An Old-School Technology Suddenly Explodes
Most of America’s music venues have been closed to audiences since mid-March, when coronavirus shutdown orders took the live business as we know it offline.
But, while it’s small consolation, livestreaming has kept the irreplaceable spontaneity of concerts front of mind. Legions of artists, from little-known local acts to stadium headliners, have taken to a slew of visionary streaming platforms – some created this year, some enduring players in the sector – to continue bringing homebound fans fresh live content.
Improbably, the livestreaming sector has capitalized on the potential that optimists identified early in the pandemic. It’s easy to forget now, but back in March, livestreaming’s success wasn’t a given: Industry figures derided the grainy, low-quality streams that were prevalent initially, and many wondered whether fans would pay for streamed gigs, assuming artists, promoters and platforms figured out how to monetize them at all.
“It’s giving me a sense of purpose,” Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard, who began livestreaming from his home on March 17, told Pollstar in the spring. “Something that I’m noticing that the audiences are responding to is just kind of having things just be a little lo-fi.”
Modern laptops and smartphones are advanced enough that they let Gibbard and scores of his peers immediately go digital, even if the streams were decidedly less-than-professional in quality. Largely hosted on established social networks such as YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, the streams were designed to comfort audiences; many were free and promoted various charities. But as spring bled into summer and the crisis deepened – and venues remained offline – artists increasingly turned to streaming for revenue. That necessitated better production.
“The audience is ready for full production,” nugs.net founder and CEO Brad Serling told Pollstar in July. “They’re ready for a high-quality stream, a full production concert, not just a dude on his couch in the living room doing Instagram or Facebook Live.”
Serling’s one of many streaming professionals who saw business change over night. nugs.net began hosting livestreamed video pay-per-views in 2010, with Phish at Madison Square Garden, and generally focused on jam bands and classic rock – until the pandemic, when artists from Tiësto to Fitz and the Tantrums came knocking.
“Fans are definitely willing to pay for a livestream of their favorite band,” Serling said. “It used to be that livestreaming was an add-on to the business; now it is the business, because you can’t have a ticketed event and have a crowd in the venue.”
Management company 11E1even Group, which represents several jam and jam-adjacent acts, was among the first entities to cater to fans willing to pay for livestreaming content, through its Live From Out There series, initially hosted on nugs.net and then on LiveXLive.
“‘How do we make sure we’re going to be able to keep these bands afloat that we represent?’” 11E1even co-founder Ben Baruch recalled thinking.
In LiveXLive, Live From Out There found a streaming partner that provided the bells and whistles the pandemic has made standard, including integrated merchandise sales, tipping and interactive chats.
“We’ll never replicate the feeling of being in a live music venue, and we don’t want to, but we can create new ways to connect on a screen, and that’s really where we’re pushing toward,” LiveXLive president Dermot McCormack told Pollstar in June. “One of the key, key, key pieces of this idea of ‘Will people pay for live music in digital and on screens?’ is the creative conversation with the artist. You could have all the technology in the world, but if the performance and the artistic rendering is not there, then it doesn’t really matter.”
Content reigns supreme of course, and A-listers like BTS and Billie Eilish have made bank with headline-grabbing virtual performances, while testing the boundaries of the medium itself. But the platforms have nevertheless played crucial roles, deepening the connection between fans and performers and – to an extent – replicating the discovery once facilitated by venues.
Take Mandolin, a nascent platform created after the pandemic’s arrival.
“It’s a totally crowded space,” the company’s co-founder Mary Kay Huse acknowledged in an October interview with Pollstar. “But we are purpose built for livestreaming. We’ve built a team that is deliberately a mix of people from the music industry and people from the tech industry.”
With a cutting-edge tech offering, Mandolin has vaulted to the front of the pack, securing venue partnerships with the likes of City Winery and Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, and hosting ambitious digital events like the #iVoted Election Day stream, which assembled hundreds of artists across more than a dozen stages for a 14-hour music festival.
Like LiveXLive, Mandolin has worked to “enhance the features around the livestreaming event itself,” Huse said, in an effort to aid struggling artists and venues and create a more well-rounded experience for consumers.
“Early on, there was lots of cynicism: Was livestreaming going to exist beyond the pandemic?” Huse said. “Fans are responding really well. We’re in an all-digital world – there’s no going back. This is our new normal.”
In this new normal, audiences have many choices. Veeps’ artist-friendly model has assisted struggling performers, while NoCap’s venue-centric approach has helped the clubs and theaters that have spent 2020 in dire straits; NoonChorus has similarly tailored its offering to aid those parties.
“How does this moment become the next evolution of disrupting music?” NoCap founder Cisco Adler told Pollstar in August. “We know that [livestreaming] has been extremely successful and it’s here to stay. In a similar way, this moment when an audience is being forced to experience something a certain way, we can provide a premium, awesome product that when they do experience it they come away with the enthusiasm that we’ve been seeing.”
Meanwhile, Driift and MelodyVR have emerged as some of the sector’s highest-quality options, and Fans and LoopedLive have torn down barriers between audience and performer, through the former’s immersive “be in the stream” feature and the latter’s video meet and greets. More crop up every day: As this issue was going to print, Bandcamp, which has buoyed struggling artists financially during the pandemic, announced Bandcamp Live, a ticketed livestreaming platform with virtual merch tables and integrated chat functionality.
And, while the live industry awaits a proper return, even its most ardent proponents think livestreaming’s sticking around.
“I’m excited about livestreaming as an additive,” Dayna Frank, board president of the National Independent Venue Association, 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.”
One of the most exciting aspects of the livestreaming sector – other than the basic fact that it has offered a glimmer of hope in an otherwise challenging year for the industry – is that, despite its many advancements in 2020, its ceiling in 2021 and beyond seems high.
“It’s been a lot of doom and gloom, but at the same time, at least from my perspective, there’s been a lot of amazing things happening in music that I think we’re going to live with for a very long time to come, in a good way,” LiveXLive’s McCormack told Pollstar in October. “We don’t necessarily know where the live music is going in 2021, [but] we want to be part of the new reality that COVID’s set up.”
Added Huse: “As fast as the market’s moved, it’s still really in its early days.”