Zoom Meetings, Hangouts, Cameo & More: The New Guest Appearance

Morgan Wallen The Drop In: Episode 1
Courtesy Photo

Morgan Wallen on The Drop In: Episode 1

New services like Topeka are helping fans connect in real time with an artist over Zoom.

When live music touring suddenly ground to a halt in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, country singer Randy Rogers didn't take long to realize he needed to think of new ways to generate income -- and fast. A family friend came up with a novel suggestion: Her company's Zoom meetings were dull. Would he consider doing a paid virtual performance to liven them up?

"She was telling me about these Zoom meetings of 150 employees staring at the computer, you know? And it'd be boring," says Rogers, adding he was shocked to learn that these drop-ins sometimes paid as much as full-blown performances. "I literally just tell a few stories, play a few songs and lighten the mood."

Musicians like Rogers aren't just dropping into Zoom video conference calls to make up for lost concert revenue. They're signing up to send personalized messages in record numbers on apps like Cameo and Patreon and hosting virtual "meet and greets" on Zoom through a new service called Topeka. Many artists who were initially reluctant to sign up for paid virtual fan shout outs and performances have changed their outlooks since finding themselves stuck at home looking for new revenue streams during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The appetite for face-to-face artist interactions during the shutdown has spurred the growth of this virtual guest-appearance marketplace. Cameo CEO and co-founder Steven Galanis says bookings on his site have increased 400% with weekly bookings increasing from 5,000 at the start of the year to 68,000 in the third week in May. Patreon says more than 70,000 new creators have launched on its platform since mid-March, with a 150% increase in the number of musicians, according to a company spokesman. Topeka says it has tripled the number of artists participating over the past eight weeks and hosted more hang sessions in the last month than from December to March combined.

Musicians who previously shied away from direct fan paid engagements are lining up to participate and even welcoming a new opportunity to connect with their fan base.

Galanis says Akon, who turned down a request to join Cameo last year, slid into the CEO's direct messages in March saying he missed his fans and was ready to sign up. He's now charging $444 for a personalized video shout out.

"This is something we're hearing repeatedly: A lot of talent who previously felt they didn't have time for Cameo, because they were busy touring, are adding this as an essential part of their fan engagement and brand strategy," Galanis says.

Rapper Redman -- who charges $150 for his videos -- has even begun referring to Cameo as his "business plan."

"Honestly, I was getting a lot of booking requests before COVID, [but] since COVID started it seems like more people are engaged because of quarantines," Redman says. "The money from Cameo definitely elevated some of the bulk I usually make around this time of the year, especially around 4/20 in April."

The niche market has also fostered new services like Topeka, which helps fans connect in real time with an artist over Zoom calls. Andy Levine, who previously created Sixthman, the company that pioneered immersive themed entertainment rock cruises hosted by groups from Bon Jovi to Slipknot, says he launched Topeka in December to offer a quiet space for fan-to-artist conversations after watching years of concert goers desperately screaming questions at musicians on stage.

Levine, who has since sold Sixthman to Norwegian Cruise Line but stayed on as chairman, says with the cruises and festival on hold, Topeka created online channels for those events to show past performances and offer fans personal hang sessions with their favorite bands. He says they are now booking upwards of 33 artist-hosted "Hang Sessions" a day, ranging from $150 for a 15 minute conversation to $2,000 for a six-song mini concert, with a portion of all proceeds going to Circles Morningside.

Requests from fans for artists on the platform like Emily Sailers of the Indigo Girls, Matte Scannell of Vertical Horizon, Americana artist Stephen Kellogg and bluegrass singer-songwriter Molly Tuttle have ranged from hosting company bingo events to giving individual guitar lessons to intimate musical performances and more. Levine says each virtual gig is overseen by a moderator that guides the session and, if needed, irons out any awkward moments.

"A lot of Emily's people just want a 15-minute conversation where they can just talk about religion, parenting or tattoos, and it's amazing to see them actually having a real conversation," says Levine. "Emily will get off and say, 'I could have talked to that woman for an hour, she was so interesting.'"

The extra work also has its reward. Since the shelter-in-place orders, some artists are finding they might be on track to make upwards of seven figures from the side gigs, says Galanis. "There's a lot of customer demand and fans are still looking for ways to connect with their favorite artists in a world where every concert, tour and meet-and-greet is suddenly canceled overnight."

Topeka says one of the artists on its platform made $20,000 in their first month. Invictus Entertainment Group manager Jim Cressman says bookings for his artists, like country singers Brett Kissel and George Canyon, to join corporate Zoom calls, Google hangouts and other visual teleconferences can pay between $5,000 to $15,000 for a 30- to 45-minute session.

"It is literally, set up your phone and let's go," he says. "The idea behind it was to generate some revenue for our clients, but we also understand a lot of corporations out there are struggling with maintaining morale while they're having people work from home. There's a lot of uncertainty and this just gives them an opportunity to give their employees something to look forward to on their teleconference calls."

Streaming giant Spotify has enlisted artists such as Swizz Beatz to hop on the music team's Zoom calls to explain the motivation behind the 'hit for hit' Verzuz Instagram battles he launched with Timbaland, but has also have included motivational talks from non-musicians such as Monica Aldama from Netflix's show Cheer and entrepreneur chef Ellen Bennet from Hedley & Bennett.

"We're trying to get people both for music, but outside of music to provide an hour with the team where we don't really talk about work and we just can gather," says Spotify vp and co-head of music Marian Dicus. "It's just fun things to take your mind off of things."

These virtual hang sessions have become so popular that it spurred Spotify to create an ongoing social series called The Drop-In based on the premise of artists surprising their No. 1 fans by dropping in on their virtual gatherings. In the pilot episode, country singer-songwriter Morgan Wallen crashed a trio of Knoxville fans' Zoom call, much to their disbelief.

Money isn't the sole reason musicians are participating in these virtual guest appearances. Understanding people are working with strained budgets, plenty of artists are lowering their fees, volunteering their services or choosing to use their talents to raise money for charity. Singer-songwriter Joshua Radin was so moved when he learned that an ER nurse who had to reorganize her May 16 wedding plans reached out to Topeka to book him to perform his song "You Got What I Need" as their first dance song that he told them he wanted to do it for free. After seeing Busy Phillips blasting out personalized messages on Cameo to benefit the No Kid Hungry program, Galanis says Mandy Moore signed up last month to do the same. In April, Cameo saw a 16% increase of talent who joined for charity causes.

"There's a lot of pain out there," Galanis says, "And these artists are trying to help."

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