Inside tonebase, the Masterclass for music lessons
The startup tonebase offers online lessons in classical guitar and piano from Grammy-award winning musicians.
The COVID-19 crisis has changed strategy for every media player in the game. Masterclass—the startup that sells courses from celebrities—is using this crisis to launch a colossal ad campaign to recruit users that are bored during this quarantine. Masterclass has raised nearly a quarter billion dollars as per Crunchbase. But growing much more scrappily is tonebase (stylized in lower case)—a startup that offers online lessons in classical guitar and piano from Grammy-award winning musicians.
What is tonebase?
Depicted: A tonebase promotional Facebook cover. Pulled from Abhi Nayar’s Facebook page.
Tonebase offers several plans, from $29.95 per month to a $495 one-time lifetime subscription. The classes come with videos, outlines, workbooks, and PDF editions. The tonebase website also tracks users’ progress on their journey to learning guitar or piano.
And this is a segment from their guitar YouTube channel that demonstrates playing in a guitar duo.
If you sign up for tonebase, you’re greeted with an interface that looks like below—with various links to videos teaching classical guitar or piano.
Description: A screenshot of the tonebase homepage for guitar lessons. Photo Credit: James Mishra
The founders’ story
Tonebase was founded by classical guitarists Christopher Garwood and Igor Lichtmann with Abhi Nayar joining as the technical cofounder. Abhi and I briefly met in high school, although we haven’t kept in touch since. He declined to comment for this piece.
The trio met each other as students at Yale, with Christopher and Igor starting in October 2016, Abhi joining in March 2017, and incorporating in May. They gathered their initial customer base via a Facebook group and then built the surrounding website. They went through Jason Calacanis’s LAUNCH accelerator in the winter of 2018. In Spring 2019, they raised their seed round. As per Crunchbase, they went on to raise $3 million across four funding rounds over the years, including from e.ventures and the student-focused venture capital firm Dorm Room Fund.
During all of this, the tonebase team relocated from New Haven to Los Angeles—eventually growing to fifteen people. They are still hiring, with the COVID-19 crisis pushing them to a more remote-friendly workplace not centered around Los Angeles. They are currently hiring for a frontend developer.
Can tonebase stand up to the competition?
Tonebase has a laser-sharp focus on teaching classical guitar and piano, but they are operating in a brutally saturated market.
Other online music lesson websites. There are many websites—some of them much older than tonebase—that offer video music lessons, like This is Classical Guitar, ArtistWorks, JustinGuitar, TrueFire, GuitarCompass, FenderPlay, JamPlay, Orange Amps, Jamorama, JamTrack Central, InsidePiano, Liberty Park Music, Zebra Keys, Piano Lessons On The Web, Skoove, Playground Sessions, Piano Marvel, Flowkey, PianoWithWillie, Piano Nanny, Hoffman Academy, and Yousician.
Real-world music schools. MacPhail, Sense & Color, London Contemporary School of Piano, Full Sail University, and the Berklee College of Music all have online courses. Some of these schools have pivoted heavily into online courses recently in response to COVID-19 making it unsafe to run their normal in-person courses.
New high-tech startups. TribeXR—a recent graduate of the TechStars Music Accelerator—offers lessons in DJing via virtual reality. This is their first product and they have aggressive plans to expand into new ways of interacting with music via VR. Music Everywhere is an augmented reality iPhone app that teaches how to play songs on the piano. Music Everywhere is also compatible with the Microsoft HoloLens AR headset.
Depicted: A promotional video showing a rendering of how the Music Everywhere app works with Microsoft HoloLens.
Big Tech and hypercapitalized video streaming sites. Subscription video content is one of the hottest categories in tech and entertainment—with companies like Quibi, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Masterclass deploying enough capital to build an aircraft carrier.
Masterclass is a particularly intimidating threat due to their seemingly-unlimited checkbook to buy the best talent and produce videos with high production value—although not necessarily the highest educational value. Below is a screencap of Masterclass’s page for the musician deadmau5’s electronic music production course.
Depicted: A screenshot of the musician deadmau5’s Masterclass on electronic music production. Photo Credit: James Mishra
Masterclass currently also has offerings from Carlos Santana, Timbaland, and Christina Aguilera—all of whom have dominated the Billboard charts at one point or another.
Depicted: A screenshot of some other entertainment-focused Masterclass videos. Photo Credit: James Mishra
Thanks to the COVID-19 crisis, plenty of people are unemployed and quarantined and have nothing better to do than to finally learn the guitar they bought years ago. With music schools forced online by the virus and the video streaming sites spending money like it’s going out of style, it remains to be seen whether tonebase can capitalize on the opportunity or whether they’ll be outflanked.