James Darrah of the ONE Festival in Omaha, Nebraska, says the pandemic has revealed there is an appetite for more experimental opera video and film. Credit: Jordan Geiger

Could an Austin, Texas drive-in movie theater be screening an animated version of Philip Glass’s opera The Fall of The House of Usher? Or two professional musicians on opposite sides of the country meet, collaborate and help each others’ tour be a success? Could you easily watch every one of Liz Phair’s performances on her next tour? These are just some of the innovations created by musicians and the industry during the pandemic that might stick.

One year ago, the entire music industry was coming to terms with the pandemic’s lockdown protocols—no live shows in the foreseeable future. Most musicians and supporting staff rely on live performances for their income, as do booking agents and venue owners, among other industry professionals.

In the early days, many musicians performed makeshift “concerts” from their living rooms through social media streaming. But as it became clear that pandemic protocols were going to last much longer than just a few months, some musicians, artists, programmers and entrepreneurs began to innovate.

Streaming platforms, musician-centered apps, online variety shows and concerts with quality production emerged. Even the Oklahoma City-based band The Flaming Lips, known for performing inside big plastic balls, gave a live concert that allowed audience members to listen from their own plastic balls, so no virus aerosols could be transmitted. This year’s Grammy Awards show showcased a creative hybrid of performances.

There’s a glimmering of life, post-pandemic on the horizon, including live performances. So which innovations will stick beyond the pandemic and be part of the “new normal”? While The Flaming Lips will likely not be experimenting with audiences in plastic balls, many other innovations could launch robust new sectors in the music industry. 

In May 2020, the streaming platform Mandolin launched, based in Indianapolis. Mandolin’s three co-founders realized early in the pandemic that the rudimentary performances musicians were giving on Youtube or Facebook, could be improved upon, for both musicians and audiences. Marc Benioff of Salesforce was part of the company’s $5 million round of seed funding.

Liz Phair, Dwight Yoakam, and the Drive-By Truckers, among other musicians. have performed through Mandolin’s platform. Meghann York, the company’s chief marketing officer says streaming is here to stay even when live concerts can safely resume. “Music fans are so dedicated,” says York, “there’s room for both.”

While devoted fans might have previously been content to attend one live performance of a favorite band’s tour, diehard fans can now additionally stream every additional show on the tour. In Mandolin’s survey of 3,000 fans, they found 94% said that they would go back to in person shows once it was safe, and 91% said they would also watch live stream.

York thinks when artists begin planning their tours, in addition to choosing the ticketing provider and venue, they will also be choosing their digital platform. 

A Catalyst For Opera

The pandemic’s lockdown forced the boundaries of musical genres to expand and morph. Many artists mixed a highly produced video or film element, into the relatively static world of live concerts.

Omaha, Nebraska, is home to the annual ONE Festival, Part of Opera Omaha, which features experimental opera pieces by composers and artists like Missy Mazzoli.

ONE Festival’s Artistic Director James Darrah has always tried to push the art form’s boundaries, specifically an embrace of cinema and film. “That’s a very hard conversation to have,” says Darrah, “until you get to a global pandemic and every opera company closes and then you’re like, ‘So, I’ve had this crazy idea and now I think you might be willing to try it.’” 

When last year’sONE Festival was cancelled in the early days of the pandemic, Darrah and his team of various artistic disciplines, left Omaha for their respective homes across the country and began working remotely. They created an animated version of the Philip Glass opera, The Fall of The House of Usher, for Boston Lyric Opera. “They already have an inquiry from a drive-in movie theater in Austin [Texas] that has no relation to the opera company at all,” says Darrah,that is a huge revenue potential for an opera company that they’ve never explored.”

Darrah also worked on opera videos for Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra that are posted on YouTube for free. “They just crested a million views,” says Darrah, “which is more people than would see 10 seasons in a row in L.A.”

The pandemic has revealed there is an appetite for more  experimental opera video and film. Going forward Darrah sees the ONE Festival as a digital-oriented opera residency, culminating in a festival, with physical and virtual options. “I just think it has the potential to really be this kind of unique catalyst for or the art form,” says Darrah of Omaha’s ONE Festival. 

A WPA For Artists

In Northwest Arkansas, Jesse Elliott recalls the thinking behind Oz Cast, a highly produced streaming variety show of sorts, Let’s do something that’s loosely like the WPA project and put artists to work.” The WPA was a Great Depression-era government program that put artists to create creating lasting public art that can still be seen in the United States.

Elliott, a musician, works at CACHE NWA, one of the many art organizations, nonprofits, foundations and museums that supported Oz Cast. It just completed its first season of 15 episodes, all available online. Approximately 85% of the artists featured, from dancers to musicians, are local.

We paid more than $100,000 to artists,” says project manager and filmmaker Lisa Marie Evans, estimating they worked with 80-plus artists.

Oz Cast was initially going to be more of a DIY production, explains Evans, but the team soon found out they needed resources and skills for streaming. “We shifted gears,” says Evans, “we brought in filmmakers to partner with the artists.”

They are assessing a possible second season. Perhaps it served its purpose during the pandemic and when live events resume, it won’t be relevant.

Elliott and Evans see a lasting benefit to Oz Cast. It pushed the artistic boundaries of some artists, helped with artists’ professional development, exposed artists to new revenue streams and opened up the local art world to a larger community. Elliott reflects on the weird beauty of the online era we’ve all been living in.” For artists and non-artists alike, it’s often easier to experiment and watch different streaming platforms, than commit to going to physical venues, where some barriers do exist.

Before the pandemic, musician, show booker, and now tech entrepreneur Lincoln Foley Schofield, was creating ShowX, a new platform for musicians, based in Nashville, Tennessee.

A Platform For Maximum Musician Networking

“ShowX was designed from the beginning as a concert solution for musicians,” explains Schofield, “when the pandemic set in, we decided to focus on the social media aspect of our technology first.”

ShowX is a free platform for vetted professional musicians. Unlike Facebook or Instagram, where algorithms can often stymie a musician’s reach when announcing upcoming shows and tours, ShowX allows for maximum networking among fellow musicians.

The platform’s beta version launched in September 2020 and according to Schofield, it’s a supportive community of musicians. “It has been such a such a positive experience because musicians are able to keep forward momentum in their careers” says Schofield, “and that’s something, everybody feels so stuck.”

During the quarantine, ShowX developed a mash-up tool allowing musicians to collaborate virtually. “It crosses business and art,” says Schofield, “it’s a great way to start a relationship with another artist.”

Users can search ShowX based on various factors. There are currently 27 genres of music. ShowX is still not 100% launched, but when it does, Schofield says it will be disruptive and “outrageous.”

Final Predictions

As the world opens up safely, there will likely be a surge of live music participation—people have missed squeezing into crowded theaters, watching performance art in galleries, and listening to operas in proscenium opera houses. But it’s undeniable, say musicians and executives in the business, that there’s been a permanent shift. As the country settles into the “new normal,” it’s likely that streaming options will continue to broadened audiences. Over the past year, performers and the industry at large have been exposed to the possibility of new revenue streams, analytics on their fans and unique artistic collaborations.

This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.