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Live is on the air

Sziget Festival's András Berta provides a fascinating crash course in festival live streaming and the pros and cons of broadcasting such footage

02 Mar 2016

András Berta, Sziget Festival

In 2012, Sziget was approached by Google to be amongst the first European festivals offering live-stream coverage. Bit of a challenge for us live guys, but definitely an exciting one. The deal was OK, so we started to get familiar with terms like ‘rebroadcast’ or ‘redundant signal transmission’. The studio at the festival looked like Kennedy Space Center, we had three camera crews working on site and some of the country’s best sound engineers made sure the audio stream was as good as it gets. The result was five million viewers in one week, one third of them apparently from Russia, where – in that year – we barely sold 500 tickets.

Sounds like fun. But… the tech part is manageable. You find the right guys, at least the ones that shoot for your LED screens, and today it is not even important to run your signal through satellites. You’ll find a few good streaming platforms online, so it is definitely not just YouTube. If you’re big enough and able to switch your coverage between different stages, you can stay pretty confident that the afternoon programme will be complete. Of course, you can also include recorded materials, nice image videos, games, ads, whatever you can find.

So what is the tough part? As always with festivals, the real challenge begins at 6pm, the time when the industry stakeholders are starting to look for income. And if you think booking is hard, well, clearing the live-stream rights is maybe even harder, as there are simply no standard business and legal terms. Typical attitudes you will encounter are:

a) The band you love: happy to cooperate, management signing a simple one-page contract, then on the air you go
b) The band you can work with: management in charge, maybe even signing your own contract form, but already asking for extra money and perhaps restrictions, like geo-blocking
c) The major label band: label claims it has all the rights and will decide… but the light never seems to go green

If you think booking is hard, clearing the live stream rights is even harder, as there are simply no standard business and legal terms

Of course, there are so many reasons why a band wants or doesn’t want to be in a live stream. For instance, you can always respect the wish to protect new songs. I personally ran over from main stage to stream centre a few times, radio in hand, trying to stay in touch with the tour manager to make sure we keep the new hit out of that stream. I’ve no problems with that!

I think the problem zone begins with example c) when major labels basically start to misuse the term ‘360 degree’. As an idealist I thought the 360 idea was about providing a professional service for your bands, even if your original label role has gone. But when talking to a giant – no, actually not the head, but the local branch – you can easily find yourself in 1992, facing constant arrogant and confusing answers: “you have no idea what you are talking about”, “we own all the rights”; “we need to ask management first”; “no, you can’t talk to management”; “our HQ has decided against it without giving us the reasons” and so on. So, after many long months you are still not sure the right guy at the right NY office ever got a proper briefing about your festival and about what live streaming actually means.

We’re trying to create valuable content, worth pure gold nowadays, for all involved

Besides, the legal basis of the label’s disapproval might be the contract between them and the band that – of course – you cannot see. You must simply accept the label’s final word because they say so. I guess I want to believe, but does it really have to be so difficult? And then, if lucky, you might get a contract that talks about recorded footage for a brief 15 pages… while all you want is one live stream, promoting their band at your expense. Also, maybe the most important point is: we’re trying to create valuable content, worth pure gold nowadays, for all involved. So it is just not easy to accept that we are doing so in a strong headwind, created by a label’s shortsighted policies. The result is not good for anyone, as the content will suffer, while the viewer and the sponsor will stay away.

In 2016, I think we still face a grey zone when it comes to clearing streaming rights, simply because the industry is far from being homogeneous. Different players hold different cards and this can result in a losing hand in many cases. You can try to push agents when booking to include streaming rights in the deal. Is that realistic? Not sure. Maybe the whole potential of live streaming is slowly but surely evaporating, so what’s the fuss? Maybe 1.5 million Russian kids you cannot reach any other way…