I spent a decade of my life — from 6th grade through college — practicing and performing my viola. I loved the music itself, but I really enjoyed the relationships and experiences it provided. I got to tour the country performing or competing. I was part of a string quartet that earned $200-an-hour playing weddings, conferences and even cruise ships — not a bad gig for a 16 year old. But at a certain point, it became clear that it wasn't a viable career for me. The road ahead as a professional musician required even more investment in schooling with an uncertain payoff. Symphony spots were rare and competitive, and perhaps more to the point, I doubted I was good enough.
But the real challenge was the demand for classical music was dying, at least in the traditional way. Symphonies were bleeding money and becoming even more dependent on donations. Younger music fans seemed less interested in paying for expensive tickets, wearing fancy clothes, and committing two to three hours listening intently without coughing or falling asleep. For a generation that's come of age in the YouTube world, symphonies feel like an inefficient form of entertainment.
This is where folks like the Piano Guys may be saving classical music. They have created a new category for classical music: Fun, breakthrough innovation in the form of five minute videos that showcase their classical music skills, but also their CGI skills in creating fun, funny and funky parodies. Instead of selling tickets, they post their videos and sell advertising. (They also use the traditional model of selling CDs — they were just signed by Sony last year.) If you haven't seen the Piano Guys, watch a few of their videos and you may be hooked. You'll laugh at their Star Wars parody, be amazed at their rendition of Pachelbel's Canon, or cry at their Les Miserable tribute to our men and women in uniform...but I guarantee you won't fall asleep.
How many other categories can't grow because they refuse to challenge the conventional wisdom of tradition, or this is the way it's supposed to be? Sports like baseball may find demand waning because fewer people have 3 hours to watch a sport. And just as consumers don't want to sit through three movements of a symphony for their favorite finale, categories that are highly bundled are being disrupted... even in car rentals by category creators like Zipcar.
There's another industry that seems to be begging for category creation: High-end dining. In the past, dining at top restaurants has required a certain kind of dress, a lofty price tag, and enough time for a leisurely experience. That's changing. Newer restaurants allow for more casual dress, and chefs like David Chang, founder of the Momofuku empire, are allowing people to come as they are and enjoy high end cuisine at a great price.
For too many years, classical music has required consumers to conform to its rules and regulations. Like the restaurant industry, it needs to consider changing its model to appeal to a broader population.
The Piano Guys are a move in that direction — and one I hope goes further. I long for the day I can wear shorts and a t-shirt, and pay $50 (or less) for a good seat just to hear short excerpts from Beethoven's 6th symphony, Brahms piano quartet, and the best of John Williams — all with a beer in my hand. Until that day, I have the Piano Guys.