A celebration of the analog: why Burning Man, Coachella, and VMworld won’t translate to the virtual

(Photo Credit: Empire of the Sun at Coachella shot by Robert Scoble)

The rocker Neil Young taught me about analog.

He showed me that humans have evolved to experience the real world and the analog waves it sprays at us from all directions and that there’s a gap when you try to experience the same through a computer. IE, virtually or digitally.

He took me into his audio studio where his audio engineer, John Nowland, played Harvest Moon on a big two-inch analog tape deck. The music streamed out of huge Tannoy speakers in a studio that my former producer helped his dad build. It was glorious.

Then we listened to the same music in digital form. John pointed out that analog is a smooth wave which is why you feel it emotionally while a digital recording is quantized. Cut up into thousands of pieces per second. The music, even when listened to at high resolution, had a coldness to it.

Something was missing.

Neil has spent decades trying to close that gap and his efforts are covered in a book “To Feel the Music,” that Phil Baker cowrote. Yet the gap is still there and in the strategy work I’m doing with quite a few events who are moving to virtual/digital efforts today, due to the Coronavirus, I find that literally no one knows about this gap and that it’s holding back many efforts and, even, will doom some of them.

Most event teams are trying to save their brands, their audiences, and especially their businesses now that we are forced into virtual events and probably will be so forced for a year until a vaccine becomes generally available.

Yet they are approaching it like they approached their physical events. Let’s first talk about what makes physical events special: they are celebrations of analog. Even a tech conference like Dreamforce or VMworld is a celebration of analog. There’s high-touch everywhere. Signs that stimulate our analog senses. Even smells and textures, like the grass that Salesforce laid out at Moscone for Dreamforce, augments our human senses. We go to conferences about technology because we learn better when we get to see a huge screen with amazing audio and can then get our questions answered in analog afterward. Shaking someone’s hand is analog and instantly transfers trust and respect. That won’t come back for years, if ever.

Try doing the same in a Zoom call or, even, in Virtual Reality. It just isn’t the same. There’s a gap and that gap won’t get closed soon. Analog is better for a whole range of things, like:

Serendipity.
Human Interaction.
Learning.
Navigation.
Emotional engagement.

Think about it, watching a sunset with friends is emotionally much more engaging in real life than trying to do the same on, say, FaceTime. Same for a whole range of things.

But if analog is so powerful, why do you listen to music on Spotify digitally?

Distribution.

It is nearly impossible to distribute analog experiences to large numbers of people. Even Burning Man was falling apart trying to do that. When only 30,000 wanted to go to the Playa things were OK. But now more than 100,000 want to come and that was causing tons of problems in conflict with environment and even local communities that were overrun with Burners driving RVs.

What should a Burning Man do, then?

First, set expectations that it’s not going to be the same. It can’t be. So don’t hold out any pretense that it will be. Don’t even try to be the same. Rethink EVERYTHING.

What should stick? Those things that take advantage of being digital. Distribution. The ability to gather large audiences. I saw Marshmello play at Coachella a few years ago. I saw him along with about 15,000 other people in the Sahara Tent. It was quite enjoyable, with all sorts of effects, an amazing sound system, and about 100 huge LED screens all around, even on the ceiling (some were even on robots that could lower and spin them). Yet a few years later Marshmello was playing to 11 million people inside Fortnight. It wasn’t quite as enjoyable, but it was enjoyable and it brought a new interactive experience that wouldn’t be possible in Coachella. Not to mention the Coachella experience cost me thousands of dollars and the Fortnight one was free.

Because of this gap between analog and digital some other things: attention spans are generally lower on digital. Or are they? Watch a Twitch channel and you will see hundreds of thousands of people watching someone play a video game most not leaving for hours. Why is that? Well, first the content is engaging and fast moving. Similar to what they do at Burning Man or Coachella. Tons of imagery flowing by every second. Nothing gets boring or stops. Every second you are seeing something new.

Along with the visuals, though, is a chat room. Every second something new. A new comment from someone else. They rarely stop. Ever.

So this is the new imperative for event teams: make something like TV that never stops changing and never stops flowing.

Can Burning Man turn the experience into a TV channel? That’s the problem. Most of what happened on the Playa was not covered by TV. Or even recorded.

My advice? Hire Beyonce.

“But we can’t afford her,” one team told me. “She’s not as expensive as last year.” I answer back.

They didn’t get what I really was saying, though. To do well in this new world you need to do something that gets attention. All these events will be competing with Trump and Coronavirus and the economic ruins. How will they be more interesting than that?

We need a new dream. A new world. A new mission.

Hiring Beyonce is a metaphor for “do something spectacular.” So many conference teams are worried about pleasing bosses, fitting it into a budget, or trying to recreate last year’s glory.

Fuck all that. It won’t work.

What is needed now is creativity and most conference teams haven’t had to be entrepreneurial in a long time.

So, you need a plan:

  1. What will you do to blow people away? Online.
  2. What will you do to deliver that? I recommend Twitch but if you argue with that you better come up with a channel.
  3. How will you minimize distractions? I say every conference team needs one page, one URL, one name so you can find it on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc. One stream. Trying to do more will distract both you and your audience. Prove you can do one this year. Then next year maybe you can do two or more.
  4. How will you fill the gap between analog and digital? Are you looking at VR? You should be but many of you will end up throwing it out. Why? Distribution isn’t there. Not enough of your customers have headsets and the forms still aren’t good enough. So, what does that leave you with? Have you looked at Somnium Space? That you can play on computers and on VR headsets. Or, something like Second Life, which does something similar, but only on computers. Even these, though, will get discarded by most. Why? Too much friction. Getting new users in is hard. Which is why I recommend Twitch. Stick with a form everyone knows. Today. That’s TV.
  5. Do you have a plan for making great TV? This is why I recommend thinking of Beyonce. She makes great TV. So, can’t afford her? Then you better be creative. But some things you will be measured on: can you change the picture every few seconds. This is why the Super Bowl brings dozens of cameras and switches rapidly between them. Can you get the audience to also change? This is why you need new topics every few minutes and new guests. There are plenty of other ways to do entertaining TV that don’t require spending a million or two on Beyonce but they require creativity and connections.
  6. Do you have a plan for production values? One of these conference people said: “think about Master Class.” Yes, please do. Do you realize they spend something like a quarter million dollars PER HOUR on their production values? So, yeah, you wanna go there, go there but have a budget and tell your teams that you have that budget. Most of the rest of us don’t have that kind of budget, so you better figure out how much production values you are able to afford and then find teams that can get you the best possible for that budget.

If I were working for Burning Man I wouldn’t talk about any of this up front, although it should already be on everyone’s mind, though.

I would start with a simple question: what is the story you want to tell?

Neil Young taught me that too. That great music, whether in analog or digital, starts with a great story. The rest is just trying to close the gap.

I leave you with a video that Trey Ratcliff just posted (he’s gone to Burning Man, and has traveled more than most human beings making these videos):