What Does It Take to Create a Successful Livestream?
Let’s face it — a livestream will never replace the feeling of seeing your favorite band in a bar, theater, or even a stadium.
While big-name artists can afford to wait out COVID-19 before getting back on the road, indie bands and their record labels are adapting quickly to the new reality. And they’re figuring out how to make it a sustainable part of an artist’s operation for the months ahead.
Along the way, they’re learning more about their fans and themselves when the energy of a live show is stripped away. How long will it last?
No one knows for sure, but artists are making the best of the current moment while putting structures in place to make streaming viable for the long haul.
From Live Sound to Apple Tech Support
Signature Sounds, a record label and performance venue in western Massachusetts, launched the Parlor Room Home Sessions March 20, about a week after canceling its in-person shows. Since then, it has held more than a dozen streams that have raised more than $50,000 for the artists who did them. New streams are currently scheduled through the end of May.
Jared Libby is responsible for making the live broadcasts happen. In the pre-virus world, he ran sound at The Parlor Room venue and managed distribution of the recordings coming from the Signature Sounds label — functions that were quickly rendered obsolete when the venue closed and artists no longer needed records and CDs shipped to venues on their tour schedule.
“My job has largely become iPhone and MacBook tech support for really good musicians,” Libby said. “Streaming was never really a focus for us; it was just a bonus thing we could try to tack onto our shows.”
Libby said the team at Signature Sounds is big enough to put structure and process around streaming but small enough to be nimble in response to changing circumstances. They were able to establish a consistent look and feel for each concert, provide technical support, and manage virtual tip jars through PayPal and Venmo.
Tech support can start as early as a week before a scheduled stream, with Libby and the artist checking sound, equipment and, most importantly, Internet connectivity. Most artists have laptops and microphones that can capture decent audio and video, but the biggest variable is the strength of someone’s wi-fi at home.
Darius Zelkha, who manages singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, also found himself in the role of remote tech support when Ritter began doing weekly streams from his Brooklyn home in late March. The series is now known as The Silo Sessions and serves as a fundraiser for COVID-19-related charities.
Zelkha said neither he nor Ritter were particularly tech-savvy before the pandemic hit. They do a soundcheck an hour before the weekly live broadcast on Tuesdays and try not to sweat the small stuff too much when things inevitably go wrong. They’ve also resisted the urge to add fancier equipment for fear of making things too complicated.
“Josh does what he feels the most comfortable with,” Zelkha said. “These shows are all about the moment they’re happening in and do not need to be archived for posterity’s sake, so we’re pretty happy to keep them lo-fi.”
Ritter’s songs lend themselves well to the stripped-down format and his infectious stage presence has started to come through more in recent weeks. Zelkha said that, while the pivot to streaming seems natural from a fan’s perspective, it can be much more jarring for artists who are used to engaging with an audience and now performing on their laptop screens.
“It’s such a different way of connecting with fans,” Zelkha said. “The artist is getting any of the feedback and isn’t part of the viewer’s experience with the music.”
Zelkha and Ritter are still sorting through the new environment and the good and the bad that come with it each week. The two have worked together long enough that they can talk candidly about what’s working and what’s not without worrying about hard feelings.
“I feel for new managers because there are going to be a lot of mistakes made and a lot of experiments that don’t go 100 percent the way you planned,” Zelkha said. “The good news for someone like Josh is that his fans understand it’s coming from a good place, and so there’s a lot of leeway and goodwill.”
Libby said he’s also seen Signature Sounds’ artists become more comfortable with the idea of streaming over time, particularly as they watch their fellow musicians giving it a shot and being okay with a few glitches along the way.
“There’s a sense of intimacy that something that isn’t highly polished brings,” Libby said. “As this drags on longer, there’s clearly an explosion of livestreams, and that’s only going to increase for the immediate future if that’s the only way people can be putting live music out there. It’s going to push everyone to keep getting better.”
From One-Off to Established Series
No one wants to admit that in-home concerts might be a long-term thing, but artists are setting themselves up in case that happens. Giving the streams a name and broadcasting at a consistent time provides the opportunity to turn a random series of events into a part of a musician’s brand.
Philadelphia-based band Low Cut Connie was also an early adopter of live streaming, with frontman Adam Weiner broadcasting twice a week from his bedroom. The series is now formally known as Tough Cookies and airs on the band’s Facebook and Instagram every Thursday and Saturday.
“When this pandemic began, I didn’t have money to help and I couldn’t put together a huge charity concert, so I thought, ‘I guess what I’m going to do is play music in my underwear in my house and try to make a couple of people smile’,” Weiner said during a recent Tough Cookies stream. “Six weeks later, we have our Tough Cookies crew. Doctors, nurses, delivery drivers, grocery store workers all send us messages that we’re helping to keep their morale up.”
Like Ritter, Weiner is known for his dynamic on-stage performances that are one part Elton John, one part James Brown, and one part Iggy Pop. It’s clear from watching Tough Cookies that he’s carrying as much of that presence to the virtual shows as possible.
“I’m doing two shows a week out of my bedroom and I’m treating these livestreams like I’m performing at Madison Square Garden. I’m giving it my best. I’m trying to make people feel alive,” Weiner told Tablet Magazine.
The band now sells Tough Cookies t-shirts, posters, and bracelets — perhaps an indication that they see the series continuing for the long term.
As the country slowly begins to reopen, Libby said Signature Sounds is exploring the best way to bring artists back to its venue for streams with a minimal, socially distanced crew. This would provide the opportunity for better lighting and sound, and for bands who have been isolated to perform together.
They’re also experimenting with ways to broadcast outdoor shows that Libby says might involve “running a really long Ethernet cable into the field behind someone’s house.”
“We’ve opened ourselves up to audiences who are much larger and people tuning in from around the world,” Libby said. “We’re seeing regular people who come to our venue, but also people who might not ever make it here in person. I can’t say exactly what the future holds, but the response is something we’re aware of.”
Zelkha said he does not see Ritter making the Silo Sessions a long-term thing once social distancing restrictions end. Like Low Cut Connie, they did create a poster for the series, but it came at the request of their fans.
“Seeing the success of that tells me that people see these as a positive experience in a weird time and they’re hungry for a positive memento from this time,” Zelkha said. “We know people want to walk away from a live event with something that establishes it as a badge of honor. We wanted to try and replicate that feeling in the current moment and the response has been so positive.”