But What About the Musicians?

what about the musicians

The Digital World is Both the Opportunity and the Existential Threat

Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X may be weathering the pandemic storm (although the big money comes from touring), but in the larger community of independent artists and teachers a shudder is palpable. What do you do when your income disappears overnight? What happens when artist venues are financially crippled, many fatally? What happens when discretionary spending on culture takes a back seat? What happens when there are no gigs?

Recently, I’ve been talking with some of my professional musician friends who are at the top of their game and push the boundaries of artistic creation. They are worried.

Sure, more music than ever is available online. Hat’s off to Yo-Yo Ma for his daily offering of musical calm. Cheers to SFJazz Center for launching Fridays at Five and their virtual venue Diana, and to Justin Vivian Bond for Thursdays with Auntie Glam. But is a digital tip jar a business model?

Digital is both the opportunity and an existential threat for independent musicians. First the downside. Geography is destiny as far as the consumption of live music is concerned. Traditionally, we have gone to the performers we can access via local venues, supplemented by the occasional A-list tour. But now, an artist can reach the entire global audience through the internet. A skilled teacher with something unique to offer can find students worldwide; and adoption of the virtual has been dramatically accelerated by the pandemic. The internet may have enabled a long tail of second and third tier offerings — the 99% — but in a world of increasingly efficient search and competition for attention, the audience will tend to flock to the blockbusters. As the saying goes, you only have 100% of your attention to give.

what about the musiciansWhere does that leave the other musicians who reside in the long tail? Arguably worse off than ever. The friction posed by geography is no longer a factor. Everyone can go to a Beyonce live event — and as curation becomes more efficient so you that get notifications about exactly what interests you — the oxygen will be sucked out of the air for those in the long tail such as the estimated 100,000 bands in the US who are simply trying to survive.

But digital is also the opportunity. As a performance venue, it has already demonstrated its power with the historic 2019 performance of Marshmello in the virtual world of Fortnite during the Superbowl that attracted an audience of some 20 million viewers. But what if you gave a virtual concert and no one came? This speaks to the importance of building digital community and creating value for your followers on an ongoing basis. This is your social media equity, so to speak. And new tools are coming along all the time such as the relatively new medium of digital streaming that can strengthen your relationship with your virtual community.

Certainly, there is a problem with what you might call the digital discount. When we attend a live performance, we are surrounded by intangibles, by context that creates the total experience. We travel to the venue, look at our programs, find our seats in a well-known place, rub elbows with a host of strangers all linked together by a shared excitement, perhaps go out for a drink or meal afterwards. It’s a total, high resolution package. Paying $100 or more for a ticket may seem reasonable under those circumstances. But how much would you pay to view a live performance online? $25? $15? $5?

Lower pricing can be remedied by volume. For example, there are yoga instructors in the pandemic era who are making a lot more money than before by offering online classes in an infinitely sized virtual studio that can accommodate many more students. The trick is getting the word out via social channels and leveraging your social equity.

what about the musiciansThe other and opposite approach is premium pricing. For example, if you are part of a particular musician’s community, you might also be attracted to their virtual salon concerts that carry privileged access, in which scarcity value can raise the level of pricing. Call it the velvet rope approach. “Sorry, we only have 20 ‘seats’ for this performance, during which the artist will discuss her work in great detail and provide ample opportunity for Q & A and other exclusive types of artist curation.” In this context, video interfaces such as Zoom’s allow for many people to see one another in real time and have already supported countless online cocktail parties and meetups.

Your musical salon can have an after-concert reception where you can mingle with other interesting people. And it doesn’t all have to be about screens; you can add an analogue element by sending out a paper program or other materials in the mail, for example or make materials downloadable at home. Subscription models would amplify this business model, signing up for a monthly (or weekly) event, for example. Membership models might be even better. Get the point?

Ramping up what Hollywood types call “production value” is another approach. Simulcasted live performances are possible for those privileged enough to have a performance replicating instrument in their homes such as the Yamaha Disklavier, which can faithfully reproduce an artist’s use of fingers and feet through the striking of hammers and depressing of foot pedals in real time. This is an opportunity for much innovation in the design of future musical instruments.

What about the independent music teacher? Well, there already is a great deal of online learning content and the Skype lesson is no longer an unfamiliar concept. Again, it is a question of building an online community so that the master classes, special presentations and 1:1 lessons will attract the right audience. Our post-pandemic world will be more distributed and virtual; teaching online will become the new normal, especially if technological innovation leads to a new generation of brilliant instruments and keyboards that teach, self-teaching lesson plans, haptic feedback, new ways to integrate lessons with smart scores, and ultimately the use of augmented reality and such technologies as Microsoft’s Holoportation that will decrease even further the distinction between live and virtual.

Digital pundit Keven Kelly has remarked that we are all digital newbies now. The new tools beckon to us and with the appropriate use of “beginner’s mind,” we can turn lemons into lemonade in a post-pandemic era.

John Kao, whom The Economist called Mr. Creativity, is a former Harvard Business School professor and Tony-nominated producer. He is Yamaha Music’s first Artist in Innovation and a former keyboard player for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Contact him at john@johnkao.com.

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