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Coronavirus Is Giving Livestreaming the Chance to Prove Itself

“We are absolutely overloaded — we’ve never had this much interest in our entire existence,” says one livestreaming-company founder, as the previously shunned technology gains steam

photo illustration images: Shutterstock (guitar), Getty Images (room, computer)

It’s taken some time — and the unfortunate circumstance of a pandemic — but concert livestreaming could finally be having its moment. Amid major festival cancellations and hundreds of tours and concerts getting the chopping block due to COVID-19, artists and their teams are scrambling for new ways forward; and because waiting isn’t much of an option for those who need the income or can’t afford to cancel, the fledgling livestreaming industry is finding itself in the spotlight. 

In the past week, several concerts and events elected to stream rather than perform for a larger, in-person crowd. Organizers for the fourth annual Love Rocks NYC benefit concert, featuring Jackson Browne, the Black Crowes’ Chris and Rich Robinson, and Leon Bridges, went the livestream route, limiting in-person attendance to media, artist personnel, and friends and family. British singer and songwriter Yungblud streamed a concert early Monday on YouTube, featuring Machine Gun Kelly and Bella Thorne. And over the weekend, the Los Angeles and New York city-government mandates for all bars and clubs to close may drive a new stampede of musicians to the format.

“We’re the only solution to be able to scale this, so, yeah, there’s been a ton of interest in what we’re doing. It’s nutso, it’s totally nuts.” — Sammy Rubin, Big Room TV co-founder

Big Room TV, a livestreaming service that can air from individual venues without camerapeople, says livestreaming was already growing more popular, but the COVID-19 pandemic has put more eyes on its potential than ever. Co-founder Sammy Rubin says the company has had to completely modify its business model to fit venues’ needs as they try to put on crowdless shows to make up for lost revenue. Big Room is now constantly in and out of phone calls with venues trying to make the shows an option, and while it won’t be straightforward with ongoing travel restrictions, they’re working toward a answer. “We’re the only solution to be able to scale this, so, yeah, there’s been a ton of interest in what we’re doing,” Rubin says. “It’s nutso; it’s totally nuts.”

Big Room’s venue-based business hasn’t been without its hiccups. The Blue Note jazz club in New York, one of Big Room’s partners, had already been using livestreaming for weeks to send concerts over to China, where two Blue Note clubs have been shut down since the outbreak hit its peak in that country. But reflecting the rapid spread of the illness and its economic impact, and following New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Sunday decree effectively shutting down bars, clubs, and restaurants, Blue Note New York’s shows and livestreams have also been canceled. 

Another more recent partner, the 10th annual Music Tech Mashup at Empire Control Room & Garage in Austin, also shut its doors over coronavirus concerns. Still, Big Room director of growth Jessi Olsen says the demand is high. “This was already the trend,” Olsen says. “All of this with coronavirus is just kind of putting it into hyperdrive.”

Adam Arrigo, founder and CEO of Wave XR, a virtual-reality platform that livestreams music, has seen a similar spike in interest. “It’s been a crazy time; our phones are literally ringing off the hook,” he says. Wave XR labels itself a live-experience company because it mixes livestreaming with virtual reality to create immersive online concerts like a video game. The company allows users to connect through their very own avatars to let viewers interact with one another, and has already produced streaming events for electro-violinist Lindsey Stirling and EDM duo Galantis. With the social aspect of concerts lacking in more typical passive streaming options, such a distinction is important for the fan experience, Arrigo says. 

“We hope we have some positive role to play in not only helping the music industry to recover some of this lost revenue, but, more importantly, also giving people an outlet to connect when they’re feeling increasingly isolated. … But it’s not going to happen overnight — you won’t see everyone doing a virtual concert tomorrow.” — Adam Arrigo, founder and CEO of Wave XR

Arrigo adds that Wave XR has already been in talks with major concert promoters to help create new digital live events for the companies. Still, he says, it’ll be a transition before artists can en masse turn to livestreams as an answer. “Absolutely, demand is off the charts; we’re currently focused on scaling the product in a way that can support artists and their fans,” he says. “We hope we have some positive role to play in not only helping the music industry to recover some of this lost revenue, but, more importantly, also giving people an outlet to connect when they’re feeling increasingly isolated. There’s the sense of urgency and duty that we have to serve the artists. I think where there’s a will there’s a way. We have built a powerful platform. But it’s not going to happen overnight — you won’t see everyone doing a virtual concert tomorrow.”

Some livestreaming services say they’ve been overwhelmed by the number of artists looking to find tour alternatives — but with such high demand, they’re looking to make do. Evan Lowenstein, founder and CEO of paid-concert-streaming company Stageit, says he usually compares the company’s platform to more of a basement show than a major concert venue. Most artists air the concerts from their homes. He says he never planned on his service taking the place of in-person live music, but while it isn’t an option, Stageit needs to be everything for everyone. 

“We hope we can help as many people as we can, but we aren’t that giant operator, a huge venue,” he says. “We are that basement club that reeks of urine and beer, but we’re here and we’re gonna help you connect with some fans.”

In the interest of serving the artists, Lowenstein says, Stageit has upped its payout to performing acts to 80 percent. Smaller acts would previously be given 63 percent. (It’s unclear if the heightened payout will remain after virus concerns go down.) Stageit’s show count has skyrocketed in the past few days and continues to grow by the hour. As of Friday, Stageit had 20 to 25 upcoming shows; by Monday, it was up to more than 200. On Sunday, Stageit pulled in nearly $100,000 for the day — for scale, the company made $274,000 in its biggest month ever, in 2014. Lowenstein says multiple major booking agencies have reached out and want to get their artists on Stageit soon. 

Stageit is readying a partnership with School of Rock to provide streaming content, and it has also partnered to stream a festival called Shut In and Sing, which will feature artists the Indigo Girls and singer and guitarist Dan Navarro, among others.

“We are absolutely overloaded — we’ve never had this much interest in our entire existence,” Lowenstein says. “We’ve had a lot of attention, but nothing like this.” 

Its payouts aren’t sustainable, and Stageit is reaching out to brands to help underwrite some of the expenses. In recent years, Stageit would typically expect between 75 and 125 shows in a given month. “It’s not about me; it’s about the artists,” Lowenstein says. “This doesn’t feel like a time to take a victory lap, [as] we’re in the thick of it right now.”

The artists who’ve already been making a living through platforms like Twitch and YouNow are some of the few that haven’t felt the sting of COVID-19’s impact. Pop singer Megan Lenius has been partnered with Twitch for nearly three years, and livestreaming is her primary source of income as a musician. While she isn’t making the money major artists are earning on tour, it’s steady, and unlike artists relying on tour revenue, she hasn’t been shaken. “It’s a good time to be an online musician,” she says. “It really is. I’m very fortunate I’ve been able to stay where I am and not have to worry about one thing or another.”

For some individual artists, livestreaming is already salvaging their canceled tours. Emma McGann, a pop singer from the U.K., has been making a living livestreaming her music for the past five years, building up her following through YouNow and Twitch. 

She was slated to embark on a 21-date North American tour — her first — which was abruptly postponed last week. Originally planning to supplement the tour with the virtual component, livestreaming will now be the main event. She’ll be doing livestreamed shows from London to make up for every postponed U.S. date and selling a £20 ($24) “Virtual Tour Pass” to her fans that will give them access to all her upcoming online concerts, alongside other perks like discounted merchandise. 

“I feel like we would’ve made a significant amount of money. Having to cancel, we have taken a financial hit,” McGann says. “But the livestreaming I plan to do will definitely make up for that. It saved our butts 100 percent.”

While paid livestreaming has historically been looked down upon by the booming live-music business, it’s being taken much more seriously now that it’s the industry’s best path forward. Karen Allen, a tech consultant and author of the guide Twitch for Musicians, tells Rolling Stone that passive, two-dimensional streams have drawn yawns in the past — but community-based streaming platforms that encourage artists to interact with fans are newly gaining steam.

“People have been resistant to paying for any content online,” Allen says. “Even though Coachella is an amazing livestream, no one’s going to pay for that. There’s an expectation that content is going to be free online because it’s premium.” But with the near-total decline in live shows, Allen points out, any option is better than staying at home in silence — for artists and fans alike — and it may just be time for the skeptics to be swayed.