What is the Key to Throwing a Successful Digital Event?
Sensorium creates full-fledged digital worlds to be explored on computers or in VR, complete with interactive merch tables, dance floors, and in-game currency.
The livestream medium has many models: big production pay-per-view, minimal production and free to watch, subscription-based and immersive VR, to mention a few. The companies and individuals involved in each of these iterations firmly believe their model is the right play in this space.
The last eight or nine months have felt more like years in the rapid development of livestreams, and, in the process, artists have become wholly virtual entities. Still, it remains to be seen which one, or more, of these models truly works - and for whom.
There are three different parts to any livestream equation: the producer/promoter, the ticketing platform and the tech platform on which the stream is experienced. Driift, which has been getting a lot of attention in the paid livestream space with its high production and high return shows, focuses on the producer/promoter aspect.
The company was founded this year by ATC Management’s Ric Salmon and Brian Message. Beggars Group came on as a founding investor and shareholder.
“[It was] a solution in this new business for what we as managers and agents knew we needed,” Salmon says. He’s worked upwards of 100 hours per week since the company’s incorporation in June of this year, selling more than 250,000 tickets in 92 countries and utilizing various established ticketing and tech platforms.
“The phrase ‘livestreaming’ shouldn’t be a catch-all,” he says. “One end of the spectrum, you’ve got the selfie-style, on your iPhone in your bedroom thing. On the other end, you’ve got what we’re doing, spending £200,000 on the production of an event at the Royal Albert Hall with seven cameras and 100-person crew.
“What we try to create is that sense of occasion; a real event, a collective spirit where everybody around the world is watching and sharing the experience. It’s about creating value in the format. We’re so used to consuming things for free which drives the value of the audio/visual medium to zero. If you’re creating amazing art, if you’re creating an incredible event, if you’re generating an amazing collective experience, people are really happy to pay for it - but it’s got to be amazing. You’ve got to generate the value.”
Utilizing historic, iconic or recognizable venues is part of the value-adding process, as well as bringing business to the venues and their staff. Nina Tahash, who has served as producer for James Blake’s livestreams, tapped into her relationship with the Regent Theater in Los Angeles—which had been dark for seven months—to film his Boiler Room performance.
“The Regent were able to do everything all-in,” Tahash says. “Instead of rental houses and tons of people bringing in gear and strangers being around, the artist had the green room. When their team wanted to watch the performance, they could go to the balcony 15 feet away from everybody. The Regent provided security and their production manager came on board so we were able to keep it to under 10 people.”
The ticketing platform Tixr — who Gareth Emery, Claptone, Cosmic Gate, and others have used for their hassle-free, pay-per-view shows — leaves the production to the artist. Instead, where legacy ticketing systems like Ticketmaster and Eventbrite retain the customer data, Tixr gives the 90-data point per ticket buyer directly to the artist, while the platform itself remains data-neutral. Tixr goes a step further with Tour Mogul, where the artist can promote their own show in any venue around the world. Tour Mogul hands the front-end customer and back-end client support.
A global product, Tixr is built to scale and able to integrate with any existing broadcasting tech platform streaming live or prerecorded sets, taking care of the licensing as well. They also have an in-house broadcasting partner whose tech and creative services are offered at a very competitive rate to that of the market.
While Tixr is not built around the concept of free streams, if an artist wanted to use the platform simply for data-collection, that is offered at a flat fee, which is much lower than its competitors. If, however, an artist does a ticketed show, even if they sell a negligible number of tickets, all of Tixr’s services are included.
“We want it to work for all types of artists,” says Jason van Esso, partner at Tixr who heads up the artist relations vertical. “What it boils down to is the engaged fan. We had an artist who sold 1,000 tickets at $20. If you have fans who are willing to pay $10 or $15, there’s money to be made.”
Dirtybird’s experience has been the opposite. Since August, the popular brand has been broadcasting Dirtybird Live, 10 shows, five hours, seven nights a week, for free on Twitch.
“We’re starting to see the relentless consistency pay off,” says Dirtybird bossman, Claude VonStroke. “Everything we do is free, but Dirtybird Live was the catalyst to let people know Dirtybird Couchout was there. Sponsors are coming in. You can subscribe for $5. Someone dropped a $1,600 tip. There’s income coming in, but it’s mostly sponsorship that will take you to profitability.”
“Sponsors need consistency,” according to Ketan Rahangdale, a tech visionary who is behind the Unitea app. Unitea allows artists to directly engage with fans, as opposed to through social media, offering rewards and experiences, and in return, access the data they generate free of charge.
Rahangdale has partnered as the fan engagement and sponsor procurement for multiple large-scale livestream shows this year. His payoff has been similar.
“To go to a major or mid-market brand, they don’t want to sponsor the weekend show,” he says. “They want that bundled with the weekly Dirtybird Live, for example, for consistency and scale.”
There is no evidence that the proliferation of Dirtybird livestreams is diluting their value. Hosting the streams on Twitch—but using their own third-party server in order to not have the audience get dropped after each DJ—the deep engagement and built-in monetization of the platform is a big selling point.
Shifting to a different platform such as YouTube, makes sponsorship the main source of income. Both of these are a very different scenario than pay-per-view—even at the low price point that all paid livestreams have been thus far.
“It’s the hardest to make work,” VonStroke says of pay-per-view. “You’re asking someone who can go on Twitch and watch for free to pay $10 to watch for two hours.”
“A sponsor does not want to sponsor a private show, because you’re limiting its reach,” explains Rahangdale. “From a sponsor’s perspective, it’s less effective in selling impressions and conversion opportunities. These festivals are driving millions of impressions in two days. That concentrated engagement is valuable to the brand. It’s what gives you the leg up.”
The relatively new livestream platform Sessions agrees that ticketed livestreams are not the long-term answer. They share Unitea’s mindset of providing a direct line from artists to fans, with the aim of making them patrons.
Founded by former Pandora CEO Tim Westergren and Gordon Su, Sessions has come out of beta in the last four months. In that time, the platform has employed a seemingly-winning formula of audience acquisition with hobbyist musicians, generating anywhere from the low hundreds to $25,000 for a performance.
“The sad truth about the online music space is that artists are renting their audience,” Westergren says.
Sessions was created by former Pandora CEO Tim Westergren and Gordon Su.
Image by Jeffrey Nebolini
Posting to followers on social media reaches 4 to 5 percent of them. To reach more, it’s an expensive proposition, turning artists into advertisers, competing with all the other advertising on the platform. Westergren likens online streaming platforms to a club with a nice sound system, a merch table, tiered ticketing and special access, but in a quiet part of town with no foot traffic and no one in them.
Westergren asserts that Sessions has solved the issue of the artist’s online following not being a real audience in the first place, and the artist not being able to reach them in the second place. He states that not only are artists making money on Sessions, but that the platform makes money as well.
“The origin of the company is gaming,” he explains. “We have what we call a growth engine, which is tons of ad networks, technology baked into the underbelly of social media platforms, partnering with the artist’s audience wherever they are online. We honed these skills building free-to-play games and mastering audience acquisition and virtual monetization. We took that and mapped it onto music. We are bringing audiences, and we’re really good at turning that audience into revenue.”
With Sessions covering customer acquisition, streamlined marketing and advertising comes at no cost to the artist. Sessions’ goal is to create a global musician’s middle class that can also be a powerup for brand-name artists.
Much like Twitch, patrons tip or “give love” to the artist. As far as production, Sessions veers away from trying to replicate an in-person show. The platform can provide support on production, but ultimately, it’s up to the artist to what degree they want to invest in production on their own, which in many cases, is minimal.
This is also the case on Home School, the weekly virtual version of School Night, curated by Chris Douridas in partnership with Tom Windish of Paradigm Talent Agency. They partner with Maestro for ticketing and streaming, and with Bandsintown for marketing.
Much like its real-life counterpart, Home School is a space for new talent and up-and-coming artists. Unlike School Night, Home School has no geographic, bureaucratic, monetary or routing restrictions.
“What excites me most is hearing new artists that make me feel something and to be able to give them opportunities,” Windish says. “Home School can make things happen that previously wouldn’t have, because the artists would have never made it to School Night.”
Windish represents artists like Billie Eilish and handled her professionally-produced, highly-creative Where Do we Go? The Livestream pay-per-view show. Representing artists at all levels, Windish recognizes the paid livestream avenue is not an option for everyone. Home School is free to view on Twitch with a plan to take it as a subscription to music industry folks who recognize the benefit of having the series continue.
The ticketing, streaming, graphics and video editing are handled by Home School. The production is, much like Sessions, up to the artist. Following in the tradition of School Night, Home School also tends toward intimate performances, which is one of its selling points.
“For a lot of streaming shows, they spend a lot of money and they’re still crappy,” Douridas says. “I feel like what we’re doing at Home School is compelling because there’s an intimacy to it. The artists are extremely comfortable in their space and it’s palpable. We had Eli Smart recording in the backyard on the back of a pickup truck. We had Sans Soucis on her bed with the bass player sitting next to her. And the sessions are dirt cheap.”
On the other end of the spectrum are virtual reality companies like Wave, Sansar, Minecraft, Sensorium and Childish Gambino’s precognitive Pharos AR app. These platforms take the 2D into 3D and build as much interactivity into the experience as possible.
Hospitality, the events branch of the UK’s Hospital Records, was looking into the VR space with Sansar before the pandemic.
“A performance in 2D, on the computer, is not worth the ticket,” says Hospitality events director Josh Robinson. “People are so used to experiencing music for free, it doesn’t seem like a way to sustainably do live music. So much of the revenue is spent on the performance side, and so little of it is spent on the person perceiving the performance. The unique selling proposition of going to a gig is not the gig itself, but the interactions. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend on visuals. You can’t create that in a passive way on the screen.”
The brand partnered with Mad Zoo for Hospitality in the Void: A Minecraft Event, their first VR festival venture. Keeping things as authentic as possible, the DJ sets were pre-recorded and played into CDJs and Audiomovers controlled by Hospital Records main man Tony Coleman in the company’s headquarters. The avatars of the DJ were in the area during their set though not actively DJing.
Hospitality activated one server for every 300 attendees, avoiding any chance of crashes or streaming glitches. Robinson also put aside a percentage of ticket sales for performing right, the same as he would for a real-life event. He also has the music played ready to submit, once performing rights organizations figure out how they are going to handle livestreams.
Hospital sold just under 600 tickets ranging in price from approximately $10-$15, but they still only recouped less than 30 percent of cost. Even so, they plan to host 12 more events in 2021, half with Minecraft and half with Sansar. The latter, which was made for live performance, is building Hospital their own virtual nightclub where they will promote shows for themselves and others.
Sensorium Galaxy is also in the development stages creating virtual nightlife worlds that are far beyond anything in the terrestrial realm. Built for performances, the social VR media platform has heavy-hitters like billionaire Mikhael Prokhorov and TIDAL backing it, as well as creatives such as Yann Pissenem of The Night League (Hï Ibiza, Ushuaia) and High Scream on board.
With $100 million in private investment, Sensorium Galaxy’s intention is not to recreate the real-life experience, but rather one that is far more enhanced.
Carl Cox, Armin Van Buuren and David Guetta have signed on to provide exclusive content. For this, the DJs will be 3D scanned so that photorealistic avatars of them can be made. Their sets will be captured using motion capture technology.
On the participants’ side, there are a range of avatars with wardrobe choices to match the two spaces: PRISM World and Motion. The level of interactivity is maximized as participants speak to each other, have dance-offs, even influence the setlist or barter with in-platform currency, Sensos.
The world can be experienced in 3D with a VR headset or in 2D without, at a lower price—but that’s not the point of Sensorium Galaxy.
“Things happening now are recreations of what already exist offline,” says Sensorium Galaxy’s art director, Sasha Tityanko. “That was not our aim. We wanted to build a venue and have shows on a galactic scale that don’t have the restrictions of real life. The venue transforms and evolves under the influence of the artist, which gives a lot of opportunities in terms of show experience and immersiveness.”
The bottom line is simple: Whether the artist is going for big, medium or no production, charging or not charging, offering subscriptions, keeping it 2D or going 3D, partnering with sponsors or not, fans have to be reached.
In order to do that, data about the audience is needed so they can be targeted directly, because if fans aren’t participating, as Westergren says, “the platforms have no value.”