Brockett Parsons was a man at the peak of his career—but something was holding him back. It was 2011 and Parsons, as the keyboardist for Lady Gaga's touring band, had played to packed arenas all over the world on the Monster Ball Tour. He was also part of one of the most elaborate stage sets in pop music.
Yet that was the issue. The stage show—dancers, lighting effects, outrageous props and of course Gaga herself—had pushed the visual envelope pretty far. But Parsons, a stoic figure behind a synthesizer, hadn't. He felt like he wasn't measuring up.
"I was saying to myself, I'm working with someone who's changing the world—she's one of the greatest performers of all time—and I'm just a guy playing keyboards," Parsons told Adweek. "What do I have that's different than anyone else? How can I make my keyboards stand out and be interesting?"
Parsons put that question to Kareem Devlin, Gaga's guitarist. His response: "Yo, why don't you make a keyboard around you—like a circle?"
A 360-degree keyboard was a crazy idea, and one that nobody had attempted before. (In fact, the closest approximation was probably the keyboard used by Max Rebo of Jabba the Hutt's house band in The Empire Strikes Back. But that keyboard was only 180 degrees and, of course, that whole thing was fiction.) After making some calls, assembling a technical and development team, and enduring a year's worth of trial and error, Parsons had a working instrument to play.
Called the PianoArc, it's a 292-key leviathan big enough for Parsons to play while standing in its center and so heavy (1,000 lbs.) it takes a forklift to move it. Parsons took the machine with him on Gaga's 2012 Born This Way Ball tour.
A few weeks ago, he also performed solo at New York's famed Village Underground with the instrument, which had just won first prize in the entertainment category of the Edison Awards, an annual honor that recognizes new product innovation.
And now, if Parsons and his business partners have their way, the PianoArc could become its own brand of musical instrument, available for purchase by anyone eccentric (and wealthy) enough to want one. Right now, the asking price for a PianoArc is $45,000.
"Yes, we're serious about it, and we're actually going to do it," said Charles Johnson, the lead software and technology partner who helped to develop and build PianoArc. "We formed the LLC at the beginning of 2015, and we're moving into our walk phase"—meaning PianoArc is moving from concept to production.
Johnson knows that the massive and unusual instrument won't be joining the $99 Casio keyboards at Best Buy. "A PianoArc for every home?" No, he said. "It's niche. The worldwide performing market is not a huge market, but it's big enough for us if we can successfully evolve." Besides, he adds, "people like stuff that's cool."
PianoArc is certainly that. The instrument is essentially three consecutive 88-key piano keyboards plus one 28-note control section, wrapped in a ring. It uses MIDI/USB output and runs on MainStage, Apple's performance software, with an immense sound library that ranges from a Hammond B3 organ to a concert grand piano.
PianoArc also lets performers play the equivalent of three synthesizers without having to move their hands up and down a traditional rack. Plus, it's just an incredible machine to look at. In the estimation of the Edison Awards, "this instrument offers visual, performance and ergonomic benefits that have never existed in the 300 plus year history of the traditional musical keyboard."
Not that Johnson, Parsons and the multiple other members of the fledging company won't face sizeable hurdles as they bring their baby into the world of musical instruments. While PianoArc will have a more portable and lighter weight prototype, the machines are likely to remain custom-build jobs. "The biggest technological challenge is that there are no stock parts for something of this shape," said Johnson, who explains that each piano key—a trapezoid, not a rectangle—has to be custom cut to fit within the instrument's spherical profile. "Every single piece, except for some screws, has to be made," Johnson said.
What are the instrument's chances in the market? That, of course, remains to be seen. "It could attract the artist community, and I could see it being used in a music video—but this is just a small niche," said Petur Workman, vp of creative agency Phoenix Media Group. "Unless Lady Gaga puts her name on it, how much traction will it get? This needs to be a hobby for these guys. It's not a thing they could sink their teeth into." (For the record, Gaga's name is not being used in connection with the instrument.)
Still, the early signs are encouraging. PianoArc received considerable attention when it appeared at the National Association of Music Merchants' NAMM Show 2014, the music products industry's biggest trade event. "Just during the setup phase there were more press people and cameras—it was just crazy, the barrage of musicians and keyboardists, gawking and looking," Johnson said, adding that his company is getting ready to deliver its first production PianoArc to a client.
Johnson said that, in addition to marketing the instrument to keyboardists, DJs might also be interested in the machine. PianoArc is currently in talks with companies for funding. It's also patented the instrument's action and its shape.
However much of a regular production brand the PianoArc becomes, Parsons still sounds rather awed that the idea even made it this far. "There was really no ultimate goal or plan in mind," he said. "I just needed something that looked awesome. The result was more awesome than I could have imagined."
And while Lady Gaga is—once again, folks—not part of his business venture, Parsons credits her for inspiring him. "She's constantly searching and pushing the envelope," he said. "And I need to push the envelope just to hang with her."