This week saw the Uncancelled Music Festival from the Hotel Café in Hollywood and the Rockwood Music Hall, both on Stageit.com, which is a paywall livestream platform that takes a percentage of the ticket price (usually 35% but reduced to 20% during the Covid emergency). Other artists such as finger-picking guitarist Stevie Coyle hosted live stream shows on Stageit.com this week, collecting money and making a lot of people happy. Here in Mexico, Ray Domenech produces live stream jazz concerts on Facebook Live 3 or 4 nights a week in his Hoping for the Best Tour, with a 50 peso ($1.80) ticket price.
A quick perusal of Stageit.com and other pay for performance live stream sites show that artists like Bonnie Raitt, Jason Marz, Bon Jovi, Lisa Loeb, and Cottonmouth Kings are livestreaming behind a paywall, earning money while their tours and events are cancelled or postponed. But my inbox is deluged every day with announcements of livestream concerts that are free. Sites like Billboard, CNET, and even the Grammys are posting lists of free livestreams and concert videos of livestreams on YouTube, Facebook Live and Instagram Live.
While I love the idea of seeing my favorite or new-to-me artists live online and putting up hearts and emojis of the performance while I meet new people in the Comments, I worry that the music industry, or at least music artists, are falling into the same trap that engulfed them when digital music swamped the internet and CD sales: they are training the audience to expect free live concerts.
Who wouldn’t love the idea of sitting on their couch with a margarita or something to smoke, cuddling with their partner while watching one free livestreamed basement concert after another by stars big and small. Hey, binge-watching live music is a new thing and people love it. But at some point musicians have to get paid. If I can find dozens of free livestreams, and the production quality of the free concerts isn’t much different from the production quality of the paid concerts, why would I pay unless it is a friend or a artist I really love. And given the explosion of free livestreams by top artists, even then I don’t have to pay.
All this adds up to a repeat of the free music movement that began with Napster. Eventually that movement produced into the likes of Spotify and Pandora and other platforms which provide music to the listener for free and pay the artists miniscule amounts for each song streamed while they make millions from advertising, premium streams and marketing deals. Corporate aggregators became the gatekeepers of music because Napster and later platforms had trained listeners to expect music for free.
I fear we are starting the same process with livestreaming. People like livestreaming. Many people would much rather hang with friends at home while watching Waxahatchee at the Uncancelled Music Festival for a few dollars instead of paying $50-$100 or more for a music festival that makes them stand in line to get in, to get beer, to get food and to get to the bathroom. Live streaming is here to stay; when the Coronavirus lockdowns are over and live music starts up again, live streaming will be an important player in the music ecosystem. Concerts won’t go away, but their audiences will have another option and many people will take it.
What worries me is that those audiences will demand that live streams be free and the corporate platforms will deliver by giving pennies to the artists, interrupting music with advertising, and once again becoming music’s gatekeepers – even for shows from your bedroom that you can do yourself without them.
So what to do?. I think there should be no free livestreams. If an artist puts her work out there for an audience to enjoy, they should pay for it. I know many will say that a paywall – even for a few cents – will limit viewers. But 50 viewers who pay a dollar are better than 200 who pay nothing and never will. This doesn’t mean that you have to allow Stageit.com or other pay platforms to gatekeep. Artists can set up a Facebook Live concert with a PayPal-generated invitation to a private group – fans pay a dollar or two, get invited to the private group where the concert is playing. No fees to Facebook and only a few cents to PayPal. And the artist is in control. Venmo is another alternative.
People will come up with other ways to get paid, either with electronic tip jars, Patreon subscriptions, or things we have not thought of. This is not say that the big paywall platforms should not exist or even that they are bad; they aren’t. They are part of the livestream revolution and they have an important role to play and have been a boon to people who have been using them long before the Covid lockdown. And there is nothing wrong with their creators and investors making money; that is what makes it work. But we learned from the digital revolution that without competition – other ways for artists to get their music out and get paid fairly for it — the gatekeepers will take advantage of them.
The livestream revolution is still early enough for songwriters and musicians to take control, create competition to the gatekeepers, and demand that their music be paid for and paid for well.
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