Livestreaming in 2021: Driift, the company behind the Glastonbury livestream speaks alongside Paradigm, ATC

It’s springtime for the music industry, and the signs of renewal are everywhere.

The BRIT Awards is confirmed to go ahead with a live audience as part of the government’s Events Research Programme. And, while this summer’s festival season remains challenged, gigs – real, actual gigs – are being announced for the end of this year and throughout 2022, with tickets selling like the proverbial warmed-up gateaux.

But what about the format that got us through the long, hard, year-long Covid winter? Livestreaming began back at the start of Lockdown 1, as a spate of musicians took to social media platforms’ ‘Live’ function to play songs from their living rooms, usually for free and sometimes in their pyjamas.

From there, the medium experienced incredibly rapid growth; within months, the likes of Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa and Kylie Minogue were crafting online extravaganzas that went way beyond what ‘normal’ concerts could do.

And some of the numbers were huge too. Niall Horan shifted 125,000 tickets for his Royal Albert Hall livestream last year, while Dua Lipa’s stunning Studio 2054 event attracted over five million views.

Niall Horan during his Royal Albert Hall livestream Credit Conor McDonnell

So, as the live sector makes its first tentative steps back, where does that leave livestreams? Will the industry simply return to the old format of real gigs with ticket sales limited by capacity? Or can it craft a hybrid model whereby livestreaming helps it reach the parts of the planet that even the biggest world tour can’t?

“I don’t think there’s an obvious and immediate answer,” says Ric Salmon, CEO of ticketed livestreaming business Driift, which put on Horan’s blockbuster event and has also worked with the likes of Laura Marling and Birdy. “It goes without saying we all want live music to return. We never ever set Driift up as a replacement for that, it’s always been a new and additional format.

“It’s got to the stage now where, as a manager, you’d be mad not to consider factoring in some sort of collective livestream event in and around other activity, whether that’s an album release, a tour announcement or whatever,” he adds. “It feels like a very natural thing.”

Driift is also behind the Glastonbury Festival Live At Worthy Farm livestream happening on May 22/23 and starring the likes of Coldplay, Damon Albarn, Michael Kiwanuka and Haim. With Glastonbury’s unparalleled global appeal, it could become a watershed moment for the format. But its scheduling, on the first weekend that live venues are likely to be able to open under the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, drew criticism from the Music Venue Trust and several independent venues.

Salmon notes that the ambitious event was scheduled before the roadmap had been announced, but it shows the problems that might lie ahead as the two sectors attempt to co-exist.

“It’s a question of people in the industry looking at this with an open mind,” stresses Mike Malak, a booking agent with Paradigm who worked on Eilish’s groundbreaking Where Do We Go? The Livestream event, which incorporated VR, AR and XR elements. “If we embrace it versus trying to go back to the old model, this can be a Napster-like moment, in the sense that the live industry and artists will have a certain amount of protection and increased revenue streams. The potential is there to protect the live ecosystem with some passive income and shake it up a bit.”

Salmon says Driift has livestreams lined up until the end of this year and the start of 2022, showing the format isn’t going away any time soon, although Malak expects most artists booking tours for 2022 won’t consider livestream plans until plenty of tickets have been sold. But both expect a hybrid model to emerge, whereby touring revenues are topped up by offering geolocked livestreams from certain dates on a world tour, with the heavily choreographed spectaculars that have provided many of livestreaming’s most memorable moments reserved for special occasions.

“The alternative, pre-Covid, was doing an album launch party,” says Salmon. “With a high profile act you might do one in London, one in LA and one in New York – but the costs of doing those things, normally for a fairly small audience, seems like an odd, old-fashioned way of doing something, when you could set up an incredible live event and sell tickets to fans all around the world. It’s that kind of thinking that gives us confidence that this is a model that can exist even when life returns fully to normal.”

Some in the business, however, note how coronavirus seems to have permanently broken film’s cinema windowing system, with many future blockbusters likely to debut simultaneously on home streaming platforms. So could heavily marketed livestreams dissuade sections of the audience to stay at home rather than visiting their local venue, which will be desperate for revenues after a year without shows?

“People that love live music can’t wait to go to shows,” says Malak. “We’re already seeing that reflected in ticket sales. I can’t see it cannabilising [live], it just opens it up to people who live too far away, or can’t afford a ticket, or physically can’t get to a show. It opens the door to more people to be able to witness shows on a tour than ever before, and that’s a really good thing.”

Salmon points to sport, where TV subscriptions and pay-per-view often enhance fans’ desire to attend a match.

“You don’t stop buying tickets for the actual event because you’ve seen something on a livestream, it’s a different format,” says the exec, also a director at artist management firm ATC. “There are a huge number of music fans around the world who don’t get to go and see live music, and certainly don’t get to go and see their favourite bands. Even if you do a massive global tour, you’re only going through 60-70 cities – that’s a tiny subset of your fanbase.”

There remain several potential obstacles to livestreaming becoming a permanent fixture on the music landscape. Earlier this year, PRS For Music backed down from its livestream licensing tariff plans after a backlash, with revised proposals expected soon. And the technology itself still needs to improve – although Live Nation and livestreaming platform Veeps’ plans to equip 60 venues with a turnkey livestream solution suggests progress is being made.

But, as ever, if livestreaming is to succeed, the biggest problem may be getting all stakeholders to agree on the best way forward and, crucially, how the economics should work.

“I believe it will be a significant revenue stream,” says Mike Malak. “It took a pandemic for people to realise that artists making content and performing online, if they’re really investing their time and doing it to a certain level, is something you should pay for. In sport, it’s not an anomaly to pay to watch a game or a boxing match, same with other content, so why should music be excluded?”

“It would be mad to say that it’s going to be plain sailing,” sighs Ric Salmon. “It’s important that we all, as an industry, try and be as pragmatic as we can with these emerging sectors and models. What we definitely have to avoid is what we do time and time again in the music industry: wrap ourselves up in knots so that three, four or five years pass while everyone’s internally arguing. If that happens, we’ll all get left behind…”