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The Great (Livestreamed) Gig in the Sky: Part-Two

In part-two of Sam’s blog on monetising livestreamed performances, he talks with Artistic Director Kenneth Killeen about what the future may look like for venues, performers, and monetized livestreamed performances.

Published: 09 July 2020 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:31 PM
Sam Leak at the piano

On 25 June Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden announced a five-stage phased return for live theatre for which we’re currently at stage two: ‘Performances for broadcast and recording purposes (adhering to social distancing guidelines).’

Dates are yet to be suggested for the remaining three phases, which are:

  • Stage Three – Performances outdoors with an audience plus pilots for indoor performances with a limited distance audience
  • Stage Four – Performances allowed indoors/outdoors (but with a limited distanced audience indoors)
  • Stage Five – Performances allowed indoors/outdoors (with a fuller audience indoors)

Despite this blow, real-life venues are nonetheless currently able to broadcast on-site performances, and will hopefully soon be able to open their doors to a socially distanced public. As such, a range of new options are becoming available to us. 

Presenting quality content that reflects the true cost, and value, of music

I asked Kenneth Killeen, the Artistic Director of Improvised Music Company (IMC), for his thoughts on the future for venues, performers, and monetized livestreamed performances.

SL: These are difficult times for performers and venues alike. Many have aired fears that musicians’ livestreaming practice may be undervaluing their work. What are your thoughts on how venues and performers have responded to the ways in which their work has been affected by the Coronavirus outbreak?

KK: Initially, I think we reacted before we responded. Arguably what’s happening now is more reflective. Most organisations and artists went into overdrive producing and disseminating content in the initial weeks and months of lockdown, which is entirely natural. Everyone sought to amplify and validate their work within this ‘new’ paradigm.

However, there are drawbacks in releasing a tsunami of content into an ecosystem that has inherent end user expectations – namely that everything is ‘free’ or at least perceived as such. Suddenly we were competing with the already teeming world wide web.

Content was getting lost, more than anyone could really digest, and I think online fatigue set in pretty quickly. And it’s obviously a different experience to create work for online dissemination. This music, like all music, requires everyone being in a room together. It’s a binary that will can never be bested; artists vibing off each other and off audiences, and vice versa. Take away any part of that and it becomes an entirely different thing. 

It can however lead to some great artistic options, choices, and new methods of composition and presentation. And it may potentially lead to a renewed identity, as well as new audiences for artists and organisations who can harness this meaningfully. 

I think we need to take careful, considerate steps now, and think about the long-term effects of what this means for our industry. The issue is that, while streaming was once a supplement to the live experience, it has rapidly become the primary experience available. We’ve all had to quickly grapple with how we present quality content that reflects the true cost, and value, of music in this market which is difficult to monetise, and consequently may be difficult to sustain.

Live streaming can be a building block for something more

SL: Venues are now able to give on-site broadcasts. What do you think venues and performers should be considering if they decide to do this?

KK: I am a huge fan of technology but I am also cautious of how we should incorporate broadcast concepts. If anything, this pandemic has been a time to reflect on what our values are. It’s also a unique opportunity to maybe hit the reset button on some audience and artist expectations.

We are essentially entering a new market and we have the difficult task of asserting artistic value within this new framework. This means that our community of artists, venues, and organisations really should work to agree on some bigger fundamental goals for how we proceed. There are short term things obviously, but also some longer term ‘vision’ is needed, and we could do with broad agreement on this.

Never has “know your audience” been so important. We are entering a new market and, like all businesses entering new markets, we must research it, understand it, create and develop a business strategy and marketing plan to match. And I think you alluded to this in your article, Sam – none of this has to do with the art of music, rather a far more prosaic business model to sustain this next chapter of music presentation.

We have to embrace technology and harness it to our advantage. We must know what audiences want. I personally don’t think many are happy to watch a feed of live music streamed from a venue. But maybe there is a generation who are more comfortable doing that? Especially in the short-term. 

It can be dangerous to apply old models of thinking to new models of engagement. I believe we can do a lot more with the concept of streaming than providing clinically high quality multi-camera virtual experiences of a live event.

Sure, it certainly has its place and it has been hugely successful in some EU markets to date. I have enjoyed some great concerts online in the past months. It’s phenomenal, both for access and for engagement, but it’s also a building block for giving audiences something that could not be done in the physical space.

We should view it as a new tool for creative expression, and work with venues and organisations to create work designed for this new business model (be it virtual collaborations, human vs AI, twinning with other venues to present one live local event and one international streamed event or whatever).

The overarching goal is to sustain artist careers and the cultural economy, while markedly asserting the true value of music in a new age of uncertainty. There is also a lot to be said for ‘digital touring’ as a way to build followings in new markets while reducing our collective carbon footprints. A digital model could precede an actual tour. Stuff like that makes sense.

Live streaming as its own art form

SL: Hopefully soon venues will likely be able to open their doors to socially distanced audiences. Social distancing measures could end up limiting audience sizes, thus potentially limiting how much income can be generated from real-world ticket sales.

Should musicians and venues incorporate livestreaming into their ticketing models, and if they do then what are your recommendations? 

KK: Live streaming has always been viewed predominantly as an engagement model as opposed to a revenue model – present free content online to attract people to your venue or your concerts. And it’s been successful from that perspective. Monetising it has been less successful. Just look at print journalism’s attempts, over the past decade, to reinvent themselves as paid online subscriptions. It has not been easy or even successful in some cases. 

If there are ways to somehow turn the passive stream-watching audience to active participants, then I think there could be new ways to engage there. Audiences want to feel valued and want to feel like they are part of a discussion. I also believe that improvising musicians are uniquely suited to this. Engaging with the live stream and responding to requests, or feedback of some description, and creating improvisations based on this could be a neat way to provide some USP.

When we were talking in the office about digital content, one of our main things was, “Would this be a cool thing to go see online, even in a post-COVID world?”.

Tangentially, I think of Dutch piano trio ‘Tin Men & the Telephone,’ who have their own app which audiences can use to dictate harmonic and melodic content on stage. Sure it’s a gimmick, but I’ve seen how powerful it can be in a live context. This could work online just as well as in a live venue.

In summary, I believe live streaming is important and some audiences will be grateful for this opportunity to watch live music from the safety of their own homes. However, we should definitely look at the streaming concept much more deeply to see how we can use it to our advantage. It could itself be its own art-form?

Live performances can learn from the digital world too

SL: On a similar note, what creative solutions could venues take to maximise on potential real-life audiences, and income from them (e.g., having a first and second house)?

KK: Live audiences should be uniquely rewarded. They are the pinnacle cog in the live experience. Subscription models, and other methods of engagement off the bandstand, could be a good way to provide continuity.

As I mentioned earlier, some analogue models shouldn’t necessarily be copy-pasted to the digital world. However, look at the flip side and it’s a different story. Patreon, KoFi, GoFundMe and other subscription and target generative models of investment can be applied more to physical spaces.

Invest in a front row seat. Get special musical content in your inbox of artists you follow at a venue. I think we need to embrace subscription models in some way, and treat audiences as community investors with unique rewards. The community is made up of audiences, venues, organisations and artists – without any one of those we don’t really have a live music scene. 

Livestreaming is a fact of life now

SL: Livestreaming offers some unique possibilities that aren’t available in real world performances. Do you think that the incorporation of livestreaming moving-forward could be a positive for all involved? If so, in what sort of ways?

KK: I think we have to accept that this is now a fact of life. The question now becomes what are the next steps? This pandemic has sharply accelerated a somewhat inevitable discussion around music and technology.

We have to be aware of what’s happening in this area because it is driven firstly by corporations, then consumer adoption which ultimately becomes consumer demand. Unfortunately, the arguments that “technology is not for me” or “I’m not interested in this stuff, I just want to play live” are akin to sticking one’s head in the sand.

This is the market now. We shape it. We can be proactive rather than reactive and I think our creatives are uniquely placed to innovate in this area if they are properly supported! People talk of interdisciplinary work all the time. Artists should be in touch with digital graphic artists, visual artists, animators, game developers, and artists from the other side of the world, to devise unique content for what is essentially a new engagement platform (and one that could potentially unlock a whole new audience).

It’s not diluting the proposition, it’s augmenting it or recasting it. I would prefer to think of streaming in general not just as ‘live streaming’ but distinctly as digital content presented online at specific times.

SL: Do you think that, now it has been introduced, livestreaming practice is here to stay?

KK: Yes, in the longer term, simply because that is what our lives have become. We are becoming more fundamentally intertwined in an increasingly ubiquitous fusion of analogue and digital.

Audiences may simply come to expect the duality of choice: watch digitally or be in the room. Faster devices, faster computers, faster internet speeds, faster intelligence, better AI etc. These are all inevitabilities that, in a way, both underpin and influence expectations. I recommend Kevin Kelly’s book “The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future,” because he makes some solid arguments for a lot of this.

I was just thinking yesterday that someone born in 2003 will be 18 years old in 2021. That’s next year! These people are the first truly digital natives who never knew a world without the ubiquity of our digital world. And they will be adults, legally able to attend concerts etc. I think we need to really consider what their needs and expectations are.

Moral issues for livestreaming music

SL: What moral and ethical issues do you think we should be considering both as we move through the COVID-19 recovery phases, and as we incorporate livestreaming into out practice?

KK: Some of the ethics are about value, identity and ownership. This all gets a bit messy online, the issue being that a live concert is a unique event of shared time and experience. Then it’s gone. And that’s great, it was palpable. To preserve this essence, online should be the same, unless there is a different identify and rationale for it.

There are also huge issues around broadcasting rights, licencing etc. The internet is the wild west in a lot of ways. So many standards, so many corporations controlling patches of the network. It’s not in an artist’s favour, that’s for sure.

Something radical has to change here (and soon) because the bits and bytes of music are becoming worthless. What does this mean for future generations who want to enter this space. Blockchain technology has been heralded for the last 10 years or so now, for democratisation of the digital space, direct interaction of artist and audience, cutting out the corporations etc, but we’re yet to see it work effectively in practice.

It is a fascinating model, and right now probably the only model that runs directly against the current digital situation, but it has yet to scale, because it is user-based and user-driven. If artists have more control over their digital content, and how to monetize it effectively, I do think a lot of the current ethical issues will go away. 

As a final note, for livestreaming practice please consider the following:

  • Musicians should be paid commercial rates for commercial use
  • Consent must be cleared from all involved parties before streaming
  • The income generated from livestreams should be split between musicians following MU guidelines 
  • Similarly, musicians accompanying an 'artist' should be paid following MU guidelines

Sam Leak is a jazz musician, Lecturer in Music (Middlesex University), and PhD candidate in Music Psychology (Cambridge University). He is currently researching monetisation strategies for livestreaming in the wake of COVID-19, alongside Julia Haferkorn (Middlesex University), and Dr Brian Kavanagh (Kings College, London).

Read more from Sam in part one of this blog, covering the monetising of live performances through paywalls, ticketing and keeping your audience engaged.

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