The Venue Streaming Pivot
Theaters And Clubs Keep The Flame Burning With Livestreams
America’s music venues have been largely empty since the spring, when the coronavirus pandemic forced the concert business mostly offline.
Other than artists and production teams, that is. After initial, stringent stay-at-home orders lifted, venues quickly began hosting professionally produced livestreamed concerts that approximated shows of yesteryear better than the couch performances that dominated the digital space in March and April.
In the months since, audience-less shows from revered venues big and small have become commonplace, providing a winning situation for all parties involved.
“It’s helping to nourish the industry ecosystem that we so utterly believe in, from sound and lighting techs to the musicians, getting them out of their homes or home studios and onto a stage, and even their representatives in the talent buying industry,” said David Handler, co-founder of 700-capacity Manhattan club Le Poisson Rouge, which launched the LPR.tv streaming series in October. “And, above all, to give our public a chance to get some semblance of normalcy.”
Early in the pandemic, artists connected with fans primarily via homespun livestreams, often recorded from couches or at dinner tables with laptops or smartphones. But as the crisis deepened and it became clearer that venues would be shuttered for most of 2020 — and, in all likelihood, well into 2021 — both industry professionals and audiences began seeking higher-quality streaming options.
“Seeing production is so important,” Handler said. “It was very charming and interesting to have a window into an artist’s home or home studio and see them so generously putting out what they make, creatively, from a home space. But at this point, people frankly want a fully produced show. Having multiple HD cameras, beautifully edited live and with sound mixed from the board and really seeing a fully produced show is refreshing right now.”
Since LPR.tv launched with a show by indie-pop band Cults on Oct. 1, the programming series has extended Le Poisson Rouge’s reputation for eclectic booking into the digital space, bringing artists from dance-punk outfit !!! to hip-hop legend GZA to jammy rocker Ryley Walker to audiences. Most shows offer a la carte tickets between $10 and $15, but subscriptions, which go for $20 a month and give patrons access to all of LPR.tv’s new and archived shows, provide better value.
Refreshingly, the a la carte and subscription models allow Le Poisson Rouge to give back to generous fans who choose to support the venue during this challenging time.
“A lot of folks just want to support the venue in an ongoing way,” Handler said. “We certainly were very fortunate and grateful to have really strong support of our Kickstarter campaign (this summer). Here, we have something to give back. It isn’t a gift or a donation from our public, but really something where they can count on getting from us a half-dozen-plus shows per month of really pristine quality.”
In Chicago, Windy City institution The Hideout — a fraction of Le Poisson Rouge’s size — was among the first venues in the country to get into the streaming game.
“We’re rockin’ it,” said Katie Tuten, the club’s co-owner. “A week after we closed, we started online programming because we needed to stay connected with our community. I think we were one of the first to start a subscription, as well.”
Le Poisson Rouge and The Hideout both work with NoonChorus, a nascent livestreaming platform launched at the pandemic’s outset that has helped indie artists and venues monetize digital performances.
“We partnered with NoonChorus because there was a lot of back and forth on which platforms to use, and they were just really nice guys,” Tuten said. “They were first out of the box, and came up with a very unique and simple platform for us to utilize.”
Scores of other venues have streamed shows from their stages, even without the type of robust subscription-based model on offer from clubs such as Le Poisson Rouge and The Hideout.
Mandolin, another livestreaming platform launched since the arrival of coronavirus, has offered venues resources for producing content, and has signed deals with spaces including City Winery and Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.
“So much of it has actually been matchmaking,” Mandolin co-founder Mary Kay Huse told Pollstar in October. “We’re having conversations with all these different venues, figuring out how they keep their doors open. … It’s really evolved so clearly into building relationships at the artist level, but then also with the venues to help provide this comprehensive solution and bringing everyone together to put on the best shows possible. It’s more than just plugging something into a computer to put on a good livestream. It takes all the stakeholders involved to put on the type of premium monetized experiences that we do.”
Other examples abound. Long before the pandemic, streaming stalwart nugs.net had hardwired several venues across the country with A/V rigs for broadcasting shows; earlier this fall, the platform streamed performances by the likes of Tiësto, Fitz and the Tantrums and Billy Strings from Colorado’s iconic Red Rocks Amphitheatre. LiveXLive has facilitated virtual tours by artists affiliated with the Live From Out There series, including one by Twiddle that took the Vermont jam band to empty clubs throughout its home state. Roxy Theatre co-owner Cisco Adler helped launch NoCap earlier this year, and the platform has hosted gigs at several venues, including a paid Foo Fighters stream from the storied West Hollywood club Nov. 14.
Even some of the venue sector’s most well-known figures have embraced audience-less gigs. Promoter and venue operator Peter Shapiro was set to open the latest branch of his Brooklyn Bowl network in Nashville in mid-March; after his spring launch was scuttled, Shapiro enlisted Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires for a Brooklyn Bowl Nashville gig sans audience in mid-May.
“The living rooms are nice, but I think people are ready to see performances from venues again,” Shapiro told Pollstar at the time. “It would be best to have a crowd there. However, at this point, I’ll take just doing it from a stage, with full concert sound.”
Elsewhere in Music City, Nashville institution the Grand Ole Opry navigated tricky public health guidelines to continue the uninterrupted streak of weekly performances it has maintained for nearly a century. Serendipitously, the Opry had launched Circle, a new content platform, in January, which helped it pivot into the digital space.
“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,” Opry Entertainment Group President Scott Bailey told Pollstar in April. “We wanted to take advantage of streaming it to the masses so that people could see it and not miss out.”
In doing so, Bailey discovered something many in the venues space have: untapped markets and audiences. Early shows reached more than a million viewers in 66 countries — not bad for a Nashville country venue.
Livestreaming has given venues a way to reach audiences well beyond the municipalities, regions, states and even countries they inhabit, and will likely remain a component of the industry’s offering even when venues begin welcoming audiences again.
“It even gives us an opportunity to speak to a global community in a way that we otherwise might not and give folks who maybe have never had a chance to get the LPR experience to do that,” Handler said. “(Livestreaming) will always, to a certain degree, be worth considering, and potentially continuing to do long after we’re able to open our doors, because there’s a lot of folks who might have a different idea of what safety is or who may live in a different hemisphere. … I’m definitely open to continuing this model after we’re able to have people in the house physically, but we’ll also be really excited when folks can be in the room, of course.”
Dayna Frank, CEO of Minnesota’s First Avenue Productions and board president of the National Independent Venue Association, agrees.
“I’m excited about livestreaming as an additive,” she told VenuesNow in September. “I don’t think it’ll ever replace being 10 feet from your idol in a roomful of people. But I think as an additive, it’s going to be incredibly impactful for both the artists and the promoters.”