Making live-streamed concerts better (or: It’s time to stop being apologetic about virtual gigs)

Every industry is going through Covid-infused change right now, often long-overdue, often reluctantly implemented. One such industry: concerts. For many music fans, live-streamed concerts (or e-gigs / virtual shows / digital concerts) have become a staple of weekend nights, though they are far from perfect in their current avatar.

These shows have evolved from those early days (March 2020!) of short Instagram Lives where the emphasis was just to infuse a bit of cheer amidst uncertainty and fear. With tours looking unlikely for a while, artists are increasingly turning to paid virtual gigs to supplement income, and fans turning to them for entertainment. The paywall ensures the artist gets paid and can invest in a better setup than an awkwardly-propped up phone (Instagram, to this day, doesn’t have an option for Live via desktop where a better video / audio setup could be used). Slowly, virtual gig listings have become a staple on Loudwire, Ticketmaster, ents24, as well as on dedicated platforms like Nugs, Vier.Live & Stageit. Here in India with the virus showing no signs of abating, virtual shows are pretty much all you find on Skillboxes, Insider & BookMyShow — who have done a creditable job of pivoting online and even building their own setups.

Chris Martin played one of the first widely-publicized Instagram Lives in March 2020. Though many artists continue to do this, the virtual gig ecosystem is evolving greatly as artists now see this as a monetization option given regular touring is unlikely for a while.
One of the earliest virtual shows I attended was The Dropkick Murphys’ show on St. Patrick’s Day. It kicked ass.

While I do see many artists putting out physical tour dates as early as March 2021, I think this is highly optimistic — so does Dr. Anthony Fauci, who reckons it’ll be till the end of the next year that live entertainment can go back to normal. Live music thrives on intimacy, and if you’re of the more metallic persuasion, a “no moshing” warning at the door can be a major buzz-kill and deterrent. Gigs are likely to have smaller audiences and if held outdoors, are more likely to look like this.

Given that, we might as well fully embrace the live-streamed gig. I say this because currently, it seems that artists going live online do so apologetically, clearly seeing it as a compromise of the real thing. Bands invariably start their gigs with “it feels weird, just us in the studio and all of you out there”. It’s jarring to see some of the best metal bands end songs into silence while members awkwardly scroll through the chatbox to pick up comments.

And while this might very well be the case, it does nothing to sell the concept of online live-streams, something that might become as much a part of this normal as masks.

So I hold a different view. I think such virtual gigs should not just be celebrated, but encouraged. To do this, we should optimize the experience for digital consumption, rather than just tack on a camera to the internet.

Now, before the hordes of “BuT LiV3 Mu$iC is D@ b#$t, u Don’T Kn0 What UR talking aBoUt” comments descend, let me just state that I’m a big fan of live music and I would want nothing more than to head back to antiSocial and sprain my neck out with fellow Mumbai metalheads, and plan a return to Belgium’s Graspop Metal Meeting. I miss the energy, the meeting up with friends, the artist-audience banter… All those things that make live music awesome. But let’s face it — that ain’t gonna happen for a while, so we might as well take the next best thing and improve it. I’m not saying a better live-streamed experience will rival a real experience, but given that’s where our medium-term entertainment lies, we might as well make the best of it, and who knows, it might open up some new avenues.

Bangalore’s Pineapple Express played a fantastic show —kudos to the team behind this to be able to pull it off

Taking inspiration from the world of sports

When sport was broadcast on television for the first time, there must no doubt have been pushback from luddites who believed the game should be seen only in the flesh. Soon, though, innovators like Walter Barber would make television broadcasting compelling by adding commentary, post-match interviews and the likes. Soon, sports broadcast became so compelling that people watched it at home increasingly, becoming a major driver for TV purchase itself. I’m willing to bet most people today would rather watch a game on TV than at the stadium. And why not, along with all the conveniences, you also get on-screen stats, punditry during the breaks and custom camera angles. Of course, the hardcores and purists would want to be there under the floodlights — just as they should. Just like how I inexplicably flew all the way to Singapore to see Dream Theater play live despite being able to see their videos on YouTube for free.

The point being, TV broadcast democratized sports consumption — and that was an overall positive for sports around the world: I doubt cricket would be as huge in India if we didn’t see those iconic images of Kapil Dev lifting the 1983 World Cup trophy aloft at Lord’s beamed into our homes.

For something more pandemic-era, look at American late-night comedy shows. Initially awkward, the likes of Colbert, Noah and Oliver got increasingly comfortable performing sans the audience they were erstwhile reliant on for feedback and flow. Crisp editing, segments made for digital delivery and increasing comfort performing to a camera meant they were able to adapt quite quickly.

Making live-streamed concerts better

Okay, so what does that mean for virtual gigs? Here are a few ideas, having attended several shows beaming from India and around the world, over the last few months.

Firstly, enhance the digital experience itself

Sports did this with commentary, on-screen stats and more. Taking inspiration, e-concerts could…

  1. Give the ability to choose camera angles / focus on certain musicians (for inspiration, see this interactive RHCP video)
  2. Display lyrics / facts on screen. This could give sites like Genius and Songmeanings added life.
  3. Provide an equalizer so fussy audiophiles can get their fix (or guitar nerds could isolate a solo).
  4. Taking concerts to non-traditional digital places. Even pre-pandemic, Marshmello and Travis Scott held virtual shows in Fortnite. A virtual Wacken Metal Fest? Count me in.

Secondly, moarrr artist-audience interaction

This is where the real game-changer will be. Currently, it’s clunky and embarrassing to see accomplished musicians struggling to read YouTube livechat comments between songs. So, what can be done here?

  1. The ability to read fan comments better. Perhaps some can even be displayed on screen (and not chatbox). There’s a certain energy and flow for the livechat which can be tapped.
  2. Better yet, somehow translate that “virtual energy” to in-studio feedback. The NBA, for example, compensates for the lack of a real audience by temporarily turning on digital attendees’ sound during key moments. It is not unfathomable then, to turn on e-gig attendees’ mics after songs. This is anyway a banter period, and won’t disturb a performance. This will help replicate the live feel even more.
  3. See “New options for monetization” below.

Thirdly, innovating with audience input

  1. Currently, the only way to interact is by a chat window and in some websites’ cases, emoji. This will need to be made better and tailored for gigs: Like an interface made for e-concert attendees. Custom emojis (or emphasis on 🎸, 🥁, 🤘 etc). I’m surprised YouTube doesn’t have this yet.
  2. The ability to DM or create groups among fans (comments section of large shows like the Metallica S&M2 stream was a barrage) — though I see how this can go south very easily #aslplz
  3. Assigning someone from the band / team to respond to audience comments. This happened during the live premiere of The Ocean’s new album, where a management member kept the banter up, and that really worked the virtual crowd up.

Lastly, more options for monetization

Many bells and whistles could come at an added cost to the fans. Some bands have started doing a VIP ticket — for an additional amount, you get to Zoom with the band, maybe get a gear rundown, chat with other die-hards, etc — which seems to be an excellent add-on. For example, one such experience for Norwegian metal band Leprous was priced at $50, with the regular ticket at $10. That’s not a huge amount and I might consider it for bands that I truly love. Normally, the $200+ “real” meet-and-greet ticket can be prohibitive.

Other innovations could easily be done for those willing to pay higher: “Premium” camera angles, access to higher quality audio, virtual merch (if Gucci can charge $10,000 for a stupid virtual dress, I think rock fans would pay $100 for a virtual autograph).

And of course, tipping could happen, just like on video game streaming platforms like Twitch.

Prog legend Devin Townsend plays several e-gigs, even taking audience requests. The platform he uses — StageIt — allows fans to tip as well, a la Twitch.

Could the stream be free & ad-supported? And if you take the above logic and extend the sports broadcast analogy, the stream might even be free for some, if backed up by advertising. This will happen once the industry scales. I can see global music-friendly brands like Red Bull and Levi’s coming on board with something like this. How great would that be for democratizing live music access?

Oh and… We could stop sounding apologetic about such shows.

Not exactly a live gig, but my friend Berty (left) and I (right) often host guided listening sessions, with Headphone Zone. Here he is showing off his vinyl collection during one such event. These listening sessions have taken an offline idea Headphone Zone and I’ve had for a long time, and we finally are doing that online.

I’m bullish on e-concerts

Look, I know it’s not “the real thing”, but I am all for moving forward and fixing gaps along the way rather than waiting for the perfect solution.

e-concerts have other benefits too. For one, they fucking start on time. They’re comfortable (as someone who is 35+, I don’t need to do back stretches post the gig). But the biggest plus — you get a global audience. Never in my life did I think I’d be able to see Sweden’s Night Flight Orchestra, for example. An artist can potentially reach new audiences. Indeed, my dream is for live-streams to continue even after things are back to normal — how awesome would it be to see a band live-streamed from Stockholm or the Red Rocks Arena, with the power of the audience behind them… Or in front, rather.

Sweden’s Katatonia played one of the e-gigs of the year. Outstanding sound.

Building a sense of occasion

One of the best insights about this space I’ve heard, came from a person who I doubt has been in a mosh-pit: The founder of and my editor from The Hard Copy, Meeta Malhotra (who used to be a partner at erstwhile design vanguards Ray & Keshavan). Long back, I wrote an article for the site on how live entertainment was going through a covid-infused metamorphosis, and her remarkable observation was this (and I paraphrase): “The key thing for these events will be to build a sense of occasion. (Actual) live shows work because you spend money, take the effort of going, putting on your band tee, inconveniencing yourself to get to the venue, etc… Then there’s a sense of “I was there”. When concerts are digital and anyone can attend, where’s that sense of showing-off, or where does that sense of occasion come in?”

I thought that was a great observation, and while limiting entry might not be on the horizon soon, a sense of occasion can be facilitated in other ways. Imagine if the lead singer gave you a virtual high five. Or got you to speak on air. Or you ended up making some friends half the world away. The beauty of a live-streamed gig is, because of the “live nature” and the audience interaction, it feels like an occasion and not like watching a concert DVD. During the Ocean’s live-stream, for instance, there were in-jokes in the comments. At one point, the official handle accidentally typed out “F”, which turned into a mini-meme in seconds. People introduce themselves at the beginning and sign off wishing each other well post. And I had the closest “real gig” moment below…

When I spotted a friend at a virtual show: This felt like the e-version of meeting someone at an actual gig

All in all, I can’t say whether virtual gigs are a band-aid solution till we get back to clubs and we toast to the eradication of the biggest pandemic of our lives. But I will say that irrespective, it makes sense building this up. I think the internet has the ability to do to live music what television broadcast did to sport. And no music fan — mosh-pit or otherwise — will argue that’s a bad thing.

See you at the next virtual gig, then.

Content handyman. Mumbai. ❤ Rock+metal, wife+cats, cycling & cold water. The Origin of Things (Podcast), Things of Internet & The Third Slip (Newsletters).