A new revenue stream for live engineers? Inside ‘virtual venue’ Live To Your Living Room

Live To Your Living Room co-founder Pete Ord has spoken to Audio Media International about the growth of the ‘virtual venue’ and how the concept is helping to keep live events staff working during COVID.

The online platform, launched by folk artists and producers Ord and Cat McGill, hosts artists from across the acoustic, blues, roots and folk music scene. The curated programme showcases 10 live gigs per month, with professional audio engineers mixing sound to provide as authentic a live experience as possible. 

So far, McGill and Ord have hosted over 50 live online gigs and paid artists £65K directly in performance fees. Artists and bands who have already been booked to perform include award-winning musician Eliza Carthy MBE, US musician and singer Tim Eriksen, also known for his award-winning soundtrack for the film Cold Mountain, Steve Tilston with Sony Academy award-winning songwriter Jez Lowe and three-time BBC Radio 2 Folk music award nominee and acclaimed harmonica and melodeon player Will Pound. 

Here, Ord outlines his plans to grow the Live To Your Living Room platform and explains why their is life in the concept beyond lockdown…

When did you first come up with the Live To Your Living Room concept?
In mid-march 2020, whilst on tour as FOH engineer with Ross Couper & Tom Oakes, I sat nervously behind a sound desk and laptop as I prepared to live stream a gig for the first time. We’d had almost our entire tour cancelled and were looking to make some of the revenue back. We set up what we hoped would be a high quality audio feed, and set about streaming. The gig was a success, we made a reasonable amount of money and were overwhelmed by the appetite of the watchers to interact with the whole process. At almost exactly the same moment, Cat McGill, director of Folk Weekend Oxford was planning how to move her April festival, which was just six weeks away, online. We didn’t know it then but this was the birth of the whole venture. 

Cat and I worked together on making Folk Weekend Oxford a success, which involved streaming over 50 live events across the weekend with the key aims being for the events to be completely live, a one off, for everything to be properly ticketed with events taking place behind a paywall and with artists, sound engineer and production crew all being paid properly. The audience reaction was incredible. Following the festival, we decided to do a few one-off gigs, each one was a bit better again in terms of event production and audience numbers were growing, so we kept going and Live To Your Living Room was born.

How does it work?
In short, it works exactly the same way as an in person gig. Audiences buy a ticket through our website for a concert, you just need one ticket per device logged in, so if a couple or a family are watching we just charge for one ticket (although there is a option to ‘pay a bit more’ if you’d like to support the artist). When you buy a ticket you’re automatically sent a Zoom link which gives you access to the gig. As for the gig experience, we have an MC who welcomes the audience and introduces the artist. Audience members unmute after songs and applaud, cheer, heckle and give the artist real time feedback and interactions. We have a team of ‘muting-ninjas’ who make sure any stray unmuters are muted and no one interferes while the artist is playing. We also typically include a Q&A element to the gig so it has a bit of a meet the artist vibe to it. This is managed by the MC who fields questions from the audience for the artist. 

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In terms of the artist experience, we try to keep that as similar to a venue gig as possible. We send a small digital desk and a laptop to each artist. We’ve opted for the Behringer XR18 which connects to the laptop provided to serve as a virtual mix station using the X Air Edit app. The sound engineer (which is typically me, but as we grow we now have a team of a few) can then use a remote access tool to dial into the laptop allowing the engineer to mix each event in real-time from their own homes, making adjustments in levels, EQ and effects throughout.

How do artists and sound engineers get paid?
Similarly to a venue we work on a percentage split with the artist. Sound engineers work on a fixed fee which we take out of ticket sales as costs before the split. We then pay the artists from a percentage of the ticket sales with the remainder of our running costs coming from our percentage.

What separates Live To Your Living room from artists simply live streaming performances from their home?
The key element is the production value of the whole event. Firstly there is the sound engineer, who is not only mixing the show with all the ebb and flow that a full concert has, but also is hearing the real user end sound experience and adjusting things accordingly. Secondly is the team of people working behind the scenes at each event to allow it to run smoothly, we have an MC who facilitates the audience on behalf of the artist, at least a couple of “muting ninjas”, someone on tech support who helps the audience with any zoom issues they have with connecting to their home entertainment systems etc, and of course the sound engineer. We also find we sell tickets right into the performance and always have someone on hand helping audience members who are struggling to access events. 

By putting this production team in place we aim to do two things, allow the artist to be just that an artist. We aim to give them the space to give their best performance while we handle everything else. We’re also hoping  to support the wider industry, Covid has been devastating for the whole live events sector and we try to include as much of the wider infrastructure as we can, keeping producers and teams working.

What has the response been like so far? How willing are people to pay for entry to a ‘virtual venue’?
We’ve been overwhelmed by the response and the appetite for what we’ve been doing. Our tickets are priced at a standard price for an concert with a production team, with a standard ticket being £14, with options to pay a little less for those who are struggling, or pay a little more for those who want to support the artist or may be watching in multi-viewer households. People are paying it and our audience numbers reflect that and are growing. We average between 80 and 150 at most events but we’ve had up to 250 on a few occasions, and we are noticing a trend in returning customers and people buying tickets to multiple events at once. 

So far the focus has been around acoustic/folk performances. Will you be looking to expand the genres featured, or will this remain fixed on the same genre?
Our focus really has been on folk/acoustic acts so far and there’s a few reasons behind that, the most obvious being that we’ve grown out of Folk Weekend Oxford and brought our audience with us, Cat and I both know the genre well and its been a good way to establish ourselves. Also we really have to consider the ever changing lockdown rules, the folk and acoustic scene really allows us to programme solo or small acts who are easily able to perform from their living rooms and are used to performing with such intimacy. 

That said, we are definitely keen to expand and have started to make plans in this. We’re keen to try some classical, as well as looking into trying out some ‘unplugged’ style concerts with pop and rock. We’re also really up for suggestions so if anyone has an artist they’d love to see play live to their living room then do contact us through the website and we’ll see what we can do.

Is there scope to grow the platform and audience numbers further?
The appetite seems to suggest there is definitely growth in it. We’re currently looking at teaming up with some other organisations to plan some programming ‘take-overs’, the idea being they’ll programme a series of concerts for us, potentially in different genres, bringing new audiences with it and hopefully creating new fans to this form. We’ve also got a few other ideas up our sleeves but I don’t want to give too much away at this stage!

Do you see the popularity of this concept remaining or growing beyond lockdown?
We certainly see longevity in the business. Some of the most interesting feedback we’ve had from audience members is from people who already struggled to access conventional gigs, that could be through physical or learning disabilities, Autism, mental health difficulties, young family, we have many North American viewers who are seeing acts who have never or rarely toured over there. Many of these viewers are crying out to access live music and are now able to, I think even as audiences return to venues, there are people out there who will continue to be excited by the opportunities online concerts offer. 

We’ve also had conversations with the artists and agents about this, and how the nature of our setup means we can schedule dates with a little less notice than physical venues meaning we’d be able to slot a virtual show into tours on what would otherwise be dead days. We’re excited about what the future holds.

What are your immediate plans and ambitions for the platform?
Right now we’re focused on getting the Live To Your Living Room brand and name out there and into peoples minds as a viable and enjoyable experience. We want to convince sceptics that it works, the sound quality is good and that the will enjoy themselves. We also take our responsibility as programmers seriously, of course its important to book artists audiences want to see and have strong followings, the nature of the business relies on selling tickets but we also think its really important to book new and up and coming acts, we want to make sure we are giving opportunities to developing artist and we hope we can build a loyal audience who are willing to trust what we program and give new names a try.

Pete Ord, is co-founder of Live To Your Living Room. For more information see https://livetoyourlivingroom.com/