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Together in Electric Streams: Inside the business of livestreaming

One of the few businesses thriving in the current pandemic, livestreaming has become a vital go-between for fans and the music industry. Derek Robertson investigates

By Derek Robertson on 30 Apr 2020

Platforms like StageIt allow for the tipping of virtual performers

Platforms like StageIt enable the tipping of virtual performers

Here’s a great pop-quiz question: can you name the first ever artist to perform live online?

Zooropa-era U2, perhaps, with the band’s prescient satirisation of a dystopian technological future and the emptiness of consumer culture? Or the Rolling Stones, who rode 1994’s Voodoo Lounge – a ragged and glorious return to their rock and roll roots – around the world for 13 months, raking in an astonishing US$320 million?

Or maybe it was Brian Eno, a technological and conceptual pioneer who, at the time of the internet’s invention, was playing around with self-generating musical systems?

Nope. Nope. And nope. It was, in fact, an unknown rock four-piece from California called Severe Tire Damage, who broadcast a 90-minute set in June 1993 and promptly declared themselves “House Band of the Internet” (although you were close if you guessed the Stones – they were fourth).

Of course, a lot has changed in the intervening 27 years: the internet is now the primary means of consuming music for fans the world over, and never more so when you’re quarantined at home for an unspecified amount of time due to a global pandemic.

But as we all know, the rise of streaming services and platforms has been mirrored by a collapse in revenue for artists. Live shows remain one of their few reliable sources of income, yet with concerts now an impossibility for the foreseeable, a huge hole has been left in their earnings. A host of future-orientated new apps, platforms, and digital services – many of them employing virtual and augmented reality – have rushed in, aiming to fill it, but how realistic are some of their claims, and what can artists really hope to earn while replicating gigs in the digital realm?

It should be noted that many of the ideas or tech here are not new. Second Life hosted the first virtual concert back in 2007, while last year, Marshmello gave the “first-ever live performance in a video game,” DJing for 11 minutes in Fortnite.

Understandably, though, there’s a new urgency in the sector, with platforms reporting an explosion in use over the last few weeks as both fans and musicians grapple with the new reality; a captive audience, desperate for entertainment, are glued to their devices.

“Over the last month … active users, watchtime and broadcast hours have all jumped 40–50%”

“Between 22 February and 22 March, revenue from our iOS sales increased by 255%,” says Anthony Matchett, founder and CEO of MelodyVR.

“We’ve had a four-fold increase in new users signing up over the last month,” says Rudiger J. Ellis, of Switchboard Live. “Daily activity on our platform has skyrocketed,” adds Jake Branzburg, president of YouNow. “Active users, watchtime and broadcast hours have all jumped 40–50%.”

It’s a trend confirmed by everyone IQ spoke to, with many choosing to ramp up advertising, expand, or roll out new features to take advantage of this surge.

All these platforms, at their core, fall into variations of one of two concepts: video hosting and streaming platforms, or some form of virtual or augmented experience.

YouNow is the former, allowing anyone to broadcast live video 24/7. So too is Streamlabs, an ‘all-in-one livestreaming app’.

Restream allows users to broadcast live video to multiple social media networks simultaneously; Switchboard Live is a multi-streaming platform geared towards all types of live content; while Switcher Studio makes capturing video from multiple angles and editing it in real time, a cinch.

On the other side is MelodyVR, a platform that claims to put fans “inside huge live performances”. According to Matchett, “Music lovers can watch performances in immersive 360° on smartphones or in VR via headsets. And they can choose where they watch from – from deep in the crowd to on stage with the band.”

“YouNow partners earn anywhere from three to five figures per month by sharing their talents”

Sansar, a new live events destination from the makers of Second Life, goes one step further. “The future of concerts is virtual,” declares their website. “Join the revolution.”

To this end, the company has built an entire virtual universe of thousands of connected, user-created spaces to socialise and perform in. “Audiences of all kinds can come together for innovative events and stunning, photorealistic live performances,” says press and marketing manager Hari Raghaven.

Just like everyone else, artists the world over are in lockdown, too; bored, frustrated, and eager to connect. Many have taken to social media to broadcast rudimentary performances and even clips of their daily lives.

TikTok, Twitch, Instagram Live, YouTube, and Facebook are full of these, with stars such as Coldplay, Christine and the Queens and Keith Urban giving fans raw, unvarnished footage and encouraging a community vibe.

But such posts are not a long-term solution. As ever, the question of monetisation looms large, for promoters and event organisers as much as the artists themselves.

“Restream is not the end platform – we’re just the middleman between an artist and, say, YouTube,” explains Victor Bous, the company’s head of marketing. “We just help you increase your reach, grow your audience, and make your streaming experience better.”

It’s a similar story for Switcher Studio, and Switchboard Live – both are more of a tech solution than a platform explicitly designed to generate income. Streamlabs goes one further and allows donations and tips to be made direct to content creators.

The self-enclosed virtual environments of Sansar and MelodyVR allow for far greater – and, it is hoped, far more lucrative – monetisation

“We take a 0% cut from donations, and handle all main payment methods,” says George Kurdin, Streamlabs’ product manager. On top of that, content creators can sell merch via the platform, and may also monetise their stream on their own via affiliate deals, ads, and direct brand sponsorships.

“For some it has been quite lucrative – we’ve processed over $500m in donations over the last few years.”

YouNow offers an extra tier for those looking to cash in on their audience. “Musicians with a strong following can apply to the YouNow partner programme,” says Branzburg. “YouNow partners earn anywhere from three to five figures per month by sharing their talents. Community members support partners by subscribing to their broadcasts monthly and/or by sending them virtual gifts – the more gifts partners get, the more they trend, and the more they earn.”

But the self-enclosed virtual environments of Sansar and MelodyVR allow for far greater – and, it is hoped, far more lucrative – monetisation.

“Because Sansar is the only live events platform that allows partners to generate multiple revenue streams in customised virtual spaces, we are the go-to platform in the space,” says Raghaven. Access to a fully integrated ticketing system, merchandising and sponsorship offerings, and microtransactions (peer-to-peer tipping, so that fans can send money directly during a live show) are just some of the options offered. The virtual-reality element allows them to go even further, though; Raghaven says artists are only limited by their imagination.

“They can have special tiers of tickets – a more expensive VIP ticket, for instance, that grants special in-world privileges or access (the ability to fly, say, or entry into an exclusive meet-and-greet). They can sell real and virtual merchandise – branded virtual tees, hats, jackets, you name it – that can be purchased for their avatars or in real life, and within their virtual space they can include branding from external sponsors.”

Being based on an actual, real-world show, MelodyVR aims to leverage scale to help performers maximise revenue. “MelodyVR means that no event is ever sold out, and no show is off limits,” says Matchett. “Artists’ performances can reach fans around the globe, both in real time and on demand, in a way that we see as the ‘next best thing’ to physically being there.”


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