Nothing compares to the feeling you get from being one fan in a sea of thousands, the words to your favorite song bursting from your mouth as the band you’ve waited weeks, months, even years to see, jams on stage.
Though watching a live stream of a concert online doesn’t come close to the real thing, it’s another way for artists to connect with their fans and for fans to share that experience with each other.
Streaming music or events online isn’t exactly a newfangled notion, but today’s tech can turn obscure artists into huge stars with millions of fans thanks to just one video clip. Services like YouTube, Ustream, Justin.tv, Concert Window, and others let musicians build a community and capitalize on their performances.
Digital music services, which include streaming subscriptions, contributed to a slight uptick in global music industry revenue last year for the first time since 1999, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. Broadcasting concerts online can help artists recoup cash they may be losing to piracy.
From bootlegs to broadcasts
Grateful Dead fans are considered the standard-bearers of capturing that breathless live concert experience and sharing it with others. Deadheads built such an extensive trading network and such a wealth of material that the band is thought to be the most documented in music history.
The Dead realized in the 1960s what the music industry is only now coming to terms with: that making music available in a variety of formats—whether officially sanctioned or unofficially encouraged—is a win for both the artists and the fans.
Early online concert streaming was a technical feat. Producers had to band together multiple ISDN channels to get a connection that today is handily beaten by wireless 3G and 4G smartphones.
The first large-scale streaming event was the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1996. Some 36,000 viewers watched online in real time as the Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, No Doubt, and a slew of other popular bands performed over the two-day festival. The connection speed capped out at 1.2 Mbps.
Marc Scarpa, executive producer of Simplynew, was one of streaming video’s pioneers. He coordinated the live streams of the Tibetan Freedom Concert series, the Woodstock 1999 festival, the first presidential town hall with President Clinton in 1999, and the first social network concert broadcast in 2006 (a Paul Oakenfold show on MySpace).
Scarpa realized that the Grateful Dead revenue model of capitalizing on live performances rather than relying solely on album sales was a smart way for musicians to make money in an era of digital piracy. The appeal for fans is obvious, he says.
“What’s the appeal of watching the Super Bowl or the Oscars? What’s the appeal in watching Wimbledon or the Olympics? What’s the appeal of watching the news? The difference between watching those live events on TV and experiencing them online is that online you can have a participatory experience,” Scarpa says. “The idea of the real-time water cooler has finally been realized. These are all things we were doing in ’96 but just on a very low bit rate.”
Brave new world
Technology has advanced far beyond just faster bit rates. Streaming music services are everywhere; Pandora, Spotify, Slacker Radio, Rhapsody, and others have tens of millions of users among them.
But live concert streaming is still a relatively new phenomenon, with new options popping up every month. YouTube, Ustream, and Justin.tv have carved out niches in the video streaming space, but each company uses different tactics to tackle the issue.
YouTube is known for its user-generated videos, but the site has also partnered with major music brands like the Coachella music festival to stream behind-the-scenes concert footage. Ustream this month launched a pay-per-view service for broadcasters to set their own ticket prices for live shows streamed on the site. BitTorrent is testing a peer-to-peer service called BitTorrent Live for viewers to stream broadcasts and share them with little to no delays.
Musicians Dan Gurney and Forrest O’Connor in 2010 started Concert Window, a subscription-based site largely geared toward folk music fans. The company works with 15 venues around the country to stream shows live every night. For $8.99 a month, subscribers get an all-access pass to watch every concert on the site. Concert Window takes a third of the revenue, venues get a third, and musicians get a third.
“It’s early enough in this industry that there’s a lot of different ways to approach the same problem,” Gurney says. “We’re doing it via venues, via artists. We’re trying to set some baselines as far as how artists should be compensated for their work. As a consumer, Spotify is great. It’s free. But as a musician, it’s really not great for me, because I get a hundredth of a cent per track. There’s no way to turn that into a sustainable revenue stream. Live concert streaming is basically the Wild West at this point. We wanted to set some baselines as to what’s fair.”
The Wild West is quickly going mainstream. About 100 million people around the world watched live streaming video online last year, according to a report from iRocke.com. An average of 1200 concerts were streamed each month in the latter half of the year, doubling the average number of concerts streamed in the first six months.
Live streaming is a far cry from bootleg tape-trading networks. People can still record live performances and upload them to video-sharing sites. But when high-quality concert streams are available for free or with a cheap subscription, then watching someone’s shaky iPhone video recorded from the nosebleed seats is a lot less appealing.
Musicians are still figuring out how to use streaming video to supplement record and ticket sales. Scarpa says legacy artists like the Rolling Stones and David Bowie, who might not feel like touring extensively anymore, can use streaming to connect with fans and give them a glimpse of what life is like backstage. Streaming can also help a fledgling singer become a star (see: Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga).
“It’s better for [musicians] to get on the bus than it is to fight it,” Scarpa says. “[Streaming] gives them a direct conversation with their audience. It allows them to bypass the gatekeepers. The role of the gatekeeper is changing and evolving. Now artists are able to have a more direct relationship than ever before with their fans. It empowers smart artists to set up their own distribution channels and keep their audience and community engaged with what that artist has to create. Ultimately, it’s about music, but there’s an experience around music.”
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Caitlin covers Apple news, health and fitness tech, and social networks from IDG's New York bureau.