Warner Music Group’s chief innovation officer for recorded music, Scott Cohen, thinks that the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic could be a ‘Napster moment’ for the live music industry. Cohen was speaking in a ‘From Holograms to the Holodeck’ online panel last night convened by the Social Broadcasting Company.
“With this Covid-19 disruption, is this doing to the live industry what the Napster disruption did to the recorded music industry?” said Cohen, during the discussion. “The recorded music industry was going along just fine and then outside forces – as in illegal downloading – happened, and it was like… How are we going to adapt to this new environment? What do we need to do? Covid-19, is this their [the live industry’s] Napster moment to say ‘Alright, how are we going to adapt to this? How are we going to change how we operate, and what things are now gonna stick?’”
The problem – as shown by the rest of the panel session, to be frank – is that there aren’t really any answers to these questions yet. Virtual reality certainly isn’t the answer, with no evidence yet of a sudden boom in headset sales and/or demand from people for another helmet-clad layer of physical isolation in their lives. It’s also much too easy to fling around ‘everyone’s watching livestreams now’ rhetoric, without hard data to show, for example, what percentage of ‘everyone’ is actually doing that, and whether the big audiences are just for stars who’d have attracted big audiences streaming live before this pandemic happened.
It’s true: there’s a burst of energy and innovation happening around live video, including for music. It’s also true there are some big numbers emerging. Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli broke the record for the largest simultaneous audience on YouTube for a live classical performance last weekend, with 2.8m concurrent viewers for his Milan concert at its peak. Social app Triller says its recent ‘Trillerfest’ virtual music festival attracted more than five million viewers over its three days, making it “the most successful online music festival of all time”.
Alright, but… it’s still completely up in the air when physical live music will return at any scale – if you want a chill down your spine on that score, read Blabbermouth’s recent ‘Live concerts may not return until Fall 2021: health advisor’ story – so the conversations in the coming weeks will need to zero in on the practicals of online alternatives too.
How do artists at all levels turn views into income? What do fans expect from virtual events, and what’s their appetite (not to mention their ability, given their own financial worries) to pay? How do one-off livestreams evolve into longer-term virtual-touring strategies for artists, if the live music lockdown lasts longer than anticipated? How can promoters, venues and others in the live ecosystem survive in the meantime, to hit the ground running when that lockdown ends?
Cohen is certainly right about the impact of this moment for live music, and the comparison to Napster’s first filesharing incarnation. Hopefully he’s right about it being a stimulus for more innovation that truly serves artists and fans. Projects like #NextStageChallenge (see separate story below – including the disclosure that Music Ally is involved) are popping up to try to help that stimulus. But we should also be cautious about seeing this as a transformative moment for some of the technologies that have remained a niche for good reasons. Beware of immersive technology evangelists quacking on about immersive technology being The Answer, basically.
To be clear: we don’t include Cohen in that group. As he noted later in last night’s panel, the key will be creative people using technology to connect, rather than just the tech itself. “Who are going to be the artists who figure this out and shine?” And who will be the technologists who truly serve those artists…