“I can’t sit down,” says Gwen Bethel Riley, senior vice president of music at Peloton, the game-changing fitness company founded in 2012. “I think that’s a sign of a really successful festival.”
She’s talking about “All For One,” a first-of-its-kind, three-day musical event leading up to the July 4th holiday that offered Peloton members 25 different acts to sample — among them: Tina Turner, Gwen Stefani, Pearl Jam, Depeche Mode, Rosalia, Nas and Migos — in multiple “tents” and “sets” varying in length up to 45 minutes. There was sweat, clapping, dancing and thousands of strangers surrounding you — all characteristics of a concert, down to the person singing along who’s overpowering the artist’s actual vocals (here’s looking at you, Jenn Sherman, pictured above). The swell of a minor chord, the call-and-response chant, the goosebumps were all there, but experienced on a bike, treadmill or exercise mat virtually and live.
The parallel extends to, what Riley calls, the “matrix” of programming, scheduling and filming challenges to pull off the fitness feat. All of Peloton’s 40 instructors were tasked with a class and the soundtrack of their choice, but each act’s label and management was also involved so that everyone was on board with the lineup that went out to Peloton’s 5.4 million subscribers. “It really was ‘Concert Booking 101’ on steroids and in 12 dimensions,” Riley laughs. “I don’t think my colleague Tony Calandra [vp of global music supervision and programming] realized that he was literally going to become the Bill Graham of Peloton, but we did what we had to do.”
And like a Lollapalooza or a Coachella, a mix of genres — or “a diversity of tempo,” in spin speak — ensured that there was something for everyone. “You had people picking and choosing different complementary classes together — whether it was a warmup, a bike ride, an arms workout and then a cool down — and designing their own path through the festival,” she continues. “That sustains and elongates the workout.”
Indeed, Riley contrasts today’s festival-goer with those of past generations. “It’s not about smoking cigarettes and drinking until the wee hours while hanging out listening to rock bands,” she says. (Sorry, boomer.) “What you see right now is people who are young and they’re also into health and hydration and energy. Music is motivating, and there’s something about that excitement that’s intrinsic to being driven to peak performance.”
And therein lies the understated brilliance of “All For One,” both in terms of the participants — a diverse audience that enjoys a visceral and physical experience without having to leave the house — and the artists whose catalogs benefit from it. How so? You have a captive audience hanging on your every lyric, or discovering a song they may not know, or remembering a moment in their life soundtracked by a particular record. “They’re doing more to participate in the music,” notes Riley. “But they’re having fun. It’s taking the ‘work’ out of the workout.”
Streaming consumption over the weekend wasn’t enough to bump “All For One” artist Doja Cat’s “Planet Her” album from its No. 2 spot to No. 1, which Tyler the Creator took on July 5, but consider that the event is still in its infancy and how the concept of AFO, to someone outside of the Peloton ecosystem, may not click right away. (The platform hosts more than 240 “artist series” classes, ranging from the Beatles to BTS, Elvis Presley to Justin Bieber.) Peloton has not revealed the number of people who participated in one or more of the 40-plus classes offered during AFO, saying it’s too early to calculate as members are still sampling on-demand classes.
Peloton’s pandemic pivot was the envy of countless companies looking to capture consumers’ attention in the increasingly competitive world of content. With gyms, yoga and pilates studios closed during COVID, sales of home exercise equipment shot up in 2020 and Peloton was a direct beneficiary as purchases of its interactive bike saw backorders and delivery delays of six to eight weeks last summer. Membership also skyrocketed, from 2 million at the end of 2019 to more than 5 million two years later. Coming into 2021, things looked mighty rosy as the New York-based company saw its stock price peak in mid-January (at just over $167 a share) and closed out its first quarter with a 141% increase in revenue over the previous year, to the tune of $1.26 billion.
Analysts expect home fitness sales to plateau, and Peloton’s recent market activity seems to support that, as shares have dipped more than 20% from its January high, closing at $123.5 on July 7, but AFO was a reminder that Peloton, at its core, is as much about music as it is about working out.
That’s no accident and it follows a contentious public fight with the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) just two years ago over a claim by publishers that Peloton hadn’t properly licensed thousands of songs including hits by artists like Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Britney Spears, Bruno Mars and more. At the time, NMPA President and CEO David Israelite admonished the fitness company, saying it “let down its customers by failing to pay creators” and marveling at how “astounding” it was that “Peloton has gone this long without proper music licenses.”
The trade organization was seeking $300 million in damages on behalf of 14 NMPA members. The parties settled in Feb. 2020 with Peloton’s former music head remarking in a joint statement, “Music is an important part of the Peloton experience.”
To hear Riley speak of Peleton’s music industry relations today, the two worlds seem to be in step with each other. “We’re constantly engaged with the music community — they’re pitching us, and we’re pitching them,” she says.
Riley would go one step further and suggest that music helps make people healthy — that is, in essence, the aim of AFO. “Here was this amazing opportunity for a homegrown, connected fitness festival which hasn’t been done before,” she says. “It’s a celebration of feeling good — mentally and physically — with some of the best artists in the world. It’s powerful; you take it away with you.”
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