Why the Music Industry Should Embrace 'Hybrid' Conferences in '21
But what does Hybrid Mean?
This Op-Ed first appeared in Billboard
Every phase of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a pendulum of despair, uncertainty, and hope. While the live music industry continues to face an economic catastrophe like never seen before, music industry events have also faced unprecedented challenges -- to a lesser extent thanks to a tradition of webinar-like online business events.
It is moments of uncertainty that continue to make sound business decisions tough for organizers of our favorite music industry events. Even with vaccines getting administered at faster-than-expected rates in many parts of the United States, several other factors still leave us unclear on when and how much people should be together in larger groups. COVID variants are emerging with little information on the speed of their spread and their resistance to the currently available vaccines. The lasting power of vaccines is still untested fully; and it’s unclear whether a given population will reach herd immunity in the three-month window in which a vaccine typically lasts. Finally, parents with children too young to receive a vaccine are still unclear whether they will put their unvaccinated children at risk if they attend a concert or industry event.
The challenge for conference planners is to decide what will be allowed or desired at a future date. When thinking about the nebulous future, it’s easy to say, “I can’t wait for that conference to be in person again! The sooner the better!” But the organizer has to face uncertain realities and decide whether to commit to the great expense of a physical venue and catering, travel budgets, and even the type of programming -- in person or online -- before they know what the local ordinances will be, what the CDC recommendations will be, and what the market’s appetite will be at that future date. Not to mention whether international badge-holders will be able to land in the host country of an event.
For all of these reasons, I think industry events taking place through the end of the year are best planned as hybrid events; balancing the certainty and safety that online events allow with the excitement and irreplaceable connection of the opportunity to be near humans with whom you want to network, build relationships, and do business. But there is a common assumption about what a hybrid event is, and I think that common assumption is too limited.
Most people assume a hybrid conference in 2021 is a live conference with a certain amount of social distancing and masks, while livestreaming sessions to the broader world. Though more interactive than the pandemic-era industry standard of (staid) pre-recorded sessions we have seen up until now, that is an uncreative vision of a hybrid event for our era, requiring even more staffing and investment while only capturing a fraction of the actual event experience. But what if we flip the hybrid model on its head? To balance the positive attributes of both online and IRL conferences, here is what I think music industry conferences should embody in 2021:
• Online keynotes and panels for focus and access. By putting presentations online, attendees do not have to choose between hanging out in the hallway, bar, or exhibit hall and missing the presentations that let them check the pulse of the industry or best practices on stage. It’s also more efficient, allowing attendees to quickly hop between sessions to find the right fit, without disrupting the live event. Online sessions also mean conference organizers do not need to foot the bill of multiple rooms (which usually come with an added cost of a catering and sleeping room minimum) and overpriced A/V vendors, without knowing whether attendees will show up at all. Friends in the industry have said online conferences this year have allowed them to attend many more sessions than they normally do at IRL conferences.
• Online networking for speed and global reach. If it’s done correctly, speed networking can be more focused and more efficiently than in real life. At real person conferences, newcomers can spend hours trying to figure out where their networking targets are, and then have to wade through a crowd at a reception, exhibit hall, or bar for a five second chance to exchange business cards. With chatroulette style speed networking, we’ve heard from people who could meet 70 or more people for five minute video chats in a single day! In addition, online industry events have done more than any advancements in travel or commerce to bring the world closer together, giving access to innovators anywhere on the connected planet to industry insights and networks for the first time.
• Virtual world exhibit booths for a glimpse of the future. Having an exhibit booth in real life requires a lot of real estate; another risky expense without knowing how many paying attendees will really show up to a conference. Some reliable metaverse platforms have emerged for a solid schmooze-friendly exhibit hall with built-in video sharing for demos; and many do not require a VR headset. This virtual alternative means exhibitors don’t have to spend days on their feet, nor need to be exposed to so many people physically passing by with their coughs, sneezes, and breath converging from all over the world. Furthermore, for music industry pros who are excited to learn about the convergence of gaming and music, why not get your avatar’s hands dirty and experience the sense of virtual thereness to fully understand what emerging generations are experiencing for many hours of the day?
• In-person experiences for making human connections in the open air. Once presentations, formal networking, and exhibit halls can be accomplished safely online or in a metaverse, the only thing missing is that almost spiritual, trance-inducing experience of being together with like-minded humans. While hotels and convention centers are efficient for in-person events, if what you really want to emphasize for your in-person component of your industry event is closer to Burning Man than a locked door timeshare pitch session, why not bring it outside or into less traditional spaces with open air flow and sunshine? It’s time to come up with methods to facilitate reconnections with conference friends in spaces best suited for hanging out. Why not rent a carousel, partner with a rooftop bar, or have a blockchain meetup on a beach? Life’s too short to be stuck in a hotel basement. Finally, by planning a less formal meetup at this moment in time, conference organizers can monitor local and international health conditions and add on more meetup locations as you get closer to the event, pivoting in a way that hotel and convention center contracts typically won’t allow.
At some point in the near future, we can ask the question: what aspects of online conferencing should stay? But until then, there is a creative path to find the perfect hybrid that allows for the right amount of risk and the advantages of what we learned during the socially distanced pandemic.
Dmitri Vietze is director of the Music Tectonics Conference, an annual conference that explores the new terrain at the epicenter of music and technology. After two years successfully navigating LA wildfires and pandemic pivots, the MT team is holding the 2021 conference on October 25-27 on two innovative online platforms and Nov. 2 in-person in Los Angeles. Dmitri is also host of the weekly Music Tectonics Podcast and founder/CEO of the music tech PR firm rock paper scissors, inc., which has combined cutting edge technology and deep storytelling to help clients crystallize their missions in compelling ways and amplify them in innovative ways since 1999.