As musicians around the world face the music of navigating a health crisis that has erased their livelihoods, some are already starting to find solutions. By now, you’ve surely noticed the growing wave of artists shifting to live streaming to replace lost income, from free feeds with virtual tip jars to pay-per-view webcasts to sponsored studio feeds. Others, however, are taking a more personal approach to earning in the age of COVID-19 by offering music lessons to fans and friends alike via video chat. The latter idea could be the one that keeps musicians consistently afloat in today’s times.
When concerts and festivals started rapidly canceling as a result of COVID-19, fans and musicians alike experienced a moment of panic. Musicians whose tours and shows were canceled faced the loss of consistent income while music fans threw their hands in the air in frustration over what to do with their newfound abundance of free time at home, their connections to their favorite artists momentarily severed. In response to both sides of this situation, more and more artists have begun offering lessons via video chat. Within just the past few weeks, entire bands have created their own teaching services, including Lettuce and Snarky Puppy. Other entrepreneurial-minded musicians have recruited dozens of fellow artists to form online music “school” environments.
Teaching music is a rite of passage for many musicians. Nobody becomes successful overnight—not even when you’re the best player in town—so talented musicians imparting their knowledge to new players as they make their own way is a tale as old as time. Back in the day before coronavirus (or even the internet), many musicians got by teaching students in local music stores or out of their homes. One such success story was Jerry Garcia, who used to teach acoustic guitar and banjo lessons at a Bay Area music store, where he made connections that eventually sprouted into the Grateful Dead. Plenty of other musicians lent their knowledge to others throughout their careers, including Joe Satriani and Sting, though the latter was actually teaching music at an elementary school in his native Newcastle, England, where he was still known as Gordon Summer.
Much like the current market of live streams and archival webcasts, more artists are announcing online lessons by the day. You may even find yourself torn about which of your favorite artists you want to teach you how to play. Thankfully, with all the varied approaches being offered right now, everyone can find an approach that’s right for them—and benefit to the live music community as a whole no matter which choice they make.
One musician who is by no means new to the instruction game is Dopapod‘s Rob Compa, who began teaching lessons nearly 15 years ago. “When I left college at the age of 20, I left because I got offered a job teaching guitar at a School of Rock in Boston,” Compa told Live For Live Music. “My dream from way back when I was a little kid was to be a full-time professional musician, and that was my chance to live in a city on my own while only playing music. I’ve always had the mindset of ‘if I can hold a guitar while I’m doing it, then I’m down.'”
Even after he found steady work touring with Dopapod and got to the point where he didn’t need to teach in order to survive, Compa kept at it. He was not only helping his students, after all, but helping himself.
“It also always reminds me why I started playing in the first place,” Compa said. “The older I get, the harder it is to find a new musical concept or skill or artist that really blows my mind or makes me think differently. It still happens, but the older we get, the longer the intervals between those moments become. By showing someone something and watching their lightbulb go off in their head, even over something as small as learning a new chord, I still get to have that feeling of excitement through them.”
Whereas Compa sides with the tried-and-true, independent, hired gun mentality, there are also collections of musicians joining together for a strength in numbers approach. This is something that is not specific to just the market for online music lessons. In 2014, MasterClass began teaching a variety of subjects from world-famous practitioners. You can learn about creativity and film from David Lynch, comedy from Steve Martin, cooking from Wolfgang Puck, tennis from Serena Williams, and even electric guitar from Tom Morello.
For a monthly rate of $15, students are given unfettered access to an ever-expanding collection of classes. With funding of over $136 million, MasterClass is able to pay instructors “about $100,000 up-front when they begin working with MasterClass” in addition to “30 percent of the revenue their classes generate,” sources told The Hollywood Reporter. With all of the current capabilities in streaming and digital concert experiences, it was high time for the live music industry to break into the $100 billion e-learning industry.
Obviously, there is an ocean of difference between MasterClass and the independent contracting of private music lessons. There’s a lot separating David Sedaris teaching storytelling and humor and Marc Brownstein from The Disco Biscuits teaching bass bombs and Twitter fan engagement. Most, if not all, of the people teaching on MasterClass are not relying on these dividends to pay for their next meal.
As if on cue, Brownstein recently announced the launch of a new service called Live Lesson Masters, which allows users to sign up for roughly hour-long lessons from a variety of musicians in the greater “jam band” scene. All four members of The Disco Biscuits are on it, in addition to members of Umphrey’s McGee, STS9, Lotus, Ghost Light, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Trey Anastasio Band, and many more. While this doesn’t exactly match up with the MasterClass configuration of a flat fee for unlimited access, it does follow the philosophy of getting all of these artists under one roof or, in this case, one domain.
For a nominal fee, fans choose their desired time and what instrument they want to work on, as some instructors, like Trey Anastasio Band’s James Casey, are fluent in a number of instruments. Also included as an option for some musicians is a “chill” session, where the musical and non-musical fans alike can just hang out with one of their favorite musicians for an hour. Live Lesson Masters co-founder Alicia Karlin of AEG Presents explained, “In a world where artists and fans are accustomed to using social media as the hub for their communities, Live Lesson Masters’ unique one-on-one offerings take the possibilities of connection much further.”
Brownstein is new to the virtual instruction game, and used his experience upon entering the business as a guide for building this new service. “We wanted to provide a seamless platform for musicians and instructors to interface directly with the people,” he explained along with the announcement of Live Lesson Masters. “With the industry grinding to a halt, musicians across the country are eager to find new ways to connect with their fans. I have personally booked over 20 lessons with my fans in the first week of the quarantine, and immediately realized how exciting this opportunity could be for both the fans and my fellow musicians.”
Other artists have embarked on full-band teaching initiatives to offer online lessons from individual members of their respective groups. One such band is Lettuce, who just launched their own Lettuce Teach program. Much like Live Lesson Masters, students simply fill out an online form selecting their desired musician and instrument to work with, time of day, and duration of the lesson. Before too long, you could find yourself on the other side of the screen from Adam Deitch as he teaches you about drums.
“It’s such a blessing to teach those who really want a deeper understanding of music, drums, funk, soul, hip hop, reggae, drum n bass, EDM, dubstep etc,” Deitch said. “I’m more excited than ever to share what I know from being a professional drummer and clinician for the past 20 something years!”
That feeling is mutual throughout the Lettuce organization, according to bassist Erick “Jesus” Coomes. “It’s so fun to teach lessons and connect with everyone,” added Coomes. “We’re just getting started. Thanks to everyone who already signed up… they’re only getting better!”
In many ways, the competition that exists now between these musicians all teaching courses for the same instrument is similar to the competition they engage in over the valuable time and money of John Q. Concertgoer. When you and a group of friends go out to a concert (and you will again, someday) it’s not that you’re supporting just that one band. Rather, you are supporting an entire industry of interconnected artists. Patronizing this one artist gives them added revenue to keep touring, get new equipment, and maybe even graduate to a higher caliber of venues. This creates a ripple effect where that band that always used to be the opening act gets to step up to a headliner and everyone moves up a rung.
Taking a class from TAB’s James Casey shows that Eric “Benny” Bloom of Lettuce can also make money teaching trumpet classes. It shows a demand in a market that, if properly supported, can blossom into an entire industry in its own right. As the entire live music business learns how to respond to this unique and ever-evolving crisis, this is an opportunity for the fans to learn, as well. We can learn how to support the artists we love in unprecedented situations. We can learn how to combat the next crisis that comes our way. And, most importantly, we can learn how to play an instrument.