For 383 days and counting, Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern have stuck to a routine. At 1:00 p.m., they suit up—sometimes in sweatpants, sometimes in tropical-print shirts and funky robes—and descend to the living room of their Miami home, flick on the cameras for their livestreams to Instagram, Facebook and Twitch, and begin playing a DJ set. The pair, better known as Grammy-nominated electronic act Sofi Tukker, have not missed a day, although sometimes they ask their friends to guest star instead. The livestream sessions average thousands of viewers. There’s an always-on Zoom room where their fans, who call themselves the Freak Fam, congregate. The Freak Fam—an eclectic, international bunch—have set up their own Discord server and an Instagram account, and talk often on the Facebook group and Twitch chat associated with Sofi Tukker, congregating as a community outside of the stream. Sofi Tukker livestream viewers have met up, started dating, worked through health crises together, gotten married. Carly Reeves, a 20-year-old college student in Florida, made new best friends around the world in the Zoom room: in Paris, in Costa Rica, in Italy. Long a Sofi Tukker fan, she started tuning in to the DJ sets as workout motivation. Now it’s also her social life.
Hawley-Weld and Halpern have kept sharing their music, waiting for the day they return to the festival stages and energetic live sets that kicked off their career in 2014. “People were literally relying on this for their health. And honestly, so were we,” Halpern says, referring to the way the livestream has anchored their days and kept their mental health in balance. “It was definitely counterintuitive that we felt more connected to people not actually being with them.”
With 16% of the U.S. population now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and predictions that a majority will be vaccinated by summer, the future of virtual concerts—and the communities that have formed around them—hovers in limbo. But even as music fans begin venturing back out to local venues, Hawley-Weld isn’t ready to let their online community go. “There’s a 100% chance it will be incorporated into our lives going forward,” she says.
Community at scale
In 2019, the live music industry was worth over $20 billion, a rich ecosystem of artists, venues, ticket sellers, production companies, vendors and travel operations. But over the past year, nearly every in-person music venue around the world has been silent, and virtual concerts and livestreaming have become the default. In the void, artists and producers like Sofi Tukker, Timbaland and Swizz Beatz, Dua Lipa, BTS and countless others have tried to find other ways to keep the show going. See: the Verzuz hip-hop and R&B battles that lit up Instagram with millions of viewers; Dua Lipa’s series of Studio 2054 shows in November that served as both an album celebration and a must-watch concert; and BTS’s record-breaking pay-per-view concert, aired in October, that sold around a million tickets. Ali Rivera, Head of Live Music and West Coast Artist Relations for YouTube, says that YouTube saw over half a million channels livestream something for the first time over the past year, while the watchtime of live music performances on TV screens doubled, showing a significant increase in viewers’ appetites. The result has been the growth and adoption of technologies and platforms, like Twitch, Yoop, Restream, Moment House and First Tube Media, that bridge the gap between live concerts and virtual music streaming.
While many of these livestreams are more intimate experiences that don’t compete with the size of festival crowds—Sofi Tukker used to perform ecstatic sets in São Paulo and Mexico City to hundreds of thousands of people at a time—the consistency and community has its upsides. Plus, for major sponsored livestream programs, the reach is well beyond a normal event: about 17 million people tuned in to Bud Light Seltzer’s New Year’s Eve show, featuring artists like Post Malone, Steve Aoki and Saweetie. And every one of those online viewers is a potential future ticket buyer, easily retargeted when live shows return.
The case of Verzuz
Hawley-Weld and Halpern were early with their commitment to pandemic livestreams, but they were not alone. Yo-Yo Ma started sharing cello solos he called “Songs of Comfort” during early pandemic days. Andrea Bocelli, the famous opera star, streamed live from the Duomo Milano on last year’s Easter Sunday to an audience of nearly 3 million viewers—racking up 28 million views in just a day, according to YouTube.
And the livestream future came into sharper focus when Timbaland and Swizz Beatz, legends in the hip-hop world, decided to put together the first “Verzuz” battle against each other, shared over Instagram live in March 2020. They followed that up with musical face-offs between artists like Teddy Riley and Babyface, and Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. The battles racked up as many six million live viewers at a time, easily besting marquee events like that Bocelli concert in Milan. (They also worked out a partnership with Apple Music in June that helped increase quality of the streaming and production. While Verzuz is currently free to watch, they are sponsored by vodka brand Ciroc.)
For viewer Amanda Murray, a British brand consultant based in Brooklyn, New York, Verzuz was a quarantine game changer for her own state of mind. The self-professed number-one fan of Verzuz, Murray normally considers herself “snobbish” about shows. But the Verzuz performers? Those were the people she would have sought out regardless of the pandemic. “I loved hearing these songs that people didn’t realize [these artists] were a part of. The history in between, it really added a narrative other than just being a battle. I was sold; that was it for me,” she says. Plus, it shined a spotlight on Black creators. “Even when the panini is over,” she added, referring to the pandemic with a nickname, “I will be tuned in.”
That’s certainly what Timbaland and Swizz Beatz are hoping for. Artists often livestreamed special releases as part of their promotional schedules in the past, but now it’s the main event, and finding a way to incorporate that back into the concert ecosystem will be this year’s challenge. “We’re going to have a hybrid of both live and digital because as you can see the way the world is going,” says Timbaland. “We still like to go out, but this gives us an option.” Ian LaPlace, a former venue booker and co-founder and head of talent at First Tube Media, a branded live event content platform, sees significant financial upsides for the music industry, too. “It completely eclipsed anything that was lost, for sure,” he says about the work he’s undertaken during the pandemic. “We’d been livestreaming for two-and-a-half years with brands and doing live content programs, and this accelerated the adoption of livestreaming for everyone online, from consumers to publishers.” (Of course, livestream opportunities only make up a small percentage of employment in the overall live music industry; his business was in the right place at the right time.)
In mid-March 2021, Triller, a TikTok competitor, acquired Verzuz. As part of the deal, each of the 43 artists who have appeared on Verzuz so far received equity. What shape the new Verzuz Triller program takes remains to be seen—their events through May will continue to stream live on both Instagram and Triller—but they are clear on one thing: just because the pandemic is winding down does not mean Verzuz is going anywhere. “We’ve just been warming up and putting a footprint in the space of celebrating the creators, period,” Swizz says. “Most people look at it as the live space; we look at it as a creative space that people are able to see live.” They see a future involving sports and comedy battles, not just music. In late March, for instance, they announced a Peloton partnership. “It’s our job to build a bigger ecosystem that embraces everyone that wants to do something creative and challenging and celebratory,” he says. Verzuz was built in quarantine, but the real-life potential for shows and events is boundless. Murray also predicts that the format will expand beyond just Verzuz. “The real unique opportunity here is for artists to use that format in engaging with their audience one to one,” she says. “I wonder how many record companies are going to use that and do it singularly without the Verzuz machine.”
Why livestreaming will persist
Even as the pandemic’s end comes into sight, livestream music event programming is ramping up. In the space of about a week in March, for example, you could jump into a livestreamed private release event for boy band PRETTYMUCH, watch British rock star Yungblud jam with Avril Lavigne on a YouTube livestream raising money for the National Independent Venue Association and tune in to see Khalid and CL perform during a fashion show streamed on TikTok. “Artists are getting more comfortable virtually,” says YouTube’s Rivera. A number of artists—from Bocelli and his Easter Sunday stream to Brazilian and Latin stars, who are some of the most popular on YouTube—broke livestream records easily. (YouTube also helped the National Independent Venue Association raise over $2 million with a benefit concert, Save Our Stages (SOS) Fest, to support those same venues that have been shut down all year.) “We’ve been focused on being this virtual venue for the world, and we want to continue those efforts,” Rivera says about the post-pandemic future.
Rivera’s vision of livestreaming as a natural part of every event is a future that LaPlace, of First Tube, can see clearly. “I think realistically in the next six months we see more livestreams and people doubling down and digging into the interactivity of them to create more in-depth digital experiences,” he says. “The last thing we haven’t seen that we will start to see is smaller, private virtual experiences—like a three-song acoustic Justin Bieber set, and only 1,000 people can get in.”
LaPlace works closely with brands to maximize their partnerships with artists. Livestreams, he says, have been a huge boon for both. “Brands have an opportunity to own content and become publishers of their own live content. That’s where we’ve found a lot of success: unlocking major brand dollars to pay artists.” In the past, brands would spend millions on festival sponsorships; now, they bypass the sponsorship middleman to go straight to the artists themselves. “We’ve worked with probably 100 different artists since this year started, and been able to pay them all substantial money,” he says; they have been able to compensate artists as much—and sometimes more—than they would make for a normal show. But he cautions there is one downside: when they’re paying a lot of money for online attention, it’s big names they want, not emerging talent. “The money has increased,” he says, “but it flows to the top.”
Since President Biden announced that all U.S. adults would be eligible for vaccination by the end of May, small outdoor shows and events have started popping up on calendars. The ticketing giant Live Nation has predicted that large-scale shows will be back on track by summer 2021; London’s summer festivals are already selling hundreds of thousands of tickets. But the return of live music doesn’t have to be the death knell of virtual events. LaPlace is building a live performance series leading into festivals that will blend the two, creating branded content programs where, for instance, a fan can scan a code at an event that will give them further access to the artist who is playing. And livestreaming a live concert concurrently can multiply the audience, and bring in fans around the world.
Communities like Verzuz’s fans and Sofi Tukker’s Freak Fam don’t think they’ll dissipate when live events return. Even though Carly Reeves and her new friends haven’t met in person—yet—she can’t wait for the festivals that will inevitably bring them together. “It can only become closer and stronger,” Reeves says of their online community; already, a group are planning to meet at Outside Lands in California this fall. “I don’t see the Freak Fam going anywhere any time soon.” No matter how the livestream future unfolds for the artists themselves, the virtual experience for their fans will take on a life of its own.