By Daniel Vnukowski

“The business of art is no longer the communication of thoughts or feelings which are to be conceptually ordered, but a direct participation in an experience,” wrote Marshall McLuhan in 1951. A tiny strand of RNA has completely altered our perception and understanding of the arts and turned even the most hard-nosed live performer into a half-baked technocrat.

So how do we artists continue to invite our participants on an ambitious journey of musical discovery, propagating our powerful, underlying messages of compassionate connectedness and brotherly love, expressing our heartfelt desires and impassioned pleas, without compromising our artistic sensibilities?

The goal of this essay is to offer you a summary of my notes taken from the past couple weeks of livestreaming and hopefully inspire you to draw your own conclusions and insights. Naturally, all my experiences stem from that of a concert pianist, whose goal is to put my audience half-asleep – that is, into a hypnotic state of deep reverie. This stands in complete contrast to the needs of a pop artist, whereby a strong, visceral connection between the audience members contributes to the very art itself, together with smell of sweat and vodka.

The past five months have been nothing short of miraculous. After three failed virtual concerts, I was ready to throw in the towel and call it quits. I couldn’t fathom the idea of streaming a full concert via a smartphone, but all attempts to livestream at the highest quality level of video and audio were just not working out. It was simply too disheartening to hear how my carefully-crafted, wonderful, shiny, pearly treble line had degraded into a bastardized, slew of incomprehensible cacophony.

What a shame that would have been, as we literally nailed it with livestream number four! Those people who believe still believe that “third time’s the charm” have quite simply not lived through a pandemic.

In fact, the following six weeks of virtual concerts had reached over a million people, while bringing in tens of thousands of new fans and applauding comments from far corners of the Earth.

 

Background and Summary

We humans have evolved to continuously find conveniences and solutions that can efface obstacles thrown in our paths. The modern smartphone has spoiled us with “cool” communication (as Marshall would have called it), instant chatting, and endless possibilities of engagement with cats.

On one hand, one can use the experience to reach fans in faraway places, engage with them directly and showcase unique talents that one would not ordinarily exhibit in a traditional concert environment. On the other hand, the ability to recreate a full virtual concert hall experience online, is still hindered by some of the ‘insulating barriers’ of technology – namely in the area of Internet connection stability and more economic access to virtual reality gear.

Nevertheless, the future looks very bright for the marketing of digital music, with streaming revenues now accounting for more than half of global recorded music (56.1%) Source: ifpi. Although the social aspects of concert-going make it seem like a more ‘authentic’ experience, the accessibility of exciting, new, immersive VR technology have opened up a new potential for long-lasting, memorable concert experiences in the digital sphere.

Furthermore, I believe that many of the prevailing issues regarding the livestreaming of full music performances in the age of digital marketing 3.0 will subside over time as the technological ‘insulating’ barriers become more and more diminished:

  1. The social aspects of a traditional concert can be retained with small gatherings on both sides of the platform. Why not also invite the ghost of Rachmaninoff for some truly serendipitous encounters?
  2. The glorious backdrop of concert hall that puts us into a state of hypnosis can be easily recreated virtually with the help of a few props.
  3. The heightened concentration and focus level of an attentive audience simply requires the nurturing of an environment free of distractions.
  4. One can have far more control over the way the sound hits your ears in a virtual setting, with controls for volume, bass, mid, treble outputs. Check out the Smyth Research Realiser A16!
  5. 75% of respondents watch less than 1 hour of livestreams per day, followed by a sharp drop of only 20% who view more than an hour’s worth of streams per day.


Survey Results

Here is a short summary of survey results on the basis of 100 respondents after one month of livestreaming in April 2020.

  • 60% access the livestreams via their laptop, followed by 30% on a desktop computer and 15% on a smartphone. 20% also connected their television screens.
  • The majority (36%) choose 45 minutes as their preferred livestream length, followed by 60 minutes (25%) and 30 minutes (19%).
  • Afternoon and evening times (a tie at 37%) are the preferred times of day.
  • An entry fee of $15 USD is the sweet spot for the majority of respondents (44%).
  • Audio quality rates as a number one priority for classical music livestreams (80%), followed by performance quality (72%); ability to access the livestream on a later date (67%); and the use of an introductory speech (62%).
  • 75% view less than 1 hour of streaming per day; 20% between 1-2 hours.


Pricing Model

Let’s begin our discussion with the fun stuff – money!

I strongly debated whether or not to charge a mandatory entry fee, as one would charge for any standard live event, or rather to use a suggested donation model, requiring a free registration and the ability of patrons to donate any sum they wish. By April 2020, it was very difficult to settle upon an ideal entry price that wasn’t too low or too high. Too low and I wouldn’t survive all of the expenses for capital costs; too high and I would alienate a ton of people.

I eventually settled on the latter model, which enabled those patrons with better financial situations to subsidize the experience for everyone else, irrespective of one’s financial standing. The money initially went out to various charitable organizations, but was later adjusted to improve and maintain the needs of the home studio (frequent piano tunings, a new mirrorless camera, lighting kit and numerous tech accessories). Survey results later revealed that customers would be happy to pay a surcharge of between $10-20 to attend a piano recital of an artist they admire.

Finding a suitable start time that would accommodate as many people as possible in my email subscriber base was a challenge, since my subscribers are literally scattered from all over the world. This also led to the issue of confusing time-zones. In the beginning of the project, at least a third of my viewers needed gentle reminders as to the exact start-time of the livestream even though I had specified it precisely using standard abbreviations such as EDT and PDT. “Oh wait – but I thought you were in Vienna. Wait, don’t you live in Canada?” Eventually what I found works best is to simply include the Pacific and Eastern times as such: “12pm Pacific/3pm Eastern” – you can’t get any simpler than that!

Each livestream consisted of a virtual concert of 30-45 minutes in length and was followed by a short 10 minute Q & A. The importance of including the Q & A session was a critical component of the whole project, as viewers yearn to engage with artists on a more personal level. More on that later.

 

Recording Technology in a Home Environment




Recording in a home environment comes with plenty of challenges. For example, walls can bounce around the sound in myriad ways creating unwanted sound artifacts and acoustical challenges that can make livestreaming very difficult. Then there is also the ambient noise to deal with: heating & cooling, the fridge going off during a pianissimo passage, the neighbor who decides to cut grass during a Schubert sonata – the nerve of some people! Careful planning can reduce such annoyances to a minimum. Ideally, you should only be hearing the voices going on inside your own head – that’s when you know you have nailed it!

The use of a quality large-diaphragm microphone that offers crisp, transparent sound without any coloration can sometimes circumvent some of these challenges, especially if placed relatively close to the source and away from the distorted pathways of uncontrollable room acoustics. These mics, although very expensive, offer a range of directional pathways to experiment with that help you find the sweet spot for any pair of mics. A DAW can then be used to color the sound appropriately using a wide range of available plugins and customization options.

The visuals can present many obstacles with unwanted objects reflecting off glossy pianos, battling with unpredictable daylight (unless you opt for evening performances only) and the lake of available space to grab wide-angle shots. The more advanced your recording gear is, the better one can deal with such obstacles. For example, Nikon Z-series mirrorless cameras now come with a Pro-Res RAW upgrade that captures 16-times more color range than a standard 8-bit video camera. This allows one to capture a wide array of cinematic effects and startling scenography in the post-production stage. Naturally, this also requires a great deal of skill and persistence. Thus, some things are best left in the hands of professionals.


Battling with the Internet

Before doing any livestreaming, one should do a speed check of their current capabilities, using a service such as https://www.speedtest.net – and do such a test at frequent intervals throughout the day. Although everyone has control over their internet speed with upgrades readily available in most places, there is little one can do about internet stability. If the entire neighborhood is on Zoom from 9am-2pm each day, your upload bandwidth capacity may be drastically reduced at these times and it’s important to monitor this beforehand.

It’s also imperative to do a few tests with your encoder, such as OBS Studio, and watch for the number of “dropped frames” you get at different times of the day. Also, be sure to adjust your maximum upload bitrate and keyframes accordingly on the basis of your upload speed. In fact, a simple step-up in resolution from 720p to 1080p, requires twice the number of pixels and double the upload bandwidth capacity.

Here is a useful table to determine your correct bitrate and video resolution on the basis of bandwidth capacity:

Your UploadResolutionBitrate in kbit/sKeyframe intervall
under 1 Mbps480p350 – 5004
1.5 Mbps – 5 Mbps720p -1080p500 – 8002
over 5 Mbps1080p – 4k1000 – 20001

Source: Picarto


Platforms

It has often been said among marketing professionals that social media’s primary purpose is to spread the buzz as opposed to making direct sales. As a result of the livestreaming experiment, my Facebook fans had doubled within two months time. Interesting backgrounds, wild facial expressions and dramatic lighting are often the factors that trigger social media viewers to view a particular video.

Note: My livestreams were initially simulcasted using a service called Restream.io onto my YouTube channel and Facebook (profile and fan page), so I could make a direct comparison between both.

YouTube offers streaming in full HD (1080p) resolution, while Facebook caps its streams at standard HD (720p). Those watching the livestreams on large televisions would have noticed a difference. Audio quality is similar between the two platforms, with the AAC codec at 128kbps max. Twitch offered slightly higher quality audio at 160 kbps, while Vimeo offered the highest quality, allowing our full 320 kbps bitrate to stream through with little downsampling and compression.

YouTube also has some of the most advanced algorithms to deal with the multitude of devices and connections that access its platform on a regular basis. In our study, we found that YouTube did a fantastic job of quickly adjusting video resolutions to the Internet capabilities of a user. In case of small interruptions, the audio track kept running smoothly while the video experienced minor buffering issues, which wasn’t always the case with other platforms. With 80% of our survey respondents rating audio quality as an important factor in their overall streaming experience, this was a critical deciding factor.

YouTube remains the most popular platform, primarily for its SEO advantages. In other words, it’s much easier to get recognized as an independent artist via YouTube, by complete strangers without the use of paid advertising, than it is on any other platform. YouTube, Facebook and Twitch (among others) remain free of charge, while Vimeo requires a large annual upfront payment that can significantly drive up your project expenses.

Also, those streaming via YouTube on their personal websites require a minimum of 1000 subscribers, 4000 hours of watch-time on your channel and an approved Adsense account, before one can embed YouTube their livestreams on a website. This is not an issue with Vimeo.

Vimeo was a dream to work with, offering its own proprietary encoding/switcher software called “Livestream Studio”, much greater control over the numerous video/audio aspects of my livestream, the highest audio quality of any platform at 320 kbps and a clean, a friendly interface that makes it easy to create a highly, personalized channel experience for your viewers. For example, you can easily embed your logo as a watermark into any livestream or quickly embed the video player on your website without any fuss. However, the high, upfront annual cost may discourage many start-ups from taking the plunge.

Unfortunately, engagement with artists directly via these platforms is still limited to text-only chatting. I’m currently using a hybrid model of Zoom for the pre-concert talks and YouTube or Twitch for the performances.

In the future, the advanced use of VR gear such as the Oculus Rift will provide more immersive, concert experiences, allowing audiences to engage directly with an artist on a more emotional level – all via one convenient platform. The future will also provide more control in the hands of viewers, such as adjusting audio and even camera angles precisely to one’s desires.


Platform Retention

Those who watched on YouTube had a retention as much as 500% higher than Facebook viewers. The scrolling architecture of Facebook, means that viewers tend to get distracted more frequently, jumping from video to video without truly engaging with it. It’s not uncommon for a Facebook video to get 10,000 views, hundreds of ‘likes’, but only 15 seconds of average retention!

Nevertheless, social media advertising is an essential marketing tool for any performing arts organization and the use of creative visuals, regular social posting and use of partnerships remain as valid in the digital sphere as they are in the traditional one. Gone are the days of PR, printed press and SEO dominating the marketing models of an arts organization.

In the end, marketing is all about testing, testing and more testing. Facebook advertising and the placement of a simple Google analytics script on one’s website can help one gain a vast treasure trove of invaluable data, helping one to uncover the areas of activity that trigger highest levels of engagement and keeping the marketing budgets in check. More importantly, heightening every possibility for social interaction via breakout rooms, discord, video chats, acknowledgement of regular attendees, discussions, Q & As, etc. After all is said and done, people gather together to watch livestreams for the same reason they go out to hear concerts: to share a common-binding experience with like-minded people, while drawing strong emotional reactions that can in turn influence the event itself.


Works Cited and Credits


  • Photo credit: flickr.
  • Special thanks: Steven Norsworthy, audio engineer and musician; Chris Williams, virtual assistant

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