Category Archives: Army Bands

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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What Now? Entertainment in a Post-Pandemic World.

It was early March when the Field Band was on tour, making its way west from Philadelphia when we had to return home due to COVID-19. You can read about it here.

Over the past four months, we’ve utilized all the tools at our disposal: content recorded on previous tours; new content recorded Brady Bunch style; “at home” sessions streamed from a phone; and live, in-studio performances at a physically-distanced six feet. We’ve posted content on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram.

The metrics have been impressive: on a bad day 3K people watch our livestreams; on a good day 25K tune in. Millions of people have watched our broadcasts during this time; we’ve been featured on every major news outlet; and we’ve partnered with guest artists and organizations across the country to expand our reach. We have a diverse and engaged audience from across the country and around the world. So what’s not to like? Who needs to tour or perform for a live audience when you can stay home and livestream? Right? We’ll get back to that.

How about the rest of the music industry? For touring bands (not named the Field Band), the business model is pretty simple:

1. Record an album.

2. Sell albums.

3. Tour performing the music of said album (and fan favorites from previous albums).

4. Sell merchandise at concert venues.

5. Repeat.

When you can’t tour and sell your merchandise; when you aren’t getting a cut of ticket sales; if venues aren’t going to fill to capacity – how do you make a living as a performing artist?

What about orchestras, opera companies, and musicals? Most orchestras, their fate tied to the venues they perform in, have not done well. Many have cancelled performances through the Fall in hopes that Spring will bring with it a new beginning. Some organizations have begun adapting, transitioning from content from home or previously recorded concerts. trying to stay connected to their audience, to live chamber music performed at a CDC-compliant distance. These more forward-thinking organizations are planning for the worst – how to remain viable in a world where large groups of people getting together to consume entertainment is anywhere from 6-24 months away? They know that doing nothing and hoping for a quick return to normal will be their death.

We’re seeing some organizations try and make money where they can, selling tickets in exchange for exclusive online content or partnering with microbreweries, restaurants, and vineyards to provide unique at-home experiences to their patrons. If marketed correctly, compelling online content will sell. The Berlin Philharmonic is ahead of other arts organizations in this realm with their Virtual Concert Hall that has been in existence for over a decade – much like how the Field Band was at the forefront of military bands due to our focus on multimedia and streaming over the last three years.

How many orchestras took too long or will take too long to adapt? How many will be left when we get to the other side of this pandemic? Many of them were barely above water before COVID, clinging to their outdated ways. How can they innovate and adapt to this new environment to keep this great, centuries-old institution not only alive, but thriving?

What about the movie industry? At what point will people feel safe going to a movie theater with a couple hundred of their closest friends? Even if you go to one those theaters that have reserved recliners for seating (which is the only way to go to a movie theater, by the way), will you feel safe sitting in that seat? I barely thought it was sanitary before…Will there be any movie theaters left by the time a vaccine is widely available? How will the movie industry feed the monster that pays the actors, production costs, special effects, and marketing? Can movies like Avengers or Star Wars with their huge budgets be made in a post-pandemic world? With home theater systems becoming more and more advanced, why spend the money to go to a movie theater – with all the baggage of price, germs, inconsiderate people, and the sound so loud you have to wear ear protection – when you can maybe spend a little more money (per person) to buy the movie on iTunes and watch it at home in your pajamas whenever you want? We’ll get back to that too…

Let’s face it. The entertainment industry is in a bit of a crisis and only the innovative and adaptable have a chance at surviving. Of course, that just speaks to the performers themselves; what about the venues they play in? How will they survive? The fact is, while some – perhaps many – performing organizations will find a way to survive until there’s a vaccine, what about the venues that rely on patrons and donors? Like movie theaters and freelance artists, they are among the entertainment industry’s most affected as a result of this pandemic.

Anyone who has ever been to a live concert – whether watching the Field Band’s Concert Band and Soldiers’ Chorus in a concert hall, listening to the depth and power of their sound coupled with the multimedia and story-telling typical of our programs; or a rock concert in a stadium, with the lighting, video, pyrotechnics, and energy you can only experience being there – knows that nothing can truly replace that in-person experience. For the performer, they have a “captive” audience for 1-2 hours who are focusing on pretty much nothing but the performance itself and are getting real-time feedback from their audience; for the audience, they’re experiencing music as it is being re-created, just for them (unless it’s pre-recorded, like some pop groups, and the experience is more about the dancing, multimedia, and communal experience…).

For the short to mid-term, how we as a society consume entertainment is going to change. Perhaps, in a year or two it will be closer to normal, but the industry may never be the same. This is a complex subject that requires more space than I can write in one post. Stay tuned for more…

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Why We Serve

Crazy. Not too long ago I wrote about how the Army Field Band’s tour of the Upper Midwest was cut short due to COVID-19. Well, since that time – just a couple of weeks ago – the world has changed.

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