Better Concert Livestreams Are Coming. But You'll Have to Pay for Them - Rolling Stone
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Better Concert Livestreams Are Coming. But You’ll Have to Pay for Them

Paid livestreams from artists like BTS are netting millions of dollars, skyrocketing brand-new startups to the top of the music industry, and making labels and talent agencies scramble to adapt. Will they last?

McGraw, BTS livestream

K-Pop supergroup BTS's "Bang Bang Con" livestream was one of the most successful ticketed livestreams of the COVID era. Tim McGraw's paid stream airs on August 21.

Bauzen/Getty Images; James Gourley/WireImage

Adam Weiner has just finished doing pushups in his underwear while singing Canadian punk band SNFU’s “Time to Buy a Futon” for 165 paying fans.

“Whoo! I’m really schvitzing now,” Weiner, the frontman and songwriter for Philadelphia rock revivalist band Low Cut Connie, tells the camera, as he puts on a velvety red robe and settles back onto the bench facing his living room piano.

He’d started his weekly “Tough Cookies” livestream series early on in the pandemic — but Thursday’s show was his second paid stream. While fans had been generous with donations, they also told him they were willing to pay for the livestreams directly.

Since the coronavirus pandemic started, livestreaming has quickly shed its reputation as a gimmicky concept, shifting into one of the premier music experiences of the digital era. As the platform matures, the lower-quality, smartphone-shot free streams synonymous with the first few months of quarantine are starting to take a back seat — and artists are beginning to cash in. Weiner offers his paid shows through membership service Patreon. He got to 300 subscribers within the first few days of setting up his account. Since the overhead on shows from his house is significantly less than that of touring, his team has already matched its usual profit margin from tours.

“This has graduated from just a stopgap measure,” Weiner tells Rolling Stone. “We’ve seen quickly that this is becoming a thing. I am completely convinced I’m going to be doing this a long time, even when I’m able to tour. I’m so turned on artistically by doing these Tough Cookie shows, and it’s not just because we’re in a pandemic, it’s opening up a lot of artistic possibilities. As tragic as it is for us to lose so much in this industry now, I’m focused on what the future is, and I’ve got my hooks into something that feels like the future.”

Weiner is one of many artists who’ve come around on the new concept. “The music industry has looked at livestreaming as mostly a marketing play, and maybe they’ve been afraid to see the reality of people being willing to open their wallets and pay for these kinds of events,” Ari Evans, CEO of video-streaming company Maestro, tells Rolling Stone. “Because COVID happened, it accelerated. The productions being made aren’t fundamentally different than before. The willingness to pay has always been there. Now, because of the dire nature of needing revenue, the labels and the artists are willing to try it out.”

Maestro is a white label company, so it’s operated more quietly in the background while providing the platform for its clients, now airing 200 events a month compared to 50 each month at the beginning of the year. Founded in 2015, the company doubled its revenue this year over the same period last year. It’s behind Katy Perry’s recent “Smile Sunday” livestream and Pandora’s new digital concert series that recently featured Kane Brown, which was free but had support from several corporate sponsors. And in Maestro’s most prominent show to date, the company is partnering with Tim McGraw for the country singer’s “Here On Earth” paid concert experience to kickoff for his new album. That show airs on August 21.

Livestreams usually draw in 0.5% to 2% of an artist’s Instagram following. By that estimate, McGraw, with 2.7 million followers, could’ve netted $200,000 to $800,000. According to Pollstar, he grosses $916,000 per show on physical tours.

Tickets for that show are selling for $15 each. Evans didn’t specify how many tickets McGraw has sold so far, but he says shows usually draw in 0.5% to 2% of an artist’s Instagram follower count. By that estimate, McGraw, with 2.7 million followers, could net $200,000 to $810,000. According to Pollstar, he grosses $916,000 per show on physical tours.

Melissa Etheridge is currently streaming five days a week through a partnership with Maestro, charging $10 for individual tickets or $50 for a monthly subscription. She’s made over $32,000 from 3,255 tickets sold, a rep for Etheridge says, and has nearly 1,000 monthly subscribers. That comes out to $600,000 in a year.

These numbers may seem too good to believe, but such success isn’t unheard of. BTS drew in 750,000 fans who paid $26 to $35 to watch the band’s much anticipated Bang Bang Con in June. With 27.7 million Instagram followers, that’s closer to 3% of the group’s following. While both the band’s label Big Hit Entertainment and the concert maker Kiswe declined to reveal specific numbers, easy math suggests ticket sales would’ve drawn in between $19 million and $26 million — without even looking at merchandise or other ancillary business.

Katy Perry on a livestream.

Courtesy of Maestro

Maestro’s revenue head Jordan Udko, a former executive at e-sports organization Cloud9, says the company is getting hit with requests for partnerships from everywhere. “Everybody is now understanding the potential of our upside here,” Udko says.

Kiswe, the seven-year-old company behind BTS’s massive show, has worked with major live entertainment entities like the Premier League soccer in England and PGA golf tour. But the BTS show catapulted Kiswe into another realm with music, and executives say projects with several other major artists are now in the works — all of whom have major international fanbases.

Free shows aren’t going away: Artists are still streaming on Instagram Live and YouTube regularly, and there’s demand for corporate-sponsored live events that pay artists while leaving the experience free for fans. But pay-per-view livestreaming has the undeniable appeal of a direct payout from fans to artists — especially as other revenue streams remain on hold.

“The reason I have not just a first call, but a third, fourth and fifth call with everyone in the value chain on these shows, is that there’s a lot of money that can be made here.” — Mike Schabel, chief executive of the livestreaming platform behind BTS’s Bang Bang Con

Maestro doesn’t think there’s a cap for what fans are willing to pay for online shows: Scarcity and premium VIP experiences can keep demand high, regardless of price. Kiswe chief executive Mike Schabel agrees that there’s high potential for VIP experiences on the streams but says successful ticketed livestreams should be cheap enough to be accessible for volume but substantial enough to be profitable and establish a high-quality show.

“You give it away for free and everyone loses money, but you charge too much and everyone loses money. There’s pricing elasticity,” Schabel says. “The reason I have not just a first call, but a third, fourth and fifth call with everyone in the value chain on these shows is that there’s a lot of money that can be made here, and this can be turned into a very profitable opportunity for the music industry.”

While some companies like Kiswe and Maestro predate coronavirus, other platforms like NoonChorus were born out of the pandemic. NoonChorus, recognizing many musicians’ need for another revenue stream as they canceled their tours, built a platform where artists keep 100% of their ticket gross and merchandise sales. NoonChorus makes its money from an added on fee with the tickets. In 46 shows since the company started in April, NoonChorus has sold over 30,000 tickets, reaching about $500,000 in ticket sales. Like Maestro, NoonChorus typically sees artists’ ticket sales equivalent to about 2% of the artist’s most followed social media account, usually Instagram.

NoonChorus president Andrew Jensen says it’s a “volume business” and he wants as many artists on the platform as possible. The company has 200 affiliates acting as co-promoters, and those affiliates include concert venues, show promoters and other influencers and brands like Jack White’s Third Man Records, which presented a show for Waxahatchee on NoonChorus.

While NoonChorus is looking to partner with artists of all sizes, it’s been carving out a niche among the indie crowd, partnering with artists like Waxahatchee, Angel Olsen, Yo La Tengo and Guided By Voices. Waxahatchee played five gigs on NoonChorus, charging $15 per ticket. While a rep for Waxahatchee declined to give specific sales numbers for the show, they said the streams exceeded expectations, netting the band more than the canceled tours would have.

“I think a lot of managers were a little scared to move over to the paid model because for so long, they were giving that kind of content away for free,” Jensen says. “But Waxahatchee shows that’s not the case. The fans are willing to pay for that and support the artist right now. It translated well even as she’d been giving those shows away for free even during the pandemic. It’s not that much money, especially now with the quality you’re getting. You’re getting a really cool part of both worlds. You’re getting a great quality stream, but you’re also getting that that intimacy that we got during those initial pandemic streams.”

Can livestreaming replace live music? Most of the streaming companies’ executives reject the question, telling Rolling Stone it’s a false equivalency. Livestreaming is meant to supplement in-person concerts, they say, or make a new experience entirely.

“I don’t think anything will ever replace the magic of going to Coachella — nothing will ever replace that in the future — but the interesting thing about digital is that everyone is saying ‘there’s a new medium we can communicate with the audience other than here,'” Schabel says. “The failure would emerge if everyone took the concert as we know it today and just put it online too. Where this gets some real momentum is from the people who say they’re going to create a show that’s intentional in purpose for the digital medium.”

“This is performance art, really. It’s a church service, it’s a strip club, it’s a punk club, it’s a soul music variety show… This is real live entertainment, it’s in the moment. You never know what the fuck is going to happen.” — Adam Weiner, frontman of Low Cut Connie

Weiner likens his livestreams to variety shows more than concerts — which has been vital in distinguishing his streams from others’. “This is performance art, really. It’s a church service, it’s a strip club, it’s a punk club, it’s a soul music variety show,” Weiner says. Devoted fans send in videos and photos showing where they’re tuning in. “We cry together, laugh together, but the main thing is it’s an open forum for discussion I want them to be dancing, moving, feel like they’re part of a group. I’m used to messing up people’s hair, hugging people, crowd surfing, but on the streams, we’ve got this other type of thing, we’ve got this soul touch. This is real live entertainment, it’s in the moment. You never know what the fuck is going to happen.”

Major artists like Travis Scott, John Legend and The Weeknd have taken to augmented reality concerts to distinguish their shows from the pack, and the rap battle Verzuz centers around a unique concept. Similarly, other artists are actively seeking paid livestreaming companies to help them stand out. NoonChorus and Maestro say most of their deals have come directly from artists’ managers rather from agents — a contrast to the usual system in which agents handle artists’ live booking.

Udko from Maestro says agents “have expressed concern” about being cut out from the process. And as Evans says: “There’s kind of a war going on right now. The labels want to know what role they play, the promoters want to carve it out, and then do you get a booking fee for booking someone on a livestream?” But agents are interested and starting to be more active, and Udko adds that agents have come to Maestro looking for ways to add value to the shows as well.

Jensen shares a similar sentiment, adding that he expects the system to be more sophisticated as it develops in the coming months. “The agents and managers we work with have their artists’ best interest at heart, but it’s a weird time,” Jensen says. “It’s still very much a state of everyone figuring out where they fit in, and that’s only going to become more clear as time goes on. Everyone is reacting a bit differently, and it’s hard to say because there’s no roadmap or template for this.”

Both Jensen and Marissa Smith, an agent at William Morris Endeavor who’s heading up livestreaming at the agency, have called the new ticketed livestream ecosystem “the Wild West.”

“With the collaboration we have between our digital department and music department, We would be doing a disservice to our clients by ignoring this space” — WME agent Marissa Smith, who calls ticketed livestreams the “Wild West”

“At first, it was difficult to get people to pick up on the idea, but now that the end keeps moving further out, we’ve noticed our clients are becoming more interested,” Smith says. “Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve spoken with over 50 livestreaming platforms and technologies, discussing all different types of capabilities from from ticketing to tip jars, donate buttons, geo-fencing and meet and greets. “With the collaboration we have between our digital department and music department, we would be doing a disservice to our clients by ignoring this space.”

Fellow agency ICM Partners, which represents acts including the Black Keys and Migos, also maintains it’s been pushing more livestreams, facilitating brand partnerships for artists and jumping heavier into the ticketed streams. ICM agent Mitch Blackman, who represents acts including Kamasi Washington and Blackbear, says ICM has set up an internal task force dedicated to these shows.

While he acknowledges that ticketed streams can be a major moneymaker for artists and a new revenue stream for the agency, he still calls the streams “a band-aid” as live concerts remain on hiatus. He can see livestreaming lasting beyond the pandemic, though.

He is unworried about the overlap between shows and livestreams once physical concerts resume. “This isn’t just live. It’s something else,” Blackman says. “It’s going to be a whole field. A whole ‘nother music industry.”

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