How The Pandemic Is Paying Off For Artists
At least some...
DJ and producer Gareth Emery has had success with ticket shows. Photo by Erick Govea.
The music industry loves to put its eggs in one basket. For years, record sales were the primary money-making aspect of the industry. At the turn of the century, streaming changed that. Unless the artist has millions of regular listeners, the financial return on streaming is negligible, so music industry eggs jumped to touring. That meant relentless and exhausting tour schedules for many artists, along with documented detrimental effects on their physical and mental health.
In 2020, the Covid-19 crisis left the music industry’s eggs suddenly scrambled. The majority of artists, teams and crews were left with an empty work calendar. Some wonder what their next step should be, but the pandemic is paying off for some.
Newly minted livestream promoter UK-based Driift has done extremely well. The group promoted four shows in three months, including an engagement with Nick Cave at Alexandra Palace, due for global theatrical release. According to Billboard, the gross earnings for all four surpassed $1.4 million. Each show was professionally filmed with multiple cameras and expertly edited. Filming employed the artists’ crew, and because they were filmed in London where all of these artists live and work, there were no travel costs.
R&B legend Erykah Badu, singer-songwriter Angel Olsen, and five-piece rock band Real Estate have all experimented with paid livestreams. Established artists have the capital to produce high quality shows, mostly because they can sell tickets. Such was the case for Ellie Goulding, who sold out her pre-taped album release show, for Brightest Blue, at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Rock group Idles likewise sold 10,000 tickets at £20 (about $25) for two days and three shows at Abbey Road ahead of their third album, Ultra Mono.
For new artists, digital success is not so easy.
Take UK alt-pop band, Flawes. Red Bull Records released the trio’s debut album Highlights earlier this year, and Flawes was primed for a tour. Since the pandemic, bandmates regularly performed songs remotely via Instagram and YouTube, learning new technical skills in order to keep a connection with fans.
“We have new music to play,” says drummer Josh Hussey. “There is a base for doing a virtual concert, but we have to make sure it’s the best it can be so we feel comfortable charging people … We want to support our venues, but we got a quote back from a 400-capacity venue in London, and it was £4,500 for six hours. That, plus filming, recording equipment, audio, post production - you’re racking up £10,000. Do we wait, or do we spend that £10,000 because everyone else is doing it? It’s a big risk.”
DJs often hit the stage with USB stick and not much else, and the production value for their virtual events is a creative challenge. Gareth Emery was one of the first electronic artists to produce a paid event with a dynamic and engaging digital concert, named after his physical “Decade” tour, which was cancelled. Beamed from his backyard in May using the platform Tixr, the show was visually spectacular while Emery gave it his all; fist-pumping, dancing and DJing like he was in front of thousands.
The sold-out show was broadcast three times. Tickers were $10 with a cap of 1,000 per broadcast. Fans that purchased tickets to Emery’s Decade Tour were given free “admission,” even those that had previously claimed refunds. The concert is viewable on-demand at any time. A merchandise bundle ticket option at $45 included a limited-edition T-shirt.
Two weeks after, Emery did an entirely different digital concert called Unplugged. It was produced at his home with tickets going for $15. A similar merch bundle was offered, and the show sold-out. Unplugged brought out numerous guest vocalists and capped at 1,500 per broadcast. It was made available for free to health workers worldwide.
“Once touring started getting cancelled and we saw more and more DJs getting on Twitch, Gareth was really adamant not to jump on that immediately,” says Emery’s manager Kassy Ruimy. “What was really important was to make sure [that] if we are charging, we are providing value well beyond what someone else was doing for free. This was real-life production we spent almost $10,000 on. There was a risk involved. We could have lost a lot of money, but it was an investment we felt comfortable making, because we knew the end result would be high quality, and that the fans would be happy to have a taste of a festival performance.”
Mat Zo teamed with a video game for his digital concert in May. The electro-house producer and label owner sold approximately 350 $8 tickets for his Mat Zo & Friends: A Minecraft Party. Tickets did not include the purchase of Minecraft, a separate $30 investment on the part of fans who needed the game in order to participate.
“When you attend a Minecraft event, you’re in the environment with other people and the artists,” he says. “We spent a long time developing a system that would give people the feeling of being at a live event with visuals that react to the music. It didn’t feel like a static, one-way experience.”
Zo’s team hasn’t disclosed the cost of Mat Zo & Friends, but Zo does offer this insight, “The biggest cost is marketing, paying staff and artists. My advice to anyone wanting to start their own digital events is, start out with you and your friends volunteering and build it from there.”
Disclosure tapped into Minecraft for its highly detailed Energy Minecraft Experience. Made available for one week, the event was timed with the duo’s Energy LP release and billed as “the largest immersive musical activation within Minecraft.” According to Disclosure’s team, visitors spent an average of one hour in-game with over 100,000 views of content created from users playing the game.
One day prior, Disclosure did a free, two-hour show with Cercle at the breathtaking Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia. That performance has racked more than one million views to date. Disclosure also uses Twitch to share production skills and stream DJ sets from home.
The Dropkick Murphys partnered with the software company Pega for their live concert Streaming Outta Fenway. Pega’s sponsorship money helped the punk group play to an empty Fenway Park. According to Billboard, the show was viewed 9 million times and raised more than $700,000 for local Boston charities.
Fancy production and lavish venues aren’t the only way to succeed in the digital space. For Philadelphia’s Low Cut Connie, nee Adam Weiner, high-level entertainment is enough.
Weiner did three free shows at the start of the pandemic. The response was great, and he’s still broadcasting six months later. Fans support his work by subscribing to his Patreon. Weiner does two weekly shows on Thursdays and Saturdays. Saturday is broadcast to a public audience for free, while the Thursday event is free only to Patreon members.
When Weiner started the Patreon in June, 250 fans subscribed on the first day. Members choose from three levels at $5, $10 and $20 per month. In exchange, they receive a wealth of content from meet and greets to a guitar request line, DJ afterparties, interviews with other artists, and a notable discount on merchandise. Weiner’s Patreon subscription rate continues to grow exponentially as he leads up to Low Cut Connie’s fifth album, Private Lives.
“157% yes,” says Weiner when asked if he will continue with Patreon when in-person touring returns. “Patreon has had music and performances for years, but it’s not the lion’s share. That’s changing with quarantine. Everybody is doing it differently. For me, it’s working great as a supplement for those people who are really fans and want to go one level deeper. In this day and age, you have to put yourself out there in different ways. You have to get to a point where you have enough of a fanbase so when you flip that switch to paid, they’ll go with you.”
Morgan Page also looks to Patreon. He’s provided hours of free content since the pandemic, including “Wine Wednesdays” Quarantine Sessions and his Sirius XM show, “In The Air.” He uses the multistreaming service Restream to broadcast across social media networks with varying levels of muting, blocking and take downs, none of it resulting in a significant financial return.
With Patreon, Page plans to share an interview podcast about creativity and technology, as well as “Quick Tips” music education videos. Tiers and pricing are TBD.
“Even if festivals go back to normal, I hope they keep this layer of virtual attendance,” says Page who is working on a ticketed digital concert, potentially with sponsor partners attached. “There is the demographic that are too young to get into the shows. The people that are older, have families. They can’t or don’t want to go to festivals but they like music. And the people that are geographically excluded on tours. If you keep the price reasonable, that can scale, even for smaller artists.”
Mark de Clive-Lowe’s With Love from L.A. series focuses on these smaller acts. The company features one artist a month via two livestreams: a performance and an interview. It’s funded through the City of Glendale Arts and Culture Commission’s “Art Happens Anywhere” program, which means de Clive-Lowe can pay participating artists.
De Clive-Lowe records, audio mixes and edits the performances himself, choosing instead to put more of the funds into the artists’ pockets. The talent, including jazz artist Gretchen Parlato, Jeff Parker and Jamire Williams, are highly-respected with a specific audience.
“Trying to monetize digital offerings where the majority of my audience base are creative, gig economy-type people feels slightly immoral,” de Clive-Lowe says. “This is totally different to a mainstream artist where their average fan statistically has a 9-to-5 with full benefits, and dropping $15 here or there is nothing.”
“Art Happens Everywhere” funding is nice, but de Clive-Lowe might turn to Patreon next.
“As a touring artist, I was worried about the commitment,” he says. “Once the pandemic happened, I thought, ‘Now’s the time to launch my Patreon’—along with 100,000 other musicians. The people that would support my Patreon, in a different point in history, are creatives. They’re inspired by the alternative creative process and they aspire to that as well. That’s what they support. These are the exact people who don’t have a gig right now. It’s extra challenging for those of us who are niche and try to do something different.”