Lights, Camera, Action—Is There A Post-Covid Future For Livestreaming Entrepreneurs?

The Glastonbury Festival – arguably the most important event in Britain’s rock and pop music calendar – has been cancelled for the second year running. There is, however, some good news for disappointed music fans. A cut-down and virtual version of the festival has been scheduled. Featuring just a few major acts – including Coldplay, Haim and Damon Albarn – it will be filmed at the usual venue of Worthy Farm and streamed live. And if the cost of a Glastonbury ticket is usually out of your price bracket, you can take comfort from the fact that this year, a mere £20 will get you through the gates.    

But could this represent one last hurrah for something that has been a feature of live performance in these pandemic-blighted times – namely the live stream? Over the past year or so, we’ve not only been able to watch artists – some of them very famous names – putting on free concerts via YouTube and Facebook, but there have also been a fair number of paid-for gigs. Often the latter have been filmed at empty venues to add atmosphere. This in turn has created opportunities for the music tech industry to create a new channel.

After The Vaccines

But as vaccine programs continue apace – at least in major economies – and crowds return to clubs, concert halls, stadia and festivals, is there still a place for streaming and for the young businesses that have played an important role in connecting artists with their audiences during the Covid-19 crisis? I spoke to two U.K. based streaming companies to find out.    

Established in 2019, Dice started life as a ticketing platform. As founder Phil Hutcheon explains, his mission was to guarantee fans could buy tickets for rock and pop shows at the advertised price with no hidden premiums or booking fees. “When we advertise a ticket at £30, that’s what the fan pays,” he says. To complement that offer, Dice offered information on bands and upcoming shows. Live streaming came into play when the U.K. locked down in March 2020.  In many ways, a classic pivot.

“Until then we had totally ignored live streams,” Hutcheon says. But with no shows in the offing, Dice changed tack. “Our first streamed show was with Lewis Capaldi,” he adds.  

LIVENow – the clue is in the name – is, in contrast,  a specialist live streaming service set up in August 2020 with a view to creating a music and comedy-focused pay-for-view service. This was a logical step for founder Andrea Radrizza who had previously created the Eleven sports content network.   

In launching in the midst of the pandemic, LIVENow was arguably pushing at an open door. There was a real hunger not just for pre-recorded entertainment – something television could ably take care of – but also the experience of live gigs. In the first few months of its operation, the company staged gigs by acts that included the all-conquering Dua Lipa, Ellie Goulding and Gorillaz.  

Returning Crowds

But that was then and this is now. As I write this, crowds have returned to football stadia – albeit in limited numbers and in a couple of weeks time, Indie-band Blossoms will play the first major rock gig in Britain since the start of lockdown. Normality is returning. 

So does this mean that the nascent live streaming industry will run out of steam as bands eschew cameras and studios for the thrill of a live crowd?  Hutcheon thinks streaming is here to stay. What’s more, it will sit alongside ticketed gigs.  

“In the U.K. only 30 per cent of us live in close to major cities,” he says. “But a band can play in a stadium and stream it to the rest of the world.”   

In other words, a live stream offers incremental income to bands and a chance for fans to see acts they would otherwise miss.

The question is, of course, does streaming in this way merely cannibalise the audience. Yes, a band can reach more people through a single gig thanks to magic of the internet, but in the longer term, might not streamed content simply reduce the number of people who are prepared to turn up at venues. Put simply, if it’s easier to stay at home and watch the stream – won’t a lot of people do just that. 

Hutcheon doesn’t think that will be the case. “No one sees a great show and decides never to go and see that band again,” he says, arguing that streamed content will whet the appetite for live events.

And as he sees it, streaming offers bands, managers and record labels something hugely valuable – namely, data. Streaming services know who the fans – many of them super fans – are and where they live. “Our data can help bands plan their tours,” says Hutcheon.  

Equally, data gathered on fans and online communities can be used to market shows. Hutcheon says that by actively marketing through its community, Dice can ensure that bands find an online audience. “We’ve encouraged our acts not to reply on social media for promotion.”

Working Out The Business Models

James Sutcliffe, Chief Content and Marketing Officer for LIVENow acknowledges that streaming companies will have to adapt to a post-pandemic world. “The business models are still being worked out,” he says.  

Sutcliffe stresses that live streaming – if it is to be successful – can’t simply replicate the live experience. “Live gigs are coming back,” he says. “What we have an opportunity to do is offer a marketing opportunity alongside.”  

So what does that look like in practice?  Well, one use case is the special show. “A band could use a live stream to debut a new record,” he says. Equally, streamers can offer added-value features, such as access to the tour bus or backstage area. 

Hutcheon is also keen on the idea of offering something unique or at least special. “If an artist says I’m streaming a gig, that’s no big deal. But if the same artist says I’m playing my second album at a venue I love – that is a big deal.” 

The theory is that fans will pay for unique events, but how much exactly?  “We have seen streams at £30 upwards and they have performed well,” says Sutcliffe.   

Audiences can be huge. For instance, when Gorillaz streamed Song Machine – featuring a mix of animation and live playing – the event clocked up more than 1 million views around the world. Tickets were sold at different price points and packages to maximize that audience.

Arguably a reasonably high ticket price – at least when compared to, say, a month’s subscription on Netflix emphasizes that one important aspect of the paid-for stream is that it represents an unrepeatable moment in time. As Hutcheon points out: “If you pay £20 for a live stream you never watch it again.”

That doesn’t mean it has to be exclusive. It can be. You can limit tickets – and some shows do. Equally you can try to sell as many tickets as possible to maximise impact. That comes down to the strategic goals of the artist.

There are, of course, a lot of absolutely free live streams around, notably on Facebook and YouTube. Some by local bands and singers, others by big names. They too can offer something special. My own recent favourite was songwriting legend Ricki Lee Jones performing from her New Orleans living room on Facebook.  Part of the appeal is the kind of intimacy that comes from watching an artist in his or her home – a kind of pixelated window into the lives of the rich and famous.

But the specialist streaming companies can offer superior production, high-quality audio/visual and promotional oomph. It may well be that one consequence of the pandemic is additional choice as to how we consume music, comedy and drama. Not quite an in-person live event, not quite TV but somewhere in between.

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