What is the future of the music industry after COVID-19?
Written by Pete Armitage and edited by Sarah Martin
It was in the second week of March that the shit hit the fan. The week prior, 16 people had contracted the virus from one infected person after visiting Club Trompete in Berlin Mitte. Health senator Dilek Kalayci announced that a further spread of the novel virus was to be expected. On the 11th March, Berghain closed its doors, for ‘at least five weeks.’
As the virus spread across Asia and Europe, and Italy entered lockdown amidst skyrocketing cases, the industry prepared for the worst. Lollapalooza cancelled their huge 2020 event and Berlin promoters had no choice but to follow suit. By 21st April the Berlin Senate formally announced that gatherings of more than 5,000 people would not be permitted to take place in Germany until 24th October.
Fast forward to the middle of May, venues across the world are closed indefinitely, regardless of size. An unprecedented disruption to a multibillion dollar industry. Only one thing is for certain; things will never be the same again. Without clear solutions, this is a catastrophe for live music and all involved. Nobody can go to events. So nobody is getting paid.
Scott Cohen, chief innovation officer of recorded music at WMG has already likened the event to the ‘napster disruption’ of recorded music. Indeed, the rise of illegal downloading was a cataclysmic event which galvanised the industry to the point where it is today - unrecognisable compared to 20 years ago.
But through destruction came transformation; music was made more accessible to the consumer. How will the industry transform as a result of the 2020 pandemic?
It goes without saying that we all sincerely hope to be enjoying ‘traditional’ non-socially distant live music in the near future. However, the prospect of this lies out of our hands. What is far more interesting is how we can innovate in the meantime and find new ways to support the industry and inspire the fans.
This is a time to remain optimistic. A time to assess possibilities rather than limitations. Music industry actors have the time and curiosity to experiment, and currently, with no immediate prospect of a vaccine, we need to invest in invention. The answers don’t lie in novel technology itself, but in how we can utilise that technology in novel ways for the benefit of the consumer and the artist.
Here are some big questions that come to mind:
Will social distancing become a regular factor of our professional lives in the events business?
It’s the question on everybody’s lips. Nobody knows the answer, but, as suggested in an April paper from Harvard’s School of Public Health Modelling, ‘...prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022.’ Our tenure in financial purgatory just cannot last that long. It’s unfeasible. The industry needs to roll out solutions for the consumer as a matter of priority that account for social distancing. Whether it becomes a regular factor or not, we literally cannot afford to continue without alternatives to the ‘traditional model’ of live music appreciation.
Additionally, the live music industry is perhaps hit harder than any other. It relies on travel and gathering - primary risk factors in the spread of the virus. Those who comprise the industry are all aware of the uncertainty of the future. In the words of Killekill promoter Nico, ‘I am getting more and more worried that the damage to the scene and the individuals in it might be too strong and that too many places and institutions might get lost on the way.’
Will people want to go to a festival next year?
Even prior to the pandemic, festivals were breeding grounds for disease, hygiene just isn’t a priority for attendees. Many a time we have heard of revellers contracting glandular fever at Fusion (alongside a medley of obscure STDs).
Granted, now a few of months in, the mass hysteria has subsided. Toilet paper is back in stock. But the public are traumatised both emotionally and financially. Even if the average punter can afford a Melt ticket, would they really want to attend and risk their health and that of those around them? Additionally, who wants to go to an undersold music festival? Watching a band in the rain in an empty field? No thanks.
Furthermore, live music is a luxury item purchased with consumers’ disposable income. Who’s gonna go moshing when they don’t have enough money to pay the rent?
Promoters face incredibly tough investment decisions; why take the gamble on an event when it probably was only just breaking even anyway. There are so many reasons not to organise an non-virtual festival next year. Why not throw a virtual one instead?
People are already getting accustomed to live music streaming. They were before the pandemic. There are so many unappealing elements to the traditional conception of a gig. And positives to virtual appreciation. Nobody’s gonna throw a glass of piss at you. Sound quality is improved.
What constitutes the authentic live music experience? Should we attempt to replicate that or create something entirely novel?
To quote Geoffrey Moore’s sociological model ‘The Technology Adoption Life Cycle’ (3), visionaries and innovators are the first group to adopt new technologies, going on to influence other consumers. Inevitably, new technology will be adopted, as we have seen with Zoom’s precipitous rise to ubiquity. It just needs to work, and fulfill the early adopters’ authentic desire for fulfilment.
In short, prospective users need to feel like they are at the show.
Let us ruminate over the desirable elements of the live music experience; those abstract experiential features that cannot be suddenly materialised in digital form. We ought to embark on a fastidious journey of perceiving what’s gotta stay and what’s gotta go with public safety in mind.
Jan Packer, Roy Ballantyne and Julie Ballantyne of The University of Queensland investigated the psychological and social well-being factors affected by music festival attendance. Participants in their study reported a complex array of benefits; personal growth, self-discovery, social integration and actualisation. Participants also reported a sense of separation from the mundanity of ordinary life.
Upon examination these reported features of the festival experience have complex psychosocial underpinnings. The question is, how can we either reproduce these outcomes in a virtual setting, or indeed, replace them with novel well-being factors unique to the virtual setting itself.
Meeting strangers it seems is a fundamental element of social integration. Kimberley F. Rudolph’s research showed that 67% of respondents interviewed planned to make new friends at a festival. The prospects for ‘inter-stranger’ interaction online are endless, it is a norm on social media; however can valuable interactions with ‘strangers’ be replicated virtually whilst engaging in a live music performance?
So what technology might we be enjoying next year?
These are the main concepts behind the platforms on offer; video hosting, video streaming and virtual or augmented experience.
MelodyVR is a virtual reality platform available on Google Play and the App Store which promises paying users the opportunity to ‘stand on stage at sold out shows through your VR headset or mobile.’ With performances from contemporary artists such as Post Malone through to golden oldies like The Who, the platform appeals to audiences of all ages and demographics. Featuring ‘jump spots’, the technology allows users to wander around venues among the crowd at shows.
We all remember a holographic Tupac making a cameo appearance at Snoop Dogg’s 2012 Coachella performance. For the most part, people were lapping it up. Of course, if we can interact with a holographic celebrity on stage, why can’t we interact with other holographic fans in a moshpit? EF EVE is a volumetric video platform where users can experience a ‘3D representation of the real world,’ interspersed with holographic avatars.
Sansar, a social virtual reality platform developed by the San Francisco-based firm Linden Lab make the bold claim that ‘the future of concerts is virtual’. The outfit promises users that they can meet their friends, buy merch, take selfies and ‘dance til you drop’.
It does beg the question - how realistic are these future-orientated services and platforms? And can they generate sufficient revenue to keep the industry afloat during this period?
Christopher Lundie, Berlin DJ and one half of Hugs & Kisses is circumspect about the sudden virtualisation of nightlife, ‘I believe very strongly that as the world becomes more digital, more people will desire the contrast of human to human interaction found at events/concerts and parties.’
How can we ensure that artists benefit?
The monetisation of our technological solutions is imperative. Lewis Capaldi performed his debut album live on Saturday 16th May, charging a fiver for a ‘ticket’ (all proceeds were donated to suicide prevention charity ‘CALM’). Big artists like Capaldi can sell online tickets to live
streams, but what about smaller acts with less dedicated followings? Record labels and streaming services ought to work closely together to ensure capital. Innovation wins at times like these.
The responsibility to innovate falls on everybody’s shoulders in the business. We have the opportunity to revolutionize the musical experience once again, for the greater good.
As to whether there’ll be a major paradigm shift in performing in the future, we just have to keep our options open and try to remain optimistic. Killekill’s Nico remains pragmatic regarding the future of the scene, ‘I have the hope for a new start, when it comes back, a rejuvenation. But I also don’t really see the scene discussing the questions of how they want to go on, what should be different in the future, and so I see the risk of exactly the opposite happening in the end: the strong ones, who survived coming back full force, just because they can, and the whole thing becoming the same as before or even worse. I really don’t know at the moment…’
- Stephen M. Kissler (2020) ‘Projecting the transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 through the postpandemic period’ Science 14 Apr 2020: eabb5793
David Sax (2016) ‘The Revenge of Analog’ PublicAffairs
- Geoffrey Moore (1991) ‘Crossing the Chasm’ Harper Business Essentials
- Shoda H, Adachi M, Umeda T (2016) ‘How Live Performance Moves the Human Heart’ PLoS ONE 11(4): e0154322.
- Nick Baxter-Moore & Thomas M. Kitts (2016) ‘The Live Concert Experience: An Introduction’ Rock Music Studies, 3:1, 1-4, DOI: 10.1080/19401159.2015.1131923
- Ballantyne, J., Ballantyne, R., & Packer, J. (2014). ‘Designing and managing music festival experiences to enhance attendees’ psychological and social benefits.’ Musicae Scientiae, 18(1), p. 65-83. Retrieved March 10, 2019, from https://www.researchgate.net. DOI: 10.1177/1029864913511845