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7 April 2020

Can live streaming save the music industry in lockdown?

During the coronavirus crisis, musicians are taking to social media to broadcast gigs from home. But is anyone earning any money from them, and is this sustainable?

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

“As long as there can’t be live music, I think we might keep doing these”, says Dent May of the live streamed concerts hosted by his LA studio over the past two weeks. May, an indie-pop singer-songwriter, has appeared on the bill alongside acts including Real Estate frontman Martin Courtney and art-rock artist Madeline Kenney.

May is not alone in his desire to entertain his fans while in isolation. Since the coronavirus pandemic ensured the cancellation of tours, festivals, promotional trips and studio sessions, artists all around the world have broadcast home sets online. James Blake has twice taken to his piano to play fan favourites and unexpected covers; Christine and the Queens is performing nightly in the luxurious Ferber Studios where she is working and living during France’s lockdown; and in March John Legend played live as part of Chris Martin’s “Together at Home” series, featuring a guest appearance by his wife, Chrissy Teigen, wearing only a bath towel.

For these particularly successful musicians, a request for donations has not been necessary. But for artists whose livelihood depends on touring, and who don’t have vast savings or other revenue to fall back on, working out a way to profit from their isolation performances is essential.

May, whose new album is due to be released in August, has not yet had to cancel a tour: he hopes that his August-September US dates will go ahead. But he is seeing damage elsewhere. Honeymoon Suite, the recording studio he shares with Pat Jones and Michael Rosen (the latter of whom is part of the LA-based duo Cones), has had to cancel bookings, and, having lost all income from his day-job as a wedding DJ, May has filed for unemployment benefit under the new US bailout bill. He joins the 6.65 million Americans who filed for unemployment in the last week of March. “I’m waiting to hear back on that. For now, I’m doing things to try and keep momentum going,” he tells me over Skype.

At the first Honeymoon Suite “live stream rager”, 13 musicians performed from their homes. The broadcast was hosted on Crowdcast, a platform May chose because it allows hosts to charge viewers to access the live stream, rather than relying solely on optional donations. “It was a $5 minimum donation,” May tells me, “but most people chose to donate more.” Around 170 people tuned in to the first session and the studio raised $1,350 (approximately £1,097) in total. That may not seem a lot when divided among each of the artists, but, May points out, “that sort of amount is on par for a local show where there’s three or four bands on the bill, and each is splitting the door money with every member”. In short: it’s a fair short-term substitute considering no one is leaving their homes. 

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While in self-isolation, Jules Jackson, frontwoman of London-based band the Big Moon, is offering virtual one-on-one guitar tutorials for fans. “I was just looking for something constructive I could do, something that felt helpful and useful rather than too performative or gimmicky,” she tells me over email. “The reaction has been outrageous: I’m booked up for the next three weeks! A lot of the students are kids and teenagers who are desperate to learn things now that school is cancelled.”

Jackson is charging £20 per half-hour for these lessons. “A friend was like, ‘you should be charging triple that! You are a Mercury-nominated musician!’, which made me laugh. But it’s not just musicians who are losing their jobs, millions of us are. I know so many people who’ve been made redundant in the last fortnight. So it didn’t feel right to charge more. I wanted it to be democratic rather than any sort of get-rich-quick scheme. On reflection, the amount of money I’m making would never be enough to keep a four-person band and crew alive, but it all helps.”

Not everyone has been supportive of artists getting creative in order to make ends meet. Matt Healy, lead singer of the Brit Award-winning 1975, was recently subject to criticism for posting a tweet which seemed to mock such initiatives. The tweet, which has since been deleted, read: “Stop telling people to support you we don’t want your EP and zine bundle right now Laura we’re going to die [sic]”. The tweet, later dismissed as a joke, touched a nerve with those who pointed out Healy’s privilege. Though the 1975 will be affected by the crisis, they are likely to be far more financially cushioned than smaller artists who rely on a steady stream of income to pay their bills.

More widely, there are fears that the trend for successful musicians hosting complementary live streams – giving their music away for free – devalues artists’ work across the board. 

“I noticed a lot of people are doing free live streams on social media which I fully support and I think is incredible,” says May, “but I’m an advocate of artists charging for their labour whenever possible. I think fans of music are really happy to support artists right now and always.”

For musicians who would usually rely on tour managers and venues to deal with ticket sales, asking for money directly from fans does not come easily. In March, Rebecca Lucy Taylor, who makes experimental pop as Self Esteem and was formerly one half of folk-rock band Slow Club, organised a weekend-long virtual festival of femme performers called “Pxssy Pandemique”, featuring artists including KT Tunstall and Låpsley. Taylor hosted the festival on Instagram Live, where approximately 5,000 people tuned in over the course of the weekend. Altogether the festival raised £5,865 from 394 contributors. The money will be donated to Women’s Aid.

The idea for the festival, Taylor says, came about because she was “getting pretty galvanised about the inequality between male acts and female acts on festival line-ups”. Coronavirus thwarted her initial plan to hold a traditional festival, but thanks to streaming services, it was able to go on regardless, with each act performing a 20-minute set via Instagram. The only mishap came about when, Taylor claims, the account was blocked. “On the Saturday one of the artists did a performance piece where she eventually takes all her clothes off. Not in a gratuitous way, it’s just part of the act. But the Instagram account was locked down and they wouldn’t let us back on.” Acting quickly to set up a new festival account and move across as many followers as possible, was “like being in Line of Duty, such high drama!” she says. “But I cannot bear to tell women not to take their clothes off; it’s so against my ethos in life.”

Initially, Taylor was unsure whether she would ask viewers for money. “But even before it started, people donated,” she tells me. She chose Women’s Aid to be the recipient of the donations to help women who, because of the lockdown, are trapped indoors with their abusers. 

The success of the virtual festival has made Taylor reassess her feelings towards asking fans for payment for future live streamed performances. “Sometimes I do a charity bucket at a gig and that always feels good. I feel that’s extremely different to trying to fundraise for myself, just ethically. But it is important to put value on your work because people consume what musicians make so freely and without thinking about it enough, even before all this. Giving things away for free doesn’t help.”

The Big Moon have a similar approach. As well as Jackson’s guitar lessons, the band is sharing guitar tabs of their songs, in return for a donation to the Trussell Trust. “It’s not just us, everyone is struggling. It’s nice that we have a platform we can use to help others,” says Jackson.

Writing in the New Yorker, Doreen St Félix suggests that “live streaming, which once seemed to presage the dissolution of human intimacy, now looks like its preservation.” May’s experience, of streaming and speaking to fans simultaneously, echoes this. “I prefer a traditional live music gig to a live stream any day, but in some ways it felt like there was an even stronger connection between the musician and the listener,” he says. 

But he feels uneasy about how the current pressure for artists to stream from home mirrors a wider trend in the music industry. “I resent the idea that in the streaming economy and in the 21st-century music world, you have to release more music than ever, you constantly have to put singles out on Spotify, you need content on Instagram… I resent that art has been devalued to become content.”

Mat Dryhurst, an artist and researcher who works on technical and ethical protocols and who collaborates with the electronic musician Holly Herndon, feels much the same. “I’ve had a ton of musicians write me concerned messages asking if they have to live stream performances now, which I resent. I resent the idea that musicians have to invent an awkward new medium of performance and busk for tips when people could just buy their record,” he tells me over email.

“I feel that the right point to take away from this crisis is that the current music infrastructure is unfit for purpose, and Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal for the kind of world many artists might live in, when flights get expensive due to carbon tax and borders and visas start becoming more real for many who have grown up without that concern. Live shows and cheap flights have been a tourniquet that has covered for the tragedy of the transition from sales to streaming, which only really works for a minority of artists who make work that complements the goals of streaming platforms or the majors that unduly dominate them.

“I think that live streaming feels like a distraction that actually perpetuates the dominant narrative that streaming will be music’s salvation. This is the opposite of what this crisis is telling me. This crisis is telling me that music’s sole advantage over games and Netflix is real-life congregation, interaction and full-spectrum sound.”

Of course, it may be some time before the music industry is able to deliver those experiences again. For now, musicians must work out how best to monetise streaming. Later, when lockdowns are lifted and artists head back out on tour buses around the world, the question will be how to rebuild the industry’s infrastructure.

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