Looking beyond the pandemic – Brooke Harwood and Jolene Zhu Zhou
This post features two pieces from the LMX student interns – Brooke Harwood and Jolene Zhu Zhou – looking at the effect of social distancing on live music and, with an end to the pandemic hopefully in sight, at some of the emerging possibilities for performers and the live music sector at large.
Brooke Harwood – A New Era of Musical Performance
Jolene Zhu Zhou – The Show Must Go On(line)
Brooke Harwood – A New Era of Musical Performance
The music industry is constantly adapting. In the early 2000s, it was impossible to imagine that vinyl records would soon overtake CD sales and a full live concert could be streamed from a mobile phone. As we near the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, the music scene will once again develop. From online writing collaborations to cinematic television broadcasts, the pandemic has encouraged artists to find new and creative ways to provide musical performance as national restrictions persist. If we are to know what to expect from live music post-2020, this new era of musical performance must be explored.
Live concerts to a packed audience remain impossible in many countries with social distancing measures still in place. Due to this, music artists have been forced to heighten their creativity in televised performances to provide fans with much needed entertainment throughout lockdown. As the BBC reports, online streaming throughout the pandemic has forced for musical broadcasts, in order to combat social media competitors. As a result, artists have gained the capacity to create cinematic-styled television broadcasts with the hope of compensating for cancelled live concerts.
Alex Lill, a film director with particular experience in music video production explains the motive behind cinematic performances to the BBC:
Before the pandemic even hit we were trying to reimagine how we could provide a cinematic experience for the audience at home, not just the live audience. When Covid started and live audiences were out the window, only then were we given more licence by various television networks and platforms to pursue this new approach.
This cinematic experience can be seen within various televised performances and livestreams since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
A noteworthy example may be Pa Salieu’s appearance on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, on the 22nd of January this year. Due to travel restrictions between the US and UK, Salieu was unable to appear in person on the American show. In light of this, the networkallowed Salieu to pre-record an almost music video worthy performance that would be aired live on the show. His performance involved pitbulls, cars, a grocery store set and was distinctively different to pre-Covid musical appearances on The Tonight Show that would usually be performed live on set, with little to nothing by way of props. Despite being pre-recorded, Salieu’s performance appears to have been a success as reviewers and audience comments highlight:
[T]his guy just made a music video live on stage.
The favourable audience response to Salieu’s appearance on The Tonight Show suggests that theatrical or cinematic musical recordings may be utilised in television following the COVID-19 pandemic as the industry moves into a new era of music performance.
Another sector that has evolved has music performances have taken account of the pandemic is that of concert experiences. Prior to Coronavirus, fans had the option to pay premium ticket prices to meet their favourite artists backstage following a concert. However, experts within the industry report that these “meet and greets may be a thing of the past”. The experience would be reserved for around one hundred audience members and traditionally involved a hug, quick conversation and photo with the artist. However, post-2020, the unavoidable health risks of this personal interaction has now caused the meet and greet option to be removed from most concert ticket packages.
Despite this, many artists recognise the importance of one-on-one fan interactions and so have explored creative methods in providing this valued concert experience following the pandemic. The mobile app, Cameo, allows fans to pay for a personalised video message from their chosen celebrity. Many artists have turned to apps like Cameo to provide fans with ‘digital autographs’ whilst live concerts meet and greets remain impossible.
Editors of the JS magazine argue that personalised video messages are a positive consequence of the Coronavirus pandemic that will upgrade traditional meet and greets post-2020:
This digital spin on traditional meet and greets definitely elevates the fan experience, and is a meaningful piece of memorabilia you can view again and again.
Beyond this, live music industry experts hypothesise that ticketing will also become increasingly digitalised, post-2020. With the development of e-tickets through smartphones, the paper ticket for large events was already in decline, prior to 2020. However, to avoid unnecessary contact between venue staff and audience members, physical tickets for live music events could be abandoned following the pandemic.
Graham Micone, vice president of music and entertainment at Momentum Worldwide, writes in an interview for Cosmopolitan magazine:
Things will likely look a bit different th[a]n they were pre-COVID-19, […] Line entry into venues will likely be staggered and tickets will be paperless, everyone just having their devices scanned.
Whilst this will be disappointing news for fans with endless paper tickets taped to their bedroom wall, the protection of audience and staff health must remain the priority.
Lastly, the new context for performance may also see the popularity of intimate concerts rise in the wake of the Coronavirus. As previously mentioned, large audience capacity remains challenging in 2021, due to the continuing social distancing measures. Consequently, some experts believe that smaller venues may become the typical concert setting post-pandemic.
Journalist, Adam Aziz, suggests that intimate concert settings will provide fans with a more personal experience:
[T]here is an opportunity for mid to lower-level artists to swallow their pride and consider getting even closer to their fans. There is an opportunity for street or literal backyard tours across the nation for artists to continue to generate some income, build social content, and make touring work in the meantime.
Smaller venues give the advantage of full audience capacity whilst maintaining social distancing and so may be the best possible option for concert settings following the COVID-19 pandemic.
The idea of intimate concerts was partially tested in August 2020, at the UK’s first socially distanced festival. Here, ticket-holders were kept strictly separated with each other in respect of government safety guidelines. Audience reactions were greatly in favour of the new set-up and some took to Twitter to voice their approval:
‘My hatred for human contact with people I don’t know really, realllyyy approves of this,’
‘THIS IS HOW I WANT IT TO BE FOREVER. I COULD FINALLY GO TO FESTIVALS!!‘
This audience reaction to this socially-distanced festival provides some hope for intimate concerts post-pandemic as it emphasises that large and uncontained crowds are not essential to live music performance.
Whilst the pandemic has caused unimaginable losses for the music industry, it is clear that artists are willing and determined to adapt to a new era of musical performance. Elaborate, cinematic performances have become the norm for musical television appearances and may be the way forward for broadcasters as they compete with online streaming. Concert experiences have also been adapted as a result of the pandemic with the emergence of smaller venue concerts and digitalised fan experiences. Whilst it may be a while before live performance resumes, the creativity of artists and industry workers throughout the pandemic brings us faith that the post-COVID era of music will be one to look forward to.
Jolene Zhu Zhou – The Show Must Go On(line)
Although the effect of coronavirus on the live music industry is undoubtedly devastating, some people have found a silver lining: live streaming. With music venues large and small being forced to shut around the world, artists have no choice but to turn to livestreaming to perform for fans, and there are some cases that can indicate how evolutionary this format can be.
K-Pop superstars BTS made nearly $20m in June 2020 from a single virtual concert “Bang Bang Con: The Live” where fans were offered a front-row experience that attracted 756,600 concurrent viewers from 107 regions.
Likewise, former One Direction member Niall Horan performed a livestream gig in an empty Royal Albert Hall in London which sold more than 120,000 tickets, surpassing the capacity of the venue itself, to raise funds for his touring crew and the ‘We Need Crew’ fund. His concert attracted fans from more than 150 countries worldwide who joined and watched the singer perform.
One of the most popular European music festivals, Tomorrowland, also hosted their first digital experience, calling it “Tomorrowland Around the World”. With tickets priced between €12.50 (approx. £10) and €20 (approx. £17), over 1 million paid to attend the virtual festival, meaning the festival made over £10 million over one single weekend.
Big names such as Spotify and Amazon have already jumped on this boat. Music giant Spotify teamed up with Songkick (an app that connects concert-goers with artists) and Ticketmaster last September to make access to virtual events easier for their audiences and to help artists out in this period where tours are being cancelled due to COVID-19. The way this new feature works is that artists can list their events through Songkick, host their event through various platforms such as Twitch and Instagram Live and then, once it’s on Spotify, add it to their “Artist Pick” so that the concert is at the top of their profile. Spotify can then raise more awareness by sending recommendations to fans to get the word out.
Amazon also seized this opportunity and launched a live streaming function within Twitch (mainly a gaming platform that is owned by Amazon) whose popularity skyrocketed during the pandemic. Musicians also link their Twitch account to Amazon Music where their performance will be broadcasted on the Amazon Music app simultaneously and followers will be notified when the streaming starts.
Smaller businesses are also tuning in to these new technological solutions. But without names as big as those previously mentioned, they are looking more on the creative side. Many have picked up on what Amazon and Spotify lack – the relationship between artist and fan, an essential quality of the live experience.
It isn’t only tech giants that are responding to the growth in live music online. Smaller companies are also entering the fray, and seeking to address some of the problems around streaming live music online – the gap between the ‘live experience’ and the mediated nature of livestreams.
Although they are a start-up company, Driift’s services do really revolutionise attending livestreamed concerts, which feature in-performance live video fan chat rooms; friend sourcing at show through breakout chat room; ‘private boxes’ for groups of friends (video chat); and ‘private rooms’ for meet and greets (also video chats). All of these components replicate aspects of the experience of going to a concert in person, especially the latter which ticks off the box of fan and artist interactions with the only difference being that of actually being able to see people face-to-face. Nevertheless, Driift has already gained massive success as a production company for livestreaming gigs, including producing Niall Horan’s aforementioned Albert Hall.
Sessions, co-founded by Tim Westergen, emphasise artist and fan interactions even more: not only can artists charge for shows and bundle merch with online ticket sales – which guarantees revenue for the performer – its special feature called “Buy Love” allows additional transactions in the form of virtual gifts for the artist. Fans can also pay to request songs and stand out more so that artists notice their efforts and contributions. What is also appealing about this platform is that it supports those upcoming artists who need help more than ever before to break into the industry, as well as established ones such as Ceelo Green and Daniel Caesar.
So far, the cases discussed have all been about livestreaming platforms. But Nick Dangerfield used another business model for these new advances: speakers called ‘Oda’ that mimic the feeling of an in-person show when broadcasting live performances. The speakers themselves cost $399 (approx. £292), and the business model also features a membership priced at $79 (approx. £58) for every three months where the line-up of performers change every season. The experience of the product is described as “two cans and a string” as the artists craft their own sound, controlling every detail heard as they activate the speakers themselves with the press of a button. What further differentiates this from the other services is that the performance is played at home, not through a phone or a browser.
With new opportunities, new challenges also arise. One crucial factor to attending concerts is that the fan can see the performance of an artist that they already know and like. Although the Oda speakers are very innovative, the question remains of whether the music of the changing lineup will be to the audience’s liking? The only recognisable names they have worked with so far are Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson, who are however, not included in the performing artists list. The same issue can be applied to Sessions, although (as mentioned before) they also include more famous artists and there is less financial commitment involved as consumers can purchase individual tickets with no membership fee or additional hardware costs.
Generally speaking, there are still many issues that need to be solved. How do you work out the value of a virtual ticket? Is the number of Instagram followers of the artist a good indicator for pricing models? Can you rely on the current technology to let potentially millions of fans in through the virtual door in less than 10 minutes?
To replace live concerts with virtual ones, companies need to put fan engagements at the heart of their service or product. Technology can create amazing visual representations digitally, but this still might not be as special as an in-person experience – hearing the public scream when the artist first appears on the stage, seeing the whole venue filled with floating lights as people wave their light-sticks in the air, voices responding when the artist turn their mic to the audience. But also imagine the potential growth of the music industry if these answers are figured out. Maybe the live event online will even become an experience itself, rather than an alternative to live concerts whilst we wait for a pandemic to end.
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