What Now? Entertainment in a Post-Pandemic World Pt. 3

In my last post, I wrote about the current circumstances the entertainment world finds itself in, focusing on the movie industry. Now, let’s turn our attention to the music industry.

What we’ve seen so far from the performing arts is all over the map. Putting the music from home thing aside, artists have limited live performances to outdoor venues with small, socially-distanced audiences. Performances have been mainly smaller groups that are able to keep their distance on stage, playing to an empty hall and broadcasting online. No Mahler 8 anytime soon…

We’ve also seen instances in places like Germany, Austria, and Italy where orchestras are performing in a mostly normal configuration – the conductor leaning over close to the musicians to wring out that last bit of emotion, the musicians close to each other as always. The two main discernible differences being the placement of the winds – more separated and with plexiglass shielding – and the sparse audience. Musicians and audience members are being required to wear masks while moving about and are having their temperatures taken; no concessions either to avoid gathering hotspots. One has to wonder: will they be able to make enough money if they have to continue in this fashion – paying all of their musicians while taking in perhaps 20-30 percent of the receipts they normally would? Perhaps in countries where the arts are state-sponsored; in the United States?

Maestro Barenboim leading the Vienna Philharmonic in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in a June concert for a limited audience.

Interestingly, the Los Angeles Philharmonic – one of the most forward-thinking orchestras in the world – was pretty slow to get in on the live-streaming game. Instead, they focused on radio, broadcasting previously recorded concerts, and doing their “from home” series with Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel. Dipping into their endowment to bide their time, they planned their next steps. But, they will most certainly feel the affect of cancelling their Spring and Fall seasons while not benefiting from the “cash cow” that is renting out the Hollywood Bowl – I read somewhere that they lost upwards of $90M in revenue. It is the Hollywood Bowl (and LA’s climate) that will allow the LA Phil to begin broadcasting live performances on PBS television in a physically distanced environment with their full orchestra. That is their plan beginning in August. What comes after that? We shall see.

The Field Band took a different tact than our friends at the Philharmonic. As an organization built and funded to tour the United States as representatives of the U.S. Army and the Government, charged with connecting the American people to their Army and representing the United States around the world, the pandemic represents an existential threat. If we’re not connecting Americans to their Army or making people feel good about their country, the Army will quickly find other things for us to do and other things to fund; hence our pivot to online engagement within days of returning home from Spring tour. As I mentioned in my first post, the tactic paid off, but the question is: what now – for us and the industry?

One factor I alluded to in my first post, and was front and center in my last one about the movie industry, is the relationship between performing organizations and venues. While performing organizations may find a way to survive online, without audiences (revenue), venues will continue to struggle, if not fold. Any course of action to get back in the game has to consider not only the performers, but also the spaces they play in.

There is no doubt that organizations and venues (sometimes they are the same entity like the Chicago Symphony and their Symphony Center) need to invest in video, streaming, and broadcast capabilities. This is where the Berlin Philharmonic, for instance, has a head start on many organizations with their Digital Concert Hall initiative. For over a decade, they’ve invested in creating broadcast capabilities and a business model that allows people to watch their concerts through slick tablet, phone, and TV apps by purchasing a 7-day, 30-day, or 1-year pass.

Berlin Phil’s Digital Concert Hall is very user-friendly.
A recent performance by members of Berlin led by their music director.

Pop acts have other challenges. How do you publicize your newly recorded album and sell merchandise around the globe if you can’t tour? There are a few possibilities…

1. Virtual album release. I’ve seen several artists do this over the last four months, and the Field Band is preparing to do something similar with our upcoming release of Soundtrack of the American Soldier (look for it August 28:-)…Create a social media campaign and an online event to announce the release of an album in lieu of the usual listening party.

2. Online / virtual touring. Some acts have been doing this for a while like Phish. For acts that are big enough, I could see doing multiple performances from one venue location that is broadcast online. To create unique events that approximate touring, it is possible to geo-fence broadcasts to specific regions, the artist virtually making their way across the country or around the world. This would provide revenue to the chosen venue and the contractors to create the staging, lighting, and video assets. How much would you pay to see your favorite artist perform live from the comfort of your home?

3. A tactic that is more in the future, perhaps, but is slowly gaining traction is performances in virtual reality. I definitely see possibilities here. Ever read or seen the movie Ready Player One? Last August, electric violinist Lindsey Sterling performed a concert in virtual reality for 400,000 viewers who watched her performance in 2D on Facebook, Twitch, and YouTube, and in VR using a SteamVR or Occulus-compatible headset. Those watching in VR had their avatars “in the audience” in front of Sterling or as floating stars. John Legend recently got in on the act, doing a 17-minute set in VR. With immersive audio becoming more and more prevalent (see the Apple EarPods update this Fall), this may have a place in the future of entertainment. This won’t solve any COVID-related problems, but it certainly points to a potential way ahead. How many households already have the latest gaming platforms with the technical capabilities ripe for this kind of utilization? I may write more about this subject in a later post…

Lindsey Sterling performing in VR for over 400K people. Image Credit: Wave, Lindsey Sterling

For orchestras and other larger mediums, I could see multiple performances in one location to accommodate demand with venues only able to fill at perhaps 40-50 percent capacity. This would help venues get some money from hall rentals and limited ticket sales.

Another possibility is moving to a seasonal approach where in-person performances are exclusively in larger, outdoor venues and all other performances are online broadcasts in indoor venues.

Frankly, there are a lot of possibilities. But, anything different from the norm requires imagination and a re-thinking of what is possible. There will be contraction, unfortunately. But, like other industries, there is also opportunity there for those willing and able to take it.

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Filed under Army Bands, The Arts

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