What Makes A Virtual Event Worth Paying For
Martin Garrix performs at Tomorrowland’s ticketed Around The World 2020 digital festival
“Livestream” is to 2020 what “app” was to 2007 – everywhere.
It’s not a new concept, but lockdowns and social distancing measures have brought the culture mainstream. Streaming platform Twitch, best known for its strong gamer community, saw viewership on its Music and Performing Arts category jump by more than 500 percent in the first three months of quarantine alone.
It was novel to see superstars perform from their kitchens, but novelty soon melted into fatigue. The virtual performance space shifted rapidly, seeking new gimmicks. Some went to scenic locales, copying the pre-quarantine Cercle model. Others created an immersive environment, such as Mat Zo’s in-game Minecraft concert. UK’s Glastonbury teamed with the BBC to broadcast past performances, while Tomorrowland created a virtual version of its flagship festival.
Many events remain free, but some artists and brands are experimenting with ticketed models. It’s an attractive option for an industry hard hit by quarantine, but it begs the question: What makes a virtual event worth paying for?
It depends who you ask.
Gen X-ers (born between 1965 and 1980) cut their live music teeth in the mid-‘80s and ‘90s. These in-person experiences pre-dated social media, smart phones and widespread home computers. From their perspective, making the jump to digital is one giant leap.
“There is a glut of great content being given away by the world’s best artists,” says Brian Markman, 48. The Los Angeles resident is an instructor at Musician’s Institute and an avid consumer of both in-person events and YouTube videos. “Is anything better than Carl Cox playing soul records that his parents listened to growing up? You can pull up a 4K (stream) of the Chemical Brothers from their last tour ... Disclosure is on Twitch doing production livestreams. It’s almost like there’s no such thing as being ‘too big’ to do free stuff.”
Millennials (born 1981 to 1996) sort of agree. They aren’t uncomfortable paying for an online experience, but they have high expectations for return.
Johnathon Cassidy, 28, has been frequenting clubs and festivals for the last decade. He puts a lot of effort into his “lewks,” and he wants organizers to do the same.
“I pay money to smell the dirt in the air, to see curated outfits and unique stages that artists spent months to put together; to break my neck with a stranger and find new artists,” he says. “I would pay to see an EDM concert solely based on new, up-and-coming Black, queer or POC DJs,” he continues. “That is what P.L.U.R. looks like when companies do more than performative tweets about solidarity with BLM.”
Brian Greenfield, 33, attended Tomorrowland’s paid virtual festival at a friend’s home. The viewing party took place on a roof deck with a large screen, a sound system, and real lights and lasers to augment Tomorrowland’s virtual production. Greenfield and his partner got dressed up as they would for an irl fest and joined 10 other socially-distanced attendees.
“There are some virtual concerts I would pay to watch on my own, just for fun, but not Tomorrowland,” Greenfield says. “Those aren’t my favorite genres of dance music, but it was still visually cool to watch. I was really impressed with the production and how interactive the festival experience was. If a different festival did a similar event, with high production value and good quality recordings with artists that I’m into, I would definitely buy a ticket.”
“There is a generational audience that is used to spending money for very lo-fi entertainment,” says attorney Simon Rust Lamb, an experienced festival strategist who is working in the virtual production space. “It’s only older people my age who hate livestreams. My first question to them is always, ‘How do you watch it?’ If the answer is on your phone or laptop [and] not Airplayed to your TV, not plugged into real speakers, then of course it’s going to be garbage. Part of what drives a concert experience is the music is hitting you on the chest. It’s physical. If you don’t recreate the physicality, of course it’s going to suck.”
Freya Perry, 18, lives in Liverpool and attended her first concert before she was 10. She agrees that her fellow “Zoomers” (Gen Z, born 1997 to 2012) consume media differently. She paid about $20 to attend a virtual concert by the K-pop group Dreamcatcher. She watched the show at home, by herself on her laptop. There was an in-screen live chat, but she chose to directly text with a friend.
“I loved it so much,” she says. “For those two hours, I was distracted and happy, watching new stage performances I hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t ridiculously expensive like a regular concert ticket, and I could watch it from the comfort of my own home with the ability to watch it back later.”
The price point for a virtual experience is usually low, but that Dreamcatcher concert included tiered tickets, the most expensive of which totalled $99 and came with a virtual meet and greet. Singer-songwriter Laura Marling’s performance at Union Chapel in London sold five times as many tickets across the UK and US than the venue’s 900-capacity allowed. Tickets were priced at £12 and $12, and the show grossed $81,000 according to Pollstar. Nick Cave’s Alexandra Palace performance cost about $20 and grossed $711,000, according to Billboard. For artists of their caliber and dedicated fanbase, it’s a win/win.
“People pay for TV channels or networks to watch sports,” Perry continues. “I don’t see this being any different. It’s a new way to support artists and experience their talent and hard work first hand.”
Support for the artist is something each generation does endorse. Gen X might open their wallets if a gift is included.
“I will always watch the free stuff—although I do tip the DJs from time to time,” says music industry veteran Karen Hernandez, 44. “If they put out new music, I’ll buy it, even merch. I will usually buy something tangible. The only virtual event I paid for was ‘In Conversation with Robbie Conal and Shepard Fairey,’ and my ticket included Robbie’s book.”
Frame the situation as a donation or add a charitable component, and everyone is happy to contribute.
“Somehow asking for charity for an artist is normal, like we’re all buskers or something,” DJ and producer Mat Zo says. Besides hosting his Minecraft Party, he’s performed at Insomniac’s free Rave-A-Thons and streams free production tutorials on Twitch. “I guess with charity, you can choose whether you pay for what the artist is doing. When you’re providing a service, you’re basically withholding that service if the audient doesn’t pay. I understand there’s a difference, but I still think it’s more reasonable from the fans’ perspective to get a service they paid for, rather than expecting artists to do it for charity.”
Still, it’s not easy getting fans to buy into an artist’s new venture.
“It sounds weird, but the biggest hurdle for us is that we have no competition,” Zo continues. “It would be great if people started monetizing what they do. Paying for a virtual show needs to be normalized, because it’s very clear this pandemic’s not going anywhere in the foreseeable future, especially not in the US. We have to prepare for it, or else artists are going to suffer horribly. It’s very clear there is little to no support for us. We have to make it work for ourselves.”