It didn’t take long for coronavirus-related social distancing measures to drive Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard to livestreaming.
Just days after states and municipalities across America began restricting public gatherings, Gibbard’s team at Brilliant Corners Artist Management came to him with a proposition: How about streaming some songs?
“As is my way, I just took it a lot further than maybe anyone around me had kind of anticipated,” says Gibbard, who livestreamed hour-long sets from his Seattle home nightly from March 17 to 29, reaching more than 3.2 million viewers across Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, and has broadcast often since.
“I would be doing this without an audience, sitting around and playing songs,” Gibbard says. “This has the added bonus of being something that a fair amount of people want to tune into, and it’s giving them a respite from all of this craziness. And it’s giving me a sense of purpose that I probably otherwise wouldn’t have right now.”
More than a thousand miles down the coast, others followed suit.
Gary Richards, who DJs as Destructo, founded HARD Events and oversees a dance music empire as president of LiveStyle North America, played a sunrise set for a digital audience on March 22, broadcasting to fans via Twitch and Facebook from his Los Angeles home.
“It gave me something to look forward to,” says Richards, explaining that in this chaotic time, preparing for a gig – even a non-traditional one – introduced some normalcy.
“More than anything, it just made everybody happy,” he continues. “So many people were making pancakes on Sunday morning, having a mimosa, and they just took their mind off all this shit for a minute, and got to remember that this will pass and we’ll be able to get back to all being together and having fun.”
By now, anyone with an internet connection and social media knows the drill: As much of the population remains inside in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, artists may go live on any number of digital platforms at any hour of the day. Physical concerts have temporarily disappeared, but livestreaming options have multiplied exponentially.
The sea change has elevated the artists and companies that already were experimenting with streaming before the pandemic, while prompting new players to get involved and spurring a flurry of innovation. And the repercussions seem likely to linger well beyond the anticipated reopening of physical venues once the health crisis subsides.
GOING IT ALONE
Scores of artists have made solo livestreaming – from home studios, backyards, couches and other socially isolated locales – the new normal during the coronavirus crisis.
Many have been wading into the streaming waters for the first time, but some, like singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, had dabbled with the medium before public movement was restricted en masse. For almost a year, Wainwright has conducted a streaming series from his L.A. home, cheekily titled Robe Recitals to capture its informal nature.
“I was getting a lot of feedback for a while from fans, how much they love to see me practice in the morning in my bathrobe,” he says. “It was an immediate, natural fit to elaborate on that theme and start to address the public and start to sing full songs and stuff.”
Like Gibbard and Richards, Wainwright performs partly for himself: the release date for his latest album, Unfollow The Rules, was pushed from April to July due to the crisis, and he’s got plenty of free time on his hands.
“I want to point out that for me, as well as I bet most other artists, it’s just as much to help us as to help the world,” says Wainwright, detailing the “symbiotic relationship” livestreaming creates between artist and fan.
The connection is quintessentially 2020. Most livestreaming has grown in popularity and prevalence for years, from festival feeds to pay-per-view concerts to artist-generated content on social media, but a recent confluence of technological factors – intuitive platforms, reliable internet, cutting-edge hardware – has now made it viable for musicians to stream high-quality performances themselves that transcend grainy, for-diehards-only curios.
“It’s gotten way cheaper to do this,” says nugs.net founder Brad Serling, whose digital platform pioneered concert livestreaming and has hosted a bevy of archival and live programming during the crisis.
Nugs is best known for distributing gigs by A-listers including Dead & Company, Phish and Metallica, but it’s also hosted intimate sets during the crisis, including an 80-minute live performance by Zac Brown Band’s Clay Cook, recorded in his Atlanta living room with a MacBook and a high-quality microphone.
“The technology has definitely democratized what an artist can do,” Serling says. “All the video teams I work with would probably balk if I said that you can get a great stream out of an iPhone 11 – but we don’t need that $74,000 camera.”
Professional equipment has its uses, Serling says, but especially right now, “every night does not need to be the Super Bowl.”
In fact, the homespun quality of major streams has often been a selling point.
“Something that I’m noticing that the audiences are really responding to is just kind of having things just be a little lo-fi,” Gibbard says. “If I were to make any recommendation to any artists who are thinking about doing this, it would be to not worry about what it sounds like, what it looks like. People will be so grateful just to see your face and to hear your voice and to have some type of connection with you.”
Wainwright’s setup was even more lo-fi than Gibbard’s, which used a Focusrite 4-channel USB interface routed through Pro Tools.
“I’ve chosen so far to stay pretty real in terms of my technological offerings,” says Wainwright, who has eschewed even basic equipment like microphones as he sings at the piano while recording with his phone for Instagram Live.
Even Richards, who says he spent four days tinkering to optimize sound quality before going live, made concessions.
“I think the sound quality was solid,” he says. “I would’ve liked to have had a couple more cameras or some way to cut back and forth. But I figured as long as people are hearing the mix, it’s about the music, and that’s really the key.”
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
At first, artist livestreams were fascinating, ephemeral signs of the times, slotted among anodyne posts on Facebook or Instagram. The bite-size digital concerts existed to please and occupy fans stuck at home, to the extent they existed for a larger purpose at all.
That changed as the coronavirus crisis’ scope clarified. Venues weren’t being shut down for just days or weeks, but possibly months. Dates weren’t being postponed, but rather entire tours. Public gatherings were capped at 1,000, then 500, then 250, and then practically barred altogether. And the musicians who make their livings on the road, along with the crew members who support them, faced the ramifications immediately.
“Artists are really primed to be left out in the cold, especially the smaller ones,” says Brilliant Corners co-founder and Gibbard co-manager Joe Goldberg. “It is really scary for artists and for all of us.”
As it has in fraught times past, the live industry has banded together to meet these new challenges – and streaming has played a substantial role.
Multi-act streams, usually organized by promoters, labels or prominent artists, have proliferated over the last month, assembling formidable rosters of musicians, often with the greater good in mind.
One of the first was Luck Reunion’s ‘Til Further Notice, conceived and executed after Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion, held annually outside of Austin, Texas, was canceled. The stream united Nelson, Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, Paul Simon, Jewel, Margo Price and more to raise money for artists, encouraging viewers to “pass the boot” and throw in a few bucks. The stream garnered more than $200,000, split evenly between artists; several of the more well-off acts donated their cuts to charity.
“Right now is the time to work together versus separately, because there’s so many people doing stuff that you can group up and work together,” Luck Reunion co-founder Matt Bizer says. “It allows a centralized audience and focuses people, versus hundreds of tiny streams from everybody’s Instagram. Now is the time to band together with those communities that you have.”
Luck’s success even inspired others to do the same.
“That just blew my mind, how lo-fi and wonderful it was,” says Matt Sullivan, founder of indie label Light In The Attic, who remembers thinking, “Wow, this was honestly not horribly complicated!”
Subsequently, Sullivan and his team coordinated an April 3 livestream featuring Gibbard, Jarvis Cocker, Fred Armisen, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and more, benefitting MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund – one of the most common livestreaming beneficiaries –raised thousands.
Days after ‘Til Further Notice, indie-pop duo Lucius, which had appeared on that stream, hosted a stream from their home with Courtney Barnett on Instagram Live, bringing on Nathaniel Rateliff, Kurt Vile, Sharon Van Etten and others to benefit Oxfam’s COVID-19 relief fund on March 22. Proceeds exceeded $38,000.
“There’s a preciousness” to these streams, Lucius’ Jess Wolfe says. “It’s replacing the feeling that they would get from seeing an artist live in person. I think because there’s so many question marks, and time feels sort of at a standstill, people are looking for relief in any way they can get it.”
The search for relief is twofold: Artists and fans still crave the emotional balm of live music, and musicians, particularly smaller ones, need to recoup lost touring revenue.
“Within hours of seeing and hearing that our tours were going to be canceled, it wasn’t 24 hours before I started thinking of new ways to make the artists revenue and started thinking of who we partner with and how do we get creative with this,” says Ben Baruch, owner of 11E1even group, which manages acts such as Goose, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong and Twiddle.
Baruch teamed with nugs.net to launch Live From Out There, a six-week, pay-per-view streaming festival serving content from 11E1even artists and others, including Billy Strings. The series offers a la carte options as well as a streaming model, designed so that sales driven by larger artists can benefit smaller ones, too. To date, Live From Out There has raised upward of $200,000, with funds going to COVID-19 Fund established by the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund.
“We’re not drawing like we used to,” Marty Stuart wryly joked from the stage at the Grand Ole Opry on March 21, perched atop a stool six feet from Vince Gill, himself perched atop a stool another six feet from Brad Paisley.
The three country luminaries had convened at the iconic Nashville venue for the 4,916th consecutive broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry, which has aired every Saturday for 95 years. A once-in-a-century pandemic wasn’t going to break the streak.
“We spent a lot of time on figuring out the least amount of people that we could put into the Opry to put on a quality production,” says Opry Entertainment Group president Scott Bailey.
The Opry determined it could stage and stream its weekly event with about two dozen people, and then went to work virus-proofing the venue, which included disinfecting surfaces, establishing guidelines for distanced entry and exit and mapping out positions for performers and production staff in accordance with CDC guidelines. Organizers then sought an exemption from the stay-at-home order Mayor John Cooper had issued.
“The mayor really wanted to, in a safe environment, try to keep the show going, so long as we could meet those stringent requirements,” Bailey says.
Cooper dispensed the head of Nashville’s health department and the head of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center to inspect the Opry, and once they approved the venue’s measures, the city said the show could go on.
Without a physical audience, livestreaming ensured that show could be seen and heard. The performances were broadcast on television and radio, but also streamed live on Facebook and YouTube.
“We wanted to take advantage of streaming it to the masses so that people could see it and not miss out,” says Bailey, noting that more than a million viewers across 66 countries tuned in online. “We knew that we were hitting a chord.”
Raw, acoustic and intimate, the recent Opry gigs have mesmerized fans. Online viewers even get some extra content, because host Bobby Bones improvises when traditional broadcasters cut to commercial. Says Bailey: “It’s a little coordination challenge there.”
The Opry is an anomaly, of course. When government-imposed social distancing measures were less stringent in the early days of the coronavirus crisis, some artists still used traditional venues – albeit empty ones – to stream shows for fans. Code Orange (Hotstar, page 9) streamed an album release show from the Roxian Theatre just outside of Pittsburgh, Pa. on March 13, and Dropkick Murphys relocated its annual St. Patrick’s Day gig from House of Blues Boston to a soundstage in Derry, N.H.
As distancing regulations tightened, venues closed their doors. Expect something similar to happen, but in reverse, as the crisis recedes: There will likely be a period – weeks, maybe months – where small gatherings are permitted, but the crowds necessary to fill a club or theater will likely ramp up slowly. Streaming could serve a purpose there, too.
Nugs.net has cameras and encoders installed at several venues across the country, including New Orleans’ Tipitina’s and Manhattan’s Sony Hall, which will come in useful when, say, the congregation of a band and a small production crew is possible.
“It’s going to be state by state, city by city,” Serling says. “We’re ready to go when we can do it.”
Show postponements have now started to impact the summer months, and even in a best case scenario, it’s unclear when the live concert business will resume in a recognizable way. But streaming is filling the void.
Old stalwarts like nugs.net have cracked the code for robust streaming content, between Live From Out There and the free Rewind & Recline rebroadcast series, where archival content from various artists airs on designated days. Dead & Company, The Disco Biscuits and Widespread Panic, among others, have assigned nights, but the most successful has been #MetallicaMondays. Drummer Lars Ulrich introduces the sets, a fundraising component directs proceeds to the band’s All Within My Hands Foundation and the shows have drawn staggering viewership: A 2009 Copenhagen show streamed April 6 racked up 12 million views in less than 24 hours, and had more than 100,000 concurrent viewers during its initial stream.
As of April 7, nugs.net traffic had increased 670% over the past 30 days, and had raised more than $500,000 for charity over that period.
Meanwhile, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube have fortified already-strong streaming capabilities, introducing partnerships with artists and leveraging popular
platforms for charitable causes. Twitch (see page 12) has become a hub for music content, and Stageit, after more than a decade in
existence, has come into its own, helping to direct thousands of dollars to artists who have used the service to bring intimate gigs to audiences.
Tools like StreamYard, which Gibbard used to simulcast to Facebook Live and YouTube Live, and is also compatible with Twitch, LinkedIn and Periscope, have also filled a niche by allowing performers to easily disseminate livestreaming content across multiple platforms simultaneously while adding additional functionalities.
And while lo-fi streaming has dominated, high-quality options are emerging. Virtual reality music company MelodyVR, which delivers immersive concert experiences to mobile devices and VR headsets, has seen 700% user growth week-over-week during the crisis, founder and CEO Anthony Matchett says, and it’s developing more content to meet demand.
“A lot of these artists I see on Instagram, they’re used to being on stage in front of 50,000 people,” Matchett says. “Clearly at home in your kitchen, you don’t have the same sort of show, or even close to the same sort of performance you normally deliver to fans.
“They’re kind of cool, but it’s not something you’re going to do all year,” he continues. “The industry is certainly looking at how they can partake in something that’s a little more structured.”
Nugs.net’s Serling echoes the sentiment.
“Yes, everybody is out there doing this themselves with an Instagram account,” he says. “But if they do it through us, we can push it to various channels at once, and we can add a legitimate pay-per-view component.”
Free or paid, low quality or high, for charity or for profit, the coronavirus crisis has brought the music industry’s long-simmering livestreaming frontier to the fore.
“One of the fears has always been what role will digital concerts or virtual concerts and livestreaming have on the physical world,” says Michael Olson, who as head of Twitch Music has overseen one of the sphere’s fastest growing services.
“It can actually be supplemental and help branding,” Olson says. “The reality is, an artist can’t get to all their fans – and we have that footprint worldwide. We can bring the message and the connection.”