Big crowd at outdoor live concert event

Let me entertain… who?

Image credit: Getty Images

How is the besieged music industry coping with the prospect of long-distance entertainment?

Music artists just can’t catch a break. As digitalisation swept through their industry, performing musicians saw the money they can earn from their music steadily drop off. Though writers such as Chris Anderson forecast a great future for artists in the long-tail distribution of popularity common to the entertainment industry, the money has either disappeared or flowed further upward to platform providers such as Apple and Spotify.

Artists outside the head of the power-law model – which gives rise to a compact head of popular artists rising above a long tail that encompasses everyone from the moderately successful to the practically unknown – found that the royalties from streaming are way below what they might have expected from album and singles sales they could have seen up to the end of the 20th century. But at least there was an alternative.

While music has gone digital and downloadable, music fans have been only too happy to invest in the live experience. Festivals that range from folk to electronic dance music (EDM) have gone from being fringe events to huge happenings. Towns and cities now see them as valuable attractions for tourism. The growth of Belgium’s TomorrowLand provides an example of the growth. In 2008, the festival attracted 50,000 fans for a weekend of dancing. By 2014, that number had soared to 400,000.

At the same time, concert and festival ticket prices have also increased, driven by acts at the popular end of the scale putting on increasingly lavish shows. Today, stage shows can easily contribute 80 to 90 per cent of a music act’s overall income while, for most, recorded music acts more as a publicity channel. But Covid-19 suddenly severed that income stream.

The general expectation in the music industry is that live music is probably the last type of social gathering to go back to normal because so much of it has relied on closely packed audiences. And though smaller bands can have their performers play two metres apart, this is impractical for classical orchestras that can have a hundred or more musicians on stage.

Major live-music promoters such as AEG Presents are planning for a scenario in which they stage no live events for the rest of the year, though they are keeping an eye on plans by some to combine live music with social distancing. In mid-May, blues-rock singer Travis McCready performed at a concert in Arkansas that cut the size of the seated audience from more than a thousand to just 200, mostly made up of small groups segregated by large gaps. The venue owners told Rolling Stone such a reduced capacity is simply not sustainable long-term under normal revenue-splitting models and would push door prices way higher than they are already, with each fan paying hundreds of dollars for a single ticket.

Another option is to exploit the bigger spaces available outdoors with, again in the US, the drive-in concert being the current front-runner in terms of ideas, as it makes social distancing easy to enforce. But that too comes with problems. Because the music is streamed through the car radio and the occupants might have the air-conditioning on at the same time, a large proportion of the audience will have their engines running to prevent the battery from running down, pushing up pollution around them.

Can technology provide a way to deliver the live experience without asking people to come together to a performance who are then forced to sit metres apart? Virtual performances have attracted headlines but more for their apparent novelty than for their ability to replace the physical experience. Numerous artists have taken to Twitch and other video-streaming platforms to try to stay in front of fans and to win new audiences. The decision by many artists to postpone album releases until they can promote them with tours has provided an opening for independent acts to gain more attention. Small internet radio stations such as Radio Wigwam in the UK have been showcasing acts with a regular series of live-stream performances.

The interaction with audiences has changed, especially as some acts have put on quasi-live shows to try to overcome the latency and reliability problems of internet delivery (see box: Far away in time). Written comments have replaced cheers and jeers, which works to a limited extent, though a number of musicians have found the experience of playing to what feels like an empty room to be far less rewarding.

Audiences have attempted to get some of the live feeling when they play their own music. The window-heavy design of a set of dockside apartments in North Shields provided a good location for impromptu DIY light shows to go along with an “isolation disco” at the start of the UK lockdown.

The problem the music community sees is that, because the virtual versions lack the immediacy and atmosphere of physical events, the sudden appetite for virtual events such as live-streaming may just be another of the music industry’s short-term gimmicks that fizzles out even before summer ends.

During a webinar on the future of live music organised by Aspen UK, composer and conductor Jules Buckley said: “I’ve seen so much amazing stuff online. Artists thinking outside the box with more inventive videos and more inventive ways to think about release. In some ways it’s a very positive element. The tricky part is that the internet quickly gets saturated.”

Problems extend beyond the artificial nature of the live-stream. Platforms like Twitch are still in their land-grab phase, and to build up a roster of performers in target sectors such as e-sports they are absorbing the cost of delivery while users stream for free: there is no revenue to split with artists. One option is to sell tickets using the mechanisms provided by webinar platforms and even use geofencing to try to replicate the tour experience.

In a video chat session organised by music-effects company Eventide, Rich Schaefer, senior vice president of global touring at AEG, said: “As a company we are kind of looking into everything. Haven’t made any decisions as a company. There is no simple answer. Truthfully, we are going to let some other people go first: there will be some bad experiences.”


Let's get together

As the lockdown restrictions began to bite, there was no shortage of videos from musicians showing how they could still put on a show. But many have found that getting the band back together when each of them is in their own living room or basement studio is far from straightforward.

The Rolling Stones attempted to tackle the problems head-on. Their performance of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ as part of the 18 April One World broadcast demonstrated the issues caused by latency where even the musicians need to stay apart. Charlie Watts had to sit out the performance apparently air-drumming while a pre-recorded rhythm played.

The biggest issue is one of timing. How do you keep time when each performer gets a slightly different picture of when a downbeat is meant to hit. What is an inconvenience for conference calls – where it is all too easy to talk over each other because no one can perceive the true delay – is a recipe for missed beats and late entrances.

Sound going into a computer to be compressed for transmission and then decompressed at the other end easily adds tens of milliseconds of delay. Put in router delays and the time it takes for optical signals to travel over long distances and you can easily be looking at round-trip delays of more than 100ms. Performers in music studios do not encounter these delays head-on because the hardware used by recording software such as Pro Tools often has a shortcut path that feeds the input to a monitoring output as quickly as possible. That way, musicians can hear what they and others are playing more or less in real time.

A 2018 study by researchers at Queen Mary College, London found that the point at which digital audio latency becomes imperceptible was around just 10ms. Musicians can compensate for delays as long as 70ms but by 250ms musicians find it incredibly difficult if not impossible to adapt.

To avoid the timing problems, most live-streamed performances from the lockdown have not been as ambitious as the Stones attempting to do it mostly live on Zoom. Most have been solo or duo performances from a single room. When they perform together apart, acts can either attempt to play to their own copies of a percussion track or metronome beat with software aligning it as closely as possible during the broadcast or simply record the whole process offline so that the tracks can be fixed in the mix by hand.

As the lockdown conditions endure, artists may begin to turn to a wider range of technologies than the video streaming they have employed so far. There are plenty of precedents. For his last tour, Elton John’s management worked with virtual-reality company PEEX to provide a way for viewers of the live performance to get their own mix. The app makes it possible for the user to focus on different instruments in the performance: if they want to hear more guitar in the mix they just turn it up. Other attempts to have VR integrated into live performance have borrowed ideas from sports broadcasts: using different camera positions to get customised views of onstage action and, in some cases, see what is happening from the perspective of backing singers or the crew. The problem for artists is how many will pay for this privilege instead of watching a regular live-stream.

Another option is to dispense with the real stage altogether and put the concert into a virtual world. Sansar, which started as Second Life creator Linden Labs’ foray into more immersive virtual-reality, signed a deal with EDM label Monstercat to host parties in its online world. Like Second Life, users’ avatars can dance in the online space, making it a slightly less passive experience than watching a live-stream on a sofa.

Thanks to the game’s worldwide popularity, ‘Fortnite’ made bigger news first with a concert by Christopher Comstock as DJ Marshmello in the ‘Fortnite’ world in February 2019 and again in April with a giant avatar of the rapper Travis Scott lip-syncing to a new song.

Unconscious social-distancing appears to be a side effect of virtual worlds. Video of both Marshmello’s performance and Monstercat’s eight-year anniversary virtual concert in November last year in Sansar demonstrated near-prophetic levels of social distancing among the avatars rather than the crush and moshing you would expect from a live event. In the ‘Fortnite’ concert, the limitations of the gaming platform meant that there was not one Marshmello gig but thousands – divided among the many servers the company operates – so that fewer than 100 players would be present in each of them. These details hint at the core issue for any attempts to replace physical reality with a virtual equivalent. As Comstock pointed out after his ‘Fortnite’ gig: “If you thought that concert was lit, try coming to a real show.”

‘If you thought that Fortnite concert was lit, try coming to a real show.’

Marshmello, music producer and DJ

One problem for any VR experience is that gigs and festivals seem to work partly because the audience is not at home. A survey conducted by researchers from the University of Queensland, Australia, found there were four main reasons for attending music festivals, with just one being about the music being performed. Most people were there with friends or family or both – with over-30s being the ones who mostly went with family. But at the same time respondents pointed out how important that they were away from the everyday experience. Two years later, Haruka Shoda from Hokkaido University, Japan and colleagues used wearable electrocardiogram sensors to measure physiological differences between live and recorded music performances and found a tendency to faster rates when the performers were physically in front of them.

Pre-pandemic experience in China helps demonstrate the difference in perceived personal value between physical attendance and remote pay-per-view. In 2015, LeTV found it could charge about 10 per cent of a normal concert ticket for its music live-streams during its initial forays into the market, though the company over-estimated the appetite for pay-per-view sports in China and collapsed a year later.

Today, internet giant Tencent is one of the companies trying to make music live-​streaming work. Paid-for real-time content represents less than 20 per cent of the overall streaming volume but Goldman Sachs expects the company’s music operations to overtake Apple Music in the coming decade.

“We are not made to live in silos,” says musician and singer Angélique Kidjo. “I’m doing stuff for social media but it is not satisfying. We need to rethink and remodel venues and give confidence for people to come to concerts.”

The common belief among performers and promoters is that live events as we used to know them will return eventually, though the financial damage to their end of the industry could be severe. Starved of cash for a long period, it will be difficult put on tours at all. That problem might be compounded by restrictions on movement and distancing if progress on a vaccine is slow. That may force artists to investigate ways of charging for recorded music and virtual events and, like Marshmello, look to complementary media such as games. But in the virtual space comes the risk that the rewards will, once more, accrue to platform providers and not those creating the content.

Things look way better for the technology-​led platforms in general. Amid the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic, financial analysts forecast a continued, bright future for the platform providers. Goldman Sachs issued a research note in May. While the overall music industry would suffer a drop of at least a quarter, the financiers expected growth for the recorded-music streaming of the kind provided by Spotify, Amazon and Apple in the coming year.

The question that industry might have to face up to is whether it can continue to grow when the supply comprises a small number of professional performers and a long tail of keen amateurs who only want exposure.


Echo peach

Studio recording is a masterclass in making the virtual seem real. Even in studios with natural reverberation, producers readily turn to synthetic forms to make instruments stand out and fade into the background when necessary, sometimes to ludicrous levels. One example was the notorious ‘gated snare’ of the 1980s, which relied on the creative abuse of a microphone channel normally used by control-room engineers to talk to the band combined with early digital reverb simulators.

Digital reverb has come to the rescue of numerous living-room orchestral musicians trying to recreate in YouTube renditions the ambience of a concert-hall performance when they are miles apart from each other.

An immediately noticeable effect of home recordings is that they are generally made with microphones placed close to the instrument to avoid capturing too much resonance from the room. When mixed, the combination makes the listener feel they are surrounded by instruments rather than sitting in the audience. This is where the reverb comes in.

Although some of the streams largely rely on panning instruments to the left and right according to their normal position on stage and adding a reverb that simulates that of a hall, some have used software that attempts to recreate the reverberation environment around each individual instrument in the virtual space. One tool is SPAT, developed by the French research institute Ircam, which simulates the movement of vibrations around a virtual room and which is often used in video post-production to make dialogue and sound effects recorded in a different studio fit the space shown on screen.

It was while producing music for a movie project that composers Jeff Meegan and David Tobin found they would be unable to record musicians at Abbey Road in London. The only way to complete the music would be to applied a system developed by Vienna Symphonic Library to make recording of sampled instruments sound more realistic.

The MIR engine relies on impulse responses recorded at thousands of different positions within real halls such as the Synchron Stage in the company’s home city, each capturing the pattern of reflected audio from that point on the way to the microphone that captures them. As each pattern of reflections is subtly different from its neighbour, the technique provides an additional level of detail that should mimic reality more closely than feeding multiple instruments into one reverb simulation.


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