How the normalization of remote work could transform the music business

The COVID-19 outbreak has upended the music business in so many ways — from wiping out hundreds of millions of dollars in touring and festival revenue, to forcing nearly every music company and professional to reevaluate their own branding strategy (and, in many cases, their entire career foundation) for the next several months as their target audiences are now stuck at home.

There’s one transformation that remains as yet under-discussed in music circles, but I think could have significant longer-term effects on the way the industry operates: The normalization of remote work.

Depending on whom you ask, music is either one of the most or least tolerant industries to remote and distributed work — i.e. a setup in which team members are not in the same physical location while working on a given project.

On the one hand, the sprawling ecosystem of online collaboration tools — like Splice, SoundBetter, BeatStars, Soundtrap and SoundStorming on the artist side, and like Slack, Zoom and Airtable on the behind-the-scenes organizational side — hypothetically breaks down geographic barriers to productivity, enabling any music project to germinate and flourish completely in the cloud.

On the other hand, one surefire sign that the music industry is still not remote-friendly is that career opportunities remain highly concentrated in major “music cities” (e.g. New York, Los Angeles, Nashville and Atlanta in the U.S.), even though talent is not. In addition, music-industry culture relies heavily on non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) — in part for the purpose of protecting intellectual property — and many people’s day-to-day work at major music companies involves sensitive data that ideally doesn’t leave an office setting (this is also true in the financial and insurance sectors).

Nowadays, though, music companies of all sizes have no choice but to embrace a remote way of life. Around March 10, streaming services like Spotify and SoundCloud were some of the first major music companies to order their staff to start working remotely; major labels and publishers soon followed suit.

Importantly, several music companies around the world already had remote-friendly work policies built in from the beginning, including larger distributors and aggregators like Bandcamp and DistroKid as well as dozens of boutique artist-management, digital-marketing and PR firms. (As a freelance/independent music-industry writer, I’ve also been working “remotely” for my whole professional life.)

I talked to a handful of music professionals who have already been working remotely for years, to get a better understanding of how this paradigm could help uplift certain sectors of the music industry, while also challenging deep-held norms around how the business works as a whole — largely for the better.

The music companies best-suited to adapt

If you’ve been following the trade press, you probably know plenty already about which music sectors are struggling the most to adapt amidst coronavirus-related business shutdowns.

A non-exhaustive list of examples: Major festivals from SXSW to Glastonbury have called it quits, and the two biggest concert promoters (Live Nation and AEG) have put their tours on hold at least until the end of the month. Paradigm Talent Agency is laying off around 100 of their 600 total employees. Many freelance workers behind the scenes (tour managers, front-of-house directors, lighting designers, bus drivers, photographers, etc.) are left without the proper protections, let alone compensation. As physical supply chains around the world grind to a halt, manufacturers of consumer electronics, music merchandise and music formats like vinyl records and CDs have also been hit hard. Even aggregate audio-streaming is down, per multiple reports — perhaps challenging a common claim from investors that the value of recorded music is “cycle-agnostic” and isn’t impacted by economic downturns.

But there isn’t as much conversation right now about the kinds of music companies that are better suited to adapt to the current global situation. While many performing artists and their teams are suffering emotionally and financially, the silver lining is that there’s more demand across the board for expertise around online entertainment, communication and social mobilization — all fields in which the music industry excels.

Before diving into the pros and cons of remote work, I want to highlight some of these sectors of music that should be growing, rather than shrinking, as the industry adjusts to consumption habits going truly 100% digital.

Digital marketing and PR. Now more than ever, it’s crucial for artists and their teams to have a grip on two pieces of information: 1) who their audience is online, and 2) how best to reach and build relationships with them. In this vein, I’ve heard that digital marketing and PR companies in the music industry are getting more inbound requests from potential clients who need help developing strategies for high-quality, high-frequency branding and communication, in an online landscape that is probably much more crowded than it used to be.

Music supervision, sync licensing and general licensing experts. Speaking of which: For each piece of content that’s flooding the Internet today — Instagram and Twitch livestreams, podcasts, TikTok memes and so on — there’s an opportunity to make music part of a deeper, more immersive visual experience, and to deliver that musical experience to audiences who are more engaged online than usual. This is especially the case for longer-form formats such as film, TV and gaming, all of which have seen heightened activity in recent weeks. Such areas will require expertise in music supervision and sync licensing, especially if artists and rights holders want to earn revenue from this content instead of treating it as a marketing crutch.

Livestreaming and virtual event design. As I’ve been covering extensively, hundreds of artists and event organizers are turning to livestreaming concerts, DJ sets and meet-and-greet-style chats on Twitch, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, as a substitute for cancelled or postponed shows. While it’s true that not every brick-and-mortar event professional behind the scenes can make up for their losses through livestreaming (nor should they feel pressured to), there may also be an opportunity for experts in event production and design to transfer their skills to a digital setting, as viewers in quarantine seek experiences that are more fully immersive and visually interesting beyond just artists performing from their couches or kitchens.

Online membership and direct-to-fan marketing. No matter how business-savvy artists and their managers are, likely few of them incorporated the entire shutdown of the concert industry into their business projections. The result, at least for now, is a wider reckoning with the unsustainability of digital-music economics for a lot of artists, given the norm of treating album campaigns as loss-leaders for tours. Such a reckoning has also increased interest in online paid membership programs like Patreon, Memberful and Currents, as well as in direct-to-fan marketing and communication channels like Community. Facebook recently established a program to connect developers with the U.N. and other governmental health organizations to deliver resources through Messenger-based apps and bots, a move that could potentially help further normalize automated messaging platforms.

The challenges (and blessings) of remote work for music

There are three main challenges I foresee music-industry professionals facing in the short term due to remote work: Blurry boundaries between work and life, lack of networking and relationship-building opportunities and slowdown of marketing momentum. That said, as I’ll discuss below, all of these downsides are also blessings in disguise.

1. Work-life balance

The downside: It’s nothing new that work-life balance remains an ongoing challenge in the music business, and one that could potentially be exacerbated in a work-from-home setting. “Figuring out your own boundaries early on is important,” Daniel Harmann, director of catalog acquisition at DistroKid, tells me. “Otherwise you could get a work email at one in the morning and feel like there are repercussions for not answering right away.”

The upside: Working remotely could make many music-industry workers’ schedules more flexible — enabling them to attend to both familial/personal matters, as well as side interests or passions beyond their jobs such as online education or creative pursuits.

Remote work policies are also much friendlier to those with disabilities, chronic illnesses and mental health issues — who may be more than talented enough for a given job, but may not otherwise have access to certain opportunities due to lack of the proper accommodations in  a company's day-to-day operations. In general, as more companies take previously uncommon steps in favor of their employees' wellbeing, including guaranteeing paid sick leave as well as allowing people to work from home more often, it seems anachronistic to return to how things used to be once this is all over.

2. Networking

The downside: As major music-industry events like SXSW and Music Biz get cancelled or postponed, we don't just lose several days’ worth of great programming in the short term; we also lose valuable opportunities to network and build relationships with new collaborators, business partners and friends in a focused, fast-faced and high-density environment.

“Some of the best connections I’ve made in the industry came from social scenarios at conferences — and I’m not talking about the panels; I’m talking about the meals and after-panel drinks, the late-night shows and early-morning breakfasts,” Sammy Andrews, founder and CEO of digital-marketing agency Deviate Digital, tells me. “Those things for me are what makes conferences so important to our industry, the ability to connect in person with people and potential partners you may not have otherwise.” (Case in point: I met Andrews at the inaugural Fast Forward conference in Amsterdam in 2017.)

There are also some limitations to networking and relationship-building with colleagues in (and out of) the office remotely versus face-to-face, in terms of picking up on emotional and political nuances (which may be disproportionately important for music). This is particularly the case for people who've just started new jobs, and need to work harder to cultivate trust with their new teams from afar.

The upside: Many music companies are stepping in to provide online meetups, fireside chats and other virtual programming for the industry, most of which is available free of charge. For instance, Troy Carter (of Q&A) has curated a daily series of panels on Zoom featuring artist managers, label execs and other music-business insiders, from 4pm–5pm PT every weekday this week.

Behind the scenes, moving to remote work could also encourage a culture of over- rather than under-communication, which could have a net benefit in terms of operational transparency. “Remote leads to all of our decisions and conversations being documented,” Alec Steinfeld, founder of artist-management company InPlay Partners, which works with the likes of Anomalie and Rob Araujo, tells me. “Many times, I’ll have a client question why we made X decision, and if there's a conflict we can revert to the original decision in writing. We still do a lot of phone conversations, but referring to old messages can be a saver for accountability on both ends.”

As previously discussed, another silver lining around lack of dedicated spaces for networking is that the very nature of networking and relationship-building itself can change, as companies look beyond just concentrated “music cities” for access to talent.

Companies who were founded with remote setups tend to have this philosophy baked into their hiring practices from the beginning. “We want to hire people who are the best in their field and who can be in the best place at the right time to do the most efficient work,” Steve Dalton, director at Olex Communications, a U.K.-based PR firm working with clients including Shure, Bluesound and Singa, tells me. “We’re not thinking about often-glamorous elements like having an office space, or needing people to be in the same place and work face-to-face at a certain time every day. We just want to do the best work for our clients.”

3. Marketing momentum

The downside: Back in 2017, I sat in on a music-supervision panel at a conference, and at one point a speaker gave the following advice to artists who wanted to attract supervisors’ attention: “Everyone wants to get on a moving bus.”

I’ve thought back to that phrasing quite a bit since then, and especially in the current climate. So much of sales, marketing, networking and relationship-building in the music business relies on a sense of momentum, on the perception that you are the moving bus. Oftentimes, that momentum is built up and meticulously planned over the course of weeks, months or even years, and internalized as truth to the point where no one is prepared to veer the bus if they see a brick wall on the horizon.

We can turn to the movie industry — which still runs heavily on brick-and-mortar theatrical releases, planned months or even years out — for a more extreme version of the struggles the music industry is facing around recapturing momentum. Several major titles, including Wonder Woman 1984 and In The Heights, have postponed their releases either by around a month or in some cases indefinitely.

“It’s very, very, very hard to turn a battleship around on a dime,” film producer Neal Moritz (behind the Fast & Furious franchise) told The Ringer, adding that “so much of our money is spent within the last few weeks in terms of marketing that it’s hard to make a quick change when so much of the media has been bought in advance, and it’s programmed, and you’re ready to go, and you have publicity set up, and you’ve done junkets, and you’ve done premieres.”

Similarly, I’ve now heard several stories about artists who had gotten momentum around label meetings and in-person songwriting/production sessions for new projects, only to have all of those opportunities cut short due to social distancing procedures. This leaves said artists at a loss for what they should do next, and whether they should release more of their own content without solidifying those initial partnerships first.

The same goes for touring. As guitarist Emily Rosenfield told Billboard: “When you have something canceled this close to the tour dates, it really does affect you more because you block out that time for the work — a lot of us don’t have a Plan B at that point.”

The upside: Usually, while financially challenging, any disruption in perceived business momentum also leads to greater self-knowledge about what said business is all about and who its key audiences are — knowledge that can lead to smarter decisions in the future, independent of any given pandemic.

In the context of music, some artists and marketers have changed their album rollout plans based on what they’ve found to be most appropriate for their own audiences. Many are postponing their release dates, both because physical supply chains are delayed and because the project relates heavily to their tour, which is also postponed. But others are actually pushing their release dates earlier than previously planned, particularly if most of their fans are active primarily on streaming platforms instead of purchasing physical records — which could perhaps encourage faster release cycles moving forward.

I also hope to see artists and promoters incorporate digital or livestreamed content more deeply into their future tours as a core part of the fan experience, rather than just as a marketing vehicle to drive brick-and-mortar ticket sales. We’re seeing a similar pattern in the film industry, where coronavirus-related closures have pressured film studios to push many brick-and-mortar releases to streaming services more quickly than usual, instead of honoring the original, longer theatrical-only window (e.g. Frozen 2 is now on Disney+, and The Invisible Man is now on Amazon and iTunes).

Hardware, consumer-electronics and merch companies will also have to think particularly hard about how their online brands, not just their offline ones, can speak effectively to current and potential customers — including a better balance between experiential and digital marketing spend.

“From a PR and marketing perspective, some of what our clients want to do is based on what is normally done — like spending a lot of money on a booth or exhibition area at SXSW or Mobile World Congress,” Holly Ashmore, account director at OLEX Communications, tells me. “I think this moment could shake thinking up a bit and encourage more creativity and reflection, going back to the beginning: Is this the best way for us to spend our limited resources? Is this the right thing for us to be doing to reach our audience and achieve our objectives? That questioning and reevaluation could be a minor positive to come from all of this.”

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