Stream when you’re winning: How laptop gigs became the new normal
t the start of the year, the L-word was just a twinkle in the event industry’s eye. “Before April, we’d never even talked about live-streaming,” says Russ Tannen, chief revenue officer at ticketing company Dice. “Most people were on the same page. People tried it in the past and it hadn’t really worked.” Yet as 2020 draws to a close, the live-streaming industry has proved a timely boon to an IRL live music sector that’s been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic. Artists as big-name as Dua Lipa, Gorillaz and Nick Cave have turned to creating online events in lieu of being able to tour, and thousands of others, across the genres, have followed suit.
The idea of an artist enjoying playing a gig to no crowd seemed bizarre at the start of the year. But for bands, it offered something different. “Honestly, I loved the experience,” says Carlos O’Connell, guitarist with Fontaines DC. The Irish band have recorded two special live-stream events this year: A Night At Montrose and a 360-degree VR show from the stage at Brixton Academy. “There’s something special about knowing people are listening at home,” he continues. “It’s like having a phone call with someone, you’re getting that connection.”
The early stages of the first lockdown saw artists, with their touring plans in tatters, experimenting by streaming shows on social media. There was an endearing homespun ingenuity to these free gigs on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, although grainy videos and dodgy internet connections gave these endeavours a short shelf life. However, Dice spied an opportunity to professionalise these shows, setting up a premium live-stream gig with Lewis Capaldi at the cost of £5.
“We set it up as a paid event,” says Tannen, “and people bought tickets, prepared their week around it, got excited about it. We saw the audience reaction and thought: there’s something here.” Dice alone has now streamed more than 4,500 events this year, helping to kickstart the monetisation of live- streaming.
But it wasn’t until Laura Marling’s stunning show at Union Chapel in June that the wider public began to take note. Marling’s manager is Brian Message, also the co-founder of Drift, a new production company specialising in live-stream events. “It worked incredibly well and sold 6,500 tickets,” he explains. “And we thought, if you’ve got high production values and you’re making the watcher the primary audience, there’s something in this.”
Following Marling, major artists have enjoyed huge successes as interest and ticket sales continue to grow. Nick Cave’s Idiot Prayer sold 35,000 tickets in July, while K-pop band BTS had more than 750,000 fans tune into their show this summer. Dua Lipa’s Studio 2054 was streamed more than 5 million times, while there’s been more unlikely triumphs elsewhere: opera singer Andrea Bocelli sold 70,000 tickets for his Believe In Christmas stream despite his largely older, less tech-savvy audience. As artists have charged more for tickets, the quality of the streams has grown massively: Studio 2054, Gorillaz’s Live from Kong and Billie Eilish’s Where Do We Go? all benefited from huge production values and highly stylised artistic direction, creating a new artform that incorporates elements of live concert, pop video and TV performance.
“There are things you can do that aren’t possible in a live show,” says singer Róisín Murphy, whose own live-streamed gig was a choreographed warehouse extravaganza as part of Mixcloud’s live stream series. “You can react to the different form; you’ve got flexibility to play around with lighting and rigs and setting. I put so much work into it, I ended up doing 10 jobs: styling, concept, directing, editing, singing, you name it.”
After initial scepticism, there is industry-wide acknowledgement that live-streaming is here to stay. Some of the advantages for artists have already been proved. Although some high-cost productions haven’t been overly profitable – Murphy says she didn’t make any money from her stream – many artists have found live-streaming a much-needed revenue boost. “We were paid well, which we needed this year,” says O’Connell.
Many live-streams are also finding extensive worldwide reach: Niall Horan’s show from the Royal Albert Hall was streamed in more than 150 countries. “It’s an exciting tool to reach people and know what touches people in places you can’t get to,” says Murphy.
From a fan perspective, the advent of mass live-streaming has plugged the gap where live concerts have been sorely missed. But the two things can co-exist. Tannen says demand for live-streams will remain high as they cater for a predominately different audience to the regular gig goer. “It’s hard to go to a gig. You have to live near a major city, be able to afford it, have no work or family commitments in the evening. It’s something people can do only occasionally. Live-streaming is bringing the live experience directly to people.”
The big question now is what happens when fully attended gigs return, post-vaccination, over the course of next year (or at least we hope). Both Tannen and Message predict that initially, hybrid events – socially distanced crowds with a live-streaming audience at home – will be the first to happen. The Barbican Centre has been an early adopter of this approach, streaming a series of 11 shows this year – eight with a small audience present – by the likes of The Divine Comedy and Richard Dawson. “We used the period of lockdown to improve our streaming product, invest in the equipment and upskill our staff,” says Huw Humphreys, Barbican’s head of music. “We’re really heartened by what’s transpired over the last few months. The real challenge now is how to combine what we’re doing now with the new normal.” His prediction? “Live-streaming with full concert halls has to be part of the future.”
Promoter Keith Miller agrees. Miller runs east London’s Moth Club, a 300-capacity venue that has enjoyed successful live-streams with up-and-coming artists like Biig Piig and Roxanne de Bastion. The Moth Club has invested in the technology to put on what Miller calls “true live-streams” – broadcasting regular gigs as they happen to online ticket holders rather than creating a perhaps more slick pre-record . “Live streams are here to stay,” Miller says, “and it’d be strange if a company like ours couldn’t do it.” Moth has already trialled true live-streams, which Miller admits are still “pretty terrifying. If your internet drops out, everything goes down. But bands are going to expect to be able to live-stream and we’ve worked hard to make it happen.”
Moth and Barbican aren’t the only venues to look ahead: Dice says it’s working with its partnered venues across the UK to ensure the infrastructure for live-streaming regular gigs is available. Message expects this trend to grow, and says as fans get used to the technology – working out how to book and watch the streams initially proved prohibitive – people will choose to stream from home rather than physically attend as behaviours change post-pandemic. “I heard (boxing promoter) Eddie Hearn say the other day that the new night out is a night in. There’s no doubt that some people are going to say, ‘Well, actually, rather than paying for those tickets for me and the family, getting in the car, queueing to get in, coming home late, I’m going to stay in and watch from home’.”
For venues, this represents an unforeseen chance to maximise profits and grow audience size. “We can lift the 2000 capacity of the venue,” Humphreys says. “That is an extraordinary opportunity.” Aside from the additional revenue, he suggests this will also benefit artists. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘I’ve never heard of that artist and was prepared to give it a go because it was a live stream, and now I would go and see them in concert.’ It’s almost like [by] not having to leave the house, they were more likely to take a chance on something.”
While not all artists would necessarily want their gigs online, many will recognise the extra earning potential and chance to reach new fans. O’Connell is happy for regular Fontaines DC shows to be live-streamed. “It’s like sporting events: some people go to the stadium but some also watch it at home. Fans who don’t go to the stadium still get to enjoy the experience at home with passion. As long as it didn’t intrude on the show for the people actually there, I’d like to see it happen.” Murphy agrees, with the caveat that the quality of the product needs to be guaranteed. “If I had control and could make sure the cameras were manned by people who knew what they were doing and the sound was captured correctly, then it could be exciting. If your tour’s up and running and the gigs are rolling, then why not?”
The possibility of integrating virtual reality into live streams is increasing, too. Fontaines DC’s Brixton Academy show was in association with MelodyVR, a company that has also produced recent shows for Blossoms and Burna Boy. VR allows the watcher to take a 360-degree view of the show, panning their device across and around the stage and zooming in on any angle they fancy. O’Connell called the watching the playback “a mad experience”, while curiosity about how it works is growing. “We’ve had artists ask about VR,” says Humphreys. Miller says he expects similar technology to eventually be deployed. “Live streams will become interactive, like gaming. You can imagine a crossover with Grand Theft Auto, with a band performing while you play.”
One knock-on effect of a higher prevalence of live-streaming could be a move away from the traditional gig cycle. Environmental concerns may see acts gig less and commit to more online events, while global stars like Beyoncé might view one-off spectacular live-streams as a lucrative substitute to a gruelling world tour. “Some artists are not going to want to tour for a variety of reasons,” Message says, “whether that’s climate, age, artistic or other. This is now an appropriate alternative.”
As with any widespread transformation, there are potential issues ahead. As Humphreys points out, venues already struggling to survive the pandemic might not have the funds to invest in technology for some time. The exact workload and profit share between acts, venues, labels and promoters is also a potential sticking point. “There’s an element of trepidation on how it’s going to settle, as it’s a massive change in dynamic,” Miller says. “Things have moved forward 10 years.”
The good news for the music fan is that choice looks certain to increase. And in some ways, live- streaming is an extension of what people already do: think of Glastonbury weekend, when millions are glued to the TV, watching performances live and interacting on social media. “More and more people are going to experience live music through live-streaming,” says Tannen, looking ahead to 2021. “It can become something people do instead of watching Netflix.”