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Laura Marling and the rise of the paid live stream

IQ speaks to the architects of Laura Marling's historic Union Chapel shows, which marked a coming of age for the pay-per-view livestreamed concert format

By Gordon Masson on 03 Jul 2020

IQ teams up with Wide Days for Focus special

image © Joel Ryan

“When the first song was over and, of course, no applause followed… I found the awkwardness of it somewhat thrilling,” says Laura Marling of her groundbreaking 6 June livestreamed gigs – the first for fans in UK and Europe, followed hours later by a second show tailored for fans in North America.

“It felt similar to a sound check in that people around you are getting on with their jobs and, in my case as a solo performer, you’re left there to get on with it, to do my job – there’s something I really enjoy about that. To sing in an empty church is a pleasure at any time. Also, my shows certainly aren’t famous for my mid-set one liners… so a lack of audience interaction didn’t factor too much.”

While the thousands of fans who bought a ticket for the Union Chapel concerts were probably unaware of the historic significance of the shows, the reaction to the format was almost unanimously positive, with Marling’s haunting lyrics, song choices and mesmeric performance complemented by the setting of the empty and silent venue. Indeed, the artist herself was one of the biggest fans of the format and she is already working with her management team – ATC Management’s Brian Message and Ric Salmon – on another bigger livestreaming concept. To that end, Message and Salmon have established a new company called Driift to capitalise on the potential of the new ticketed livestreaming model.

Held down
In terms of performance, thousands of acts around the world have found themselves redundant since politicians started banning mass gatherings and confined live music to all but a memory of better times. Using a variety of platforms, however, numerous acts have been video livestreaming from their own homes, albeit with little quality control on either audio or visual aspects. And using the technology at hand, only those with huge followings have been able to generate revenues through the likes of advertising that, again, they rarely have any say about.

“Without an audience, there’s tremendous possibility with what could be done in a space”

Where Marling’s activity differed was in charging fans for a ticket to access the live broadcast of her show, which transported her out of the ubiquitous corona confines of the living room/bedroom/bathroom/home studio setting, to a proper, recognisable venue. There she could call upon state-of-the-art sound, lighting and camera equipment, and even an award-winning director, Giorgio Testi, and Pulse Films, to deliver something meaningful and give ‘attendees’ something lasting.

“Without an audience, there’s tremendous possibility with what could be done in a space,” enthuses Marling. “An unforeseen bonus to an audience-free show, which of course means no front-of-house sound, is that you can get incredible sound – close to studio quality… With this set-up, we could use mics on everything without fear of feedback.”

Manager Ric Salmon tells IQ, “The genesis of the idea was born out of frustration. Laura had sold out her solo, acoustic tour around Australia, North America, the UK and Europe. But then Covid hit.”

When it became clear that not just the North American leg was doomed, but the remainder of the entire tour, the Marling team, like so many others, announced the cancellation: 41 dates in total. Ever proactive, ATC management convinced Marling to fast track the release of new album, Song for Our Daughter, and started revising plans for promo. “Laura is social media averse, but she was comfortable doing guitar tutorials for fans, so we sent her HD cameras to use in her house and she quite enjoyed performing remotely – culminating in a home performance for Later with Jools on the BBC.

“For the tour, we’d refunded about 25,000 people who missed out on seeing her, so we came up with the idea of broadcasting a show from a proper venue, to tap into that demand. But then the discussion was about who would pay for it, as nobody had sold tickets for any livestreamed shows at that point.”

“Just like a normal ticketed gig, people were nervous about missing out so they decided to buy early”

Taking that situation as a challenge, the ATC partners set about pulling the necessary team together. “Laura suggested the Union Chapel because that venue means so much to her and, because we’re not technologists, we reckoned the best idea would be to aggregate the best companies in their class,” explains Salmon.

Pulse Films and director Testi topped ATC’s wish list and having worked extensively with DICE in the past, the company’s new DICE TV platform also made them a clear choice. Finally, YouTube was added, given its global footprint, but that plan, Salmon admits, had one major flaw: “Being ad-funded, they don’t do paywalls, but Dan Chalmers at YouTube really championed the idea and before we knew it there was terrific forward momentum.

“The primary function was not to make money, hence the ticket price of just £12 (€13). But Laura was mortified about cancelling the tour, so this was more about offering her the chance to perform to fans. And it worked brilliantly, as she is in her element when it’s just her and her guitar. So it was some sort of replacement for the tour.”

Wild fire
As often happens with any new concept, when word started to spread about the Laura Marling pay-per-views, sceptics rattled out cautionary ‘you can’t replicate live’ adages. But with locked-down fans desperate for any kind of shared experience, demand for tickets uncannily replicated ‘normal’ sales patterns.

“The level of interest around the announcement was incredible,” reports DICE chief revenue officer, Russ Tannen. “Just like a normal ticketed gig, people were nervous about missing out so they decided to buy early.” Another familiar aspect was a sales spike on the day of the event – a whopping 16% of total sales for the UK show.


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