Unable to Tour, Some Artists see a Vital Lifeline in Online Education

With touring on pause, artists are looking almost anywhere for income. As Harry Levin learns, for some, that means online education.

10 min
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Sept 30, 2020
Harry Levin

Since the death of the CD, musicians everywhere have gradually become ever more reliant on income from touring to pay the bills. With clubs and festivals around the world shuttered due to the coronavirus, artists are now scrambling for new income sources. Several have now turned to teaching, finding economic refuge and professional satisfaction in passing along the production skills they’ve honed over a lifetime.

Some artists, like Dutch dubstep veteran Martyn, have gone their own route, using platforms like Patreon to offer various levels of artist mentorship based on price tiers. However, others are joining more traditional classroom settings like those found at ICON Collective, Point Blank Music School, and IO Academy in Los Angeles.

IO has always employed professional artists, but since closing their in-person classes in March, IO began offering exclusive standalone courses from artists like UK deep house purveyor Kidnap, Washington D.C.’s own progressive house star Enamour, and Los Angeles-based melodic techno composer Rinzen — real name Michael Sundius — all via the video conferencing platform, Zoom.

Having studied traditional music production at ICON Collective, Sundius has always been an advocate for formal music education. However, since losing 90 percent of his income as a touring artist due to COVID, he’s discovered a much-needed income source.

“Personally, music education has been a financial lifeline for me during lockdown. I’ve found genuine joy in teaching, and it will likely be a part of my artistic life in some capacity for the foreseeable future. Particularly during lockdown, I’ve been blown away by the demand for music education.”

Sundius has taught two courses through IO since quarantine began. The first was a complete overview of producing house and techno, showing students exactly how he writes house and techno “from the ground up.” An important element of this course was balancing the technical and spiritual aspects of producing.

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“[Sundius]’s class was a lesson in believing in yourself and staying true to yourself as an artist,” says Tiffany Goodridge, a student of Sundius’. While anyone can be taught tricks in a DAW, Sundius believes every individual applies creativity in their own way.

“So much of our output and success is dependent upon our relationship with creativity,” Sundius says. “When we let our creativity flow, we are able to utilize our technical skills to their full potential.”

IO Music Academy launched virtual courses after COVID, and enrollment increased nearly tenfold, as prospective students in Australia, Canada, Thailand, and other countries continually reached out.

“What started as an attempt to remain profitable has now become an integral part of the business that we plan to grow for the foreseeable future,” says Nick Garcia, an instructor at IO.

By contrast, LA’s ICON and London’s Point Blank offered online courses before COVID, which have continued growing during lockdown. When physical instruction closed at ICON, they transferred their entire in-person program to Zoom, rebranding as “ICON Remote.” Students were able to keep their same teachers and schedules while attending from home, and all classes remained live. This differs from ICON’s Online program, which is primarily video-based.

“[Remote has] provided incubation for fantastic creativity,” says Chevy Bhorntus, Director of Education at ICON Collective. “There is more depth, focus, and drive within the underlying message of the music.”

Point Blank’s online programs are near duplicates of their physical programs, conducting live instruction in the virtual space rather than the physical space. This made for a far simpler transition when COVID hit, allowing management time to hire more touring artists.

“We have instructors who have come from tour to teaching and they’re incredibly passionate about it,” says Jay Ryall, Music School Manager of Point Blank Los Angeles. “It’s opened their eyes to new possibilities.”

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But young artists don’t necessarily need institutions like IO, ICON, or Point Blank to develop their talents, and many established artists are now hosting their own virtual lessons, often with one-on-one sessions.

“You can’t beat one-on-one,” says Megan Frey, a student of Blanke, real name John-Paul Orchision. “[Orchison] allows sessions to be open format. We touch on topics that are of interest to me, or that I need help with.”

Orchison, a bass producer from Canberra, Australia, hadn’t taught production traditionally prior to COVID. Just before the pandemic, he was traversing the globe with Black Tiger Sex Machine as a part of their Futuristic Thriller Tour until the entire tour fell victim to the worldwide ban on gatherings. Following that disappointing occurrence, Orchison almost immediately shifted his energy towards education though, and as a result, found joy in imparting his wisdom and skills to the next generation.

“I definitely get a kick out of teaching. It’s been nice to give back where I can, especially now that there is more time to do that,” says Orchison.

Orchison teaches over Zoom, but he is also taking advantage of content subscription service Patreon, which allows for a more seamless monetization structure when sharing content or lessons.

“[On Patreon] I will be making educational videos on production that will be different to the one-on-one sessions by focusing on a more tutorial-styled approach to techniques, plugins, and things I’ve found useful,” Orchison says.

Johannesburg-based house producer Kyle Watson has developed several memberships via Patreon, costing between $5 and $20 per month.

“Currently I have three tiers. As an Awesome patron, you receive access to my tutorial library, my Discord, and participation in sample challenges. As an Awesomer patron, you receive those benefits plus your own Discord chatroom, as well as a monthly personal session with me and private Q&A sessions. Finally, as a Double Awesomer, you receive all of the above, plus an extra session per month,” says Watson.

Watson currently has over 200 Patreon subscribers, some of whom have voluntarily pledged custom monthly rates to support him during this tumultuous time — a clear indication of how much young artists value education, and, perhaps, seeing their favorite artists stay afloat when other income sources have dried up.

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Although students greatly relish the opportunity to both learn from and support their favorite artists through Zoom, Patreon, or Twitch, Discord is the platform that ties everything together. Serving primarily as a message board, Discord allows students and fans to speak directly with one another. Best of all, it’s constantly available, so students can continue sharing music and discussing gear and production tips long after class is over.

“The community attitude on the Discord is great,” Watson says. “There has been a ton of great music, content, and resources shared over the past few months.”

Despite the success of these online communities, one question looms large: Will artists keep teaching after COVID? While Sundius says he’d like to work teaching into his touring schedule, most artists we spoke to alluded to touring once again becoming the focus. In the meantime, however, teaching has provided a lifeline for artists, while offering eager young producers the chance to gain invaluable experience.

“Education buys you time,” says Sydney native Laura Patterson, who DJs and produces as Sippy.

After serving as Director of The Academy, a DJ/Music Production School with three campuses across Australia, Patterson attended ICON Collective via their Online Program. Now she’s teaching private lessons, while hosting production streams on Twitch and running a Discord server. Most importantly, she understands exactly how much time and energy she’s saved through focused education.

“It would’ve taken me four or five years to learn the same things I learned in such a short amount of time,” Patterson says. “You have to make mistakes when you’re learning, but there are also a lot of mistakes you can cut out.”

Harry Levin is a freelance journalist, find him on Facebook.

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