At the risk of peddling in clichés, this has undoubtedly been the year of the pivot. Within the music industry, this has largely revolved around the search for alternative revenue streams to replace live touring, for which the projected worldwide loss of turnover, based on Pollstar’s quarter one data, is estimated at $8.9 billion.
Paradoxically, 2020 had started promisingly, with gross earnings showing a 10.92% increase on 2019, and ticket counts rising by 4.55%. Had there been no pandemic, presuming that growth remained constant throughout the year, it was predicted the live industry would have amassed a total annual revenue of $12.2 billion. However, instead of happily counting their cash and blessing the gods of touring, SARS-CoV-2 left artists and managers scrabbling to pick up the pieces of shredded tour itineraries.
In the months that followed, experiments with socially distanced indoor shows and open-air festivals, as well as drive-in concerts, have all been tested out and found wanting. A lucky few have managed to create value through in-game and virtual-reality performances. But for the majority, at least for the moment, opportunities for their avatars to perform within these technologies are limited.
The only viable option to emerge from the wreckage of the pandemic was livestreaming, and yet, despite the lack of genuine alternatives, there was, and still is, a marked reluctance to embrace the genre. Whilst Erykah Badu was performing her ‘Quarantine Concert Series’ within ten days of the cancellation of her live tour, having built her own livestreaming company from scratch, many other artists and managers were busily dismissing the concept out of hand, with three main themes emerging from the dark fog of disgruntlement.
NO ENERGY? NO SOUND? NO MONEY?
The first centred around a lack of atmosphere, with the medium being denigrated for the absence of an audience, and the subsequent lack of adrenalin from which the artist could draw energy for the performance. As radio promotions are also performed sans audience, but without complaint, much of this seemed to be a knee-jerk reaction.
Certainly, when IDLES livestreamed a series of three performances from the Abbey Road Studios in London, their notoriously loquacious frontman, Joe Talbot, was noticeably subdued during the first performance, and acknowledged that he was nervous with the new format. Judging from this article in Rolling Stone magazine, his previous inhibitions had been shed by the third performance, when he delivered his usual ‘howling vocal performance … while writhing on the floor.’
The second caveat related to a deficiency of production values. Most complaints being reserved for the sound quality, which often struggled to replicate the tonal colour of all the instruments equally. This appeared to be a hangover from the early days of the pandemic, when a lot of performances were streamed with low production values on the general platforms. This may well have reflected a lack of familiarity with these platforms. Their DIY aspect deterring many artists from employing anything more technical than a USB microphone and an audio interface, occasionally supplemented by OBS software.
Production values improved with the migration from these generic platforms to the more collaborative specialist platforms, such as Dice, StageIt, Maestro and Side Door, who became more prominent as the pandemic developed. In addition to the technical help and advice provided as part of the package, they supported ticketed events, which allowed for a production budget.
Laura Marling’s performance at the Union Chapel in Islington, employed ‘state-of-the-art sound, lighting and camera equipment’. It also highlighted an advantage to performing without an audience, which ‘is that you can get incredible sound – close to studio quality … we could use mics on everything without fear of feedback.’
Finally, the perceived wisdom was that consumers would not be prepared to pay for livestreamed performances, and that the best you could hope for was to sell merchandise off the back of them.
However, market research conducted by Vivid Interface indicated that this fear was unfounded. Whilst most people were, naturally enough, not prepared to pay the same as they would for a live performance, they had no problem with paying for a livestreamed performance. Their survey suggested that optimum revenue for an online performance was achieved at £10.00 per ticket.
ENGAGEMENT, UNIQUENESS AND EXCLUSIVITY
Few artists will match KRS’s $18 million gross revenue for their livestreamed ‘Band Bang Con: The Live’ performance, which peaked at 756,600 concurrent viewers from 107 countries. However, this value creation was centred around fan engagement, which can be matched.
Livestreaming offers the opportunity to create a genuine connection between performer and audience. By encouraging those watching the livestream to comment, it is possible to engage in an interactive discourse. In this, rather than the bare bones of the performance itself, lies the value of livestreaming.
Livestreaming pioneer, Emma McGann, a long-time proponent of the medium, has even developed an Amazon Alexa skill to enable her fans to interact with her. As she states: ‘Live streaming is interactive content. It's not a YouTube video where they sit back and maybe leave a comment afterward. It's content where they can have an imprint in real-time.’
Uniqueness and exclusivity are the other key components of livestreaming. Whether the uniqueness of using iconic venues, or playing collaborative deep-cut set lists, created in real-time with fans requesting songs throughout the performance. Or the exclusivity of limited edition, or geo-locked, performances, or offering up special features for fan club members only. They are the points of difference, upon which ticket sales can be draped.
A LONG-TERM INVESTMENT
Livestreaming is not new. Festivals have been exploiting the medium for years. Coachella 2019 gained 82.9 million live views over the three days that it ran. As the IMMF’s Jake Beaumont-Nesbitt stated when interviewed by ILMC’s IQ magazine, ‘the coronavirus crisis has “accelerated and diverted” what was already happening in this online live event space.’
Ric Salmon and Brian Message of ATC management, recognising this potential, launched Driift in August. The company is dedicated to producing and promoting ticketed livestreamed shows, in the belief ‘that paid-for livestreaming will offer a sustainable and complementary experience in the future, unlocking new creative opportunities and revenue streams.’
One of the investors in Driift is the Beggars Group. Ruth Barlow, their director of live licensing, believes there is potential for ‘a business that both the live industry and labels can share in’ and that ‘a healthy online business can sit comfortably aside real-time events and has the potential to generate ancillary revenue for rightsholders, promoters and artists alike.’
DICE, who handled the ticketing for Laura Marling’s Union Chapel performance are equally adamant that livestreaming has a long-term future. As their CEO, Phil Hutcheon, acknowledged: ‘If we thought this was just going to be during this period, then we wouldn’t have put the resources that we have behind it.’
This long-term future is important, because there is still a degree of ambivalence over livestreaming, with many viewing it as no more than a stop gap; a necessary expediency until ‘normality’ returns. However, does it make sense to view it as a straight replacement, to be ditched once live performances recommence in earnest?
HYBRID TOURING AS THE NEW NORMAL
The fact is that the ‘new normal’ for touring is likely to involve straitened circumstances for most artists. Live Nation’s leaked memo, sent out to booking agents in relation to festivals, is evidence of that, with the global entertainment company outlining changes that they intended to make to their artist agreements. A trio of changes stood out; the plans for guaranteed fees to be reduced to 80% of previous standards; the artists’ fee for performances cancelled due to poor ticket sales being reduced to 25% of the guarantee; and the artist being required, should they cancel the performance, to reimburse the promoter twice the amount of the guaranteed fee.
Charles Attal, co-President of Live Nation subsidiary C3 Presents, subsequently declared that the memo was merely a starting point for discussions. He also asserted that clawback provisions, dependent on the financial success of the festival, would increase income to pre-pandemic levels. Nevertheless, it is still difficult to envisage anything other than a 2021 of belt-tightening frustration for the live industry, especially as it is likely that, short term at least, consumer caution will reduce attendances at live performances.
There have been numerous surveys undertaken since the pandemic started, all designed to gauge consumer readiness to attend live performances. Whilst these have illustrated that most fans are ready to return, they have also demonstrated that a more cautious attitude still exists. A significant percentage preferring to wait between three to six months before returning.
More interestingly, a survey by the events agency Identity illustrated that, whilst 80% of respondents did not feel that livestreaming could replace live performances, 79% believed that all future events should offer up both virtual and live options.
There is an obvious correlation to sport here. The new normal should include both live and livestreamed performances, as well as hybrid touring, in which live shows are simultaneously livestreamed, offering such incentives as back-stage access and 360° front-row vantage-points for on-line viewers.
DICE has already witnessed the advent of hybrid shows in Europe, and has been encouraging venues to develop their livestreaming capabilities. With some success in London, as both the Islington Academy Hall and the Camden Underworld are now set up to stream live performances.
Dan Mangan, co-founder of Side Door, is also convinced that hybrid touring is the way forward: ‘… a year from now … every single successful venue is going to have a built-in, five-camera setup … so that any show that they want to stream they can.’
Despite the resistance and the scepticism, livestreaming has undeniably filled a void. It cannot replicate the sweat, blood and tears of a live performance. But then it never claimed that it could. It was never intended as a like-for-like replacement. It simply offered up an alternative medium for an artist to present their creative output to a world in lockdown. But in doing so, it has demonstrated a template for long-term value.
Hybrid touring offers the best of both worlds, because there are few things in life that can match the exhilarating, life-affirming, stressbusting, nostalgia-building, crowd-unifying, dopamine-releasing, mental-health boosting escape of a live gig.
But occasionally. If the thought of traipsing home in the small hours, in the freezing cold, or the pouring rain, in the middle of the week, with work only a few hours away, does not appeal. You can stay at home and watch it in bed.
Article written by Harry Marlow