life-affirming: guitar sales exploded in 2020. According to Consequence of Sound, guitar manufacturers like Fender, Gibson, Taylor, and Martin each had massive sales years in 2020; Fender, for instance, saw its instructional app grow from 150,000 to 930,000 over the spring and early summer. One Fender executive even told The New York Times that 2020 will be the "biggest year of sales volume..." in its 74-year history. Sure, plenty of those guitars will be abandoned when the world opens up again. But the fact that so many people turned to art and the act of creation this year demonstrates we're not so terrible after all. When faced with the threat of perpetual loneliness, folks reached to music for companionship and comfort.

The Kesha-Dr. Luke Court Ruling

This year hasn't exactly been rife with good news in general. But in January, according to Billboard, a judge ruled against pop singer Kesha in an ongoing "defamation dispute" with famed producer Dr. Luke (born Lukasz Gottwald). The court ruled Kesha had defamed the pop music producer after she'd texted Lady Gaga regarding an accusation that Gottwald raped singer Katy Perry some years earlier. The Kesha-Luke saga actually dates back six-plus years (Pitchfork has a full timeline): after Kesha alleged sexual and emotional abuse in 2014, Gottwald counter-sued for breach of contract. The whole years-long affair has been an unsettling eye into the true façade of modern pop, one populated by controlling figures like Gottwald and helpless victims like Kesha, and has shaped much of the latter's career in recent years. Even as the 33-year-old singer released new music this year, the triumphant High Road, the subsequent news felt like just another exertion of control by an industry not always keen on equity and artistic power. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

click to enlarge The Rebel Lounge's always entertaining marquee. - THE REBEL LOUNGE/FACEBOOK
The Rebel Lounge's always entertaining marquee.
The Rebel Lounge/Facebook

Valley Venues Fight Onward

Unless you've been incredibly lucky (or keen on breaking social norms), most of us haven't seen a live concert since the springtime. All across the country, independent venues have felt the sting; one expert, Reverend Moose of the National Independent Venue Association, said that as many as 90 percent of these institutions could close in the near future. The Valley was no exception, and from the Rebel Lounge and Crescent Ballroom to Trunk Space and the Marquee Theatre, indie venues faced hard financial and logistical decisions regarding their immediate futures. But a story that could have seen endless closures has taken a more positive spin as venues fought to remain alive. Rebel Lounge, for instance, re-opened as a socially-distant coffee shop; Crescent Ballroom, meanwhile, re-opened as an outdoor-only space. There's still no end in sight, and these are only temporary stop-gaps to keep venues going for just another month. But these venues have found a way to innovate and remain open given this massive existential threat. Their sense of resiliency has been crucial in keeping spirits high and defining just how much the arts matter in Phoenix and beyond.

click to enlarge John Prine was one of many musical legends we lost this year. - TICKETFLY
John Prine was one of many musical legends we lost this year.

2020's Musical Deaths

Celebrity deaths aren't exactly singular to 2020 (even if we'd like to blame this year for just one more tragedy). Yet the losses this year just felt especially painful in the grand scheme of all this pervasive bad news. Neil Peart, drummer of the iconic Rush, died in January. Kenny Rogers, country's gambling man, passed in March. Famed singer-songwriter John Prine died in April — followed just weeks later by legendary singer, entertainer, and showman Little Richard in May. Famed guitarist Eddie Van Halen died of cancer in October. One of the more recent deaths, Charley Pride, country's first black star, died in December. These aren't even counting the dozens of other, slightly less famous musicians and artists that died in 2020, a list too large to name in full. However, each person offered something essential to the world, and commemorating their deaths is a way to celebrate their legacy and contextualize all that grief in the realm of art and music. Whether they topped charts or played the perpetual sideman, the world's a little shinier for their contributions.
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Chris Coplan has been a professional writer since the 2010s, having started his professional career at Consequence of Sound. Since then, he's also been published with TIME, Complex, and other outlets. He lives in Central Phoenix with his fiancee, a dumb but lovable dog, and two bossy cats.
Contact: Chris Coplan