– Billy Streams
Bluegrass guitar whiz Billy Strings performs for an empty Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colo., in a Sept. 26 pay-per-view livestream broadcast by nugs.net.
Most American venues have been closed to physical audiences since March, when the pandemic forced them to shutter. Drive-in shows approximated in-person concerts, but the most common way listeners connected with live music in 2020 was via livestreaming, an established format that assumed new importance – and met increased demand – as artists and audiences sought release in a year of adversity.
High-quality concert livestreaming has been around for years, but the pandemic popularized the once-niche “couch tour,” with all sorts of artists seeking to recoup lost touring revenue, raise money for charities and emotionally support fans. Early pandemic streams often consisted of grainy, phone-shot footage broadcast from living rooms not suited for prime time, but as 2020 progressed, artists acclimated to the medium, investing in better production and leaving home, venturing to empty venues or even far-flung locales like the Grand Canyon.
“It was a tough year, but the artists as usual stepped up, brought some creativity and put some really interesting things out there,” says Dermot McCormack, who as LiveXLive president oversaw partnerships with Zac Brown Band, Darius Rucker, Pitbull, Wiz Khalifa and jam series Live From Out There, among others.
“This is the next generation music video,” says LiveXLive founder, chairman and CEO Rob Ellin. “It’s driving audio sales. It’s going to drive ticket sales when live comes back. It’s not just about the livestream, it’s about the curation. It’s about delivering something unique.”
Artists and a bevy of platforms – from veterans like nugs.net and YouTube Music to newcomers such as Mandolin and NoonChorus – cracked livestreaming’s code, devising strategies to engage viewers, monetize content, integrate merch sales and harness modern technology’s potential to bring quality sets to fans far and wide.
Nugs.net, long a live hub for titans including Dead & Company, Bruce Springsteen, Phish and Pearl Jam, saw huge growth: In 2019, it hosted 150 pay-per-views from 26 bands; in 2020, it hosted 270 such streams from 145 bands, contributing to more than 1,000 total livestreams.
“We just saw that explosive appetite both from the artist side and the audience side for livestreaming on a paid basis, in addition to the free streams that we ran,” says nugs.net founder and CEO Brad Serling. “We created these galvanizing events that got fans to get together without getting together.”
Nugs’ most popular series was “Metallica Mondays,” weekly archival concerts streamed by longtime nugs clients Metallica to benefit their All Within My Hands Foundation. The success convinced Metallica to stage its first pay-per-view – and only 2020 show – in November, which raised $1.3 million for charity. Tickets started at $15, but a $95 option allowed fans to appear on video walls around the band’s members, who could interact with them in real-time.
Dissolving barriers between musicians and audiences may be livestreaming’s biggest impact going forward. In 2020, Twitch Music increased hours of music content watched year-over-year by 550%, in no small part because its community-minded platform encouraged artists from rappers at Rolling Loud to Phish’s Trey Anastasio to engage in dialogue with audiences while playing.
“Twitch is a place where artists can find a home to build that community and spend quality time with them,” says Twitch Music head Tracy Chan. And Twitch’s integrated monetization helped artists. Says Chan: “On Twitch, there is an expectation that you support your favorite creator.”
These platforms’ sharp growth seems unlikely to slow, even as the pandemic’s end nears.
Take Mandolin, a premium platform launched in spring that will have staged nearly 400 shows by year’s end. The service, which has teamed with venues like the Ryman Auditorium and City Winery, unites monetization, merchandising, VIP experiences and community features like private viewing rooms, and is eyeing a data-driven, hybrid model when physical touring returns.
“We are reaching fans that weren’t targets before,” says co-founder Mary Kay Huse. “Maybe they will now want to go to a show, so it’s been a fan acquisition tool. Or maybe they will always just be livestream fans, and that’s a completely incremental fanbase that didn’t exist before.”
Either way, it’s a win for all parties that will likely broaden engagement with live music.
“We’re pushing forward what it means to be live and what the audience looks like, worldwide,” says Chan, detailing how San Francisco’s Outside Lands went digital on Twitch during the pandemic – as Inside Lands – with a mix of live and archival sets, with commentary and online Q&As. “They extended their audience to millions of people, more people than could fit in the physical venue, and it was a global audience.”
Still, while livestreaming is reaching untapped audiences, even advocates see it as additive.
“Will it replace the entire live physical [music sector]?” McCormack posits. “No, it won’t, and I hope it doesn’t, because we love live physical music. But can it be an amazing complement and a different type of platform for artists? 1,000%.”