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Home > News> Big Story > How virtual concerts became the new normal in 2020

How virtual concerts became the new normal in 2020

Hit hard by the pandemic and lockdown, the music industry experimented with online concerts and live-streaming as a way to stay afloat this year

Live from BLOT! Studio 02, 11 July 2020
Live from BLOT! Studio 02, 11 July 2020

You finish your pre-gaming and head to the gig at 7.30pm, fashionably late as always. Alina Sengupta is getting the party started with some classic house tunes on the Disco Dungeon set but you are not ready to dance just yet. So you buy a beer at the bar and then head to the Beat Salad stage and immerse yourself in Killzen’s moody, dystopian synthscapes for half an hour. Then you run into some old friends who invite you to a private dance room, where you spend the next couple of hours catching up and dancing to high-energy techno and breakbeat sets by Rafiki and Spacejams. The main stages end at 2am but you are still up to party, so you head to the Afters stage, where Mumbai-based DJ Potter is spinning up a storm. Finally, at 4am, you stagger back to your bed, happy and exhausted after another epic Saturday night. Except, this time, you never actually stepped out of the house.

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All the fun of a music festival, with none of the covid-19 risk. Or at least that’s the idea behind Altered TV, the digital festival series organized by the Mumbai-based artist and event management company Gently Altered. And it’s not the only one betting big on virtual music events.

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The Indian music industry is amongst the sectors that have been hit hardest by the covid-19 pandemic and lockdown. Live shows—the main source of revenue not just for most non-film artists, but also for promoters and artist management agencies—have been cancelled en masse, and there remains little hope of a return to the stage before early next year. Venues have had to down shutters for months, and some may not be able to reopen.

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Artists have responded to the crisis by going online, in an attempt to keep fans engaged and find new ways to monetize their work. In the early days of the pandemic, these efforts were small and ad hoc. Artists would go live on Instagram and YouTube, with song performances interspersed with banter and the invocation of “good vibes”. But as it became obvious that the pandemic and social distancing were here to stay, the music industry was forced to look seriously at online concerts and live-streaming as a way to stay afloat. Over the past few months, some of India’s biggest music festivals and concerts have moved online, with promoters and event organizers experimenting with different ways to cater to an audience that has been stuck at home for months.

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In March, entertainment conglomerate Only Much Louder took its flagship NH7 Weekender music festival online with #HappyAtHome, with artists live-streaming performances from home on the festival’s Instagram account. The social media platform also held its own virtual festival that month with “Live In Your Living Room”, which featured 14 artists performing 30-minute sets on Instagram Live. These early attempts at a digital “music festival” drew large numbers but they faced one major problem—the platforms they were using were not designed with the live music experience in mind. This led to issues with everything from sound quality and technical hurdles in putting together a well produced, multi-camera live-stream, to a lack of options for monetization.

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In response, event organizers have looked to other platforms, or developed their own. Gently Altered found the perfect tech solution in Shotgun (Shotgun.live), a French ticketing platform that has recently pivoted to streaming. In May, the agency was invited by Parisian-Armenian artist Viken Arman to curate a stage at his annual SOUQ Festival, which was being hosted online on the Shotgun platform. The 36-hour festival drew over 20,000 viewers from across the world, including India.

Artists have responded to the crisis by going online, in an attempt to keep fans engaged and find new ways to monetize their work

“(Shotgun) saw a lot of traffic coming from India for our stage, so they reached out to us,” says Oswald Thombre, event management and operations head at Gently Altered. “A lot of our regular patrons were also looking out for ways to interact with their friends and listen to the music they like, so we decided to create something that scratched that itch.”

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The company collaborated with Shotgun to create Altered TV, a digital replica of a club festival, complete with multiple stages and virtual dance floors. Viewers can log on, jump between different stages, and catch up with friends and scene regulars on the chat. They can also create private dance rooms, requiring a password for entry, where they can talk and dance with their friends via webcam while watching their favourite artists. They can even chat with the artists during the stream, because—due to unreliable Indian internet connections—the sets are pre-recorded by the artists rather than streamed live. If you are really feeling the music, you can record a 15-second clip of yourself dancing and send it in to be featured on a “wall of fame”. A few months later in December, the virtual edition of OML’s flagship music festival NH7 Weekender would also use a similar setup to simulate the festival experience for their thousands of fans.

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“We have gotten an average of 800 unique attendees over the three telecasts we have done, with most people spending between 2 to two-and-a-half hours on the stream,” says Thombre. “The response from the audience has been really appreciative, because alongside listening to their favourite artists, they can also have the same kind of interactions that they did at a club.”

While Gently Altered has found success trying to replicate the live gig experience, other event organizers have chosen to go in a different direction. In July, Mumbai-based production company Transhuman Collective organized Unrated, a two-day virtual festival set in outer space. The festival saw electronica producers like Ox7gen, Ash Roy, Calm Chor performing DJ sets as their 3D virtual avatars on a virtual space station. The performances were accompanied by virtual light and pyro shows, augmented reality experiences and projection mapping by visual artists such as Cursorama, Naveen Deshpande and Daku.

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At around the same time, Under The Radar, the artist management company that handles indie electronica stars Nucleya, Ritviz and Anish Sood, put together a 360-degree virtual reality concert called retroFUTURE. The company collaborated with a Lithuanian gaming company to create a virtual festival setting using the Unreal game engine, allowing the three producers to perform their sets in constantly changing settings—including a lunar base, an enchanted forest, and a post-apocalyptic cityscape.

“We didn’t want to try and recreate a live gig because you can’t really do that digitally,” says Under The Radar founder Rahul Sinha, who believes live-streamed events have to be as engaging as the online video content they are now competing with. “At a gig, people don’t just stare at the artist for 1 hour, they look around, talk to people, do other things. Since we can’t replicate that, we decided to create a whole new world, something that people look at and go ‘wow’.”

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While these experiments and innovations push online music events into new directions, other Indian companies are focusing on providing simple, off-the-shelf live-stream solutions to musicians and other entertainers

Throughout the 90-minute concert, the audience was immersed in a video-game-like experience, dropped in the middle of surreal and traversable landscapes, with the performances incorporating elements of narrative storytelling. It took Under The Radar three months and 10 lakh of their own money to put it all together, which was a big risk for the young company. But the gamble paid off. They sold over 7,000 tickets, bringing in almost 15 lakh in revenue, according to Sinha. “We were able to prove that you can make money through digital shows if you can show value to the customer,” he says. “We have already got a ticketing platform that wants to fund the second show.”

While these experiments and innovations push online music events into new directions, other Indian companies are focusing on providing simple, off-the-shelf live-stream solutions to musicians and other entertainers. On the smaller end of the scale is Skillbox, an artist community platform that aims to connect artists with potential clients. In May, the platform started live-streaming concerts on its own website, with integrated ticketing and a better audiovisual experience being its main advantages over social media pages or Zoom. They have even tied up with Bengaluru performance venue Streamphony, which offers artists a fully equipped studio from which to record live-streams. According to Ravi Pardhi, Skillbox co-founder and chief technology officer, the platform hosts 30-50 shows a week, averaging 200 unique viewers per show.

But the biggest player to enter the live-streaming space is ticketing and events platform BookMyShow. In July, the company launched BookMyShow Online, a new video-streaming platform for live entertainment. According to BookMyShow chief operating officer Albert Almeida, the company was thinking about streaming live entertainment even before the current pandemic, as a way to augment the on-ground live experience. “With the global crisis enveloping the entire ecosystem, we accelerated our plans for streaming live entertainment and launched the BookMyShow Online platform in record time,” he says. “The platform has been built as a long-term offering and as a model that coexists with out-of-home entertainment, thus meeting the needs of consumers and building an additional revenue stream.”

Since its launch, BookMyShow Online has hosted a number of popular festivals and concerts, including the Sunburn Home Festival, a virtual tour by Australian country-pop band The Buckleys, and concerts by Willie Gomez, Ellie Goulding and more. For the first few weeks, the company offered all virtual events for free, but today over 70% of the events on the platform (across genres) are ticketed, with the volume of sales growing sharply every month.

Almeida warns that this revenue does not compensate for the loss of live revenue, nor can digital events replace the live experience. However, they do represent an additional revenue stream artists can rely on going forward. “When we come out of this pandemic, there is significant potential for a new hybrid normal with commercial models that go with it,” he says. “In all likelihood, both an out-of-home live experience and a live experience delivered home may coexist perfectly well.”

Sinha concurs. Though he thinks there will still be space for online concerts and festivals, as a way to reach audiences in different markets or to engage with fans too young to attend 21-plus events, he’s personally looking forward to returning to physical events.

“Doing a live show is just a very different level of excitement,” he says. “After this pandemic, I am very sure that the world is not heading towards digitisation. People are dying to go back to real life. VR and digital experiences are not a real replacement.”

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

Also Read: Listening to music in a pandemic year

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