According to the scarcity principle, the harder something is to obtain, the more people will be willing to to pay for it. The modern record industry doesn’t seem too keen on this thinking — having roundly dismissed the idea of limiting major new releases to paid-only platforms. But things are already looking a little different in the burgeoning world of livestreaming.
The pandemic-inspired popularity of the Instagram Verzuz series is the music-biz story of the moment, with as many as 710,000 people concurrently “tuning in” to watch live battles between the likes of Jill Scott and Erykah Badu; problem is, none of those people are actually paying anything. As summed up by Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara to The Guardian: “My hesitation is that [livestreaming] is a form of labor we do for free that is generating money for Instagram and Facebook and Twitch. I know it’s not cool to be a sell-out and to say you need money, and you want your fans to pay for things, but I feel, as artists, we need to be comfortable being transparent about that.”
Now, one of Quin’s contemporaries is embracing the scarcity principle to solve this problem, while offering her fans something special to pull it off. On Saturday, June 6th, singer-songwriter Laura Marling will play two live shows at London’s Union Chapel. According to Ric Salmon, Marling’s co-manager at ATC Management, the concerts will take place in front of “many thousands” of paying ticket holders — despite the Union Chapel’s physical capacity maxing out at 900 people.
Marling will livestream the shows to a limited audience online, who have each paid $12 (or £12) in order to gain access. Adding to the feeling of exclusivity, one of the concerts will be geo-locked for Marling’s North American fan base, while the other, played earlier in the evening, will be available only in the U.K. Salmon says the former show has “sold out,” while the latter is expected to do the same any day now. Naturally, this refers to ATC’s self-imposed capacity. ATC has made a heavy upfront investment in filming and production, including a “four- or five-camera setup,” according to Salmon, in addition to the cost of hiring the venue.
“[This] feels immediately very different to the kind of content we’re used to giving away for free. And my God, if there was one big bugbear that we as an industry have, it’s that we’ve found ourselves giving visual content away for free on Instagram and Facebook and everything else.” — Ric Salmon, ATC Management
Marling’s livestreams are being hosted by YouTube, while the ticketing, geo-locking, and other technical wizardry are running through DICE, a U.K.-based digital ticketing company, which recently pivoted into livestreamed events via its DICE TV arm. Launched in April as a response to the explosion in online livestreams from artists, DICE TV’s first event partner was the Digital Mirage online festival, from April 3rd to 5th, which raised more than $200,000 for good causes. DICE CEO Phil Hutcheon says that he was initially skeptical about the perceived value of livestream music performances, before he started thinking about the pay-per-view nature of televised sporting events. “We were seeing lots of artists jumping on to Instagram Live, doing a two-song thing,” he says. “And it was like, ‘Why isn’t anyone doing this the right way, and why isn’t anyone charging for it?‘”
After Digital Mirage, among other subsequent events, DICE managed a livestream with rising Brit star and U.S. chart-topper Lewis Capaldi, who played a popular online set on May 16th from his parents’ house in Bathgate, Scotland. Tickets cost £5 each, with proceeds going to mental-health initiative CALM. The big difference with Marling’s shows is they will take place in a “proper” venue, and that those “many thousands” of tickets (Salmon won’t be drawn on an exact number), sold at $12/£12 apiece, will generate tens of thousands of dollars for the artist and her team.
This is a scant monetary replacement for what Marling should be doing right now — as COVID-19 hit, she was on the Australian leg of a 48-date world tour — but according to Salmon, it’s enough for an “economically viable” show.
Salmon points out with some excitement the creative possibilities for filmmakers when they don’t have a crowd to navigate while capturing a live concert. “It’s about establishing the fact that this is a proper show, so [as a fan] I’m happy to pay for it,” he says. “It feels immediately very different to the kind of content we’re used to giving away for free. And my God, if there’s one big bugbear that we as an industry have, it’s that we’ve found ourselves giving visual content away for free on Instagram and Facebook and everything else.”
DICE envisages that paid-for livestreamed concerts like Marling’s will prove popular even after the traditional concert industry is back up and running — creating an enduring and meaningful new revenue stream for performers. “If we thought this was just going to be during this period, then we wouldn’t have put the resources that we have behind it,” says Hutcheon, adding, “I do think that it required a shock like this for everyone to realize that this [content] is valuable and that we shouldn’t just keep giving it away for free. Even today, we’re trying to build that confidence with managers that it’s all right to charge for these things.”
Salmon comments, “I think we can establish this fairly quickly over the next six to 12 months. [So] when the live sector does return to normality, that this will be seen as a legitimate new revenue source, and an alternative and additional strategy that artists can can use.” He adds, “We’re literally making this up as we go along, and there are no rules.”
There are still rules, however, in the world of copyright. Salmon acknowledges that a beautifully shot and performed Marling concert could potentially become monetized long into the future — but that historical music-industry rights regulations are being put to the test by the explosion of livestreaming.
“There is a lot of gray area,” says Salmon, noting that his team is “deep in the trenches” in figuring out clearances for future exploitation of the concert recording. He adds, “The rights are slightly different depending on whether or not you’re broadcasting live, or if you’re delaying for broadcast because of geo-lock and time zones. There’s a wide range of ways that it could be looked at: Is this a public ticketed event? Our answer to that is yes. Is it a broadcast? What is it and how should it be treated?”
For now, such headaches can be saved for another day. Thousands of Marling fans have just sent the music industry a clear message: Watching an artist perform on a screen is worth at least a portion of the ticket price they might happily pay were she performing in person.
Says Hutcheon, “We at DICE have a weekly call with all the venues we work with, and they’re consistently telling us that they see livestreaming as an essential part of [their businesses] when they reopen. This will be something that enables venues to pay the rent in the future. It’s great for everyone in the whole ecosystem. And what’s really empowering is that the the money paid by the fans is flowing directly to the artist.”
Tim Ingham is the founder and publisher of Music Business Worldwide, which has serviced the global industry with news, analysis, and jobs since 2015. He writes a weekly column for Rolling Stone.