Can Two Wooden Speakers and a Subscription Change Live Music?

Can Two Wooden Speakers and a Subscription Change Live Music?

What does Elton John know that everyone else doesn’t? That’s the question I asked myself, with a touch of facetiousness, when the legendary singer-songwriter decided to postpone his farewell tour to 2022 due to—who the fuck am I kidding, you know what it’s due to. When I broke the news to Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold while interviewing him for GQ a few weeks ago, he was shocked, on a level. But there was also a level of understanding in his voice that signified a specific and real assumption: live music isn’t really happening any time soon.

Why can we take Elton’s word more seriously than, say, Live Nation honcho Michael Rapino (who, as I mentioned in a previous newsletter, made the audacious claim earlier this year that live events would be fully functioning again by summer of 2021)? It’s less of a metric for measurement and more of the unscientific way we can make assumptions about things these days. Of course Rapino has an impulse to claim that live events are coming back soon; he’s in charge of a massive company currently making basically no money at all, and the death of the live industry as it stands now means that he’s going to have to figure out how to live off of only so many millions of dollars after the company he’s in charge of goes fully broke.

But we can trust Elton’s instincts to guide the presumed future of live music—specifically, the timeline for when things can quite possibly return to the way they once were, even though we all know they won’t really for a very long time—the same way we can use tech companies’ guidance on work-from-home protocol when it comes to white-collar jobs in other sectors. (I use the term “white-collar” because, in this country and the world over, the “essential workers” we all clapped for over the course of a few months before getting bored and baking sourdough bread or something will continue to be thrown in a ditch and left for dead when it comes to how society protects them from exposure to COVID-19. Capitalism, babey!)

So it’s only reasonable that we all get nice and comfortable with the fact that no one’s attending concerts “the way we used to” any time soon. Nonetheless, the festival industry continues to give off a sense of total delusion regarding the future and its place in it. Yesterday, Coachella announced a third postponement of their 2020 festival, now scheduled for October 2021; the first delay had it being staged this month, if you want to have a rueful laugh about how optimistic we once were regarding this whole thing. Bonnaroo officially cancelled their 2020 edition and initially was planning to stage 2021 as if nothing happened; at the end of September, they changed their mind and pushed it back to the first weekend of September of that year.

The original dates for Bonnaroo 2021 have changed. Bonnaroo will now take place on Sept. 2-5, 2021. Stay tuned for info on lineup, camping + more. We encourage you to rollover your tickets to the new dates, but refunds will be available for those who cannot attend. 29, 2020

At this point in the pandemic, the festival industry is like a hapless friend who continues to insist they’re about to finally figure things out. “Why don’t you believe me?” their actions continue to scream, while everyone else continues to ask each other behind their back, “Why should we?”

But the pathetic desperation of continuing to assume that the United States—a country that is, at this point, undoubtedly one of the worst to be a citizen of in the entire world due to how disastrously we’ve handled the pandemic, not to mention everything else—will somehow have all of this under control to stage a potentially super-super-spreading event with Travis Scott as its headliner is wish fulfillment by way of self-preservation. If you were in denial at some point in the last seven months, well, so are they.

At the risk of being pessimistic (lol), festivals as we know it are likely over, if not forever than at least for the majority of the 2020s. For those cheering due to their disdain for the admittedly noxious stink of festival culture as well as the ultra-corporatization of everything, that’s fine—but know that a lot of jobs are going to be lost, as well as the fact that festival gigs have been one of the only ways for many artists to make enough money to justify doing what they do. (Recall my interview with Joe Casey from Protomartyr, who admitted straight-up that without the return of touring, the band might not even be able to continue on at all. They assuredly will not be the only band that faces down that possibility.)

I'm so excited to finally show you this -- something we've been working on for a year now. The Experience of listening to a live music performance on ODA is nothing short of transcendental. You've got to hear it for yourself.

Feed your soul: 6, 2020

This crisis of potential disappearance isn’t limited to festivals, of course. Smaller and more beloved venues continue to close, and since the government clearly isn’t interested in bailing out anyone who doesn’t work for the airlines any time soon, we’re going to see a lot more venues big and small disappear completely unless they’re stadium-sized and malleable enough to function as climate shelters for when the sea levels really start to act up.

But there are and will continue to be attempts to stage live events in some form regardless: back in August I jotted down some thoughts on how the UK opened up a venue specifically designed for social distancing—but that venue recently closed indefinitely due to COVID-19 spikes, which just goes to show how truly precarious handling pandemic management continues to be. In that newsletter I also mentioned that, due to the economics of smaller crowds and subsequent ticket price inflation, the only acts that would be able to stage such shows going forward would be legacy rock and indie acts with fans old enough to still have disposable income amidst a global financial meltdown.

Fortune often favors the rich, and that’s where Oda comes in. “Your Home Becomes the Venue,” the company’s website proclaims in the midst of advertising its product—specifically, two square-shaped wooden speakers acoustically designed to mimic live performance, accompanied by “seasons” of live performers essentially streaming music straight into your living space through these speakers.

Oda’s concept and lineup is something akin to an urban-set conservatory’s programming, with an ear attuned to the complex and hip: avant-leaning artists like Beverly Glenn-Copeland, Angel Bat Dawid, and Terry Riley have been given regular residencies to do their thing within, and the first season of programming includes performances from forward-thinking musicians ranging from Arca, Beatrice Dillon, and Madlib to the Microphones, Standing on the Corner, and Bradford Cox.

It’s impossible to talk about this thing without discussing the price of it all. Right now, the speaker setup will set you back a cool $299 ($399 if you don’t move fast enough and get lumped in with the third production batch). After you get your speakers, you’re charged $79/season, with four seasons occurring throughout the year. All told, you’re paying at least $615 without taxes for the first year of concert programming, which could either be steep or cheap depending on how many shows you used to go to, the price of those tickets, if you have a job right now, etc.

There are red flags from the jump here—specifically, the notion of turning live performances into something similar to the streaming industry, in which the artists responsible for the product that’s being sold get continually fucked out of profits that once existed in larger quantities. “We pay meaningful performance fees to give artists an opportunity to create something unique and stretch their creative limits,” the company’s website states, without saying what those fees specifically are. Maybe we’ll all be surprised in finding out several months from now that Phil Elverum is making top-dollar off of the occasional Oda concert, who knows. But it’s impossible not to be skeptical about such concerns otherwise. This is essentially a tech endeavor, and we all know how much the tech industry actually values labor.

Oda also feels uniquely dystopian to me, its existence suggesting that two speakers and a regular subscription can replace what is essentially the holistic experience of witnessing live music. (It’s a lot like Peloton in that way—bring the spin class to your home!—but with the social pressures that are attendant with exercising around others, I’d actually argue that the otherwise price-gouging scam that is Peloton can be something of a personal good for a certain sect of people while also seeming kind of stupid.) Now, as the previously embedded Tweet from Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian Sr. suggests, Oda was in the works long before the pandemic struck, which suggests that the service’s initial function was a luxury-class way to experience “complicated” music without all the complications of, y’know, going out.

And I’m sure there are plenty of rich hipsters who are going to love the shit out of Oda, flipping on some Terry Riley while prepping their latest Blue Apron meal or uncorking a fine bottle of natural wine before tuning in to a Jessica Pratt concert. But as live music as we knew it increasingly seems like a shadow of a ghost, Oda has the potential to become one of the only ways to experience the form in any way. It’s a thought as depressing as outdoor dining or making kids wear masks at Chuck E. Cheese because we can’t stand the thought of depriving them the chance of eating terrible pizza and playing Skee-Ball in hopes of winning an inflatable shark.

Again, I hope artists are able to make a significant amount of money off of this as well as subsequent programs that will emerge in its wake. It’s important for artists to make money, and that’s what keeps them in the business of making art—this is all undeniable. But I can’t stop from continuing to worry that live music, and art in general, will continue the trajectory of becoming something accessible primarily to people of economic privilege (a problem before the pandemic that’s only increased since). It bums me out, and I don’t know what else there really is for me to say beyond that.

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Jamie Larson