Shari Ulrich's home studio. Pic provided.
Shari Ulrich's home studio. Pic provided.

Shari Ulrich Talks Web Concert Streaming

We just passed the 10 month mark since I packed up after my last live concert on March 16th, relieved I had a few weeks before my next tour during which this new Corona virus business would have time to blow over. Ha!

As performing artists, we have had to make quite an adjustment as the pandemic shoved all of us into the world of livestreaming as an alternative to the touring we have known and (mostly) loved throughout our careers. The learning curve has been steep, and we are constantly tweaking our set-ups and researching options for improvement.

 As consumers, we’ve watched the livestreams go from unlistenable (looking up the nostrils of an earnest performer playing into their laptop with a glitchy picture and garbled audio) to the professional broadcasts coming from sophisticated new streaming platforms like Mandolin. In fact, new broadcasting software products and streaming platforms are cropping up daily as artists become the new currency for livestreaming companies.  Given the pace of the technology and marketplace, a detailed analysis of the most current would likely be obsolete by the time you read this.

Let’s be honest: for artists the new normal is a very unnatural way to perform music. It comes with all the pressure of a live performance and none of the feedback, energy and enthusiasm from an audience at our feet to transform that pressure into the life-affirming and often thrilling experience of a live show. Playing to the void and the crickets is invariably unnerving. The desire for applause, cheers and/or laughter is not just salve for a needy, attention-hungry performer – it’s as natural an imperative as the ebb and flow of waves on the shore. It’s a critical part of the circle. Its absence is awkward, weird, and unsettling.  And though we’re all adapting to the new normal like everyone else in a world of ways, live streaming will never feel as good as physically being in the same room as our audience. It will never fuel us in quite the same way.

It has also occurred to me that in these times, unlike in a touring economy, artists are all essentially going back to the same room for every show, albeit with worldwide potential. And on any given day, it’s the same room countless other artists are playing.

On the plus side, a performance has the potential to reach an unlimited audience in ways that pouring hundreds of hours and resources into planning, traveling, and executing a live tour does not. Plus, we get to be home to raise our children and fix the stairs. So, as with many other adaptations in these times, it has its silver linings.

The first livestreamed concert I watched was Dan Mangan’s on Side Door, a house concert network he co-founded years ago that quickly pivoted to livestreaming early in the pandemic. It was also my first experience with Zoom. In the early days of the unprecedented isolation, to be in the same room as 800+ fellow enthusiasts and see them hunkered down with their kids, pets and popcorn, excited to be “together” to spend the afternoon with an artist we all loved, was exhilarating and pandemic-changing.

I soon ventured out via Side Door with my own shows. I loved the audience interaction and the relative intimacy of a livestream. Still, I was surprised to find myself, for the first time in my 48-year career, nervous and anxious before and during a show. It was so odd to find it challenging to settle into my normal comfortable state - an experience I soon learned was shared by many of my peers. Fortunately, I learned from watching the playback of the first show, that none of my discomfort translated, and the obvious appreciation of the audience was very affirming.  I realized I just had to get over myself. I had to find the sweet spot of not being too precious about my music at a time that it is most important, while still protecting the integrity and quality of the art form with the best possible simulation of my normal live concert experience.

As someone who has persistently maintained that, at its essence, “music is an audio art form, dammit”, and if the sound is crappy the experience for the performer and the audience is dramatically diminished, I was determined not to venture into the world of streaming until I researched how to get decent sound. It turned out not to be that complicated – hardwired ethernet (non-negotiable), gear I already had in my studio (good condenser mics and a mixing board), and an interface to get into my laptop. I had the resource of two highly skilled engineers (my daughter and her spouse) at my disposal to check how things were sounding over the net  as I experimented - a step every musician should take in the process of setting up to livestream. (And please don’t underestimate the mercy of a taste of reverb to provide some of the warmth and air the internet sucks up. It makes a dramatic difference.)

Then there are the fluctuating health regulations that have impacted our options.  Full lockdown left artists who live alone to figure out all sorts of Rube Goldberg strategies to self-broadcast. Less restricted times meant we could have a band member or two and a handful of socially distanced audience members and partner with a favourite presenter or venue for a “hybrid” livestream. This scenario helped support our colleagues and reminded us of what we miss so much about playing in front of humans! But those windows have been very small in the past year. Frankly, after decades of schlepping, travel and 20,000 sound checks, being able to walk downstairs, flip a switch and be on stage is quite a luxury. But oh how I miss playing with others, rendered impossible by the physics of latency.

Aside from that, the options are steadily improving in the world of streaming. Side Door and Home Routes are set up exceptionally well for ticketing ( with a sliding scale) and provide excellent support for both the audience and performers. Both use Zoom, so having experienced folks to manage spotlighting and the chat is imperative to allow the artist to focus on the music. Companies such as Mandolin, Session Live and StageIt are among the burgeoning dedicated music-focused livestream presenters that offer high production standards and a wide range of options for monetization. Some have gatekeeper parameters for who can present shows on their platform and others, like Side Door, consider the lack of them to be one of their core values.  Some sell a subscription plan to artists; some make offers to artists in the traditional way; and some are hosting series offered by artists, presenters or venues.

Broadcasting software companies like OBS & Stage Ten that provide the tools for fancier shows incorporating graphics and other elaborate elements are proliferating. These are great tools for venues, presenters, orchestras, theater companies and organizations to create effective broadcasts. Though for an artist performing concerts from home, unnecessary bells and whistles. Even a second camera is usually out of synch with the music and can be more a distraction than an asset.

Obviously, the most common outlet is to stream directly to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram with their unlimited audience; the option of a “virtual hat”; and the aforementioned black hole of response. Most platforms allow you to send the stream there at the same time – though that presents a tricky ethical quandary if there is a paywall on the presenting platform. And note, stats show that direct livestreams have a relatively poor retention rate for viewers – perhaps 5 -7 minutes compared to the full length of ticketed and or (Zoom) concerts. And I question the impact on artists’ sustainability with countless live performances available on social media in perpetuity. But still, a great tool for reaching an audience.

Though I lean towards the old school live model of a performance being a one-time experience  – you have to be there – I appreciate that many of these platforms allow ticket holders to view an event for a limited time following. That option for viewing really enhances the value of investing in a ticket.

If your head spins with the options, search and you shall find. As a consumer I gravitate to platforms with consistently good production values and user support (which for me currently is Mandolin). For now, I’m sticking to a Zoom format as the interactive element mitigates the weirdness of the void and best replicates the live experience for me and my audience.

Ticketed vs. Free (with the option of a “tip jar”) is a hotly debated subject. The gamble is the same as live shows -  “If I build it, will they come?”-  but both allow us to experience performances of artists we may have never seen live due to geography or prohibitively high ticket prices. Both allow artists to access their audiences and perhaps stay solvent at a time when critical live concert income is non-existent. Most of us would happily donate to an artist we love or purchase an online ticket – the price of which tends to hover in the merciful $5 to $25 range.

And yes, we’re hearing of screen fatigue. Those who spend their working hours on a computer complain that the last thing they want to do when they get home is watch a concert on their computer. But they will undoubtedly settle on the couch to watch their TV’s, so maybe playing concerts through their TV could be a new habit.

It’s safe to assert that livestreamed concerts as our new viral normal are likely here to stay, along with hand sanitizer and alternatives to greeting acquaintances with a kiss. But please, not exclusively! We are fortunate to live in a time when technology affords artists the tools to reach their audience virtually, in this decidedly unfortunate time of a pandemicm and that entrepreneurs are passionate about music and the opportunities for developing options for sharing it live. But let’s ensure that, unlike music streaming platforms, artists control the monetary value of their performances. Even without a paywall, the current model allows the consumer the discretion to spend whatever amount they choose for a concert or even to act as a patron in the ongoing support of a favourite artist. Seems win-win to me. But I’m a silver lining kind of gal. Onward!

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