Jazz in the time of Coronavirus: a model for live-streaming gigs
Jazz pianist Sam Leak draws on the experience of performing an online concert for ‘The Lescar’ to argue a case for private, ticketed livestreams whilst we are in lockdown.
When news came out that the UK was entering a lockdown to contain the Coronavirus, one of the many thoughts and concerns that hit the Jazz community was 'how are musicians and venues going to stay afloat with all of the gigs cancelled?' Similarly, we grew sad as it dawned on us that we, people that derive so much of our pleasure in life from playing music to appreciative audiences, weren't going to have another performance opportunity for some time.
So what was going to be the next step? Musicians were quick to realise that live-streaming (watching live performance footage through the internet) was the best next available alternative to a gig. Discussions were initiated about how we might perform online as groups, and the search began to find the best platform for immediate, real-time, interactive group performances. Sadly the search came to a crashing halt when we discovered that the laws of physics rendered latency-free (time-lag free) internet streaming completely impossible. So what now? Other than for musicians locked-down with other musicians, and with none of us being content with semi-live-streamed performances (for example, one musician interacting with the latency-ridden, non-interactive performance of another), we were going to have to embrace the live-streamed solo performance. As one musician remarked 'when we're done with lockdown it's going to be the time of the solo album!' Okay, we thought, we'll do this – we'll make the best of a less-than-ideal situation.
Then, as I considered how much it would be reasonable to charge for an online concert, I noticed a great many of my musician friends were also putting up shows, but for free!
Now, this isn't surprising when you get yourself into the mindset of a Jazz musician. Charles Umney and Lefteris Kretsos, in a study on the working lives of London Jazz musicians, noted that our pursuit of creative autonomy has the unintended consequence of exacerbating our fatalism and powerlessness over working conditions. They describe how, for us, "the social and artistic appeal of performing for sympathetic audiences may override material questions," with Robert A. Stebbins seeing Jazz musicians more generally as a status group based around mutual esteem rather than economic interest. What's more, our need to network within our community means that we often operate in what Gillian Ursell calls a creative 'economy of favours,' in which we're incentivised to take jobs beyond monetary remuneration. In short, we're so used to providing the music that we care most about for free that we don't bat an eyelid at the thought.
But in the time of Coronavirus, with all of our in-the-flesh gigs cancelled, these aren't just live-streams anymore – these are our gigs! Under normal circumstances, a free-to-watch live-stream of a concert (which an audience has paid to see live) might serve to help us to reach a new audience, but they surely have to take on a different function now? What's more, the venue audiences that normally come to watch us have had their gigs cut too – they haven't disappeared, they still want to see us play!
My Middlesex University colleague, Dr. Zuleika Beaven, shared with me some of her thoughts on the spirit of the time:
"There seems to be a real desire for synchronous and temporal 'events' during the lockdown, whether this is one-chance streams of performances, scheduled album listening 'parties' or tweetalongs to simultaneous watching of films. That is very much at odds with the Faith Popcorn-type cocooning theories [i.e., staying inside one's home, insulated from perceived danger, rather than going out. A 2013 USA Today article entitled "Cocooning: It's back and thanks to tech, it's bigger" suggested that cocooning has now developed further into "super-cocooning."], we seem to want to un-cocoon and connect. Now quite possibly this behaviour is being displayed by consumer typologies that never cocooned anyway, and certainly it can play on the fear of missing out, but it's still an encouraging phenomenon."
A significant focus of the new music industry is on live-performances and streaming. Anne Danielsen and Yngvar Kjus suggest that the popularity of live performance is that it 'has become perceived as a unique and rare musical experience – something that we expect to be particularly intense and surprising, or, in short, to stand out from our everyday listening.' The arrival of ‘Napster’ in 1999, whilst reducing album sales significantly, actually increased the total revenue from live music significantly. By the 2010s the impact of an increased interest in live music turned the tide on the decline of music industry revenues overall, with an increase of 15% between 2010 and 2013, reaching 30% until 2015. The digital age has also affected the nature of live performance, with Patrik Wikstrøm noting a 'new connectivity of the audience' facilitated by social media and allowing for direct real-time communication during the event. Danielsen and Kjus observed that this now encompasses fans that are not physically present, and Henry Jenkins has pointed to an associated increase in participatory culture.
Eventbrite's James Turner has pointed to seven trends that have recently impacted the live music business:
(i) Fans expect a mix of options and more personalized experiences,
(ii) Hybrid music events bring in bigger audiences and more money,
(iii) Online ticketing unlocks powerful data and insights like never before,
(iv) Mobile technology improves the overall attendee experience,
(v) RFID (Radio-frequency identification) technology and smart
cards add value, once inside the event,
(vi) Social media provides hard cash benefits to event organizers,
(vii) Live streaming events keep fans connected and engaged
For live-streaming, he noted that 'in 2012, while 80,000 people were on the ground at Coachella, a three-day music and arts festival in the US, a whopping four million attended it virtually. This also helped ticket sales." Another benefit to live-streaming is that it prolongs the lifetime of live music.
• want to watch live music;
• like live-streaming;
• like the participation (both with each other and with the artist) that live-streaming platforms (as well as tweeting, etc.) encourage. Kashif Naveed has noted a 'shift in consumers preferences from passive listeners or viewers to access to widening choice of music, participation, integration, co-creation, and participative creativity';
• like direct real-time communication during events;
• like personalized experiences.
The good news is that live-streaming (via Facebook, for example) allows us to address all of these things. In some ways, many of these things are actually easier to address with live-streaming than they are on an actual gig.
Musicians are often uncomfortable with viewing themselves as entrepreneurs, and this is despite us, as Jo Haynes and Lee Marshall have observed, 'demonstrating exactly the kind of traits characterizing the entrepreneurial mindset celebrated in the policy literature: ﬂexible, resilient, creatively solving problems and able to get by on very little capital." Many of us feel like artists who've had 'entrepreneurialism' forced upon us, and we usually don't think we're very good at it. We associate it with proﬁt-seeking above all else, when our primary interest is in the creative aspect of the music. Schumpeter (who, to the best of my knowledge, wasn't a trumpeter) described entrepreneurialism in terms that bear a striking similarity to the romantic conception of the artist: they exhibit creativity, they generate new ideas and practices, they have a visionary quality, and they can be 'ahead of their time.' Whilst we tend to imagine entrepreneurs as successful by nature, they (like musicians) fail more often than they succeed. The big difference between an entrepreneur and a musician is that a musician's work can be 'deemed successful in intrinsic terms, without reference to external validators like the market.' As a musician, I feel this wholly and thoroughly – my interest is in creating music for music's sake, and music's sake alone. However, Haynes and Marshall do make a crushing point: 'over-emphasizing the economic dimensions of musicians' behaviour buys into an ideological framing of creative labour that highlights positive associations of autonomy and creativity as a mask for lack of infrastructural support, uncertainty and continuous job insecurity.'
What point am I trying to make here? We might be 'reluctant’ entrepreneurs, but we're good at it. In fact, it's part and parcel of our day-to-day lives as musicians. We now have a crisis in our community, but we have exactly the right kind of mindset to deal with it. We also have a good idea of who our audience is and what they would like to see. Let's get over our tendency, as Jazz musicians, to give away the stuff we care most about for free, and let's think about ways in which we can support not just our community but the venues that we love (and that we all want to continue playing at once this lockdown is finally over).
On Friday, 3rdApril, I performed a live-streamed concert (from my house) for the audience of Sheffield's 'Jazz at the Lescar,' promoted by the much-loved, and highly-dedicated, promoter Jez Matthews. Jez and I had discussed the logistics for this for a whole fortnight beforehand, as it was essential to both of us that we got it right. I formulated my idea for it upon the fact that there are dedicated audiences at venues across the country, such as The Lescar, that support Jazz concerts weekly, and for whom these concerts were now on halt due to COVID-19. Like many musicians, I love playing at the Lescar and I wanted to do my bit to support them. Jez, similarly, loves promoting musicians' gigs and wants to help us. I've found that this is a situation that a lot of other promoters feel similarly about too. With this in mind, we decided to recreate a gig at the Lescar as closely as we could. This relied upon a few ideas:
• The gig should be specifically for the Lescar/Sheffield audience – we achieved this by hosting it on a private Facebook group. While a few others were also welcome to attend, this kept the focus on the Lescar.
• The gig should sound good – we had a few soundchecks, with the Lescar team present, to ensure that it was up to scratch. I used a Shure Beta 91A microphone, running through a Saffire Pro audio interface. I streamed the audio and video to Facebook using 'OBS.' On my computer, I used 'Loopback' to keep in control of which microphone (talking vs. piano) was used at any time, and also of what was sent to each headphone.
• The gig should look good – while, moving forward, I would like to source a better camera for future performances, we did discuss at length how the room should look. I used baking paper over a lamp to diffuse the light, and had fairy lights up at the end of the room (making it more venue-like). It definitely helped to create a better gig atmosphere visually (and also psychologically for me as I performed).
• We should ticket the gig – we opted for an 'optional suggested minimum payment' of £5. People were happy to pay, and many in fact very generously paid more (in some instances much more) than the minimum payment suggestion.
• We should split the money between The Lescar team and myself in a similar way to how we would divide it on a standard gig. I think that, as much as venues can support us during this time, we also really need to be supporting venues. It's venues like The Lescar that keep the scene alive!
• Jez would post a video of himself announcing the gig, as he would usually, as the audience would appreciate this – for this, he went to the effort of making a backdrop to look like the Lescar itself. It was a lovely touch.
• I would hold a Q&A session, after performing, to ensure that the gig was interactive and inclusive (for me as much as for them!)
• We would hold a Zoom conference afterwards for everyone to hang out at.
This is Jez's account of the process:
'When it became obvious a few weeks ago that we wouldn't be able to run gigs for some time, my mind rushed through things we could do to continue to support musicians, of which one idea was to stream gigs. At first, before the social distancing guidelines emerged, I thought this could involve a band turning up at a venue and playing online, however it quickly became clear that this wouldn't be possible, and that we would be limited to musicians playing from their homes. I wasn't really sure how to initiate things though, so when Sam contacted me to suggest streaming a gig from his home, and his idea for doing a virtual 'tour' I was really pleased to get involved. In particular, sharing the learning process with someone made it feel more achievable.
I wanted the gig to retain as many as possible of those things that I value and have tried to make happen at The Lescar; in particular a sense of a community, and a place where both musicians and audiences can experience something interactive and meaningful. I really wanted it to feel a bit like going out to The Lescar.
It felt to me that there were some important elements that needed to be in place; getting into the gig needed to as easy as possible for people, but I also wanted to ensure that the gig generated some income for Sam. This led to a moment of self-doubt prior to the gig, as so many people are putting up free content, with just a few asking for donations, but not that many 'pay-walled' gigs happening. My team convinced me (without too much difficulty) that it was the right thing to do.
I have watched a few streamed gigs, and I really liked the way in which Facebook allows you to feedback, with both text and floating emojis, and these make up to some degree for the lack of audible applause after tunes - you really feel like you're part of a crowd, engaging with each other and the musicians. In some ways, you get an even greater insight into how people around you are feeling. So we went with Facebook, and although this presented some technical difficulties, this would be the case for anything new.
The presentation of a gig, both visually and aurally, is as important as anything. There are obviously limitations to what can be achieved quickly in a home environment, especially in the current circumstances, but Sam worked hard to set these up at his end, and we held two soundchecks with The Lescar team prior to the event, as well as getting some really valuable advice from a member of our audience who has experience of live-stream events. Sam suggested a Q&A session. I also wanted to frame the gig with an introduction, and I thought we could really finish it off nicely by inviting everyone who attended to an audience meet-up after the gig on Zoom (and not forgetting a raffle, so important!!).
All the preparation paid off, everyone loved the music of course, but having good sound and paying attention to the lighting also made a difference. People commented that the Q&A and meet-up made it all feel engaging and personal; there were some great questions and fascinating answers from Sam, as well as some really fun interaction.
There are some drawbacks to Facebook; not everyone trusts it or is signed up to it, but most of those who attended did so with very little difficulty, and I was able to talk the couple who did experience problems through the process.
For me it was both a wholly fulfilling and quite emotional experience, to hear Sam's wonderful playing, to sense being in a room and sharing live improvised music with other people, and the connection during the gig and at the post-gig chat (not least seeing everyone wave goodbye to each other at the end) was powerful. I hope we can do it again, and that others will find ways to do this, during this difficult period for everyone. I'm immensely grateful to both Sam, and also the Jazz at The Lescar team and audience who really made this happen.'
Jez was also able to collect some audience feedback on the day after the event:
'Most of the following is based on feedback given the day after the gig, however during the gig itself people really engaged with lots of feedback in the comments stream.
The feedback was unanimously positive, people commented that they would attend a future event, and that they want to support musicians. They liked the feeling of being at a live event with the sense of the unexpected that this brings. People were inspired by both Sam's playing and repertoire and also his answers to questions to delve deeper into the music and his inspirations.
Everyone was able to access the event, with only one person reporting any difficulties, and this was to do with their home setup. The timing of the gig meant that it was a little late for the children of one family that attended. Perhaps an earlier start would be better. Perhaps 7.30 pm?
People really enjoyed the Q&A and the Zoom session, which both made it feel more interactive, relaxed and personal.
Facebook is an inhibitor for some people, either because they don't trust Facebook, or are not signed up to it, or both. One person reported not being familiar with Facebook so not realising you could comment until the end. This could easily be remedied by sending out some quick guidance notes to attendees to that they can make the most of whatever format is chosen for the gig presentation.
One person commented that the general low lighting created a nice atmosphere, but that the fairy lights were a little bright.
Two representatives from the Sheffield Jazz Board attended and really enjoyed it and are interested in exploring further to present future events. Other promoters who attended also fed back positively
The feedback response rate was very high, and everyone was very positive about the experience.'
Here is some sample audience feedback:
"It was great!!! I especially liked the final question/chat time- it made it feel more relaxed and personal. The music was beautiful obviously - keep doing it! We need to support musicians!"
"Many thanks, Jez! I loved the whole event - no doubt, like me, you are playing a lot of CDs and vinyl but hearing live music again with its spontaneous twists and turns was fantastic. I thought Sam's choice was perfect - I can still hear Waterloo Sunset and the beautiful ballad 'Beatriz' - and it was great to hear the pieces by Brad Mehldau, Benjamin Britten and John Taylor. Sam's concert and the one by Rob Luft, Eleni and Fred recently reminded me of a quote from some rare ECM liner notes which has always stayed with me. They were taken from the German poet Rilke's - about whom I know nothing! - poem To music which has the wonderful line: 'Music - you heart-space grown out of us'. Both gigs expressed this beautifully!"
"Well there's really no substitute for jazz in the flesh, but in these unique times, abominable as they truly are for artists relying on their live expression for a living, necessity must be the mother of invention, and so it came to pass that Sam Leak, Jez Matthews and the Jazz at The Lescar posse girded their isolated loins to produce this livestream solo jazz piano gig via Sam's Facebook Group, and what a glory it was in all respects, exposing the thoughtful, sensitive side of Leak's pianistic wizardry. Short and so sweet and rounded off with a zoom gathering afterwards of most attendees, a quite thrilling night was had by all, I'd say. In fact the zoom meet gave the event an aspect which live gigs do not - a concentrated review of the music, the concept & the vehicle, with the artist there amongst - Brilliant! & met new, lovely people & no gear-humping duties? What's not to love?"
For me, it was a massively exciting and emotional experience. I'm missing music in my life right now, and to perform music to an audience that genuinely cared and wanted to support me was very special. The work that Jez put into promoting it made it into a really meaningful experience (thank you so much, Jez!).
Why am I sharing this with you? I think that this is a useful model for venues and musicians to support each other in this time of crisis. Preachy as I'm aware I may sound, I'd really like to ask musicians to consider stopping doing free livestreams during this period (I understand that a lot of us are uncomfortable about charging, but a) why? And b) surely a 'suggested minimum payment' would work fine?). I also think that we should consider options for making our livestreams as 'gig-like' as possible, with the first obvious step being to do perform them to private groups (the gig space). Treat it in every respect like you would a regular gig – work on some music for it, promote it, get excited about it. The final argument that I'd like to make is that we can use this period to do something positive for venues and promoters too. If we can put on our events through venues then they can promote them to their audiences, we can play to an audience that cares, and we can generate some income that we can split fairly with them. Lots of other great initiatives have already been set up by other musicians/promoters to try to address similar things. This message is however intended for musicians and venues who might not yet have considered one thing: while we're in lockdown a live-stream isn't a live-stream anymore – it's a gig.