Q’s With nugs.net’s Brad Serling: How Streaming Platform Is Adapting During Coronavirus Crisis

Courtesy of nugs.net
– Saturday Night Livestream
Dead & Company’s One More Saturday Night series has been among the many offerings served up by nugs.net during the coronavirus crisis.

Since 1997, nugs.net has provided fans with premium concert audio of artists including Phish, Pearl Jam, Metallica, Bruce Springsteen and more. For a decade, the service has also delivered streaming video, often live, helping to pioneer the cottage industry of the couch tour, allowing fans to enjoy their favorite artists from the comfort of their own homes.

Naturally, the coronavirus crisis has been a busy time for nugs.net, which saw traffic to its site increase 670% from March 7 to April 7.

“This is what we do every day, it’s just that now it seems more important than ever,” founder Brad Serling tells Pollstar.

As the physical touring industry has paused and much of the country has hunkered down at home, Serling and his team have worked to bring a slew of high-quality content to audiences. That’s included the nightly Rewind and Recline series, which airs free archival streams of marquee nugs.net artists like Dead & Company, Widespread Panic, Tedeschi Trucks Band and, most notably, Metallica.

“The Metallica series has been the most successful in terms of reach and the number of users seeing it,” says Serling, explaining that entries in the Metallica Mondays series, like a 2009 Copenhagen show and a 2017 Paris show, have attracted as many as 100,000 concurrent viewers when live and surpassed 20 million total views across platforms.

“Males between 35 and 40 in Sao Paolo, that was our biggest cluster of audience” for the Copenhagen show, he says. “Metallica has that global reach, which we don’t see with all our other bands. A band like Phish is very U.S. focused.”

nugs.net has alos offered paid broadcasts like the Live From Out There series, streamed via its nugs.tv platform and dominated by livestreams, which offer an added dimension that archival streams don’t.

“There’s an element of a beacon of hope in an otherwise world of despair, that a fan can see their favorite artist from around the world live and know that that artist is still alive and kicking,” he says. “Yes, everybody is out there doing this themselves with an Instagram account. 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.”

Serling connected with Pollstar to discuss nugs.net’s business during the crisis, the technological advances that have made widespread livestreaming possible and what’s next for the company.

Pollstar: When the crisis hit, did you see an increase in artists reaching out to work with nugs.net?
Brad Serling: 1000% yes. Phone calls, emails, random text messages. What’s interesting is it hasn’t been genre specific. We’re certainly known for the jam band world and the classic rock world, but we’ve had calls for everything from opera to symphonies and orchestras, jazz, comedy, conferences that just wanted to stream their conferences. The circumstances aren’t great, but I’m happy to help because this is what we do. This isn’t new to us.

Can you tell me about the success you’ve had with the Rewind and Recline series?
We’re making lemonade out of lemons. Every night at 8 p.m. there’s something that you can watch on TV that’s free. It’s basically just to provide fans the feeling that there’s something that they can look forward to. “Hey, if I’m a Deadhead, I’m going to look forward to Saturday night, One More Saturday Night with the Dead.” It’s the next best thing to actually being at the show. If it’s a show you were at, you’re going to be psyched to rewatch it. Honestly, it has been overwhelming in terms of the response and the reach and just the sheer volume, frankly, that we’ve reached.

What about the success of Live From Out There?
Billy Strings, we had like 7,500 people paying to watch [April 4]. That’s a stellar number for any artist doing a pay-per-view, whether you’re Phish, Metallica, Dead or Billy Strings. It shows on one hand the demand, also the tentpole rallying effect that eventizing these things is having. Certainly when an artist is actually live that’s very compelling as a pay-per-view, but we’re also doing pay-per-view series for on-demand video. The nightly ones – Metallica Monday, Dinner and a Movie with Phish – those are eventized livestreams, but from an archived recording, and those are free on nugs.tv and then pushed out to the bands’ Facebook and YouTube simultaneously with a donate component. That’s one model we’ve been doing, and it’s been very successful. The pay-per-view model we’ve been doing the most with that Live From Out There series.

The coronavirus crisis has presented huge financial challenges for many in the music industry. Can you speak to nugs.net’s charitable integration and efforts to support artists?
We’ve been doing Dead & Company on Saturday nights with One More Saturday Night, which has been successful as a fundraiser for MusiCares. With Phish it’s a fundraiser for Waterwheel, their organization. Metallica goes to All Within My Hands which is their organization, and they pick different groups to fund through their organization. All told we’ve already raised half a million dollars.

nugs.net is the primary revenue source for almost all of our artists aside from ticket sales. So, in a world without ticket sales, we all of the sudden are putting food on their table. We are that significant to them, because these are bands that, over the last 20 or so years, have released every note they’ve played live through us. There’s a significant stockpile of music that we have released that is currently available on the nugs.net streaming service that is now going to be the primary source of revenue for these artists until they can get back on the road. With the exception of a Bruce Springsteen or perhaps a Pearl Jam or a Metallica, most of the other artists we’re working with, they’re earning more from their live recorded masters that are distributed exclusively through us than they are from their catalog. That becomes even more important now, when there’s no new revenue coming in and no new masters being created. We have to look inward and look at what we’ve already released and resurface that. The good news, and the beauty of the long-tail streaming service, is it’s there and it’s all generating revenue every time a song is played, without any additional work for the artist. There’s frankly an overwhelming amount of material we have available on our service, so it’s an editorial challenge to get it out there and spoon-feed it to fans, now that there’s nothing new being added from last night’s show – because the main reason why people subscribe to nugs.net is so they can get last night’s show. 

nugs.net has hardwired setups at several venues across the country. Is is possible that nugs would stream audience-less shows, once shelter in place measures loosen slightly?
We’ve had discussions about that. We have Sony Hall in Manhattan, we have Tipitina’s [in New Orleans], we have Terrapin Crossroads [in Marin County], we have the Blue Room in Nashville. we do have these places lined up with cameras and encoders. we can’t get into them right now. One or people can get in, but it’s not enough to actually put on a show. But we plan to, once we can. It’s going to be state by state city by city. We’re just playing wait and see. We’re ready to go when we can do it and we’ve done outreach with several of our artists. When we can, we will be doing pay-per-views at those venues with bands performing without an audience. We’re also looking at some interesting things like having bands jam together, but remotely. Where let’s say the four band members are all at different locations, but they’re using collaborative real-time tools.

From a technical perspective, can you explain how encoders and nugs.net’s livestreaming more generally work?
The encoder is what takes the live video feed and sends what’s called a mezzanine stream, a high-quality stream, to our cloud transcoders. From wherever we’re going live, there’s the video source, which is a single camera or a group of cameras through a video switcher and a director. Maybe they’re robos, maybe they’re handhelds. That all gets fed into the encoder which sends the high-quality stream securely to our cloud. nugs.net, as a network we have several cloud transcoders strategically placed around the world, called our ingest servers. Whether it’s from one of our venues that were pre-installed or whether it’s a band on the road or an artist in his home studio, they’re sending it to the closest ingest point on our network, then that stream gets sliced and diced based on where we are sending it to. From that one stream, we can send it out to an artist’s Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Twitch. When we do Jack White, he goes to Third Man Records’ socials, it goes to Jack White’s socials, it goes to the Raconteurs’ socials. That all happens from one origin stream. We manage all of that in the cloud, and then if it’s a pay-per-view, the same stream goes out to our customers, and whether they bought it on their phone, they bought it on their Apple TV and our native app or they bought it through a browser, they can watch it anywhere and it’s delivered from that same contribution stream.

We make it as simple as possible to the point where we’ve had artists just do it from their living room on their MacBook. We had Clay Cook from Zac Brown Band just sitting in his living room in Atlanta with a MacBook and a high-quality microphone. He played for an hour and 20 minutes, live, he sent us the stream from his laptop – he used his laptop, we gave him the encoding software to put on his laptop. It’s doable off a MacBook, it’s even doable off your phone. The latest iPhones are powerful enough and have great enough cameras; we give an artist an app to put in their phone. It works just like FaceTime except it’s sending it to us instead of to your mom.

If this had happened 10 years ago, although nugs was up and running at the time, it would’ve been a little bit more challenging, I would assume, to be doing this breadth of video streams.
Absolutely. nugs.net has been around since 1997. We started with Phish on a paid basis in 2002 on the audio side. We started doing the live video pay-per-views in 2010, with Phish at the Garden. Back in 2010, we had to rent encoders every night, because they were so expensive, and even when we first started doing 4K, which was with Phish last year at the Garden, we had to rent the 4K encoders. Those are like $100,000 encoders. The technology was very expensive, still is on the high end, but there’s enough technology today in 2020, combined with the increased power that’s in the palm of your hand with an iPhone or one of the latest MacBooks that it’s gotten way cheaper to do this. The same reason we have all the DIY musicians that don’t need a studio because they can sit with Ableton. The technology has definitely democratized what an artist can do. 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. As with anything, you’re going to get a better quality stream with a higher-end production top to bottom. The technology is there. You want to do it the right way, you do it the right way. But every night does not need to be the Super Bowl.

What new technology improvements have helped nugs bring the best possible quality to fans?
What’s been the most surprising to me is how the cost of satellite transmission has plummeted. When the Chili Peppers asked us if we could broadcast live from the foot of the Great Pyramid, it would’ve been cost prohibitive even a couple years ago, but we were able to pull it off last year because the cost of doing satellite broadcasts has come down. Satellite time has gotten pretty cheap. It used to be a pretty exclusive club of who could afford to buy satellite airtime and afford to get a truck or a dish out there. Now you can have a dish that folds up and fits into a case that goes in the overhead compartment [of an airplane] and you can show up anywhere in the world and book the satellite airtime and it’s much more affordable.

What misconceptions might artists have about livestreaming?
For well-established artists, there can be a misconception of “Why should I do this?” Before, our answer was, “Well, it’s a great way to engage your fans, and you don’t do it just for the money, you’re doing it for the exposure and the true connection with your fans.” What I’ve always told artists over the years, no matter who the artist is, the most valuable thing you have as an artist – unless you’re Paul McCartney and are sitting on a catalog of songwriting – is that three hours in the room with your fans. That is your single most valuable commodity. What nugs.net does is it gives you other avenues to develop that valuable asset, other means of exploitation of that asset. Because usually the lights come up after three hours, you’re done. That’s it. You move on to the next town. Where nugs.net comes in is we’re extending that value by giving it to the fans who were in the room, giving it to the fans who couldn’t make it, letting them watch it live. That was in the touring world. Now those artists have lost their most valuable asset; they can’t get people in the room for three hours. Now it’s even more important: How do you reach those fans?

This interview was edited for length and clarity. For more about livestreaming during the coronavirus crisis, revisit Pollstar‘s current cover story.