Story by Cherie Hu
There’s a running joke in the Water & Music Discord server that involves an imaginary drinking game: Whenever we learn about a new concert livestreaming platform, everybody takes a shot.
More than half a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, I still hear about at least one new music livestreaming platform every week. The last time I updated my Virtual Music Events Directory three months ago, I listed around 20 different livestreaming options for musicians; since then, I’ve seen at least a dozen more examples pop up in the market (e.g. Headliner, LiveNow, Mandolin, Dreamstage, NoonChorus, Release Party, #BeApp, eMusicLive, At Yours).
As I’ve previously tweeted, I don’t want to say that there are “too many” livestreaming platforms, because that stance discourages innovation and experimentation. But there are definitely a lot of them, and most have similar features and business models that essentially lead to the exact same user experience for artists and fans alike. The result of this sameness is that the market is starting to feel oversaturated, and artists are feeling a sense of fatigue with the format, at a time when communal, virtual entertainment should be more vital than ever.
Given the industry consensus that in-person touring won’t return to pre-COVID levels until fall 2021 at the earliest, the big question on my mind this week is: What’s next for music livestreams? If we seem to be reaching an innovation plateau with music livestreaming experiences, what are some steps we can take to surmount this stagnation and encourage more experimentation in the coming months? And which of the dozens of tools out there will come out on top to help artists do the job?
I think we can address this question in two parts: The future of music livestreaming content, and the future of music livestreaming platforms.
MUSIC LIVESTREAMING CONTENT
The most engaging and impactful music livestreaming initiatives I’ve seen so far draw from the trifecta of high production quality, close intimacy or proximity with artists and fans and/or frequent and consistent output. Usually, artists and event organizers on a tighter budget will choose two out of these three elements to focus their investments; in rare cases like the Verzuz battle series, organizers are able to accomplish all three.
Let’s dive into each of these three criteria:
1. High production quality
Out of the three criteria, this one may be both the most impactful and the most expensive.
Until VR tools can recreate at home the feeling of jumping up and down to your favorite songs in the middle of a sweaty crowd of strangers in a dark club, concert livestreams will not be as immersive and engaging as their in-person counterparts. Nor are viewers of a given concert livestream giving their full, undivided attention, as they likely have five to ten other windows open on their web browsers or mobile devices waiting to distract them.
Making the production quality of a concert livestream as high as that of a premium TV show or video game can be an effective solution for keeping viewers engaged remotely over an extended period of time. Setups like Travis Scott’s show in Fortnite, Underoath’s virtual concept tour The Observatory and multi-camera shows from the likes of Lianne La Havas and Laura Marling have set new standards for what these more involved productions can look like.
That said, there remains a high barrier to entry when it comes to the price point for premium production equipment. As D.C.-based venue owner Joe Lapan recently told Water & Music, even small, 200-cap venues that invest in livestreaming have to spend several thousand dollars on cameras and dedicated servers to make it work — to the point where venue operators “have to wonder if we're in the live event business or the television production industry.” Game designers and 3D artists carry relatively expensive salaries, and are in high demand across multiple entertainment sectors.
Livestreams that have lower production value — perhaps because they are filmed with a phone camera or on a lower budget — need to compensate for this gap by adding value in the way of higher intimacy or higher output frequency instead to keep viewers engaged.
2. High intimacy/proximity
In almost all cases, concerts are amazing feats of community engagement, in that they bring groups of fans and strangers together to celebrate a given artist, genre and/or culture.
As digital music strategist Bas Grasmayer recently wrote, livestreaming concerts can feel even more exciting than their real-life counterparts when they take this community-building a step further and provide levels of proximity to both artists and fellow fans that are not possible with in-person shows.
For example, artist proximity in music livestreams can dive far deeper than the standard fan meet-and-greet model. “Online, you can leave room for fans to really interact: you can talk about topics, show them what you’re working on, answer questions, and acknowledge the individual by mentioning their name or nickname on the stream,” wrote Grasmayer. Twitch’s VP and head of music Tracy Chan recently expressed a similar sentiment on Twitter: “Musicians who stream on @Twitch know their superfans BY NAME. Do you?”
Livestreams can also improve fan-to-fan proximity, in the sense of connecting members of a truly global fan base in a way that isn’t otherwise possible with an in-person show whose attendance is limited by geography. “While performers would see the scene they’re part of in many cities, many fans wouldn’t be exposed to their own scene in other places,” wrote Grasmayer. Online livestreams have the power to “create social meaning” by “bringing these scenes and communities together online” in a way that transcends geographic borders.
Genius’ approach to their recent livestream with Wiz Khalifa — in which fans could pay $10 to access a private Zoom room with the chance of being projected onto the public stream at random — underscored how global fan connections and interactions were as much a part of the virtual show as the rapper himself. Common, the livestreaming platform run by Currents.fm, focuses on global grassroots music movements, and also has the goal of serving as a central gathering space for independent creators and fan communities, allowing anyone to submit a stream.
3. High frequency/consistency
Many digital media practitioners — writers, videographers, musicians, illustrators, social media influencers, etc. — have agreed that consistency over time is an inherent advantage when it comes to building a presence and fanbase on the Internet. This isn’t a new piece of advice by any means. But it’s a fundamentally different way of thinking about touring and musical performance in a virtual world.
In person, touring requires a specific kind of consistency that is highly repetitive in nature. With the exception of a few setlist tweaks, a touring artist or band largely performs the same exact show from one city to the next. In the process, they hone their performance skills while testing the same catalog with live audiences in different geographic regions, as a form of market research.
With livestreaming, unless you are ticketing or geo-fencing your livestreams, this kind of consistency quickly becomes irrelevant and uninteresting, because an artist can instantly reach a global audience with a single show. Hence, keeping up the consistent schedule of touring in a virtual climate requires a whole different way of thinking: How can you be consistent in engaging with fans over time, while also keeping material fresh?
Unless you’ve been active in the music industry for several years, you’ll likely run out of new songs to perform after a few months. To date, many of the artists who have broken through this monotony and stream consistently on platforms like Twitch are thinking far beyond the confines of a traditional concert or “setlist” format. They’re sharing their production process, writing songs in collaboration with viewers, chatting with friends, playing games or just talking about life. Labels, venues and curators are also well-suited to adapt to a more consistent livestreaming schedule, by nature of having access to wider catalogs, talent rosters and performance archives (e.g. see Mad Decent, Dirtybird and Insomniac on Twitch). The end result looks more similar to a serial video production than to a “tour” per se.
Again, to be clear, high frequency is not mandatory to succeed in the music livestreaming world, as it can definitely lead to burnout for those who are not familiar with that kind of cadence. If you can excel at the other two points — staging a super high-quality production, and enabling higher levels of artist and fan proximity than what a normal show could do — consistency may be unnecessary, and may even dilute the value of the work you’re putting into your stream.
In addition, I think there’s a much larger opportunity to extend the life of a given livestream for several weeks after the broadcast date, through a more consistent and regimented marketing plan.
In the digital media world, people love to say that a single podcast episode can live multiple, simultaneous lives online: It can be recorded as a video, which can then be transcribed into a newsletter, and highlights from all of those formats can also be posted across multiple social-media platforms. Concert and music livestreams can be the same way: Footage from a stream can be repurposed into an official or secondary music video (e.g. The Weeknd’s virtual tour on TikTok, which was adapted into a few on-demand “animated videos” on YouTube), promoted on social-media platforms or even sold to streaming services (e.g. see Apple Music’s deals with Verzuz, Boiler Room and Tomorrowland). Fans also often make clips of their favorite moments from virtual concerts on Twitch that artists can highlight in their own marketing campaigns.
MUSIC LIVESTREAMING PLATFORMS
Now let’s shift from the content to the platform level. We cannot consider the latter without first knowing the former; in other words, the future of music livestreaming platforms must match the kind of livestreaming content musicians love to make, and that their fans love to watch and are willing to pay for.
I see three potential futures for music livestreaming platforms, which can also be laid out in a triangle as pictured below:
1. Platforms as technical production companies
Livestreaming platforms that focus entirely on user-generated content, like Twitch and YouNow, typically leave the burden of production to the users and streamers. That said, I’m noticing a few platforms take on production costs themselves, and/or expand into technical production companies that offer their services or license their tech to outside venues or event organizers. This can prove especially useful in situations where artists want to stage high-quality livestreams in brick-and-mortar venues but are not sure what equipment they need, or when they want to host more immersive events using 3D design tools, game engines and other technologies that have a steeper learning curve.
One company that falls under this category is Wave, which has recently staged animated, game-like virtual concerts for the likes of The Weeknd, John Legend and Tinashe. While Wave has mostly pivoted from a platform (social VR app focused on smaller, independent artists and fan communities) into a producer (limited number of virtual concerts with major celebrities), recent job postings suggest that their future business model will combine both approaches, offering technical production tools and services to a wider range of entertainers. For instance, the product manager roles for both the Wave Broadcast Studio and the Wave Creation Kit involve “productization and externalization … for 3rd party production studios and agencies” — implying a B2B licensing model on the horizon.
2. Platforms as exclusive promoters with exclusive talent rosters
Sustaining a music livestreaming platform over time is not just about building good tech, but also about recruiting a high-quantity and/or high-quality roster of artists who will continually return to the platform over time.
I’m surprised that many of the newer livestreaming platforms I’ve spoken with seem to have no point of view when it comes to their talent acquisition strategy, beyond just “working with cool artists.” To me, this is an immediate nail in the coffin because without genuine commitment and recognition of value from artists, there are no regular shows, and without regular shows, there is no business model for the platform.
In an increasingly crowded and homogenous landscape, music livestreaming platforms can potentially stand out by leaning on talent, rather than technology, as a differentiator. By recruiting a roster of regular performing musicians that share certain styles, values, fanbases and/or perspectives on the world, such platforms can do more targeted outreach on the supply side and make their point of view and cultural value proposition clear from the moment someone visits their website.
A talent-centric approach to livestreaming aligns well with artist management companies that have a strong, cohesive brand. For example, Since The 80s launched chnl80.live as a fully owned-and-operated livestreaming platform for their artists and their creative networks, and recently hosted the event Amplify BLK that celebrated Black musicians, filmmakers, podcasters and DJs.
At worst, however, there can be a situation in the future where the music livestreaming platforms that have the most exclusive deals with talent — not necessarily the best software — beat out their competition. This would starkly resemble the old-school ticketing landscape, where major players like Ticketmaster and AXS relied heavily on exclusive contracts with venues for the majority of their revenue. It’s also an expensive game to play that gives those with more cash to spend an inherent advantage.
That said, given that the world’s two biggest promoters (Live Nation and AEG) still do not have a stranglehold over the virtual concert landscape yet, the ecosystem’s fragmentation may encourage the development of more niche offerings that serve specific creative communities.
3. Platforms as add-ons to incumbent streaming services
In recent weeks, I’ve noticed a ton of new music livestreaming initiatives position themselves as add-ons to or partnerships with existing, incumbent platforms.
For example, Spotify is testing a “virtual events” feature through its integration with Songkick; MelodyVR acquired Napster for $70 million with plans to develop “the first ever music entertainment platform which combines immersive visual content and music streaming”; Tidal bought $7 million worth of virtual currency from social VR platform Sensorium Galaxy, with plans to broadcast music content into the latter’s ecosystem; Tidal has also partnered with Live Nation on hosting several virtual concerts from the likes of Megan Thee Stallion and Lil Uzi Vert; artists can now link their Twitch and Amazon Music accounts, to notify fans on the latter when the artists are going live on the former; off the heels of Travis Scott’s historic show, Fortnite’s new Party Royale mode is hosting livestreams within the game from the likes of Diplo and Steve Aoki.
In today’s fragmented livestreaming ecosystem, discovery remains a challenge. How can artists and event organizers make sure they are reaching their audiences in a seamless way, without having to force them to download a new app that they may never use again? One potential answer is through a deeper integration with existing fan behaviors. In fact, streaming, social and gaming platforms, with their collective billions of active users, are hypothetically in the best position to amalgamate the discovery, marketing, distribution, monetization and follow-up communication around music livestreams into one unified journey that leaves fewer fans behind.
Mark Mulligan of MIDiA Research recently referred to this model as “Streaming+” — a subtle nod to streaming services like Disney+ and Apple TV+ that, unlike in the music world, offer premium subscriptions to a vast catalog of longer-form, original video content. “Live was the last major component of the music business that streaming could not reach, and that is all about to change,” wrote Mulligan. “The value proposition for music fans is clear: why go to multiple different places for all your favourite music experiences when they can all be in one place?”
Whether we want this entire journey bottled up within a big-tech company like Facebook or Amazon is a different question. As developers seek to incorporate music livestreams into existing fan behaviors, mergers and acquisitions of these dozens of newer platforms are inevitable, even if it might not be favorable for competition and independent music ecosystems.
Whatever the outcome will be, music livestreaming platforms can no longer afford to build just for building's sake. Rather, they need to carefully study and take into account what kind of content will keep both artists and fans interested and willing to stick around for the long haul. The future of the music industry hinges on nothing less. ✯