Two months ago, doing an online gig was a novelty for many artists. While streaming of live shows has been possible for well over a decade – I was streaming house shows at the tail-end of the ‘00s and was by no means one of the first – it remained a relatively niche way to present live music, and many musicians had been left wondering where the value is in having a show happen online. Until now.
The end of all gigs in venues for at least the next couple of months has lead to an unprecedented interest in the possibilities of live streaming as musicians across the world attempt to carve out a place for themselves in the new and destabilised gig-less economy.
If you’ve never done a live streaming gig before, getting up to speed with the tech – and even the purpose – may require a little thought and research.
For a long time, the MU has led the conversation around musicians receiving fair recompense for their live performances, but the Internet is suddenly the wild west of streaming shows, with many huge names offering free performances from home to tens of thousands of viewers. It can seem highly daunting to try and compete with that kind of audience share. With that in mind, piling in with yet another show with poor sound, streaming via a precariously balanced phone, might not be considered putting your best foot forward.
Making decisions ahead of your live recording is key
To start with, it’s worth taking some time to think about what will work best for you. Various companies have experimented with trying to do simultaneous music-making over the Internet, but unless what you’re doing is loop-based, it’s pretty much impossible to do anything rhythmic at all in a way that requires bilateral listening. So let’s focus on solo streaming (or duos if you’re quarantined with another musician!).
First up, I’d advise against just jumping in and working it out on camera. You may have an audience that lets you get away with a bumbling tech-mess of a first streaming experience, but with the absolute glut of streaming gigs that’s happening right now, you’ll be in a way better position as a professional if you iron out most of the kinks before you go live to the world.
Positioning your microphone and your camera is a balancing act
Onto the technology. For streaming live from home, our absolute minimum tech requirement is an internet enabled device with a built-in mic and camera. Your smartphone or laptop could both fit this bill. Phone cameras have improved enormously over the last decade, such that it’s quite possible to stream high quality video direct from your phone. If you have the choice between the two, your phone is likely to have a significantly better camera than your laptop.
The huge problem for us with both laptop and phone streaming is that having your camera and mic in the same place is ideal for conversation, but less so for music - the direction a camera needs to be pointed in is often not where we need the mic to be. So if you are stuck with that as your only option, you’re going to have to take some time to work on the best compromise of video angle and mic angle.
If you play an amplified instrument, positioning your amp and getting the level right can improve the quality of your stream immensely. Built in mics designed to pick up everything can often be very sensitive, so amplified instruments can often distort them. Again, this is where extensive testing will help. Fortunately, you’ve quite possibly got more time right now to apply the appropriate amount of attention to this testing phase.
If you play an acoustic instrument, your phone or laptop mic may be a little more forgiving, given that acoustic instruments tend to be a little less directional than the sound coming from amplifiers. But you’re then much more at the mercy of the sound of your room.
Choosing your performance space is important
Which brings us to our second test area - finding the right space in your house from which to stream. If you play piano, that’s probably going to dictate the place you stream from. But if you play guitar or keyboards, or an orchestral instrument, the options are way wider than you might imagine. Take a walk around your house with an eye specifically on what might look good behind you, and crucially, which room has the best acoustics. If you have kids, you may find that the corner of their bedroom works very well, offering a quirky backdrop and a ton of soft toys to soak up reverberation in the room!
Lighting is also a big issue - phone and laptop cameras work optimally in consistent daylight. Having half the space in deep shadow will potentially confuse the automatic light meter and result in your face being bleached out. By now you’ve guessed what you need to do, right? Test it! If you’re using lamps from around the house, more lamps from further away will help create a broader wash of light than a single spotlight close up.
Investigate how to best connect your recording equipment
In these days of home recording, many of us already have interfaces of varying degrees of complexity ready to connect mics and jack leads to our computers. If this is the case, that’s definitely the way you should go. With streaming gigs, OK video and pristine audio beats HD video and indistinct sound every time.
Using your laptop camera with an external sound card can produce excellent results. If you need to sub-mix a number of sound sources - if you’re a multi-instrumentalist or have a complex set up of synths and looping devices - you’re much better off doing that with a little mixing desk than trying to route multiple audio paths within your computer to the input of the streaming platform. They are set up for at-best stereo audio, and the software requirements for summing audio internally are beyond the scope of this article!
The one thing that you should investigate if you have the resources to do so is using reverb to soften the sound of close mic’d voices or instruments. Singing direct into a mic with no reverb can sound harsh, and even a reverb pedal designed for guitar can offer some ambience if used with discretion!
Decide if you want to use a free of charge streaming platform
But that does bring us neatly to streaming platforms. There are a wide variety of platforms available which I’m going to divide into two groups – those that are ‘free’ to the user and are designed for maximum reach, and those that have ticketing capabilities or an exclusively available link that allow us to charge for access.
The free ones serve two possible purposes - firstly, they offer the greatest possible reach if we intend to use this time to build our audience. A sharable link on a social media platform is an easy way for your existing audience to invite their friends to experience your work and discover what you’re all about.
But it can also be valuable for just connecting with your audience now that they potentially have more free time, and when some of them are still in a position to buy music. These shows can be both deeply significant to them, getting a chance to see musicians they care about playing ‘unplugged’, but also a great opportunity to present them with links to places where they can support your music.
Experiment with other ways to make money when you aren’t selling show tickets
For receiving money, many musicians use PayPal’s donation service, paypal.me but if possible, it’s good to point them to something to buy – a virtual merch-table. For years, the streaming economy has impressed upon our audiences that all they need to do to ‘support’ music is subscribe to Spotify or Apple Music, but this pandemic has created an extraordinary opportunity to talk to your audience about the value of investing in your work to make more of it possible.
Already the music sales and streaming platform Bandcamp removed their revenue share for one day and it brought in $4.3 million direct to artists and small labels. Many people are finding a new love for supporting music, and your streaming gig may be a wonderful chance to invite your audience to join that growing trend without feeling like you’re sending begging letters.
To make this smooth, my tip is to have someone primed to post links to those things in the chat on the streaming service in question. If you choose to use Facebook, Twitch or YouTube, those links can be pasted and clicked on. If you use Instagram’s live option, the link will have to be in your bio, so you can either set up a single page or blog post that outlines all the options, or have it go straight to paypal.me or your latest album on Bandcamp.
Think carefully about the value of charging for your gigs For paid options, there are sites such as StageIt.com which allow you to sell tickets, and manage the whole transaction with your audience with you, while obviously taking a cut.
Over the years, many paid streaming services have come and gone, suggesting that it’s a tricky business to stay in and compete with the vast quantity of free streaming services out there. This is all the more reason to think carefully about the value of what you’re offering if you’re planning to charge for your gigs.
One option that splits the difference is to sell tickets, either via PayPal, Eventbrite or set up a ticket as a merch item on Bandcamp, and then send everyone who buys tickets the link to the stream just before it happens. This way you can use a private stream option such as setting up on YouTube Live and setting the stream to ‘unlisted’ or you can even use a video conferencing tool like Zoom, send out the link (which you can even password protect) and then host a Q&A with your audience afterwards.
Decide if you’ll want to use a recording of your show later
One thing to consider in your choice of platform is whether they archive the stream for you, and where that archiving takes place.
In order to stream to a regular free platform, both video and audio are compressed to some degree, so it may be worth looking for a platform that records it locally (Zoom offers this within the app) or, if you have the tech available, filming it on a DSLR camera and recording the audio within your laptop away from the stream for a much higher resolution offering at a later date.
Consider whether recording your show brings up copyright issues
Archiving may also bring up some additional issues around copyright, so if your set isn’t all original material, it’s worth looking into the terms and conditions of the platform which you’re using for live streaming to find out whether they are OK with that, and are paying the required licenses.
It goes without saying that using pre-recorded music to which you don’t own the copyright, or anything that contains samples would constitute infringement and would also risk the stream being recognised by Content ID software and your account being frozen.
Have fun, and apply your curiosity and creativity
There are many ways to be more elaborate with your streaming gigs - mixing multiple camera angles, video processing and complex sound design, but at a time like this, it’s enough to emphasise the intimacy of the performance, get the sound and video as good as you can and play a show that really connects to your audience.
You may find that the freedom to play in non-conventional spaces is something that inspires you beyond the constraints of the current pandemic, and you are able to use the skills acquired to further your career going forward. It’s also true that understanding the basics of recording and video production is an asset for any musician in the Internet age.
But please have fun, apply as much curiosity and creativity to your streaming plans as you can, and try to make the best of what is for so many of us an unprecedented gap in our usual mode of work.
Find out about Steve Lawson.
Read more advice for live musicians dealing with disruption due COVID-19.