Blog COVID-19

Has live streaming suddenly become music's primary format (and artist revenue stream)?

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by Keith Jopling

It seems like the longer Covid 19 hangs around, the more desperate the live music business starts to sound. In a telling recent interview with Bob Lefsetz, Marc Geiger made his view clear that not next year but 2022 will be the year the live music business can truly come back to life ‘as normal’ (and, given pent-up demand by then, possibly bigger than ever for the venues and promoters still on the scene). Geiger’s statement rings true because having already left his position as global head of music at Endeavor/WME – his insight is clear headed and unencumbered. 

The idea of a wait until 2022 is a world of pain for the live sector. The major promoters and venue owners have reserves of cash and can borrow on future earnings, while the smaller independents must now rely on Government support to have any hope of survival. Most are already caught in a nightmare of suppressed demand and procedural red tape. Meanwhile all those optimistically rescheduled shows from spring 2021 will have to be rescheduled yet again. As for limited capacity shows and drive-ins, neither could look more like a very poor substitute for the real thing. 

But on the other hand something truly innovative is happening in live music via streaming. The live streaming of shows had been a neglected opportunity for the previous two decades, but out of necessity a new sector has been created in the space of a few months. The live streaming of shows started with home performances, with Ben Gibbard and Erykah Badu both early adopters who bravely gave it a go and paved a way for others. We’ve had beautifully filmed (if ‘ghostly’) performances in empty venues, headline appearances at virtual festivals on Fortnite, and the inevitable attempts at 360 degree virtual reality shows. 

The only way to truly build on the excellent innovations already pushed out there in the new live streaming space, is to embrace the differences between this format and the totally physical experience of the live show itself. The best live shows are social, slightly visceral and sweaty. You don’t get this looking at a screen but that’s possibly one of the best things about a live streamed show. Erykah Badu’s recent comments about her own views of touring first got me thinking along these lines. She told the New York Times:

“I’ve always wanted to perform from my bed at home. I never wanted to do the packing and going through the car and luggage and the hotel and, 'What’s the password? What’s the internet?' You get tired after years and years of doing it [touring], you know?”

While this expresses artists’ less than perfect experiences with performing live, this is mirrored by fans too. Think how many times you’ve been stuck in the back of a packed venue unable to hear the music let alone get a decent view of the band. And then there are the toilets, the bar and those annoying other people. Badu’s live streaming solution (The Quarantine Concert Series: Apocalypse) was a well-produced, interactive live show series from her home, initially charging fans $1 per view but since with (pretty reasonable) increased price packages. 

Production values make the difference

These high-production value live streams have stood out from the crowd (and since every artist has succumbed to the format one way the other that crowd is vast). Personally I have really enjoyed Elbow’s #elbowroom sessions, where the band clearly set out to reinterpret a short series of songs recorded from their homes and pieced together with care (these are on demand rather than broadcast live). The Rolling Stones stood out in the One World Together concert thanks to some carefully executed technical tricks. Hats are off to ATC management for their limited-ticket live streamed extravaganza with Laura Marling at London’s Union Chapel (though Marling is perfectly compelling live streaming from home) and their recent Nick Cave ‘Idiot Prayer’ show at Alexandra Palace (recorded live but broadcast a few weeks later with the production value of an arthouse concert film). Both ventures were critically well received and appear to have been commercially successful in the toughest of economic conditions. 

But here’s my key point: which of these formats has really worked in a way that can prove repeatable and scale-able? Which of these formats will be so successful in its own right, independently of being a stop-gap substitute for the real thing? So far in live streaming, many of the previous barriers have been overcome: many performances have live-streamed well, hiccup free and attracting large audiences (BTS’s Bang Bang Con attracted 750,000 paying users, while Erika Badu’s streamed shows have reached over 100,000). Even more importantly, the ‘willingness to pay’ question has been answered with an emphatic yes. 

The early movers on live streaming turned out to be social media platforms like YouTube, Instagram Live or Facebook Live, the usual destinations for finding audiences at scale with minimal need for infrastructure. But a series of new platforms have been building up traction, including StageIt, Maestro, Side Door and of course, the lockdown success story Zoom. Some artists, like Erykah Badu, even created their own platforms. Indeed, ATC (Laura Marling and Nick Cave's management company) has now launched new end-to-end livestream platform Driift - seeing a gap in the space having worked its own successful shows with those artists). Live streaming has helped the giants develop features, but also helped to create brand new businesses. Are they here for the long term?

As the pandemic lingers and new outbreaks continue to be spiky reminders of the danger zone we are still in, real concerts seem further off, and Marc Geiger’s 2022 moment looks the more likely scenario. That puts new pressure on the live streaming sector to become a permanent sector, not a stop-gap. This brings many questions: can the technology be improved? Which artists work better with live streaming? How can venues adapt better if they are to be involved in the longer term? What is the optimal price and business model that can make the sector thrive and grow?

Time to untether live streaming from the real concert experience

Dice CEO Phil Hutcheon recently posted a useful blog in which he shared 20 lessons learned from the company’s venturing into the space (Dice has ticketed both ATC events mentioned in the post) here and it proves a handy guide to how this sector can keep the quality of offerings high. 

Perhaps the sector can look even further though? Taking Erykah Badu’s principle that for her as an artist, touring may be a prime earner but is a less than a perfect lifestyle choice and coupling this with the fact that the live concert and festival experience can sometimes be questionable for fans too - the live streaming business needs to think independently. 

The sector is free to explore more immersive/interactive formats - allowing the audience to view shows close to any band member, or possibly even to tweak with the sound and video feeds. Live streams could give artists more opportunity for subtlety and experimentation and free them from the mentality of “that will never work live”. There is an opportunity here for venues to re-design themselves to facilitate these experiences and become genuine purpose-built live and livestream hybrid facilities. New partnerships between venues and live streaming platforms will truly shake-up the sector. 

For bands wanting to express themselves beyond the music, live streaming may even open up new formats like semi-scripted shows (didn’t Springsteen just have a highly successful Broadway run by improvising his way around a script?). This may even open up more opportunities for artists that build on the live streaming format but go way beyond it. With Badu, the live streaming experience has led to a more holistic ‘direct to consumer’ offer via which surely points to the future for how artists can make a living in an era in which live earnings have been slashed to the bone and the current streaming model does not pay. And none of it comes with exhausting travel and the shame of a giant carbon footprint. 

With continued innovation from music makers and interest from consumers, we may just be at the beginning of a new panacea for how live music is delivered and consumed. I want shows back as much as the next fan (and as for artists double that) but we now have a creative entertainment format we didn't have before. We must embrace it for the long term.

Keith Jopling is Consulting Director for MIDiA

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