Together in Electric Streams: Inside the business of livestreaming
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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Tipping point: No shows, but donation options grow
‘Tipping’ artists, by making one-off, typically small payments during virtual events, is gaining popularity internationally, benefiting musicians who have been hit by the global stoppage in concert touring.
Virtual tipping has its origins in China, where the concept of donating to musicians, video producers, writers and podcasters has been the norm since at least 2013. Among the services that allow the tipping of creators are messaging app WeChat (for writers), podcasting platform Ximalaya FM and music streaming services QQ Music, KuGou and Kuwo. All are owned by, or have significant investment from, tech giant Tencent (which also recently acquired a 10% stake in Universal Music Group).
According to news site Ozy, the popularity of tipping on the three streaming services specifically is “credited by industry analysts for helping Tencent Music record a post-tax profit of [US]$263 million in the first half of 2018.” According to contemporary filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, 9.5 million Tencent Music users – equivalent to 40% of its total paying user base – paid for tips in the form of virtual gifts and other ‘social entertainment experiences’.
Comparatively, the Ozy article adds, “Spotify reported net losses of $461.4 million in the second quarter of 2018, and Pandora lost $92 million the same quarter.”
Now, however, Spotify is hoping to develop its own virtual tipping culture, last week announcing the introduction of ‘Artist Fundraising Pick’, which allows listeners to donate via artists’ profiles using PayPal, GoFundMe or Cash App.
“This is an incredibly difficult time for many Spotify users and people around the world,” says the Stockholm-based company, “and there are many worthy causes to support at this time. With this feature, we simply hope to enable those who have the interest and means to support artists in this time of great need, and to create another opportunity for our Covid-19 music relief partners to find the financial support they need to continue working in music and lift our industry.”
Tipping is credited with helping Tencent Music record profits of $263m in H1 2018
As well as predominantly non-music services such as Twitch, which enables viewers to tip (‘cheer’) its video streamers, several music-focused platforms are aiming to help artists get paid while touring is off limits.
Encore Musicians – a UK-based marketplace that connects event planners with artists and bands – has introduced ‘Music Messages’ for its locked-down customers, enabling them to send personalised musical messages to their loved ones. The company’s co-founder, James McAuley, tells TechCrunch that recipients of the videos (which cost from £15 to commission, with £2.50 going to the UK’s National Health Service) have the option to add a tip, with many contributing up to £50 per video.
“The reactions from both the senders and recipients have been extremely heartwarming, and musicians are having fun with it,” McAuley explains. “This is also reflected in the success of the tipping mechanism, with people sometimes tipping more than the original video amount.”
Elsewhere, SoundCloud is building on its existing tipping capabilities – a partnership with Twitch, announced in March, allows creators to monetise livestreamed concerts – by allowing artists to add ‘support links’ to their profile pages, with links to either financial exchanges (PayPal, Cash App, Venmo, etc.) or online stores/fundraising pages such as Kickstarter, Bandcamp or GoFundMe.
The company says it will retain support links, or a version of the feature, “until more impactful solutions present themselves, or it is no longer necessary for our most impacted creators.
“We’re all in this together and it’s important to everyone that creative projects continue unabated. So, use this to fund your projects, offset bills or get whatever you need to stay on your feet.”
Speaking to IQ earlier this month, British singer-songwriter Emma McGann explained that her audience on YouNow – another live video streaming platform – is large enough that when her upcoming US tour was torpedoed by the coronavirus outbreak, she sold enough $20 YouNow ‘Virtual Tour Passes’ to cover losses stemming from the cancellation.
“On YouNow, fans can tip their favourite performers throughout a broadcast”
McGann is one of a handful of artists whose fanbases are primarily on YouNow, which has long had a culture of fans tipping creators. A recent Daily Dot article explains: “In addition to being able to purchase stickers and private messages with in-app currency and status, fans can use money to purchase ‘bars’ in packs, and tip their favorite [sic] performers throughout a broadcast, earning shout-outs in turn. YouNow stars who’ve made a name for themselves can join its partner program[me], which entitles them to a cut of the proceeds from the sale of this digital currency that gets spent on their broadcasts.”
“Most livestreaming platforms have a criteria you have to hit before your channel is eligible to be monetised,” explained McGann, who is a YouNow partner, “but the community you build should be your first concern over the monetisation aspect. Interaction and community [are] the most important part of your livestreams. Monetising that content will be difficult if you’re not consistent.”
On tipping specifically, she added: “Calls to action during your streams can help to push traffic to your music, your merch store or wherever your viewers can support you…”
One company, though, that isn’t joining the tipping revolution is Google, which has reportedly nixed plans in the US that would have seen it facilitate donations to popular websites, including those of artists and musicians. The tipping tool, linked to Google Pay, would allow a one-time donation of between 25¢ and $5 via a floating button at the bottom of the screen. (On Google-owned YouTube, fans already can tip creators using the ‘super chat’ feature.)
Google trialled the functionality with artist Miranda Sings, as well as the New York Times, Tech Crunch and the Points Guy, a travel advice site.
“Go live and go live often”: Livestream pioneer chats ‘hybrid’ touring
In early March, British pop singer, songwriter and online content creator Emma McGann announced her Duality tour – featuring a first-of-its-kind ‘hybrid’ touring format that combines traditional, in-person shows with a virtual option: a £20 ‘Virtual Tour Pass’ offering 360° front-row views for fans unable to attend in person.
Within hours of announcing, the physical component of the Duality tour – which visits theatres across North America – was off, a casualty of the coronavirus. The virtual part will, however, go ahead – and sales of the Virtual Tour Pass have already recovered losses from the cancellation of the physical trek, according to McGann.
Fans who buy a virtual pass also receive, among other perks, their name written on McGann’s guitar case, a handwritten postcard from the road, and a charitable donation, in the form of one tree planted with every purchase.
At the time of writing, McGann has already racked up more than 11.5 million views from streaming her shows live on YouNow, which she has been doing for the past six years. With the corona-hit live industry looking towards virtual shows to fill an increasingly empty looking spring calendar, IQ caught up with McGann to discover the secrets to her success…
IQ: How did you first get into livestreaming shows, and how do you look back on those early experiences?
EM: I began livestreaming almost six years ago. I’d been independently touring around the UK taking on any gig I could, sleeping in the back of the van, using everything I had to make it happen. One evening, I hosted my first post-show livestream from the back of the tour van. In that one-hour broadcast, I reached more eyeballs than one whole week of touring, saw more hits on the website, and sold more merch than I had with me on the tour itself. And there were no overheads. No venue fees, no petrol costs, no unpaid shows… Just a simple camera set-up, me and my guitar, and I was getting myself out there and earning as an artist.
It was clear to me in that first broadcast that there was something to it, so I decided to build livestreaming into my strategy from then on. Looking back on those early experiences, I’d started adapting the same mentality of taking on any gig I could, but just in a virtual sense. My theory was that, if I wasn’t live, then I could be missing out. So I began a regular broadcasting schedule – even factoring in hitting different timezones at peak times.
It was pretty intense at first, but it helped me reach more people than I ever would just touring in an old van around one country. It meant I could comfortably do things on my own terms, too.
“Community is still the thing I love most about livestreaming. It connects you to one another”
Beyond the numbers, what else about livestreaming appealed to you as an artist?
The biggest appeal for me was interacting directly with those watching. To this day, community is still the thing I love most about livestreaming. It connects you to one another. I think viewers really value living in a real-time moment with you. As the artist, I loved the fact that I had complete creative control over the virtual show itself, too.
Six years ago, we just weren’t seeing any artists push out regular high-quality audio or video for music performances via livestreaming at all. So, we decided to do it ourselves with the rig we’d usually take out to gigs. It was a weekly full-band performance in a dedicated studio space that made my broadcasts really stand out against other standard webcam set-ups. Having that creative free rein and connection to the audience was what appealed to me the most.
From the point of view of an early adopter, how has the ‘virtual concert’ scene come along in the six years since?
Back then, I made up my own rules as I went along, for sure. I quickly discovered that I didn’t need to confine my broadcasts to one standalone set-up. I started getting creative with it pretty early: livestreaming BTS [behind-the-scenes] music-video shoots, hosting music game shows, a multi-cam radio show and the full band performances I already mentioned. Whatever the content, I definitely went through some trial and error to try and get things perfect – figuring out what worked for the audience and what worked for me as the person in front of the camera.
It was a really fun process, and it’s crazy to think we were doing all of that six years ago when livestreaming wasn’t even a blip on the radar for most people. It feels special to have been experimenting with it that early on.
“It’s actually really cool to see the world dipping their toes into a medium I’ve been using for so long”
What do you make of the rush towards livestreaming concerts amid the current pandemic?
The sudden rush is no surprise to me at all. It’s been a saving grace for a lot of artists. Like many out there, I had to postpone a tour. It would’ve been the biggest of my career to date: a 21-date tour in the US, scheduled originally for April. On the night we made the decision to postpone, that’s when I began to understand how much livestreaming would be a saviour for people, and how lucky I was to already be doing it.
Livestreaming is the perfect medium for people to stay connected right now. Particularly for artists to stay connected with their audience. It’s the most human way we can express ourselves in a one-to-many fashion. And it’s the closest thing we have to emulating a real-life concert, at this point.
It’s actually really cool to see the world dipping their toes into a medium I’ve been using for so long. I think we’ll see many artists recognise the benefits and hopefully see them integrate it into their existing strategies in some way in the years ahead. I’ve taken this time over the last couple of weeks to help and mentor artists on how they can set up their own livestreams in the wake of Covid-19.
When the coronavirus hit, it must have been obvious for you to go the livestreaming route…
The livestreaming route was already a part of my plans this year of course – but in a bigger way than my usual streams. Early last year, I began building a touring format that could benefit the online ‘influencer’, whether it be a YouTuber who’s also an artist or an Instagram star wanting to head out on their first tour.
“Virtual tickets sold have made up for the cost loss due to having to reschedule because of Covid-19”
The 21 dates I’d had scheduled for this year was for my Duality tour – an in-person tour with simultaneous virtual concerts that viewers could still enjoy if they were on the other side of the world. My thought process started with those viewers who might not be in the country where a tour is happening, or maybe they just can’t afford to come out. There will always be that viewer wishing they could’ve been there. But it’s not financially viable for an independent artist to tour every country that every fan of theirs resides in.
As an artist who grows their audience online and not via traditional routes and touring, I realised early on that even though you can grow big numbers online, those fans are spread all around the world. It leaves you with hotspots dotted sporadically around the world, making it almost financially impossible to tour.
Artists finding success on music streaming platforms through playlist placements are met with the same problem and see their audience grow in the same sporadic manner – it’s not like touring, where you can choose where to grow your audience. The evolution of music streaming means algorithmically curated playlists choose your audience. Most playlists are not human-curated, due to the sheer amount of songs being uploaded daily. This diversifies artists’ listenership globally.
So, I created the Virtual Tour Pass – an online ticket that would give viewers access to shows if they couldn’t make it in person to a tour. As the Duality tour would’ve been my first run in the United States, I planned to use the Virtual Ticket option to make the tour both more accessible and more financially viable as a first-time touring artist. Having these hybrid in-person/virtual concerts as a part of my touring strategy from the get-go has meant that I was set up and ready for the virtual concerts.
“Interaction and community is the most important part of your livestreams”
So, luckily, it’s fair to say that we were prepared once the outbreak hit.
How did your fans react to the tour cancellation?
I was actually livestreaming when Trump made the announcement weeks ago that travel would be restricted between the US and Europe. Fans pointed it out to me mid-song, and understandably had questions straight away about how this would impact the tour. I had to be straight up with them, there and then. Even though the UK wasn’t mentioned in that announcement, I had a fairly solid feeling it would progress and apply to us in the UK, too.
Their initial reaction was just like mine, really: We were devastated. But my viewers have been so supportive over the last month. Those who have picked up a Virtual Tour Pass have even enabled me to reschedule the tour for a later date. Virtual tickets sold have made up for the cost loss due to having to reschedule because of Covid-19.
What advice would you give to other people who are trying out virtual shows, and trying to monetise them, for the first time now?
Interaction and community is the most important part of your livestreams. Monetising that content will be difficult if you’re not consistent. Most livestreaming platforms have a criteria you have to hit before your channel is eligible to be monetised – but the community you build should be your first concern over the monetisation aspect.
“Having virtual tickets available almost extends the capacity of the venue you’re playing in to an unlimited number”
Calls to action during your streams can help to push traffic to your music, your merch store, or wherever your viewers can support you if you’re not already partnered or affiliated on whatever platform you’re using.
Don’t be afraid of trial and error, and don’t be afraid of making mistakes. You will definitely make a mistake. That’s just the nature of being live. Research the best set-up for you. Use any existing equipment you already have. And most importantly: go live and go live often.
So, are hybrid tours the future of concert touring?
I think my hybrid tour format could definitely aid artists in the future, for sure, if it’s done in the correct way. For smaller, first-time touring artists, it could make touring more financially viable. For larger artists, having virtual tickets available almost extends the capacity of the venue they’re playing in to an unlimited number.
Nothing beats a live show in person and nothing will ever deter us from going out to experience live music – but something like my Virtual Tour Pass gives fans on a global scale the opportunity to be there in the moment, too. No FOMO for any fan, anywhere.