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After 12 months of little concert activity, artists and fans continue to rely on digital shows for their live music fix. IQ asks leading players what comes next…
By IQ on 10 Mar 2021
If there was one positive story to emerge from the unrelenting stream of bad news that was 2020 in live music, it was the dawn of the live stream. From the feel-good, lo-fi bedroom shows of March 2020 to the slick, professional ticketed events that become the norm by the end of the year, the willingness of fans to first consume, and then pay for, concert content beamed to the comfort of their homes was a small glimmer of light for the industry in the darkest year in memory.
A year on from the global shutdown that devastated the international live music business, how has the livestreaming market evolved, and where do paid-for concert broadcasts fit into touring plans in future – particularly when non-socially distanced shows are possible once again?
According to James Sutcliffe, chief marketing and content officer for LiveNow, the concert market is playing catch-up with sports, where pay-per-view (PPV) events – particularly with combat sports such as boxing, as well as ‘sports entertainment’ like professional wrestling – have long been the norm.
Unlike many companies in the livestreaming space, LiveNow “wasn’t, as a business, conceived in reaction to the pandemic,” explains Sutcliffe, who joined the company just before Christmas. Part of the Aser Ventures Group, whose Eleven Sports network holds broadcast rights to the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Uefa Champions League and Formula 1 across its platforms in Europe and east Asia, LiveNow was born out of Aser founder Andrea Radrizzani’s desire to “apply the things he’d learnt” in live sports to music, Sutcliffe continues.
Learning from its sister company’s experience in the sporting world, world, LiveNow was able to provide the industry with a quality product, free of the technical problems that plagued some newer platforms, right out of the gate, says Sutcliffe. Music events broadcast by LiveNow in 2020 include some of the biggest live streams of the year, including One World: Together at Home, Dua Lipa’s Studio 2054, Ellie Goulding’s Brightest Blue Experience, Gorillaz’ Song Machine Live from Kong and Pete Tong’s O Come All Ye Ravers, as well as a number of smaller livestreamed shows.
Another firm well placed to capitalise on the pause in physical events is Sansar, whose president, Sheri Bryant, says the digital concert boom of the past year is validation of its vision for social live experiences in the virtual realm.
“I think we’re way off having thousands of people in a field again, unfortunately”
Formerly part of Linden Lab, the developer of Second Life, Sansar launched in 2017 but came into its own over the last 12 months, with its platform used to create virtual-world festivals and venues for Glastonbury Festival’s Shangri-La (Lost Horizon), UK promoter LWE (Tobacco Dock Virtual), London Mela festival (Melatopia), German club Boothaus and Serbia’s Exit Festival, among others.
“We’ve believed in this for years,” says Bryant, who adds that 2020 “was a case of right place, right time” for Sansar, which found itself in high demand and years ahead of its newfound competition in the virtual concert space. “Now, it’s about fundraising and trying to grow as fast as possible, as we can’t keep up,” she continues. “We’re having to turn people away.”
For MelodyVR – which launched in 2018 as the first virtual-reality (VR) music platform – concerts will form part of a wider digital music offering that also includes music streaming from Napster, whose parent company, Rhapsody International, it acquired last year. The AIM (London)-listed company will soon rebrand as Napster Group, launching a new, integrated Napster app later in 2021.
It, too, was responsible for some of 2020’s most-talked-about streams, including Wireless Connect, a three-day VR stand-in for Wireless festival in July, and Live from O2 Academy Brixton with the likes of Fontaines DC, Blossoms and Tom Grennan, and hopes to build on that success this year – Covid-19 allowing – says Steven Hancock, co-founder and chief relationship officer of MelodyVR.
“We’re all on tenterhooks to see what the big promoters do – our strategy is to see what live looks like in its traditional sense,” he explains. “We’ve got some ideas around big showpieces, but there’s no requirement for us to rush this year.” (MelodyVR recently raised just over £8 million to help build and launch its new app.)
“But what we do know,” he adds, “is that ‘hybrid’ shows” – livestreamed concerts with a small, often socially distanced physical audience – “are going to become the norm. I think we’re way off having thousands of people in a field again, unfortunately.”
“Right now, as a promoter, there are very few other ways of making any money”
“I don’t perceive any concerts of note this year,” agrees Conal Dodds, co-founder and director of promoter Crosstown Concerts, which has partnered with PPV concert platform Stabal for its own on-demand shows, the first of which – a reunion concert by British folkies Bellowhead – took place in December.
Expanding into live streams is “completely inspired by Covid,” Dodds says. “People’s summer schedules are evaporating, festivals are tumbling away by the day… right now, as a promoter, there are very few other ways of making any money.”
Unlike one-and-done streams that can’t be watched back, Crosstown gives fans the opportunity to buy a deluxe ticket that gets them 30 days to watch the show, as well as additional exclusive content. “Anecdotally, 60-70% of sales so far have been for the more expensive of the two ticket options,” says Dodds.
Both Dodds and Bryant say they see a place for part-physical, part-digital hybrid concerts as restrictions on real-world events are gradually lifted – Bryant says almost all major Sansar-hosted shows in 2021 are “‘parallel’ events” – as does Russ Tannen, chief revenue officer of concert discovery and ticketing platform Dice, which rapidly repositioned itself as a platform for ticketing and promoting live-streams in the early days of the pandemic.
“We made a call in April that it was time to give livestreaming a go,” recalls Tannen. “I was very sceptical – we’d never talked about livestreaming before the end of March – but obviously it took off very quickly and before long we’d had thousands of streams entered into the app.”
Dice’s live-streaming successes to date include a string of shows with Ric Salmon and Brian Message’s Driift, including Laura Marling, Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue (who sold 30,000+ tickets), Rough Trade, David Bowie’s Lazarus and DJs David Guetta and Bicep – as well as thousands of events with emerging and mid-level artists, whose fans are willing to pay similar money for digital concerts, at least during the pandemic.
The concert market is playing catch-up with sports, where PPV events have long been the norm
“It’s obviously Nick Cave, Kylie, etc., that got lots of headlines, but there’s actually a really interesting middle section of emerging artists, people like Black Country New Road, Cinematic Orchestra, who are also putting on viable shows and delivering really great live experiences,” Tannen says.
As to the hybrid question, “what we saw before lockdown is that socially distanced hybrid shows were selling really well,” he adds, “so I think we will see more of those – they will happen again and they will sell.”
“This summer is not going to happen in any major way,” says Sutcliffe, “so that hybrid model will be key as the first step back to live.”Whatever the reason – whether it’s fear of Covid, or maybe because they haven’t got the vaccine – a lot of people are still going to be scared to go back into a stadium, so this allows for both: a [physical] live ‘experience’ and the livestreamed show.”
Interestingly, a large proportion of the people who are buying tickets for live streams aren’t regular gig-goers temporarily shut out of venues, according to Tannen.
“One of the reasons I think they’re going to stick around is that we’re reaching a different demographic,” he says. “Maybe it’s people who have moved out of the city, or are a bit older, or for whatever reason can’t get to a venue, a lot of those people don’t want to be locked out of live music.”
Similarly, Dodds says Crosstown aren’t necessarily focusing on acts the company has promoted before. “We target people that we think there’s an audience for,” he explains. “We’re not really going after a young audience, as I don’t think they’re prepared to pay £10–15 for a concert broadcast – our target, really, is grown-ups.”
“Everyone is interested in capturing that incremental revenue, and livestreaming is part of that”
Even after non-socially distanced, full-capacity shows return, live streams will offer artists and promoters a reliable additional revenue stream for little risk or outlay, Sutcliffe adds. “If you sell out the O2 in London and then do another 20,000 tickets on top, that’s pure profit,” he says. “We don’t want to replace live – nothing beats the live experience – but [with streaming] we’re able to dd a layer of extra value for fans, artists and the industry.”
“The objective used to be 75%, 80% – whatever the magic number was, once you reached that, everyone was happy,” Hancock echoes. “But it seems like now, from the agents and promoters we’ve spoken to in the last year, everyone is interested in capturing that incremental revenue, and livestreaming is part of that.”
Dodds says while it “remains to be seen whether people want to continue [doing dedicated live streams] after live music returns, “it’s definitely something that could augment touring in the future, particularly if all shows on a tour are sold out, or for territories where people aren’t able to tour.”
For some performers, even archive performances can be repackaged and ticketed as a standalone ‘live’ stream – British comedian James Acaster, for example, sold 30,000 tickets at £10 each for a show that was originally filmed at the end of 2019, Tannen explains.
For virtual worlds like Sansar, where fans participate in the show as opposed to simply watching, the key to long-term success is “deeper engagement,” both between fans and artists and between the real and virtual words, Bryant suggests.
“One thing we explored last year is this thing we call ‘windowing,’” she says, “which allows different audience from around the world to mix and mingle, blending the lines of who and what we consider ‘real’.” Windowing, Bryant explains, involves putting up an LED screen on which real-world concertgoers can see and communicate with the Sansar avatars, and vice versa, with those inside the virtual world able to see the physical concert crowd.
“I’m hoping the live streams coming out now might ignite that little spark that we need to plant in the heads of gen Z”
While everyone IQ spoke to sees a place for livestreamed or virtual concerts post-pandemic, all are clear that they must not – and cannot – replace the live experience, instead functioning as an add-on to physical shows that benefits the industry and live music fans alike.
However, from a sustainability point of view, consumer willingness to pay for live-streams could enable artists to reduce the environmental impact of their tours by playing fewer physical dates, Sutcliffe suggests. “I’m romantic about live, but we have to be realistic about the situation,” he says.
“The logistics involved in an international tour – from the many forms of transport to hotel rooms, bars, restaurants – has a huge environmental impact.” From a coronavirus perspective, “that’s also a lot of movement that the world won’t allow to happen again quickly.”
Dodds agrees, stating, “As something to augment tours – maybe by adding a few livestream-only dates, with an extra show filmed at the be ginning of the tour – it’s definitely an option for artists who want to minimise their carbon footprints.”
For Tannen, the hope is that live streams can help get the next generation of concertgoers – for whose attention concerts are competing with video games, esports, YouTube, Twitch, social media and countless other electronic distractions – excited about live music, just as watching and rewatching old pop-punk videos did him at the turn of the millennium.
“I had all these Warped Tour VHSes [tapes], and they’re what got me obsessed with the idea of live music,” he says. “I’m hoping that might be the same with the live streams that are coming out now, that they might ignite that little spark that we need to plant in the heads of gen-Zers. We need to make sure the kids that are coming through want to go and watch shows, the same way we did.”
Read this feature in its original format in the digital edition of IQ 97:
This article forms part of IQ’s Covid-19 resource centre – a knowledge hub of essential guidance and updating resources for uncertain times.
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