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ArtistWorks' online lessons resonate with musicians and students

The academy offers musicians a new way to make money and enables students to carry on a regular dialogue with well-known instructors through Web video exchanges.

January 10, 2012|By Alex Pham, Los Angeles Times
  • ArtistWorks has a dozen professional musicians on its faculty offering thousands of hours of video lessons, from basic techniques to master classes. Above, Elizabeth Lang watches as percussionist Luis Conte and her husband drummer Thomas Lang teach music for ArtistWorks from a studio in Lang's home in Westlake Village.
ArtistWorks has a dozen professional musicians on its faculty offering… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

About four times a week, before heading to bed, George Gaffoglio retreats to the upstairs bedroom of his Irvine home, where he settles on his couch, picks up his guitar and fires up his laptop.

For the next half-hour or so, the 54-year-old sets aside his daily worries and dives into a website called ArtistWorks, where he plays along with instructional videos by Martin Taylor, attempting to mimic a British jazz guitarist who has collaborated with George Harrison, Dionne Warwick and other musicians.

"It's my therapy," said Gaffoglio, chief executive of an aerospace prototype manufacturing firm and a longtime ArtistWorks subscriber.

Based in Napa, Calif., ArtistWorks has a dozen professional musicians on its faculty offering thousands of hours of video lessons, from basic techniques to master classes. Among the instructors are Billy Cobham, a drummer who recorded and toured with Miles Davis, and Tony Trischka, a banjo player who produced Steve Martin's Grammy-nominated album "Rare Bird Alert." Martin himself appears in several ArtistWorks videos.

Since launching the service in June 2009, ArtistWorks has amassed more than 32,000 videos in more than a dozen genres, from classical piano and bluegrass fiddle to traditional mandolin and turntable scratching. The privately held company does not disclose its revenue or number of subscribers but says they number in the tens of thousands. By aggressively adding new instructors, the online academy expects to triple its revenue this year from 2011.

Instructional videos are hardly new, having been around in the form of DVDs, CDs and VHS tapes for decades. But online classes hold the promise of enabling teachers and students to communicate — even when they're across the world from each other.

In an age when the traditional music business structure is crumbling, companies such as ArtistWorks are offering a new path for musicians to make money.

"This is part of the general trend of social media breaking down barriers between artists and fans," said David Pakman, a partner with New York venture firm Venrock. It's also part of a general wave of people with knowledge using the Internet to share their skills, Pakman said, citing as examples online learning start-ups including TurnHere for video production, oDesk for technical instruction and Behance for creative design. "These new marketplaces for knowledge workers are great uses of the networked economy."

For online music instruction, there are a number of options, including TrueFire, JamPlay and WorkshopLive. But few offer or emphasize the ability to carry on a regular dialogue with instructors, said David Butler, the 57-year-old founder of ArtistWorks.

A programmer who helped build AOL's Internet platform from 1988 to 1999, Butler picked up jazz guitar as an adult and was frustrated by his lack of progress with the slew of self-help videos and books he purchased.

He eventually found a teacher in 2006, a jazz great named Jimmy Bruno. But Bruno lived in Philadelphia, and Butler in Napa. Butler persuaded Bruno to do their lessons via online video conferencing.

"Those didn't work very well," Butler said. "You could see the person, but sometimes you couldn't hear them. Either that or the video and the audio wouldn't be in sync."

Butler spent the next two years building technology that would let Bruno convey his lessons online and interact with his students. Instead of dealing with the technical difficulties of live video, in which two people communicate in real time, Butler came up with video exchanges.

Using that system, students upload to the ArtistWorks website videos of themselves playing a song, then ask instructors for feedback. Days later, they get a video response from their teachers. This ability to get personal feedback from his teacher has kept Gaffoglio paying his $30-a-month fee.

"When I got my first response video from Martin [Taylor] about 10 days later, I was really surprised by how personal it was," Gaffoglio said. "I felt like I had a connection to him."

The two struck up a relationship via emails and video exchanges. And when Taylor gave a concert in Dana Point in September, Gaffoglio went to meet his instructor for the first time. They had lunch afterward and talked about the instrument they both owned, a rare $10,000 handmade Mike Vander acoustic guitar.

They also discovered they had something else in common. Taylor toured the world, giving concerts and master classes. Gaffoglio, as the head of a company with 300 employees and clients in Asia, Europe and South America, spent much of his time on the road and in different time zones. For him, being able to access the guitar videos on his iPad or laptop whenever he had 30 minutes to spare was key.

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