Nothing can beat the feeling of the moment when the lights go down and the music starts at a sold-out concert in a packed club full of screaming fans. But with many music venues closed for the foreseeable future, or limiting capacities to safely adhere to physical distancing measures, the concert industry is adapting to the times. Streaming concerts have quickly emerged as a temporary band-aid for a fraught, challenging era — and as a new avenue for live music that may live on even when the fans return.
Some venues are getting creative by bringing the music back into their venues, just without audiences, livestreaming shows with the same high-quality audio you’d expect in the room and video to match. It’s also a way for venues and promoters to reach a new audience outside of their market.
“There’s no replacement for being there in person,” says Gilad Gershoni, the founder of full-service streaming agency Elevated Stream and the longtime soundman for innovative hip-hop trio De La Soul. “I don’t think there ever will be. For now, this is the next best thing.”
For venues who want to up their streaming game — to make a livestreamed concert look and sound just like being there — here are some tips for what you need to do it right.
Optimize your streaming plan
First, venue owners should consider what their goals are. Do you want to just dip your toes in the streaming waters for now? Do you need help figuring out the technical side of things? Do you want a “set it and forget it” approach? Or do you want to retrofit your venue with cameras and software that will allow you to stream at-will — with or without fans in attendance?
You’ll need to consider budgets, staffing, how often you plan to stream, and what platform(s) you’ll use. Will you charge admission fees with tickets or ask for donations (both of which are possible on Eventbrite)? A good place to start is by consulting with the Bay Area-based agency Elevated Stream, which launched earlier this year, pre-pandemic.
“What we aim to do is help people elevate their professionalism and the broadcasting capabilities, and, obviously, navigate through something that is new and maybe unfamiliar for many,” says Gershoni, who has also worked on Twitter’s Thursday night NFL streams. “I’ve been trying to help the industry innovate and adopt and allow people to consume content that they may otherwise not be able to do.”
Elevated Stream offers a number of solutions that can help a venue get started with streaming: consultation on projects and productions, self-service kits for home or remote broadcasting, and full-service venue solutions.
“We even have virtual remote control rooms where we can bring in different remote guests and create a whole experience around that broadcast,” Gershoni says, meaning Elevated Stream can mail out a stream kit and produce the stream from a remote location for a venue that wants to just try streaming out. “Part of our consulting is really understanding what the goals and objectives are for a creator.”
Make your stream look good
Venues that really want to embrace streaming will need to purchase equipment and train staff on how to run it. While you could just set an old iPhone up on a tripod at the soundboard or in the middle of the dance floor, a static image isn’t going to result in the most engaging stream — no matter how good the music onstage is. Instead, venues will want to look into purchasing a camera or two: ideally a PTZ, or Pan-Tilt-Zoom camera, which can be controlled remotely to pan around the room, tilt to get different angles, or zoom in on the lead guitarist mid-solo.
Joe Lapan, co-owner of the bar, restaurant, record store, and music venue Songbyrd Music House and Record Cafe in Washington, DC, recently retrofitted his 200-capacity basement venue (affectionately dubbed the Byrd Cage) for streaming. To promote the venue’s first livestream on July 1, Songbyrd partnered with the music website Spin and registered attendees on Eventbrite, broadcasting through Twitch with two mounted PTZ cameras.
“We can supplement that with a mobile camera — either from a phone or from another high quality camera — with somebody moving around,” Lapan says. “The idea is to make it simple but interesting enough. You can use presets with the PTZ cameras the same way you would with a lighting show — you can plan your switches.”
The PTZ cameras, which can be automated or manually controlled via remote, also help limit the amount of personnel needed on-site, paramount during the era of social distancing.
“If you want to take it one step further, you can have somebody really dialing in the aperture and all the nuances of making the shot, the coloring, and all the textures that you’re pulling from that camera look good,” Gershoni says. “There’s a plethora of ways to get started. This is something that Elevated Stream really helps with: identifying a budget and what gear is going to allow you to be successful.”
Gershoni recommends that those new to streaming start with one PTZ camera to get familiar with it, before adding more. “With somebody starting off, a wide shot is going to be very tasteful,” he adds.
Urquhart A/V founder Will Urquhart, a DC-based audio video specialist who’s regularly livestreamed concerts from such DC music venues as the 9:30 Club, Union Stage, and Pearl Street Warehouse for the blog DC Music Review, has found success with the tiny but powerful cameras made by Zoom (not to be confused with the video chat platform).
“If I were setting up at a venue, I would get wall-mounted, remote-controlled cameras that can work on a system,” Urquhart says. “You get two or three of those and then you can really do some nice looking shots. And you’re not having to set up every single time. Show up, turn it on, and it’s ready.”
Ultimately, a venue’s video capabilities come down to budget.
“Just like it requires an investment to do nice sound, it requires an investment to do nice video streams,” Urquhart says. “So you have to decide how much is that worth to you.”
Make your stream sound good
The biggest downside to live-streamed concerts is often the audio. Many of them, especially those staged out of bedrooms and living rooms on Instagram Live, don’t capture the full range of sound from a live performance in its best light. This is one area where venues have a distinct advantage.
“If the venue already has sound equipment, leveraging that is key,” Gershoni says. “Having a sound engineer to manage all the different levels is obviously going to make the production that much better.”
Because venues are already equipped with a soundboard and mixer, they can broadcast the direct soundboard feed.
“Since we’re doing it out of the venue, we’re utilizing our existing soundboard feed,” Lapan says. “So it’s the same mix that you’d be hearing if you were at the show. That’s part of the reason for trying to take music back to venues or studios. There’s always challenges with sound, but I’m set up with professional-grade equipment and professional-grade mixers and boards to receive a high-quality sound.”
Urquhart is running the video and audio feeds for a drive-in concert series at Crescendo Studios in Falls Church, VA, where the band plays inside the studio and the audio is beamed via FM transmitter to car stereos as a crowd in the parking lot watches a video stream on a big screen.
“They have monitors out for the musicians, but there’s no speakers,” Urquhart says. “The musicians get their monitor mix, and then it’s being mixed purely for the stream. What’s really helpful is to have someone outside of the room who’s not hearing any of the monitor mixes, checking it out and giving you feedback. That can even be someone at home watching the live stream. You want them to check out how it sounds on a phone but also on a speaker system.”
Do sweat the technical details
Running a high-quality livestream from a venue isn’t as simple as plugging in the instruments, turning on the camera, and going live. You need a computer to act as a receiver for the video and audio feeds and software to broadcast the stream to different video streaming platforms — sometimes several simultaneously.
But before you do any streaming, make sure you have fast, reliable internet speeds.
“You need powerful internet,” Urquhart says. “Ideally, you don’t want to be working off wireless, you want to run a hardline Ethernet cable because it’ll be much more reliable.”
Both Urquhart and Gershoni recommended consistent upload speeds of at least 10 Mbps (you can use speedtest.net to run tests) so you don’t run into any buffering issues.
Software options for powering and broadcasting the stream itself run the gamut from simple online solutions to more advanced (and paid) software. “There’s many infrastructure solutions out there that are easy and they’re meant to be easy, but they have a lot of capabilities,” Gershoni says.
“I use OBS (Open Broadcast Software), which is free,” Urquhart says. (So does Lapan at Songbyrd.) “It’s phenomenal, and once you get really comfortable with it, you can do some really complicated things. Wirecast is an industry standard that a lot of people like and it’s got some more transitions and things like that.”
You’ll also need an HDMI capture converter to plug your camera into your computer via USB “to convert the signal into something your computer can read,” Urquhart notes, adding that you may also need an HDMI switcher if opting to use multiple cameras.
From there, to stream to multiple platforms — such as Facebook, YouTube, or Twitch — you’ll need that platform’s RTMP URL and stream key. Thankfully, a paid program like restream.io makes it easy to split the signal and send to multiple platforms. “That is a very reliable solution and one that relieves pressure on bandwidth at your location, and also allows you to stream to many many destinations,” Gershoni says.
Once you get comfortable with streaming and the software, you can customize what your stream looks like, with graphic overlays, sponsorship opportunities, and more.
“Think about the experience that the end user is going to have,” Gershoni says. “There’s a lot to play with, whether it’s static graphics or motion graphics. You can think of it like a news network, like you’re designing an overall event experience.”
There’s a learning curve inherent with streaming that can be daunting, but the technology is still evolving — even the experts are constantly learning new things. Being willing to adapt to the unexpected and try new things are crucial to developing a successful streaming program.
“Live streaming is still sort of a wild west,” Urquhart says. “Stuff changes all the time, it’s something you need to be prepared for. The fact that so many people have learned how to stream is a really cool thing. We’re gonna come out of this with more ability, more talent involved in streaming, and a lot more knowledge about it.”
Ready to stream an online concert? Start here.