Why Rishi Sunak is both wrong and right

Earlier this week the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak suggested that creatives such as musicians who had seen income dry up during COVID-19 should consider retraining for the new ‘opportunities’ the lockdown economy is generating. 

The principle makes sense from an economic perspective, but it is just that – an economist’s solution to a cultural problem. A guitarist becoming an Amazon van driver or a Just Eat courier will certainly have the desired economic output (i.e. more economic productivity), but the cultural damage is potentially irreparable. Perhaps more importantly, however, it is throwing in the towel after the first round of the fight. 

A quick lesson from history

Culture is one of the most important outputs of society and the more developed a society is, the more it normally invests in that culture. A brief overview of history illustrates the point. The Roman Empire, one of the first great civilisations, was focused on warfare and expansion. It spawned some famous philosophers and orators, as well as great art (sculpture and mosaics especially). Yet warfare was the defining trait of the empire, and so the majority of the great figures we remember are the military generals and emperors. Fast forward to the Middle Ages in the same Italian peninsula and we had the Renaissance, ironically rediscovering the lost art techniques of the ancients. Although Italy in this period was dominated by warfare, and although there are no shortage of generals and petty princes to fill the history books, it is the art and culture that the period is best known for. Artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael are the great names of this era. There was no structured art marketplace, however; instead, rich benefactors (bankers, princes, generals) patronised them, subsidising their art. They did so often in the hope of immortalising their own names, but instead immortalised the artists. Art does not always pay for itself. Sometimes it needs a helping hand.

Small venues create national economic output; virtual ones may not

Now to be clear, I am not advocating that music should become state subsidised. Nor am I comparing the musical output of a bedroom musician with that of a renaissance master (though Kanye does think that he is ‘unquestionably’ an even better artist than even those Italian greats). The lesson to learn from history here is that in tough times, society benefits from supporting culture. If small music venues continue to fall like flies,smaller and emerging artists will be bereft of real-world places to perform and to build audiences. The music market will stagnate with new talent having one more hurdle to success put in its way. Live streaming will pick up some of the slack and may even become a valuable alternative for many artists. For the UK government, however, that will mean swapping the economic output of UK venues for that of predominately American technology platforms. That economic output will leave the UK economy – and at a time of trade uncertainty leading up to Brexit, to lose music, arguably the UK’s most culturally renowned global export over the last century, would be a weighty hit.

Artists need to experiment and innovate now more than ever before

This is bigger than national economic protectionism, and it is certainly bigger than the UK. To use that horrible management consultant phrase: change is difficult. We are cursed and blessed to live in interesting times. Technology has changed the recorded music business beyond recognition; now, because of the pandemic, technology is going to accelerate change in the live business as well. This process may be difficult, and it may be long, but it will result in a differently shaped music business in the mid-term future. Artists have an opportunity, even a responsibility, to innovate and experiment. Before COVID-19, live, merch, recording and publishing were – in varying degrees – the majority of the revenue mix for most artists. Live is unlikely to return to anything resembling normality until 2022. From this moment on, then, artists need to experiment with new models, new ways to engage with audiences and to generate income – whether that be writing for other artists on Soundbetter, making sound packs on Splice or Landr or selling digital collectibles via Fanaply. Artist income is more varied and sophisticated now than it was 10 years ago. The reality is that this trend is going to accentuate both in the lockdown economy and post-pandemic. 

However, new models take time to become viable. In this interim stage, if there is a role for state support, it is to provide artists and songwriters with the financial support and technical and business training to enable them to be winners in this new creative paradigm. Rishi Sunak was wrong to suggest that artists should retrain out of music. But he was right that they should retrain. They should retrain from being artists of the 2010s to artists of the 2020s, and that is where he should be providing support.

The Future of Live

The almost total cessation of live music has sent shockwaves throughout the wider music industry. Though live companies are clearly at the epicentre, labels and streaming services are the in the blast radius too as the gaping hole left in most artists’ income is causing them to question their other income sources, streaming especially – with both labels and DSPs in the sights.

Finding both near- and mid-term fixes for live are therefore crucial for the wider music industry and artist community. There is a big opportunity here that goes far beyond lockdown era. This is more than the future of games and music, it is in fact an alternative future for live music. It is the ultimate lockdown legacy.

future live events midia researchMIDiA’s latest subscriber report ‘Recovery Economics: Music, Games, Live Streams and the Future of Concerts’ has just been published and subscribers can read it here. In this blog post I am going to highlight some of the key themes.

Live streaming’s teething pains

From a value chain perspective, Lockdown came too early for live streaming; it is under-developed, under-monetised, under-licensed, under-professionalised. Unfortunately, the live-streaming surge is showing all the signs of a goldrush with a lack of clear structure and the first signs of artist backlash, with some artists feeling that some platforms are relying on them to build their audiences while performing for free.

Furthermore, quality is patchy and artists are becoming concerned with the impact on their brand image. Saturation is another Achilles heel: with traditional performances saturation is negated by artists moving from one city to another. Live streaming has no geographical constraints so the effect of multiple performances is analogous to playing repeated concerts in the same small town.

Virtual concerts, not live-streamed concerts

Arguably the biggest single mistake the music industry made with music streaming was to think of it as a format rather than a paradigm. As a consequence, the (western) streaming services lack differentiation and true feature innovation. We must think of the live opportunity as something that goes beyond live streams. Live streams are just one part of the mix. The true opportunity is virtual experiences, that can range from 100 attendee super-premium intimate sessions, through mass scale ad-supported YouTube streams, to avatars performing in games.

If we start this journey thinking narrowly, the scale of opportunity will be constrained. And right now, the industry needs to get as many virtual event innovations going as it can, because it will have to continue to carry the baton for live for some time yet.

In a best case scenario COVID-19 recedes later this year and we have a small number of limited capacity concerts happening before year end. Alternatively, we may see recurring waves of COVID-19 denting consumer confidence with fewer people wanting to go to concerts even if they could. Either way, artists are not going to get most of their live revenue this year.

future of live midia

It is this post-lockdown opportunity that virtual events need to meet. But there is a lot of work yet to be done. The biggest problem to fix is monetisation.

Fans pay around 80 times more per minute for a real-world live performance than they do for listening to music on paid streaming services. The value exists in the shared moment. The problem with live streaming in its current manifestation is that it is abundant and is delivered in a ubiquitous format that is implicitly low value. If this sector is to become a serious income stream for artists then we have to stop giving it all away for free. What is needed is a sophisticated freemium monetisation model that can cater both to large free audiences and better monetise fans.

A set of principles for virtual events

There is also a lot more that can be fixed. Here are some meta principles that virtual events should adhere to:

  • Scarcity (fewer gigs, geo-restricted – Laura Marlin has just announced geo-restricted live streams – let’s make that the trailblazer not an isolated initiative)
  • Better production qualities
  • More sophisticated monetisation (freemium, pay-to-stay, super premium / VIP etc)
  • More sophisticated segmentation of types of shows (not all live streams are the same, but we currently only have a one-size-fits all product
  • Better platform segmentation (e.g. big tech platforms can play the role of stadiums and arenas while off-portal destinations like artist apps can host smaller, scarcer, super-premium events)
  • Better discovery (the equivalent of the TV EPG needs creating for virtual concerts, Bandsintown has made a decent start but much more needs to be done)
  • Better alignment between what artists want and what the platforms want

The birth of a new industry

COVID-19 will likely be a mid- to long-term part of life, so the traditional live sector will face a ‘cost of confidence’ as portions of artists and fans alike will initially stay away. Virtual concerts (live streaming and generative virtual performances) can become an important component of the live music sector as it builds out of lockdown. But it will not get there without concerted efforts to fix the problems that currently define this nascent sector.

A new virtual concert value chain is starting to emerge that traditional live companies are not – yet – well embedded in. The future market will be one defined by both incumbents and insurgents. The big live companies will bet big on virtual but we’ll also see new types of companies like virtual booking agents and avatar agencies. The whole concepts of what a concert is and what a venue is, can be turned on their heads. Fortnite’s Party Royale island is now hosting regular live streamed concerts. With 350 million users, Fortnite can lay claim to being arguably the biggest capacity venue on the planet. This may be the birth of an entire new ecosystem.

Recovery economics

The lockdown lag will create a whole new set of economics across all industries. Driving a recovery during this transition period will require innovation and a willingness to downplay old ways of doing things. For music it will be about exploring new income streams to recast a new music business. The first step is for live streaming to have a product refit that delivers a genuine value exchange for fans if it is to ever get out of its free / charity / tip cul-de-sac and become a genuine income stream of scale.

If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to learn how to get access to this report then email [email protected]

If you are a client and would like to talk to us about the themes covered in the report then schedule an enquiry via [email protected]