A lifeline for so many musicians during the pandemic, live concert streaming looks set to remain an important aspect of the industry – thanks in no small part to increasingly efficient, tech-driven production, writes David Davies.
For a host of reasons, comedy and dramatic theatre are now littered with impressive examples of virtual events, but it’s arguably in live music where the greatest challenges have had to be addressed in terms of technology and overall production. With Veeps, Vimeo and many other platforms continuing to do good business, it also appears that live concert streaming – whether as a dedicated event or as part of a hybrid production that also includes conventional in-person attendance – will remain a significant and evolving part of the industry.
It’s also a trend that is expected to encompass more venues and genres as the technology underpinning it becomes more affordable. As Cinegy Head of Business Development, Andrew Ward remarked: “Recent years have seen marked changes in the way that consumers enjoy media, with the curtailment of public performances [during Covid-19] moving both audiences and providers towards alternative platforms. Small venues and organisations were previously priced out of broadcast platforms, but computer-based production systems that play out to the internet can be assembled for a fraction of what a ‘TV studio with transmitter’ used to cost. We believe that for this reason the market will continue to develop, even though public performance is once again possible.”
‘A whole new virtual concert ecosystem’
A brief look at some data from 2020 confirms the rapid expansion of the online concert market – not to mention the resulting opportunities for technology providers and production companies. According to the Virtual Concerts: A New Video Format report by entertainment intelligence company MIDiA Research, the share of live-streamed concert listings on Bandsintown grew from 1.9% to 40.7% during the period from June to November 2020, whilst the total ticketed revenue in December was up 292% from June.
The sustained uplift in paid events was integral to the flourishing of the sector given that artists were contending with both the long-term loss of income from recorded music (as highlighted by the Broken Record initiative) and the more abrupt decline in live performance revenue. According to MIDiA’s Mark Mulligan: “Traditional live is a scarce, premium product that generates many artists the bulk of their income. Yet the start of the live streaming boom was all about free – an uncanny rerun of when music first went on the internet.” Hence it was essential that live streaming be able to “pick up some of the slack as a meaningful revenue driver for artists”.
One might also add that it was pretty important for virtual event income to become more consistent in order to support the emerging video production community. Like virtual meetings in the day-to-day working world, there was always going to be a risk of digital fatigue – especially as the months wore on and the desire to engage with in-person events increased. Hence as the format has matured, so has the use of broadcast and AV technology to enhance and individualise live concert productions.
One trend resulting from this recognition has been the provision of more compact and/or combined live production systems that allow live events to be streamed and recorded in a relatively straightforward and cost-effective way. Cinegy can attest to this, having recently provided live production technology to customers including NY2C, a New York-based independent streaming network that regularly hosts a wide range of live music from its production facilities at the Sour Mouse Club on the city’s Lower East Side.
In order to support live productions, Cinegy distributor and system architect Tab Butler of T&P Productions Inc. proposed a solution based on Silverdraft Supercomputing hardware and three channels of Cinegy Capture PRO, recording live switched programme feeds and iso cameras of the show. On the same computer, and integrated with Cinegy Capture PRO, is a VMix client for live streaming and Adobe Premiere Pro video editing for packaging highlights and show cut-downs geared towards social media. The new set-up can also be operated remotely for optimum flexibility.
Andrew Ward explained: “With NY2C we were helped immensely by the fact that the organisation really knew what they wanted. They asked for a way to pick up the best of local live entertainment from New York City and deliver it to their audience with great production and quality, and with the minimum effort. This was made possible by Cinegy’s ability to deliver simplified IP workflows and production tools in hybrid on-premise and cloud environments, eliminating the complexity while allowing the creative team to focus on the product.”
‘Age-old engineering principles’
If circumventing complexity remains an overriding objective of live streaming technology, then the same can also be said of minimising latency. With the rise of 5G networks leading to an increased expectation of being able to watch high-quality video without buffering – whether at home or on the move – there has to be a focus on delivering content efficiently and without delay, across multiple platforms.
Noted Ward: “In order to meet the needs of a demanding market, one of Cinegy’s prime technology drivers is the age-old engineering principle of removing latency from a process. In the last few years that driver has been helped tremendously by the development of the SRT [Secure Reliable Transport] protocol, which gives providers the control to ensure that ‘live’ really does mean ‘live’ and not ‘slightly delayed by old technology’.”
The Switch is a live video production and distribution specialist and has worked on a wide variety of streaming productions. Alex Joyce, the company’s Senior Sales Engineer, pointed to remote operation as being an ongoing priority for many customers: “One of the big impacts of the pandemic was that a lot of organisations came to us looking for ways to [operate] remotely or in a more decentralised way. Our ability to provide solutions in the fiber optic realm has been really popular for some of our high-end clients in [locations such as] New York and LA.”
Remote mixing of live events has been a specific beneficiary. “There is a requirement for that sort of flexibility. For instance you might have an event taking place at a venue in New York, but the producers are in LA and want to remotely mix the production there,” said Joyce, who points to the rise of low latency, high quality transport protocols such as RIST (Reliable Internet Stream Transport) and the aforementioned SRT as being significant in this regard.
Like many others, Joyce noted that as the pandemic has become “more under control, the demand for live in-person content has increased again considerably. At the same time, there is a still a significant number of people who are enjoying the at-home experience, and therefore it is often a hybrid model that we get asked for.” Ultimately, it’s all about the expectation of a satisfying experience wherever the concertgoer is situated: “It comes back to the requirement for inclusion of all attendees; whether in person or virtually, they must have a good user experience.”
With growing signs of interest in the market around the potential of live streaming concerts using technologies such as 4K and immersive audio, it’s probable that we are only in the relatively early stages of developing a new artistic medium. Given the many practical and financial challenges now confronting creative people, it’s one that will also provide a welcome further revenue stream in a profoundly uncertain era.