Floating In The Livestream: Looking Back On A Year Of Online Gigs

This year has been the single-most significant experiment with new modes of performance in the Australian music industry’s history. Was it all a trend of necessity, or are we looking at a new future?

For many in Australia, our first introduction to livestream concerts was the homespun Instagram festival Isol-Aid in mid-March – I vividly remember tuning in for Julia Jacklin's set, which like many others, began with hesitation: "Hmmm...I guess this is working...I'm just gonna play some songs". Jacklin, flushed ("I think I have a heat rash on my face from nerves and whiskey"), lifted her guitar into frame and told the thousands of invisible viewers she would play her song "Comfort". And it began:  

"You'll be okay/You'll be alright/You'll get well soon/Sleep through the night/You'll go outside/Enjoy the sun/Soon you'll feel fine to see everyone"

As Jacklin's voice soared with the topical reassurances, the peaks of her voice rattled in the phone speaker. Jokes about acting out the rituals of physical live music ran in the comment feed – "I'll grab you a beer Julia!" – but when the songs finished, Jacklin noted the biggest anomaly: "Silence. I don't really know what to say...or do?".

Six months later, pop star Dua Lipa would spend $1.5 million on her livestream, Studio 2054 – featuring a swathe of custom-built dancefloor sets and Elton John, Miley Cyrus, Kylie Minogue, FKA Twigs and many more. It was watched by over 5 million people from around the world – coronavirus restrictions irrelevant. Awkwardness didn't enter the room – Lipa's intent was not to make you come to terms with the pandemic but to forget it was happening in a dance fantasia.

We've had half a year to hone online performance – and we're yet to find a happy medium between the two. The novelty of phone-filmed Instagram sets and the emotional fragility everyone sat with in March was enough to induce tears, but it didn't take long before it was hard to muster interest. Acoustic guitars and cover songs were trite and flat, and if anything, they only emphasised how terrible it was to lack the real thing. Expensive and bombastic event streams like Lipa's are a tilt in the other direction, but they're glorified concert films. To help find out where we go from here, it's worth looking back at how livestreams evolved this year.

Penny for your streams

The first hurdle for livestreams was monetisation. Initially, benevolent events like Isol-Aid either donated to music crisis charities like Support Act or they were run by brands to raise awareness for musicians' plight. But it was hard for artists without income to stomach playing for free or a nominal fee, simply to appease hungry punters. The problem moving forward was motivating casual concert-watchers to pay for what they had already been enjoying for free. The shift was gradual – singer-songwriter Kira Puru pointed out on Twitter in early April that livestreams had the potential for artist's to both undervalue their own work, and "diminish the value of your craft industry-wide".

"HOW do we as a creative community move through these times, access our audiences, do all of this, while best preserving the value of our work/product and continue to make a living?" she asked.

"We should be considering how our individual choices now [affect] the broader community/industry and make choices that can serve the long term as much as possible. Like let's move with the times and yeah, let's paywall the premium content. Not ALL content."

The drudgery of free livestreams arguably peaked with Music From The Homefront – a virtual and TV broadcast concert to doubly commemorate ANZAC Day and the efforts of frontline workers during the pandemic. Its interminable three and a half hour runtime – headlined by populist milquetoast like Guy Sebastian, Ben Lee, Tones and I – couldn't shake a miserable tone, failing the intended uplifting function – its promotion infatuated with the apparent benevolence of music industry kingpin Michael Gudinski, head of Mushroom Music, who conceived it.

Zooming out

Some initiatives in Australia began to edge towards ticketed livestreams – initiatives like Delivered Live saw bands perform from empty venues, with the purchase of virtual tickets optional, but strongly encouraged. While production values were low – mixing was ad-hoc and tinny – the sympathy donations were sizable ($40,000 for its inaugural event). 

But the idea that paying for a livestream in Australia was worthwhile beyond a charitable offering didn't take hold until the premiere of Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace. The performance was the first to create beauty out of the very fabric of isolation – Cave a solitary figure in a black suit, singing songs from across his entire back catalogue while sitting at a piano at the centre of a cavernous warehouse. Its exclusive late evening once-only airing (with restrictions easing across Australia, it's now getting a cinema run) made the livestream a bonafide event for the first time.

Cave's film was also previewed on the next biggest innovation in Australia's performance pivot – ABC's The Sound. The television show bettered the previous attempt at getting Australian music back on the small screen (The Set) last year, by not contriving a triple j-aping house party vibe – each episode is a simple array of artfully filmed performances from a variety of artists in unique settings: opera houses, rooftops, planetariums and more. The Sound followed the model of US Late Shows, making the individual performances highly watchable online, even if most miss the broadcast. 

The stream must go on

With physical live music both allowed and safe for 2021, Australia will now be a test case worldwide for how online performance can co-exist. The most likely situation is a split between "event" livestreams like Lipa's and more oblique forays into new technology. 

Isol-Aid has again made the first and most daring post-pandemic-ready pivot by announcing a partnership with TikTok for next year – what that looks like remains to be seen. The only promise thus far from the online festival is "more creativity, more content and more collaboration…[with] expanded opportunities for artists to explore creative collaboration and reach new audiences". This direction is a bridge away from plain livestream performance, as has been Isol-Aid's bread and butter, towards online content creation. 

The responsive nature of trends on TikTok means artists could use Isol-Aid as a centralised account to churn out quick covers, or even attempt to set dance trends with independent music that is yet to have a moment on the idiosyncratic platform. The idea of creating hype around Australian indie on TikTok accords with the recent appointment of former triple j Content Director Ollie Wards to be the app's head of music in Australia and New Zealand earlier this year.

But there's a more likely linear livestream performance option waiting in the wings. Back in May, an Australian ticketed livestream platform, At Yours, announced its intention to launch imminently. The service's planned operation would see organisers sell tickets through the platform to audiences in Australia and New Zealand, who would then upload audio and vision exclusively to the service for ticket holders to consume. Interestingly, At Yours was reportedly in development prior to the pandemic, though it was reframed as a means for artists to make money – "We started this because the live arts is a business, not a charity case," a press release from project leader Hew Sandison read.

Speaking to Sandison via email upon its announcement, he said that they intended At Yours "to remain useful long after COVID-19", as they had ongoing discussions with APRA AMCOS – Australia's music publishing rights body. The price structure and service fees remained up in the air, as they took expressions of interest. There has been little activity on the site since, but the platform has at least one foreseeable role: streaming physical shows. 

In the limited-capacity and high-demand pre-vaccine period, many artists are opting to also stream a recording of their shows to fans who still miss out – former Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds member Mick Harvey, for example, will offer a cheaper virtual ticket to his gig at the Memo Music Hall in Melbourne on January 16. Benee, the Kiwi teen pop wunderkind, did the same in October for her sold-out arena shows in COVID-free New Zealand, and it's this model that shows a path for high quality livestream platforms like At Yours in the future. Fans who miss out on coveted blockbuster shows for any number of reasons – lack of tickets, funds or accessibility – will happily pay a nominal fee to still witness the action from home.

In less cynical, capitalistic terms, the accelerated development and popularisation of the livestream has also led to community-minded initiatives. Electronic producers in Australia like Eilish Gilligan and Aphir made their music-making open-source – regularly taking to Twitch to live-mix and master tracks, and talk through their process. Tim Shiel – triple and Double j presenter and founder of artist-run label Spirit Level – has set up a Discord channel for his label in which serious and not-so serious music chatter can be had anytime of day.

The rapid proliferation of the livestream has the potential to both be a more intimate and accessible way to engage with music of all kinds. In this period of transition, we're already forced to distinguish between "physical" and "online" live music. It's just going to get weirder from here.

Written by Josh Martin, a Melbourne-based freelance music and media writer with words in MTV Australia, NME, Junkee, Crikey, etc. Follow him on Twitter @joshuamartjourn.

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