What Is MasterClass Actually Selling?
The ads are everywhere. You can learn to serve like Serena Williams or write like Margaret Atwood. But what MasterClass really delivers is something altogether different.
Image above, clockwise from top left: MasterClass instructors Serena Williams (who teaches tennis on the platform); Natalie Portman (acting); Gordon Ramsay (cooking); Malcolm Gladwell (writing)
Sometimes an advertisement is so perfectly tailored to a cultural moment that it casts that moment into stark relief, which is how I felt upon first seeing an ad for the mega-best-selling writer James Patterson’s course on MasterClass a few years ago. In the ad, Patterson is sitting at a table, reciting a twisty opening line in voice-over. Then an overhead shot of him gazing out a window, lost in thought like a character in a movie. A title card appears: “Imagine taking a writing class from a master.” It didn’t matter that I’d never read a book by Patterson before—I was hooked. What appealed to me was not whatever actionable thriller-writing tips I might glean, but rather the promise of his story, the story of how a writer becomes a mogul. Any hapless, hand-to-mouth mid-lister can provide instructions on outlining a novel. MasterClass dangled something else, a clear-cut path out of the precariat, the magic-bean shortcut to a fairy-tale ending—the secret to ever-elusive success.
MasterClass launched in 2015 with just three classes: Dustin Hoffman on acting, Serena Williams on tennis, and Patterson on writing. Since then the company has grown exponentially, raising $135 million in venture capital from 2012 to 2018. It now has more than 85 classes across nine categories. (Last year it added 25 new classes, and this year it intends to add even more.) After the pandemic hit, as people started spending more time at home, its subscriptions surged, some weeks increasing tenfold over the average in 2019; subscribers spent twice as much time on the platform as they did earlier this year. In April, the company moved from offering individual classes for $90 a pop, with an all-access annual pass for $180, to a subscription-only model, and in May, it raised another $100 million. Its trailers have become so familiar and ubiquitous that they spawned their own SNL parodies, “MasterClass: Quarantine Edition,” in which Chloe Fineman appears as Phoebe Waller-Bridge for a class on journaling, as Timothée Chalamet for a class on fashion, and as Britney Spears for a class on … something.
MasterClass trailers tend to follow a certain playbook: the introduction of a famous person; a peek behind the curtain; an overview of their setbacks and failures; the promise of what you might learn; the emotional, soaring soundtrack. But the courses are distinct from one another—there’s no standard format or formula. What MasterClass purports to provide is a premium, high-level learning experience via a series of glossy videos taught by the world’s best. In some classes, instructors address the camera for a few hours. In others, they are more hands-on, demonstrating techniques or leading workshops. You can take writing classes with Margaret Atwood, Dan Brown, David Baldacci, Joyce Carol Oates, David Sedaris, Shonda Rhimes, Malcolm Gladwell, or Aaron Sorkin. You can take photography with Annie Leibovitz; acting with Natalie Portman; comedy with Judd Apatow or Steve Martin; and cooking with Thomas Keller, Gordon Ramsay, or Alice Waters. There’s a directing class with Ron Howard, a makeup class with Bobbi Brown, a negotiation class with the former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss, and a class on how to be a boss with Anna Wintour. RuPaul has a class on authenticity and self-expression, and Neil deGrasse Tyson has one on scientific thinking. Two classes—taught by Kevin Spacey and Hoffman—have been removed following allegations of sexual misconduct against the actors (which both have denied). MasterClass is a brand built on other people’s impeccable brands.
David Rogier, who co-founded MasterClass, likes to tell the story of his grandmother who as a young woman fled the Nazis, emigrating to the United States with her mother. After working in a factory for years, she applied to medical schools and was rejected by dozens of them—one dean flat-out told her that she had three strikes against her: She was a woman, she was Jewish, and she was an immigrant—until she finally found one that would accept her. She always impressed upon her grandson that an education could never be taken away from you. That was the grain of the idea for MasterClass.
It’s a great origin story, the kind perfectly suited for a MasterClass trailer, and also the kind that every young Silicon Valley founder is more or less ready to recite when the press comes along. But the story sits somewhat uncomfortably alongside the actual product, which is to a medical degree what an apple is to an orange planet.
Rogier grew up on the Westside of Los Angeles, the son of two lawyers who became artists in retirement. After getting his M.B.A. at Stanford, he asked one of his professors—the angel investor Michael Dearing, who founded Harrison Metal, a seed-stage venture-capital fund in San Francisco—for a job. Rogier got the position, but after a year or so realized it wasn’t for him. He went to Dearing and told him he planned to quit. When Dearing asked what he had lined up, Rogier responded, “ ‘I’m going to build something.’ He’s like, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ So he wrote me a check for about half a million dollars.” Rogier formed a holding company and called it Yanka Industries, after his grandmother.
The question of who (and what and how and why) gets funded in Silicon Valley might not be asked often enough, considering the impact of technology on our society, economy, politics, and daily lives. But patterns are discernible: Mainly, the ideas that rise to the top are those that seek to address deficiencies in an industry by creating a new category from within the old one, the way caterpillars consume themselves to become butterflies. (Also, most of these ideas are had by young white guys.) Turning the housing market into an infinite unregulated hotel, for instance, or everyone’s cars into an unregulated fleet of taxis. Or aggregating mastery across disciplines.
“I felt a lot of pressure,” Rogier told me of the windfall investment. He was aware that he’d been given a gift. “You can’t whine about it or complain about it, because there’s nothing to whine or complain about, right? This guy threw me a blank check.” Rogier knew he wanted to do something related to education, but he wasn’t sure what. So he posted ads on Craigslist offering to pay people $25 an hour to talk about their experiences with education. He asked subjects about the schools they’d gone to, whom they’d learned from the most, the topics they wished they had studied more. What things did they want to learn now? How did they want to learn now?
Rogier already knew life was changing at a much faster rate than it had for his parents’ generation. What you learn in school no longer lasts you through your career. His research showed that people are willing to invest in personal growth and education, but many feel “ripped off” by their education. He isn’t referring only to formal education. “People pay tremendous amounts to take not-great classes,” he said. “And then there are also the scam stories. Somebody went to school to be a receptionist, and she paid for it, but the ‘school’ was answering phone calls for two weeks at an office.”
Rogier had an idea: What if anybody could learn from the best? “That would be kind of awesome,” he said. Especially if he could offer the class at a relatively low price. After two rounds of fundraising, getting the first instructors on board (Hoffman was the first to agree—Rogier was school friends with his daughter), filming some test classes, and hiring a small team, Rogier asked a friend, the entrepreneur Aaron Rasmussen, to join the company as co-founder and chief technology officer, which he did. (Rasmussen left the company in January 2017 and later founded the for-college-credit education platform Outlier.org.)
At first, Rogier said, many people told him his idea would never work. It was unclear whether people would pay to watch high-end tutorials when they could view lower-budget ones on YouTube for free. It was also unclear whether celebrity teachers could be recruited in meaningful numbers. The best in the world will never want to teach, people told him. They’re not going to be good at teaching. People aren’t going to want to learn from them. It’s going to be too expensive. People won’t pay for production—they won’t care if it’s higher production quality. Everything’s free on the web. Why are you trying to do everything from making the classes to putting the classes out? You should just take one small slice. One of the things Rogier is still often asked is whether he’s selling education or entertainment. The question annoys him. “Why can’t education also be entertaining?”
Rogier always knew that part of being an entrepreneur is believing in something that nobody else believes in, but still, he was scared. Within a few days of MasterClass’s launch in May 2015, however, the numbers told him he was onto something. Within four months, he had 30,000 students.
MasterClass’s mission, as it was originally defined, was to “democratize access to genius.” But the service actually offers something different—although what that is, exactly, is hard to put your finger on. Strictly speaking, a master class is a small class for very advanced students taught by a master in their field. But very advanced students in particular subject areas are vanishingly small cohorts—certainly not enough to attract hundreds of millions of dollars in investments. And so, MasterClass courses are not really designed for a specific skill level, but instead are aimed at the most general of general audiences.
MasterClass doesn’t disclose how much it pays instructors, although a 2018 Bloomberg article reported that they are paid a guaranteed sum, plus up to 25 percent of revenue generated by their classes. (In 2017, The Hollywood Reporter claimed that instructors were paid roughly $100,000.) But money is not the only motivation. For many of the instructors, MasterClass presents an opportunity to take stock of a remarkable career. Wintour, the longtime editor of Vogue, kicks off her MasterClass by saying, “I know many people are curious about who I am, how I approach my work, and what I believe … I have never had the opportunity to share the many lessons I have learned as an editor and as a creative leader in one place before.” Her class feels, more than anything, like a historical document.
For Atwood, the celebrated author of The Handmaid’s Tale, among many other novels, the decision to participate was partly motivated by her age, “which is old,” she told me over the phone. “This is a way of downloading what I would ordinarily do, or possibly uploading it.”
The last time Atwood taught full-time at a university was in the 1970s. Filming a MasterClass was an opportunity to reach a less-privileged cohort than she might in a university setting. “For a lot of people who might have jobs, but also might be interested in writing, [MasterClass is] a way they can pursue this in their own time, at their own pace,” she said. On the other hand, Atwood said, “in-person teaching is interactive. People get to ask you direct questions.” Later she added, “If you’re teaching in a university, you can see the people you’re teaching. You know how old they are. You have some idea about what background they may have come from. You usually start asking them what were the last five books that they read … But if you’re doing something online, it could be anybody. It’s more like publishing a book. It’s out there. It’s accessible. You don’t know who may be accessing it.”
As an educational platform, MasterClass is limited by its instructors’ inaccessibility. But as a repository for career advice and discussions about the creative process and how to navigate life as an artist (or athlete, chef, magician, entrepreneur), it’s a gold mine. When you are just starting out—especially if you lack connections in your areas of interest—it can be helpful to hear how other people “did it,” what obstacles they faced and how they overcame them. You might get a hit of encouragement or see yourself reflected for the first time in a field you thought was off-limits to you. The ballet dancer Misty Copeland says MasterClass was a way of doing this.
Copeland’s class is typical of MasterClass’s more inspirational offerings. It’s a mix of instruction and aspiration, covering subjects on everything from owning your power and being confident, to barre exercises (pliés, tendus), to working with Prince, to the importance of mentorship and diversity, to showing people that ballet is more approachable than they think.
“The fine arts and classical dance have been kind of categorized as this elite form that is only for an elite, exclusive category of people,” Copeland—the first Black principal dancer of the prestigious American Ballet Theatre—told me over the phone. She wanted to show that dance didn’t have to be so intimidating—“that it’s for every person, with any background and body type.” For Copeland, the tools, perseverance, strength, and passion that you need to be an artist are derived from doing the work, engaging in the process. That’s what she aimed to share in her class, to “give people some insight into what it is to be an artist and an athlete.”
I’ve taken Atwood’s class, Rhimes’s class, and most of Gladwell’s, among others. I’ve watched Part One of Keller’s course, and a little bit of Part Two. I’ve watched Brown’s “smoky eye” tutorial, tried the technique on myself, and came out looking like a prizefighting panda. The classes are visually sumptuous, transporting, uplifting, and yet, frankly, a little boring, especially if you try to watch them all the way through. Doing so feels like being seated next to the dinner guest of your dreams—the Dalai Lama or Oscar Wilde or Barack Obama—and discovering that they won’t stop talking and that the dinner is 12 courses long.
The cooking classes are enjoyable and resemble the prestige food programming on Netflix. The mixology and gardening classes interested me as an unskilled cocktail maker and novice gardener, but I still found it easier to Google specific questions like how exactly to deal with my lettuce or make a cocktail with things I already have in my bar. Yet, after watching Gordon Ramsay do it, I did finally learn how to properly salt an eggplant.
Instructors approach their classes in different ways, from simply walking viewers through their practice and methods, to putting their teams to work on a comprehensive curriculum, as Keller did upon being asked to come up with a class. But Keller was told his curriculum was too much.
“From what they told me, they’d never seen anything like it before, both in presentation, as well as in content, as well as in length,” Keller said when we spoke. It would have been much too long to film, so it was distilled down to the fundamentals and split into three parts.
Having someone of Thomas Keller’s stature teaching the basics of cooking is impressive, but is it necessary? You can learn useful things by watching a video, but formal education is generally understood to demand some kind of participation, as well as a teacher evaluation. Some instructors host promotional contests with student participation—in one case, James Patterson co-wrote a book with a student—but in general, Malcolm Gladwell isn’t going to grade your essay, nor is Thomas Keller going to evaluate your meringue.
As terrible as the pandemic has been, it has proved unexpectedly good for some—specifically billionaires, yeast manufacturers, and streaming services, of which MasterClass is now one. For a certain cohort of people looking to pass the hours at home, namely those with leisure time and money, the new courses in cooking, mixology, and gardening arrived at the perfect homesteading moment. But the fact that MasterClass is so popular now also speaks to people’s fears, especially economic uncertainties that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Tens of millions of jobs have been lost, and many newly unemployed people are looking for a different direction. And if they’ve kept their jobs, they are dealing with a whole new way of navigating work, which is stressful and confusing. In a way, MasterClass seems ideally suited to frustrated 30-somethings for whom education has not necessarily resulted in upward mobility or even a job, who feel stuck in their career without a clear path to success.
In fact, the company refers to its target customers as CATS: “curious, aspiring 30-somethings.” CATS are old enough not to be planning to return to school, but young enough, in theory, that they need help advancing in their career. A CAT is a person whose life has become complicated, who has had to put aside some of the things they loved to do, who isn’t exactly doing the thing they dreamed of doing, David Schriber, MasterClass’s chief marketing officer, told me. They’re anxious about their future, their present, their position relative to that of their peers. “They’ll talk about having anxiety that their co-workers or the people on their social networks all seem to know more about a subject than they do,” Schriber said, referring, presumably, to pre-pandemic focus testing. “Someone will come to the office party and talk about wine, and then they’ll feel like I don’t know enough about wine. Someone else will talk about photography, and they’ll be like Man, I should pay attention to who the photographers are these days. Or their boss will say things like ‘You need to work on your leadership profile, or hone your creative judgments,’ and the poor 30-something is like Where am I gonna get all this?” Something about this struck me as clammy and sad, as far away from They can’t take your education away from you as it’s possible to be. As though it’s revealing another layer of unpaid labor—cultural labor—one is expected to do in order to secure the privilege of performing actual labor.
What MasterClass offers 30-somethings is “a curated group of people” recognized as “the world’s best,” who are “breaking down the thing that they do in a really entertaining and digestible way,” Schriber said. “You can take away the life lessons, but you can also take away the conversation points. You can come back to work on Monday and talk about what Anna Wintour did for the Met Gala—you can also think, Man, Anna Wintour really gave me permission to show up like a boss today.”
But what does it mean to “show up like a boss” at this moment? And what does it mean to learn it from Anna Wintour, who has recently come under fire for allegedly feeding a toxic and racist culture at Condé Nast? The idea that everyone should show up like a boss, so current five years ago, feels hollow now that the brutal inequalities in our system have become undeniable to all but the most willfully obtuse.
Education researchers have known for decades that being good at something and being good at teaching something are two completely different skill sets. In fact, universities are mostly ranked on the strength of their research, and, of course, the brand name can be worth a lot. Something similar holds true for MasterClass, whose impressive roster of talent feels like a who’s who of elite professionals, a gallery of the meritocracy’s winners.
To understand where we are right now, and why MasterClass seems to slot in so perfectly with the moment, it’s useful to think about how it has evolved over time.
MasterClass launched after the early hype around online education had already fizzled. Filmed university lectures seemed to be even less thrilling than the real thing. MOOCs (massive open online courses) had poor retention rates, and still structurally favored people of means. At first, MasterClass focused on specific skill sets, and providing an educational journey from beginning to end. But its data revealed that people weren’t necessarily consuming the courses from start to finish, nor was this really necessary to benefit from the content. “What we were finding was that when people were allowed the freedom to jump from lesson to lesson based on their interest, it was just a much more freeing experience,” Nekisa Cooper, MasterClass’s vice president of content, told me. What people seemed to want was a fun mix of short-form inspirational content. They also displayed surprisingly wide-ranging interests. Students who first watched Bobbi Brown followed her up with Chris Voss.
Lately, MasterClass has started presenting its offerings less as classroom education and more as part of a learning lifestyle built around a community of people with common interests and concerns. It reminds me of a kind of Spotify for careerist inspiration, a platform for dispensing assorted self-help and personal-development bonbons for the young capitalist striver. “And we’re not just offering classes or education,” Cooper said. “We’re also offering escape.”
As for whether it matters if a MasterClass member finishes a course, Rogier said, “Most education sites look at completion rates. But I think that’s the wrong metric. The measure I look at is what’s the impact we have on your life. I know it’s going to sound fluffy, but we legitimately ask people if we changed their life”—which nearly 20 percent of those polled said it did.
Silicon Valley has talked about changing the world and people’s lives for a long time, and it’s safe to say that it has succeeded. The world has been remade by private equity and venture capital. Tech has “disrupted” almost every aspect of modern living.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence, then, that we find ourselves in a golden age of self-help and self-development, of “how I did it” podcasts and conferences and workshops. We’re encouraged to optimize ourselves at all times, and told to look upon this as fun, albeit compulsory. But although you can get a lot out of these activities, you can waste time looking for the answer, when what these stories all reveal is that great success is a combination of doing the work and getting (or perhaps starting out) really, really lucky.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how prospectors in the California Gold Rush rarely struck it rich. In 1849, the ones who did well were those who supplied prospectors with shovels, tents, and jeans—they kept the dream alive. Samuel Brannan, who sold shovels and other goods, was considered California’s first millionaire. Levi Strauss, who co-invented blue jeans, died with a fortune of $6 million, worth $175 million today. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with supplying people with what they need to pursue their dreams, but it seems that during this time of growing wealth and social inequality, the jeans and shovels have become largely symbolic, and the prospecting they facilitate, the endless panning for something, anything, ever more intangible. There is no goal, really. The panning is the goal.