I joined a Zoom discussion group hosted by Ollie Weindling of The Vortex Jazz Club earlier this week, mostly to listen to what other promoters are doing in this period of lockdown and what plans are emerging for the time when venues and clubs can open up again. What is immediately apparent is that we in UK are some way behind other countries in Europe where venues are beginning to open, albeit under strict regulations to ensure the maintenance of physical distancing through restriction of the venue capacity. Here it is unlikely that venues will re-open until next year and even that may be delayed for some months into 2021.
When lockdown was first imposed, many live streamed events appeared almost immediately and musicians and promoters enthusiastically set up performances via Facebook, Twitch or YouTube; most of these involved solo performances, some involved duos from musicians sharing a household. Most of these have been a welcome opportunity to hear music played and for musicians to maintain some kind of income through donations, or in some cases a Paywall payment system. Again most have been excellent, but some have suffered through poor technical quality. Also, the proliferation of these streamed solo events has led to confusion for listeners who are not necessarily able to react to a sudden announcement that so and so is streaming live now. It is apparent that the most successful streams have a curated programme advertised in advance. Most of these streams have invited donations and found that these were initially quite generous, but have dropped off over time. A few have successfully adopted a Paywall payment system.
All of the above I see as Live Streaming Stage 1. This stage has thrown up a number of issues around live streaming.
- Most streams have asked for donations and after an initial surge, these have tended to drop off. Do we therefore need to move to a Paywall system to ensure that musicians get paid?
- Most streams have involved just one musician and there is a clear danger in the limits of this approach
- The professional standard of the sound and the visual display is sometimes poor and there is the danger that viewers will lose patience.
Thus in Britain, where the possibility of opening venues seems far away, many musicians and venues are moving on from Stage 1 to Stage 2 where the limitations and weaknesses of the early streaming attempts are addressed and more professional standards are sought.
In Stage 2 we need to ensure that the streams have high production values in terms of the sound quality and the visual display. We need to maximise impact through running one day or weekend festivals with a curated programme. We need to encourage musicians to talk about their music and invite questions. One of the aspects I enjoy most about these live streams is the ability to comment and ask questions and most of the ones I have watched have generated a good number of comments. Admittedly, most of these comments have been of the ‘I’m here’ or ‘Great Gig’ nature, but I hope we can move on to more interaction about the actual music. All this I see as key to Live Streaming Stage 2. The main advantage of this stage is that it retains a direct interaction between the musician(s) in the music room and the listener which I find more involving than the streaming of a live concert in a club. We need to see whether it is possible to run streams with a Paywall system where the audience has to pay in order to access the stream.
I see various very interesting types of event emerging that can be developed in Stage 2. One is Liam Noble’s 4pm Saturday afternoon solo piano stream in which he takes a particular theme each week, e.g. the music of Led Zeppelin, or a composition from every decade from 1920 to 2010, and presents his interpretation of that music. I also enjoyed very much Chris Mapp’s experiment with two members of his stillefelt group, trumpeter Percy Pursglove and guitarist Tom Ford, being asked to record in isolation a short piece of improvised music as if they were playing with the other members of the trio without hearing what the others are doing. Chris then improvised on electric bass a reaction to the two recorded pieces; he recorded this, and then the whole piece with the recordings of the three musicians was streamed online. It was fascinating to observe how well this worked and how well the individual improvisations done in isolation fitted with each other. Chris suggests that this is down to the fact that the members of the stillefelt trio work together regularly and have a good rapport.
Into The Shed run by guitarist Ronny Graupe has run up to 40+ events in empty Berlin clubs putting together most of the time two musicians to play a 40 min totally improvised set. At the moment they are testing audience reaction by running two events a week, one with a Paywall and an entrance fee for an event that can only be accessed while it is live; in other words, it is not available afterwards. The other event is available free with the request for donations and remains online.
Also interesting is the plan for the next Around The Houses (ATH) live stream with musicians from Birmingham and the West Midlands. Four artists have been commissioned to produce a piece or a number of pieces for either themselves solo, or for a duo or trio with a final version to be created from the separate recordings. This will be broadcast in mid July.
This ATH session is being funded by sponsorship and the musicians will be paid a reasonable fee. A number of people have questioned the whole live streaming approach on the grounds that it may downgrade the importance of the live gig and reinforce the belief that music should be available for free. I believe that these Stage 2 experiments have value in that they provide some income for musicians and a number of interesting ideas that we hope will engage the interest of listeners.
In Europe where venues seem able to open with limited audiences, they have moved directly from Stage 1 to what I see as Live Streaming Stage 3. Here the primacy of the live gig with an audience present is re-asserted, but the concert may be streamed to a second room or, more widely, to cater for larger audiences. In the Zoom discussion this week it became apparent that there is considerable potential in live streaming of concerts that are taking place in a live situation with an audience. Such live streams can build audiences in other locations, both nationally and internationally, and create a second income stream for both the musicians and the venue through a Paywall payment system.
The Nasjonal Jazzscene is Oslo, Moods in Zurich and Porgy and Bess in Vienna already have a programme of occasional live streams of this nature. The Vortex is planning to do something similar and there are ideas of exchanging concerts, such as the idea of one set in one city, the second in another city, both streamed to the other city. The streaming could involve interviews with musicians and a Q&A with audience members. The National Theatre in Britain has established an excellent model for this with pre-show and interval interviews with directors or actors. I should emphasise that all such streamings are, as I understand it, occasional and are for certain special events such as an album launch, a premiere of a commission or the visit of a major national or international artist
In conclusion, I believe that the live streaming of concerts is here to stay, but it will always remain secondary to live concerts with an audience. In UK we are not yet at the stage that many other European venues have reached, and still need to set up individual live streams. It is clear to me that there are certain advantages in this, and that the experimental work in what I have termed Stage 2 can offer interesting online additional activity that is not possible in the live concert situation. I believe such activity may be very important in the ‘new normal’.
I am grateful to Ollie Weindling, Chris Mapp, Alex Woods, Sam Slater and Ronny Graupe for conversations that have informed my thoughts. I am also aware that there have been many other live streams that I have not accessed.
For Liam Noble see www.twitch.tv/liamnoble68; Chris Mapp and stillefelt see https://youtu.be/5lDgQwbCaww; Ronny Graupe and Into The Shed, see https://www.ronnygraupe.com/into-the-shed/index.html, Around The Houses, see https://www.aroundthehouses.net/.