Lockdown has led to a huge increase in livestreamed gigs, and even some virtual festivals. Could digital events become the new normal?
It started with a trickle, and then it became a flood. As the world has gradually gotten acquainted with being locked down and homebound, we have seen a proliferation of livestreamed gigs, performances and everything in between.
During Global Citizen’s One World: Together At Home concert, held on 18 April, £100m was raised for healthcare workers by a variety of celebrities and artists. It also afforded an unusual glimpse into the homes of the performers – John Legend sat rather tactically in front of a shelf containing not one but four Grammys, while Sir Elton John played the piano in his back garden.
This strange state of affairs is quickly becoming the new abnormal under Covid-19 quarantine. The world is receiving a crash course in video calling, live streaming and home working. Could it have a permanent impact upon the events industry, or will it be a soon-forgotten blip once we return to meeting face-to-face?
“The world is receiving a crash course in video calling, live streaming and home working.”
Perhaps the biggest and most bewildering news so far was the announcement that Burning Man would be going digital in 2020. The eccentric arts festival usually sees thousands of ‘Burners’ descending on the Nevada desert in August. This year, it is leaning into its ‘multiverse’ theme as the event’s organisers construct a virtual version of Black Rock City – one which will make all manner of art, workshops and bohemian strangeness accessible from viewers’ living rooms.
Speaking about the move to digital, Burning Man Project CEO Marian Goodell commented: “Burning Man is a movement. We’re not defined by one aspect of Burning Man – we are defined by what we bring to it. Burning Man is 100 community events around the world, on six continents. We look forward to inviting you to virtual Black Rock City. Black Rock City 2020 is in the multiverse – that is the theme, after all.”
The move might seem a surprising one, but it is less so when you consider that Burning Man is a festival which owes a huge creative debt to its community. Those who attend Burning Man are all encouraged, and in some cases required, to contribute to it. Because of this, the festival benefits from a wealth of creative expertise in making the move from the Nevada desert to the virtual world.
Building online communities
In many places where streaming has appeared as an alternate option to in-person events, the focus has been on community. In Manchester, for example, Parklife Founder and Nighttime Economy Adviser Sacha Lord has been promoting United We Stream, an online showcase of some of Manchester’s best performing talent.
The streaming platform has welcomed musicians, chefs and much more from across Manchester, raising funds for struggling venues through donations. It aims to create community spirit at the same time as providing a lifeline to those in the industry most affected by enforced lockdown.
Elsewhere, streaming has been popping up in unexpected places. The Royal Albert Hall is one of London’s most historic venues, dating back to 1871. As such, it might not be the first we think of when we talk about technological innovation. But the team at Royal Albert Hall has announced a series of livestreamed shows under the ‘Royal Albert Home’ banner. The shows, which are free but provide the option to donate to the venue, have welcomed artists including Rufus Wainwright and Baxter Dury.
Lucy Noble, Artistic Director at the Royal Albert Hall, said: “The Hall has always been a place where people come together at times of national crisis. Right now that isn’t possible, but we want to keep the venue’s spirit alive and provide something that will cheer you, inspire you or just distract you during this difficult time. “These events will reflect the diversity of the shows that we put on each month, allowing audiences not just to spend an evening with a favourite artist, but also to discover new favourites and try something different.”
A digital future
But do these initiatives signal a permanent shift towards digital? Jason Anderson, Digital Director at Avantgarde London, thinks they might. “There is an appetite for people to be involved in virtual spaces, but connecting to real people,” he says. “Covid-19 has the potential to shift the whole market in this direction: it might make people more comfortable with a purely online offering.”
While no one expects virtual gigs will replace real ones any time soon, the lockdown has proven that artists are willing to adapt, and viewers are willing to listen. Recorded music has been transitioning towards streaming for years, and the social experiment we are living through shows there is at least potential that the live sector could move in the same direction.
Virtual folk festivals (yes, that is a real thing) are an anomaly today, but with the speed the world is moving, they might not be tomorrow. As ever, it will be the companies which are quickest to adapt, not which have the most money, that will reap the rewards of a digital future.