April 16, 2020

Act local, think global – What will the future of music culture look like?

By Katharina Sowa

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Music is the glue that holds everything together. It’s here to keep us sane in times like these. But what will the future of music culture look like? I talked with John Robb, journalist, musician and track lead of Arts & Creativity at The Global Hack, and Helen Sildna, founder of Tallinn Music Week and Shiftworks, and also mentor at The Global Hack, to hear their ideas and thoughts about it.

The music industry is in shock, but it’s always been a scene of creative people, and creative people find creative answers to problems.

We all have been moved into our houses and onto our laptops, working digitally from our living rooms. But we don’t have to just sit there and wait for it to be over. The world right now seems to be broken, our lives seem to be on hold. But this shouldn’t stop us from creating. On the contrary, now is the time to pick up speed and be creative to prepare ourselves for a world after the crisis.

That’s why I talked with two inspiring humans from the music community, John Robb from the UK and Helen Sildna from Estonia, to hear their thoughts about what the future of music culture could potentially look like.

John Robb is a journalist, musician and frontman of The Membranes, and Goldblade. He also runs Louder Than War, a website and magazine about music and culture, and is the author of several books on music. At The Global Hack, he was the leader of the Arts & Creativity track as well as a mentor.

Helen Sildna is the founder of Tallinn Music Week, a renowned international music and city culture festival, and also founder of Shiftworks, a company that specialises in event production, music-based and artistic content promotion and creative projects on the international, national and regional levels.

Act local, think global

Music is a world that you can get lost in when you feel the burden of the world weighing too heavy on your shoulders. The new task for creative people now is to entertain and create some form of escape from the relentless stress and dark times we are in.

“We’re all part of a massive community and that’s how we have to think now,” says John. “At The Global Hack, I was amazed by the diversity and scale of it. Lots of people are creating with not very much. This is a lesson for the future. I think it may be a tough few years, but we will have to create despite the difficulties. Also it’s worldwide, therefore we have to think local and act international. The virus may push us apart, but we can’t let it do that. We can still use technology to keep the lines of communication open. We have to reset the way we do things.”

We’re still writing music, we’re still creating

“We’re writing music in completely different ways, but we’re still writing music,” John continues.

Technology will play a massive role in it. “We have had to jump ten years into the future in ten days. The days of flying to meetings are over and that needed to happen with the damage to the environment. It’s time to make the changes. If we get the chance to recalibrate the planet and we can get past the virus, let's sort this out. Digital is key to this. And the lockdown is teaching us how to do this.”

“I’d personally look forward to more innovation not only in digital tools, but in entire formats,” says Helen. “The world is full of spectacular sites and venues, I’d love to see a boom of creativity from artists, producers and productions. There are some hugely talented people also in the production side of the music and performing arts industry. I think a time well spent for all music and culture organisations now is time spent on the future. Time to shape up our digitalisation strategies. Both in marketing, but also services and monetisation tools. I think that our events sector hasn’t fully embraced the digital opportunities yet, but it's quite amazing to see the type of innovation already – online stores, digital gallery tours, musicians and producers making digitally music together, orchestras playing live, each from their homes. These are fascinating things. It's still the early days though, let's see where we are in two months' time.”

The current situation puts artists, venues, and festivals into a challenging position. Gigs and festivals have been cancelled or postponed. Artists do live streams from their living rooms. Many of them do it for free to bring people joy while being quarantined. Some sell e-tickets for which the buyer can donate a self-chosen amount. Festivals sell supporter passes or vouchers for future gigs, record shops try to set up e-commerce shops.

How can we better secure and assist artists, venues, record shops, or festival organisers for crises like this, and how could all of us play our part in it?

“It is very important that we as customers understand that music and arts do not have to be for free,” Helen emphasises. “We have already seen positive signs of people voluntarily donating for live streams or home concerts, and deliberately making orders from their favourite brands, cafes or book shops. This is the reality. Nothing should be taken for granted, we should be prepared to invest into things we cherish and hope to be there in the future.”

Each of us can support them. It won’t only be up to the artists themselves, but to us all if they can continue doing their precious art and work.

Helen reminds us that “lots of artists, music venues and festivals will be struggling in the next months” and invites everyone to support “when they organise fundraising campaigns or launch new products or if they postpone events. Let's not ask for ticket refunds, let's find a way to support. Also there is a lot that the music and culture sector together with the start-up sector can do to collaborate on innovative monetisation tools as well.”

“Music of course is important for joy, community, communication, culture and our own sense of identity, but right now we need to prioritise frontline workers first. Put me to the back of the queue”, says John. “We still have to create a space for creativity, of course. We have to be radical.”

For him it’s important that we “don’t rush back to creating dangerous virus spaces at packed gigs” before a vaccine comes, if it comes. Instead we should “create safe spaces for the joyous celebration of life that music is”.

“I would like to see music culture survive,” John says. “I would like the creative space to still be there despite the virus and despite the oncoming recession. It will change. Good to see the big mass doing gigs for the frontline workers. Maybe we can get rid of celebrity culture and celebrate everybody in our society?

I think a lot more music will be made online. I’m currently working on eight different projects – fully online. It’s a different way of writing, and I’m enjoying it. Of course, there will still be bands, but creativity will be very different.”

Venues will have to change, too. Next to the usual live gigs, we could add live streams for those who can’t get into the festival because they are not immune to the virus.

At The Global Hack, teams also searched for such solutions. The winner of the Arts & Creativity track, Isonation, could be a good example.Isonatonis a digital venue that brings fans and artists together. Right now, music artists are facing unprecedented issues and loss of income due to the ongoing crisis. Though the total usage of internet-streaming services has surged by between 50% and 70%, most of the popular platforms are still hard to monetize as they do not offer pay-per-view options and their links are easily shareable. That’s when isonation comes into play. They offer a pay-per-view structure that guarantees a stable income for the artists. Due to the online environment, the estimated ticket price may even be 70% lower on average compared to offline events and thus more affordable for the audience.

“It would be really short-minded not to think about the post-crisis plans for our product. Once we are back to normal lives, it can be used to stream real concerts for those who can not make it to the physical venue,” says founder Tim Vaino. “The prototype is done now, and we are surely continuing the development. Our aim is not only to beat the crisis, but perhaps become a good addition to the music industry once the COVID-19 crisis is over.”

“We all need to gear towards more hybrid solutions between digital and analog presence,” says Helen. “I think there will be less travelling, which means less touring. But the hope is that when the quantity is limited, the quality of these rare, special occasions will get more attention. I am sure artists, festivals and the music community will find solutions for the new era of virtual reality and digital presence. As humans, we desire spending time with each other, these desires are deep and have developed through thousands of years. I hope that the era of standardised events and festivals will be replaced with unique events and carefully curated boutique experiences. We travel less but when we do, we want to experience something very, very special.”

Tallinn Music Week can be a great role model for this. It’s an incredible international music festival that brings the new buzz of tomorrow’s music to Estonia’s capital, Tallinn. It gifts its visitors a unique and quality music experience for the entire soul. It leaves you amazed, astonished, distorted, hyped and ecstatic, all at the same time. You experience music you’ve never listened to before, see live gigs of bands whose name you’ve never heard before, and you connect with creative people you never thought you could connect with. It does social change and puts music in the context of the world. It leaves a lasting impression on its visitors and therefore is a showcase for a quality experience of music, a festival that will hopefully live on for a long time in the future.

Old school is over, new school is on

Even though times are difficult and the future is uncertain, it is important not to lose our hope and optimism. This situation that we are all facing right now also brings a lot of opportunities to create a better future. It’s an opportunity to question if this is the world we want.

Valuing the humanity between us but also considering the environmental footprints that we leave on our planet play an important role in shaping the world of tomorrow.

For John, the current crisis shows that “we have learned to value each other more.” It’s a wake-up call for all of us. It may also be a realisation that we need new forms, be it lifestyle or politics, because the current ones aren’t fit for the purpose anymore. We need to care about each other. “We have learned that the alpha males talking about war and not listening are seriously out of their depth. We are moving towards a time of empathy and connectedness. We have learned that we have to care about a tiny village in Africa because they could accidentally spark the next pandemic with their hands forced by poverty. We have learned that we are not above or separate from nature. We have learned that we need to tune into the planet. We don’t need to fly everywhere, we don’t need to eat meat, we don’t need to take more than what we need. It’s no longer hippie talk, it’s a reality.”

Helen believes that empathy will help us go through this crisis, and hopes that it will help us to differentiate between what is important and what is not. “This situation tends to bring the best and the worst out of people, the true worth will emerge. It's the time to really think, recalibrate and analyse, also to think of the environmental impact, truly consider the value we bring. I hope it's time for collaboration. Across sectors, disciplines, value systems, nationalities. We are all in this situation together, so empathy will help us through. We need the whole ecosystem to survive. It's evident now how dependent on each other we are. I hope we act local but think global. There is so much value in the networks and knowledge sharing. We shouldn’t give up on it but make it stronger, even if we travel less. We’re all Zoom meeting experts now. The true value of music and arts will re-emerge, and I hope we refine all that is important and leave behind what is not.”

A world without music would be a mistake

I am confident that music culture will survive. It will survive because it gives people hope in times of despair. Music is an expression of all human senses, and something we are all touched by. It carries us off into a wonderland of imagination, even when the world seems to have fallen apart. Music gifts us escapism. It allows us to retreat into a safe space where we can unload the stress of the world and get some rest from our worries and fears. It allows us to heal. It empowers us to stay strong and move on.

The creative scene and music culture may currently struggle. But it will survive. It may be different from how we know it. But in every change there is also a chance. And who knows, maybe the new future is even better than the old past?

A world without music would be a mistake. All of us can help the music culture to survive. Let us support them, because we want them to still be there when all this madness is over. We all can play our part in it.

Like Plato once said: “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”

Let’s keep the music playing!