Speculative Saturdays: Online Concerts
Written by Duncan Holzhall
There is currently a huge amount of hype around the livestream concert realm. When we are physically separated from our favorite artists and fellow fans for as long as we have, it is only natural to assume that livestreams are going to be the new normal. But let’s not kid ourselves: when it is safe to attend live concerts, there will be no hesitation which choice most music fans will make. Many of the issues that have arisen with livestream concerts concern capturing the live atmosphere, an admirable goal that will not be replicated in the near future. When live concerts return, there will be a decrease in revenue generated from livestream concerts as fans flock to packed nightclubs and stadiums. Livestreams won’t go away, however. There’s been too much progress and innovation over the past seven months within the field, and the ritual of sitting on the couch to tune into a virtual concert has become commonplace in many households. The question is: what role will livestream concerts play when the live music industry returns?
In order to understand how livestreams will function in the music ecosystem, we need to understand the different revenue models that they can follow. Back in 2018, one of the most prominent ventures into the virtual concert realm was Coachella. An electronic music festival, the event took place entirely on a server in the popular game Minecraft (a game that is acclaimed for its ambient soundtrack, among other things). In line with the general ethos of the Minecraft teams’ goals, the festival charged no admission fee, with the only direct revenue coming from the purchase of the game. The artists for the festival broadcast their concerts using Mixlr, a live-broadcast service along the lines of Twitch and Open Broadcasting Service (OBS). As such, the familiar revenue streams of one-off donations, subscriptions, and advertising royalties were all at play during Coachella.
One of the side effects of playing a virtual concert is a boost in traditional revenue generators, primarily in streaming royalties. Quickly becoming one of the most popular and prominent players in the virtual concert realm, Epic Games has been using its popular Fortnite platform to host performances. According to Nate Nanzer, head of global partnerships for Fortnite, “[i]f you’re on tour, you want to stop on the Fortnite stage. It’s a unique way to get in front of an audience that maybe you’re not reaching through other means.” To this end, it is the hope of Epic Games that Fortnite will assume a similar position within the industry as Saturday Night Live, where performers will use the performance as a promotional tool. Given that there is no official confirmation of direct earnings from Epic, we will discount that as a stream of revenue. But how effective is this method of generation? In the five day span surrounding Travis Scott’s record-breaking Fortnite concert from April 23rd to 25th, he earned $370,401.11 in streaming revenue from Spotify. While this cannot be solely attributed to the concert, and understanding that Travis Scott is one of the most popular acts in music today, there was unquestionably a noticeable increase in streaming revenue that correlated with his appearance on the Fortnite stage.
If you are confused by streaming, royalties, and advertising, there are still other livestream models that follow a more straightforward approach. When the pandemic shuttered the live industry, Erykah Badu set right to work in developing a unique livestream experience. For an initial admission fee of $1, audience members were granted an interactive concert where they could vote on which songs the band would perform, what genre or style they would perform it as, and even changes in costuming. With each style, there was a different room designed to evoke an atmosphere in line with the selected genre. For Badu, she sees this method as the height of her creativity: combining performance, direction, and production, her livestreams take on a uniquely intimate feeling and allow her 100,000 tuned-in fans to feel that their voices are heard. With subsequent concerts, she plans on increasing the admission fee in the interest of making profit past covering overhead, and a livestream company is in the works. Given the choice, Badu would never go on tour again, instead broadcasting these unique concerts from home.
Now that we have taken a thorough look at different revenue models for the livestream industry, how will they adapt to the return of in-person concerts? Ultimately, the industry will reach a balance between the two mediums of performance. The preference of performance platform will depend on the status of the artist. For superstars in the upper echelon of profit-making, they will benefit most from live performances in terms of revenue, occasionally dabbling in a livestream to boost their passive income streams (just because they can). For legacy acts (Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, AC/DC, et cetera), they will balance both methods: livestreams for the same mobility reasons as Erykah Badu, and live performances for the old-school thrill of performing for people. And for indie acts and other low-revenue artists, a high-quality livestream will generate a greater profit than a live tour (touring is rarely a profitable venture to begin with), with live performances used to deepen community roots and engage with local fans.
Most of us have accepted that things will not “go back to normal” after COVID-19. The pandemic has forced the world to change the way it operates, and the music industry is no exception. When live performances return, there will still be plenty of room in the music scene for livestream concerts. As long as we continue to invest in the development of this alternate performance medium, the music industry will be healthier for it.