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Class Acts: Grounded Touring Artists Turn to Virtual Lessons to Pay the Bills

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"A lot of artists are making a living wage, and more. But it's work," says Disco Biscuits bassist Marc Brownstein.

On March 13, the morning after Disco Biscuits abruptly canceled their first national tour in six years, bassist Marc Brownstein woke up with no idea what to do next. So he posted on Twitter: "If anyone wants remote bass lessons -- I've thought about giving them for some time but now seems like as good a time as any." Fifty-five fans responded that night. One asked how many lessons it would take to learn the Biscuits' sprawling jam "Shem-rah Boo."

"Probably in two months," Brownstein said.

Within a week, Brownstein and Alicia Karlin, AEG’s vp global touring and talent, launched Live Lesson Masters, a virtual school starring Brownstein and fellow marooned musicians, from pedal-steel hero Robert Randolph to members of The Avett Brothers, Umphrey's McGee and the Biscuits. The platform hosted 200 lessons in its first week, then 2,500 in April -- and more than 10,000 to date -- for roughly $150 per 50 minutes, giving 80% of the revenue to the teachers. Brownstein taught 20 to 22 hours per week, at first, which meant he drew about $2,400 per week on lessons alone.

"A lot of artists are making a living wage, and more, for sure," Brownstein says. "But it's work. You have to put the work in on the marketing side, just the same as if you're going out on tour."

The pandemic has cut off the $5.5 billion worldwide touring industry, stranding artists big and small who rely on pieces of that revenue. Many, ranging from rock stars to indie unknowns, are able to make up some of the deficiency through virtual lessons. Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp pivoted from planned live events with the Scorpions and Cheap Trick throughout the summer to real-time online fall master classes starring Steve Howe of Yes, Nels Cline of Wilco, Kathy Valentine of the Go-Go's, Suzi Quatro and Ted Nugent. Dobro master Jerry Douglas is giving acoustic guitar lessons via Modern Music Masters; veteran Chicago blueswoman Joanna Connor worked with local club Rosa's Lounge to set up lessons; and bassist Steve Whipple, who has performed with Lady Gaga and others, teaches lessons on Music Maestro.

Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp allows artists to name their price, from $50 (for YouTube metal-guitar star Eric Calderone) to $300 (for Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach), and splits the revenue equally with the teachers. So far, the camp has capped classes at 20 to 25 students, but the camp announced Tuesday it would partner with Los Angeles rock station KLOS to expand its marketing campaign, add upcoming classes from Alice Cooper, The Who’s Roger Daltrey and others and, according to founder and creator David Fishof, boost attendance significantly. "So the artists can make a lot of money," he says. "[Students] are coming from all around the world. They're staying up all night in Malaysia and China and Japan. They're showing up with guitars."

Given the stay-at-home audience, demand for virtual lessons is unprecedented. Fender Play, the guitar giant's instructional app, increased users from 150,000 in March to 930,000 in June, in part due to a free 90-day promotion -- drawing an influx of younger and female students, who have historically not been part of Fender's target demographic. "Even if only 10% of them stick with it for life, that's a big one-time lift to the industry," says Andy Mooney, the company's CEO.

The combination of musicians stuck at home and the online format gives Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp more flexibility and a looser feel than its standard live events. Fishof was able to coax veteran manager Shep Gordon into three sold-out classes and schedule prolific drumming sideman Steve Gadd ("he's always touring and always busy," Fishof says) for Oct. 23.

On a recent Zoom, Yes’ Howe showed off some of his favorite licks, by Big Bill Broonzy, Wes Montgomery and others, and advised a student who “tends to tense up” while ripping through a solo in his band. Howe said: “You can let a bar or two go by. Everyone will wonder, ‘What’s going on here?’ And then you can kind of find your feet. Start medium-low.” A question to Wilco’s Cline about how he builds up speed and accuracy led to a lengthy rumination about the strength of his middle finger compared to his ring finger and his childhood fondness for Peter Frampton, Duane Allman, Ravi Shankar and Howe himself. “I saw that they had their hand in this kind of a position and I just forced myself,” he said.

For major artists who've lost tour dates worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in guaranteed payments, the revenue from online classes is minimal. "If you're used to making $5 million a year on live performance, it doesn't really move the needle," says Tim Jorstad, accountant for Journey, The Doobie Brothers, Carlos Santana and others. But whether they need the revenue or not, many artists see the classes as a crucial way of connecting with fans while stuck at home. "Is this going to help me pay my bills? I don't think so," says Valentine, whose Fantasy Camp class is Oct. 17. "I don't think I'm a good teacher. I learned how to play bass in four days. But I want everyone to feel like they've been heard and seen and I want everyone to ask a question. I'm not going to meander around. I have a lot to offer and I'm excited to do it."

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