Metallica just set a standard for livestreamed concerts
With music venues closed and congregation discouraged, virtual gigs have become the way we consume “live” music in 2020. Who knows, they might still be a thing even post-vaccine, given the easier logistics and global audience. Sitting in Mumbai, I’ve seen several acts I never thought I would in the near future — Katatonia, Leprous, Trivium, Cellar Darling, Insomnium, Paradise Lost, Devin Townsend, Takatak (from Pakistan), The Night Flight Orchestra, Dropkick Murphys… Not to mention non-music entertainers like The Bugle, Stephen Fry and Sandi Toskvig.
Virtual gigs are far from perfect, especially when you compare them to the energy and presence of a real gig. The silence after a adrenaline-pumping metal song, when the band is habituated to raucous approval, is terribly awkward. There’s no doubt about it — a virtual show can’t replace the feeling of a live gig — period.
BUT. That is only if you expect the same experience out of a virtual gig. It would be like looking at a YouTube video of underwater Raja Ampat vs actually diving there. No. The expectation and context needs to change. Nobody looks at a movie and says “this is a compromised play”, because a movie has been made to be delivered for remote — in a sense, virtual — viewing.
What does this mean for virtual gigs? Simple — stop treating them as compromised versions of the real thing, and double down on the advantages. Optimize for digital delivery. Have experiences that can’t be done in real-life. The internet, I’ve been told, is a very powerful medium and all sorts of things have been done with it. I wrote about this in an earlier Medium post, drawing an analogy with how live sports differentiated itself from the ‘real thing’ by adding in commentary, on-screen stats and custom camera angles. Today, while you have a camp of folks who’ll definitely want to make the trek to the stadium to experience the game in the flesh and ‘be there’, my guess is a vast majority would prefer the convenience of following their favourite teams from their couch. The same could very well happen with music.
Which brings me to Metallica’s half-acoustic, half-electric concert on Nov 14 (or Nov 15, for some parts of the world including India).
A full embrace of the power of digital technology
Metallica have an interesting relationship with emerging technology. Once seen as digital luddites for suing their fans for sharing music over Napster, they have become probably the most internet-savvy metal band out there.
In 2018, they used local Spotify data to arrive at individual cities’ setlists during their US tour. They remain the only mainstream metal band I know who documents each show replete with photos and videos, AND makes the audio from each show available for official purchase — here’s Bangalore 2011. (If this sounds basic, consider that most huge bands don’t even make their DVDs available for legal digital purchase, hence keeping ThePirateBay and their ilk alive) Their fan club is among the most evolved, the efforts of their foundation are very well documented… I could go on.
But their digital apex, surely, was the concert they just live-streamed from their San Rafael, California HQ, with proceeds going towards their foundation.
The four gentlemen sat on a stage, surrounded by fans beamed in from around the world. Of course, to have the privilege, you needed to fork $95 for the ticket. The stream alone would be a mere $15 — the differential pricing itself an innovation. I’ve seen other bands — Leprous comes to mind — that offered a VIP ticket for just a few dollars more, which involved a half-hour video call with the band. That’s affordable, compared to the insane $300+ real-life meet and greets. Sure, you probably don’t get a Lars bearhug via Zoom, but like Scott Galloway would espouse, if you’re getting 80% of the experience for 20% of the cost, then that’s a good idea.
The second good idea — unmuting said fans after the song was over so we could hear some element of audience feedback. Sure, it wasn’t a 10,000-strong festival crowd, but it was better than silence.
The true magic, though, happened between songs, when Metallica pulled up individual fans to talk to them. It was touching, personal and intimate.
In fact, like my wife pointed out, it seemed more intimate than a real life gig, given that Metallica could see into your bedrooms (adorned with posters and all), your kids, your pets, and chat with you one-on-one for a few seconds. It felt magical.
I’ve seen some gigs where overeager fans have made their way on stage, and charm turned to cringe quite quickly. During this show, far from being an annoyance, these moments were lovely and you as a viewer just wanted more. At one point, James was getting ready to move on to the next track while Robert vetoed him, saying, “No, let’s speak to one more”. I was not complaining. Plus, being able to see fans react, headbang and (silently) sing along to songs in the background as the legendary metallers pumped out riff after riff was quite a shared experience.
More than anything, the experience felt seamless. Far too many virtual gigs I’ve attended, has seen the band apologize and be sheepish. Not here. It was a gig built for being virtual, and the four pulled it off with aplomb.
Some other acts are, similarly, adapting. Trivium — another tech-savvy band, have built a little setup to read and react to comments on Twitch, their streaming platform of choice. More bands are monetizing hyper-fandom through VIP experiences. These are all good ideas and point towards the future.
There are lessons here for anything going digital, not just concerts
In August, I attended a marketing conference, live-streamed. It was the best conference experience I’ve had — no need to scurry off to a fancy 5-star hotel, stand in line for a rushed buffet, struggle to see slides from a distance, and all those other charming professional event annoyances. At the end of the show, the host said, “Let’s hope next year we can all meet up and do this in real life” — and that to me was the wrong way of looking at it. Whatever advantages of meeting up at the Taj or Goa are there, can be replicated — to a fair degree — online, through networking tools, interactive windows and more.
Be it e-conferences, online teaching, or virtual experiences, the idea should be to optimize for the medium while taking advantage of the benefit each affords. A hybrid conference model, for example, would mean the networkers could take the trip down, while those who’re lazy (or cheap) can attend online. Overall costs would be cheaper too. A hybrid gig? Sure, there are some people who wouldn’t mind making the trip to a venue to watch a band live — as I would — but others might be content catching a stream. Sounds ludicrous? Think of what happens with sports. Democratize content consumption. Those who need only 80% of the experience shouldn’t have to pay a premium. Those who are willing to pay, give them extra bells and whistles. Additional camera angles. Higher quality audio. Be called upon by the musicians for an experience they’ll never forget.
Oh, and the show itself was wonderful. Metallica played stripped-down versions of some brutal necksprainers like Blackened, an acoustic version of their pumped-up cover of Bob Seger’s Turn The Page (hence sounding closer to the original), a heavy version of Disposable Heroes, and staples like Master of Puppets, Nothing Else Matters & Enter Sandman. My favourite, though, was an astonishing heavy cover of the traditional folk song Home Of The Rising Sun, made famous by The Animals.
If you missed the show, don’t worry — you’ll at least be able to buy the audio recording of the show in a few weeks’ time, y’know, since they’re a digitally-savvy band and all that.
I‘m sure this setup would have cost a bomb and not all bands can afford to do something like this, but at least it’s acted as a proof of concept. Hopefully there will be vendors in this space making this technology — or a part of it — accessible. I strongly believe in virtual gigs and it would be a shame to see them as compromised versions of the real thing.
As concerts evolve, so does theft. It’s only fitting that this gig has a digital bootleg. So here’s the one of my favourite song off the show. Enjoy it while it stays up.
Once again, here’s that other article I wrote about making live-streamed gigs better.