Canadian-based live event platform Side Door was set to make its big launch in the U.S. at this year's South by Southwest, when the annual Austin festival was canceled in early March. Side Door, which matches artists with unconventional venues for live shows, saw its entire slate of concerts upended before co-founder and artist Dan Mangan decided to host an online show via Zoom.
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"After a week of feeling completely hopeless, I was in the virtual audience of [Dan's] show and it felt for the first time like we could create community online, which was extraordinary," says Side Door co-founder and CEO Laura Simpson. "It was a completely different experience than what I had had watching Instagram lives or Facebook lives. We had put a ticket on the show and people were staying the whole time."
Simpson says the March 21 ticketed livestream ended in a virtual audience sing-a-long with requests following for a group chat room function at future performances. On Thursday (April 2), Side Door announced the launch of its ticketed private, streaming events as a means to generate revenue for artists. Tickets so far range from $5-$35 and the platform is not currently taking any cut of profits.
"Right away we knew there was something there, so we started to make the formal changes to the platform," Simpson says. "What we found in our transition was that we can absolutely stick to our values and our mission to serve artists and create shows anytime, anywhere and move everything online."
While many artists have been hosting free livestreams on social media or via other platforms, companies like Side Door, StageIt and Looped have also stepped up to help artists capture revenue from their performances as the COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out artists' touring revenues.
"The music industry is getting hit really hard by all this and there are lots of fans out there who want to support the artists," Looped CEO Prajit Gopal tells Billboard. "I don’t think it is super difficult for artists to ask fans to pay for a livestream, especially since it is something that the fans want. In these times, entertainment is something everybody is looking for. There are a lot of great options to do things for free and there are a lot of great options to do things that are paid. Which one you choose to do depends on the artist."
Looped had primarily served as a virtual meet-and-greet platform between artists and fans until Wednesday, when the platform enabled those same artists to invite their super fans to ticketed livestreaming shows. Now, via the app, fans can log in and "hang out" in a virtual venue complete with merch links, fan questionnaires and the ability to chat with other "concertgoers." Tickets typically range from $5-$30 and Looped takes a 20% cut of profits.
"This company was built by managers and people in the business and the idea behind the tech is that it has to be an amazing experience for the fan and it needs to be really easy to use and to set up for the artist," Gopal says, adding that everything about the ticketed livestreams is customizable for artists.
They can set the price of the general admission ticket, add links and videos to the virtual venue and can still capture additional revenue by setting up digital meet and greets before and after performances.
"One of the coolest things for me to see is the way that people are using it as a surprise and delight or using it to raise money or just to have that human connection when everyone is just sitting at home all day. It is really cool and necessary," Gopal says. "In the best of times, getting to spend time with one of your heroes is amazing. But in times like now, it is something really special."
"Artists have given away everything for free except for touring or live shows. It was not deliberately, it was forced upon them. They are losing revenue left, right and center and now this is the last straw," Simpson says. "If you can’t build a way to create value for the audience to pay for that experience, then the donations are going to dwindle, the artists are going to hit the poverty line and we are going to have a real crisis on our hands. Our mission is so imperative right now to support the artists in a meaningful way."
Online venue StageIt has been in the business of monetizing livestreams since 2011 with artists including Jon Bon Jovi, Common, Jason Mraz, Bonnie Raitt and many more using the platform. Since the COVID-19 pandemic brought live touring to a standstill, StageIt founder and CEO Evan Lowenstein says the company has gone from a busy month being roughly 450 shows to getting anywhere between 30-40 shows per day -- making for 900-1,200 shows per month -- with tickets averaging $10 each, offering fans the option to donate more. StageIt's cut is 20% of profits.
"Some people are like, 'This is your moment,' and I'm like, 'This not my moment. This is our company's opportunity to help people in need,'" Lowenstein tells Billboard. "Right now there's several things happening: People are at home with a lot more time on their hands and there's so much binging. People are concerned and in a position to support their favorite artists. Artists write the soundtrack to our lives and now they're struggling, so fans take a different course of action. Even if it's not convenient for them at times, you're looking at fans who are making every effort to be there. They're leaving $30 in tips for the artist. We're seeing that type of behavior."
Lowenstein says the livestreams are bringing in some of the highest numbers they have regularly seen for the artists and admits that those musicians who are livestreaming for free "are leaving money on the table." He adds that StageIt is encouraging artists to charge for the livestreams, even if the money is going to charities or to help local bars, venues and restaurants.
"Don't play for free," he says. "When these established artists play for free, it really undermines artists who are asking fans for money, because they say, 'How come so-and-so is playing for free and you're charging us money?'"
According to StageIt numbers, the monetization of livestreams has been an upward trend for many years with fans paying on average $16.50 for a 30-min experience, up from $3.75 in 2011.
"I think we're going to benefit tremendously by [working with] artists who are forced to benefit and are going to realize this is not just a form of crisis communication this is absolutely a valid and incredible way to connect with fans on an ongoing basis and something they're going to do more often," says Lowenstein. "You're going to see a big change in how that all works."
Side Door's Simpson agrees that, while there is no replacement for live shows, growth in ticketed livestreams now will benefit the industry beyond the pandemic.
"I think it is really important to continue to form relationships. Every time these people get to have an online experience with an artist, there is an opportunity on the other side to book an actual show," Simpson says.
She adds, "People are going to be a little wary of going to huge festivals after this. I don’t think it is going to go from zero to 100,000."