Josh Groban performing at his livestream concert on June 27th in LA. He also had 2 band members, guitarist Tariqh Akoni and pianist Mark Stephens, on stage with him (6 feet apart).
While COVID-19 has largely shut down the touring industry since March, the last seven months have given way to innovation with livestream concerts rising in prominence. And the impact is likely to be lasting. Insights in the new Music 360 Report by MRC Data, a division of Billboard's parent company, show 47% of music listeners feel it is important for the industry to offer livestream performances or virtual concerts and so far only 25% of music listeners have tuned in to one of these shows.
While the livestream business has been supercharged out of necessity during the pandemic, there’s a good chance it will stick around -- or even continue to grow -- once live concerts can resume. In the meantime, artists and promoters have been increasingly focused on adding production value to these performances. "The home concert was interesting at the beginning, but we’ve seen a lot of that," says Jared Losow, marketing director for New York venue Le Poisson Rouge, which launched a $19.99-per-month livestream subscription service on Thursday with a concert by indie rock band Cults. "People are ready for something different." Using equipment Le Poisson Rouge already had in-house, LPR.tv raises the livestream to an audio-visual experience worthy of charging a premium price: seven cameras, high-quality sound and a simple, effective interface.
With top artists earning upwards of $1 million per livestream show, former senior Sony Music executive Thomas Hesse, who launched streaming service in Dreamstage in August, thinks that concert livestreaming will become a $6 billion industry within the next three years. Pandora co-founder Tim Westergren, who launched Sessions at the end of April, Westergren has a loftier forecast, estimating the current value of the business at around $1 billion, with the potential to grow to the "tens of billions" within three years. Westergren sees livestreaming not only as a temporary replacement for touring but an expansion of it that can make it more widely accessible, estimating the market could eventually -- eventually -- grow in value to five or even 10 times that of the roughly $30 billion pre-pandemic live concert business.
For different artists, an elevated concert experience means different things. Last Thursday, Dutch DJ Oliver Heldens held a one-hour show hosted across six different TV "channels" where he appeared as characters in shows ranging from a game show to a cooking show to a boxing match and more. (His manager, Dave Frank, hopes these kinds of productions can be turned into a subscription product.) In August, The Avett Brothers held a live drive in concert at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, with 1,500 cars in attendance (with tickets priced $100 to $300), and another 10,000 fans watching remotely, who purchased pay-per-view livestream tickets between $25 and $35 via nugs.net. And, although not available to all artists, promoters and top-tier acts are experimenting with virtual reality, including EDM festival Tomorrowland, which after successfully pivoting online in July, now plans to host more of these online-only events even after the pandemic.
The rock band Blue October tackled the pandemic by building its own platform with off-the-shelf tools. "What are you going to do with this time?" asks singer Justin Furstenfeld. "Whine about it? Or be proactive and creative?" Led by managers Mike Swinford and Paul Nugent of Rainmaker Artists, the team created Get Back Up TV, to stream the band’s documentary, Get Back Up, to replace a tour of movie theaters. Get Back Up TV offered two Blue October virtual concerts, one from July that attracted 6,000 and another from September with 5,000 ticket buyers -- both at $35 each, according to Furstenfeld. The shows were produced with high-quality audio and video from a soundstage near his home outside Austin.
Paid online concerts in all their forms, whether livestreams or virtual reality events, will help plug a hole formed during the pandemic. Only 39% of artists count touring as a key measure of success, according to a MIDiA Research report released last month, down from 50% in 2019. Audio streaming alone isn’t enough: half of artists surveyed are worried that audio streaming, albeit a primary source for income, does not pay a living wage.
Much of the concert ecosystem will receive a shot in the arm. "Nobody is doing this for free," says Losow. If LPR.tv proves successful, the venue, reduced to three staff members, can rehire some workers while helping managers and agents by putting their clients back to work.
Furstenfeld is giddy about the possibilities his band’s streaming platform offers. He recalls David Bowie’s duet of "Little Drummer Boy" on Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas TV special in 1977. "I’m going to do one of those. I’m going to have it in the middle of the soundstage. Why? Because we can."