Why digital music needs a live layer

For the last couple of months, I’ve been working on an idea called Live Layer. I’ve decided not to take it any further, after landing an exciting new job in Bristol. However, I believe record labels and bands should look at it further to develop a deeper connection with fans and add an additional revenue stream.

What is it?

Live Layer is essentially about joining up the live gig going experience with fan loyalty schemes and online access to live performances.

Currently I get an alert from Songkick or see an advert for a band I like. I then go to ticketing agents and either buy a ticket or discover it is sold out. Despite showing an active interest in the band, I’m not given options to buy music, t-shirts or see them online. The two worlds of the fan club and ticketing are separate, whilst I may get alerts and reminders from the ticket agent about a whole host of stuff I’m not interested in (like Dancing on Ice tours).

So I thought, why don’t bands get people to sign up for discounted music and merch if they go to the gig. If they reach a ‘sold out’ sign why not offer them access a live stream of the gig and priority or discounts on future tours? Bands and labels could capitalise on an active interest and develop a relationship with people who are keen to support the band. You can also extend your band’s performance out to people who can’t go.

Never sold out again

There are number of commercial reasons outside of CRM and loyalty for offering live streams. A report form PRS in August explained that, although festivals and live music in general was still very successful for ticket sales in 2010, a number of acts who played large arenas in 2009 decided to downsize to the venues like Brixton Academy in 2010 and 2011. The decision, by the likes of Kings of Leon, to downsize from 23,000 to 4,500 capacity venues appears to be caused by a fear that people will cut back on gig going in the recession. This means even big bands are unsure whether it is worth the financial risk to book up big arenas. That’s where a Live Layer can help, it extends the capacity of the venue by allowing either a pay-per-view, cross-promotion or advertising funded live performance to be seen, thus reaching people who wanted to go but couldn’t.

Another large expense is touring, especially for smaller bands. Yet a tour can turn a small act into a very large one. What if your US band could reach and develop a fan base in South Africa or test out demand in Japan without risking a tour, via live streams. Once demand is proven in an area, you could take your tour there.

So there’s the potential to monetize or reach additional fans live. But  you’re also left with a set of recordings that can be compiled into a live album, sold on iTunes, offered to fan club members or syndicated to TV channels.

Tools for the job

So it may be a nice idea, but is it practical to deliver a Live Layer? Largely yes, but I’ll explain further.

Loyalty mechanism into ticketing

There are number of great fan loyalty mechanism systems that have come of age in the last year. My favourites are Fanbridge and TopSpin. Fanbridge manages your email newsletters and social messaging in a targeted way in one place. TopSpin is a simple start-up e-commerce tool that can be extended in sophisticated ways to offer bundling, deliver loyalty packages and manage access to special offers. Topspin have also signed a deal with You Tube Music recently to easily offer merchandise deals from bands. Uniquely, Topspin offers an e-ticketing solution, whereby you print your ticket off and an iPhone app scans the barcode at the venue. They’ve done this for well established bands like The Pixies as well as smaller venues. The middleman ticketing agent was cut out of the loop completely for that gig, making the band extra money.

Gig recording costs

So you’ve got the loyalty mechanism, the e-commerce and integrated ticketing sorted. How about the recording, live streaming and conditional access? The cost of filming, to a high standard, a small venue like the Barfly would be between about £10,000 -14,000. A mid-sized venue like The Roundhouse would be around £20,000. There are a lot of indies that specialise in this (I’d recommend Pulse Films, Blink TV, Somethin Else, Wise Buddah, Smooth Operations and CC-Lab in the UK), so you would not need the video production expertise in-house to deliver the footage. If you decide to only offer audio, that would reduce the costs greatly, but you should not take the venue’s mix, as expert sound engineers and radio producers have advised me. The venue’s sound mix  is set up to meet the acoustic requirements of the arena, not home listening. You may also want to add a few more mics to pick up audience reaction, so a ballpark for audio recording is £4,000-8,000. Again, a number of indies specialise in this so it is better to contract a company like  Somethin Else,Smooth Operations, Unique or Wise Buddah to do the recording if you haven’t an in-house team.

Live streaming the gig

Then comes the live streaming, often the undoing of a live web offering. There are two vital parts, delivering the stream from the venue to a distribution network and serving the video to the public from that distribution network.

In most cases I’d advise setting up your own high speed dedicated internet connection with a high upload speed from the venue, but occasionally a venue will have a dedicated high speed line that will service your needs. The Roundhouse, for instance, had its infrastructure upgraded to support the iTunes festival that happens each year, so their set up would support your needs. No matter what route you go down, you’ll need a network expert on the team to set up the stream and deal with issues on the night.

The next bit is getting the right feeds of vision and audio. You will need to check how you are getting the vision mixed output and may need kit to convert it to digital firewire output. You also need to check you are getting the correct audio mix that synchronises with the video. Once you have the vision and audio sorted, you need to live encode it to your network distributor.

Adobe’s Live Media Server works well to get your content out of a venue in high quality web transcoded formats, but there are a number of options like Sorenson, Viewcast’s Niagara or Digital Rapids. Again your technical infrastructure person will be able to help decide on the best option. In setting up your streams you will need to work out how many flavours of encodes are needed to play in your media players. You’ll need to deliver streams in formats that reach all the devices that your fan base use (VP8, Flash, Theora, 3GP, MPEG4, H264 are among the choices for video formats). You also need to decide what dimensions and bitrates you’ll serve at (You Tube has 21 different sizes and 19 bitrates it encodes video to, for instance).

Delivering streams to your fans

If your organisation has a set of video players for different devices that you like or you have DRM settings you’re happy with, then your infrastructure manager will know the flavours required. If you don’t have this or are not tied to a video player, then I’d recommend using You Tube, Livestream, Ustream, Brightcove or Vidzapper to distribute your content and play your video.

Ustream’s robust live streaming combines ecommerce with extensive cross-platform delivery.

Benefits of going with one of these services include:

  • quick set up;
  • robust infrastructure;
  • transcoding to lots of devices from one video source;
  • free analytics.

I would however consider the marketing advantage of going with one of the more public orientated video services like Ustream or You Tube. By creating a channel and setting up a live event you’ll be making it searchable to people you’re not directly marketing to, whilst improving your Google ranking. You Tube also has a significant presence on Smart TVs and Games Consoles which means you can direct people to the big screen to watch the concert (better quality, more natural viewing behaviour and perceived as more valuable due to equivalence with pay-per-view channels).

JOiNING YOUR STREAMS TO YOUR FAN CLUB

You can easily serve adverts and have sponsors on your live streaming videos but it is trickier to create a monetisation mechanism with your online fan club. UStream has a well-established pay-per-view function that has been used in anger (excuse the pun) with UFC fights and will be rolled out to all users shortly. Ustream impressively delivers to pretty much every connected platform for you too. You Tube’s live service is newer, its pay-per-view offering is not rolled out widely and it only serves up Flash video (not supported on iPads or iPhones). However You Tube has a much larger audience, albeit desktop skewed, for live streams so you’ll get more exposure for a less established act. Saying that, you may find that a social media focused buzz pointing at content windowed in your Facebook page would be as potent.

Now the clever bit is joining up the fan club’s exclusive benefits to the live stream’s access. You Tube and Ustream don’t link up with Facebook nor do they current offer third party credits or access tokens to be used to unlock content via your fan rewards system. Topspin is able to easily offer conditional access on Facebook as a result of someone liking it and Topspin also has a number of hooks in the code that could be used to unlock access on other players, but the issue is around support for these hooks within the video player.

As a result, we’re pushed back to less public facing live streaming platforms to offer exclusive content to your fan base via a sophisticated rewards mechanic, without building a system from scratch. Live Stream doesn’t support ecommerce, so is ruled out. Vidzapper meanwhile has some promising APIs that could be developed alongside Topspin loyalty mechanics, whilst Brightcove has a proven track record of integrating with ecommerce and DRM systems. Both Vidzapper and Brightcove simultaneously publish on demand content to You Tube, so once You Tube Live is developed further they are well placed to deliver live streams to there too.

So your options are:

  1. Work with and encourage You Tube and Ustream to develop their APIs to accept 3rd party tokens to unlock pay-per-view content.
  2. Invest in developing a bridge to offer conditional access mechanism with Brightcove or Vidzapper.
  3. Give users a code that they can manually enter to unlock content delivered on Facebook.

Risks and wrangles

To develop a Live Layer for your label you’ll need to answer these nagging questions:

  • Will you cannibalise venue ticket sales?
  • Will you’ll give away live surprises?
  • Will you damage live DVD/download sales?
  • Will you be able to manage the delivery of all these elements?
  • How will you handle complaints if things go wrong?
  • Will people want to pay for this?
  • If you annoy Ticketmaster and Seetickets, will they stop promoting you on their stores?

A few trials are needed to test out the model in terms of demand. Don’t jump straight in, dip your toe then learn and adapt.

I consider the issue of cannibalisation invalid, going to a gig is very different and won’t be replaced by viewing at home, there’s simply no evidence of this; quite the contrary, it advertises a great live performer. Plus you will be monetising a larger group, so you’re not giving anything away.

You can outsource managing the process and delivery of the performance if you haven’t got the expertise, but if you should stay on top of the rewards process and marketing. If manage a band you should be doing all you can to connect with fans and raise funds for the band to do more exciting things. The mailing list, rewards and access to valuable content is your core role as a band site editor or band manager, this needs your support and attention to work, but could pay back royally.

Ticket vendors care about profit margins, if you try virtual tickets and live streams (it has been done many times before) vendors won’t hold a grudge if you go back to the old way. I’ve worked with See Tickets for BBC events over the last few years and they were all live streamed – it was never an issue.

There are many more aspects to developing this idea, which I’m happy to discuss. However, speaking to a number of people in the live music industry, they fed back that Live Layer could work well and even shake up the live music market. Hopefully someone will pick this up and make it a reality.

Tim Clarke (Author) will be speaking at the Eurosonic Conference on 13th January.Tweet @ciderhouseprods to talk about Live Layer or any other music tech topics.


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