(This post is wordy. If you don’t want the metastory, you can skip down to my previous post for more how and less why).
Live Streaming is the hottest thing in social media. Studies have shown that posts accompanied by a graphic are much more effective than text only posts. Video ups the ante even more. In the battle for your ears and eyeballs, all the major social media platforms are falling over themselves to feature video content of all kinds. Engagement and “stickiness” rule the day. In a society increasingly too impatient to digest the written word, Instagram and YouTube currently rule the internet. Facebook is rushing to catch up. A platform that makes you pay not to hide your content from your friends and followers, Facebook currently gives 1000% priority to your Facebook live videos. Instagram is copying SnapChat with daily “stories” for your followers. There are a dozen competing live video streaming platforms all trying to be the next Facebook. Periscope, Live.me, Musical.ly, Busker, Livestream, YouNow, Twitch, Bonklive, Concert Window, House Party and others are all attempting to pull the sword from the stone and knock YouTube off its perch atop the streaming world. Their position is far from secure.
Launched in 2005, YouTube really caught fire in 2007, spawning dozens of video stars making comfortable livings sharing all manner of video content thru the service. There were essentially no gatekeepers and you could build your own niche. The demographic of early adopters was primarily young and somewhat socially rebellious. Unsurprisingly, many of the successful broadcasters made their living playing pranks on each other and making asses of themselves. But there were also musical sensations like Justin Beiber and Carly Rae Jepson, who broke out to very successful mainstream musical careers. Meanwhile Network television survived a punishing writers strike with a successful zigzag to “Reality Television” (though there is very little “real” in that genre…) Thousands of Americans lunged forward, looking for their 15 minutes of fame. The terminally ADHD flocked by the thousands to Vine with its videos limited to only 6 seconds in length. In its initial foray into video, Instagram only allowed 15 seconds (then a minute, now even more). Even YouTube is now in the streaming video business.
The shakeout has already begun leaving Vine and Meerkat in the dust, but the battle rages on. Bonk Live launched in September and Live.me recently celebrated their 1 year anniversary. I have friends who believe that video streaming is only a fad. (To which I respond, “Like motor cars, motion pictures with sound, and the cell phone…”) Like most emerging technologies, the demographic of early adopters has been young. When Facebook was launched it was for college students only and primarily used as a tool to hit on girls, but now it is mostly populated by adults. When I attended the Playlist Live conference is D.C. Last month, Facebook was universally distained, with one panelist emphatically proclaiming, “Nobody under 50 is on Facebook anymore!” While I know this not to be true, I have observed that most under 25’s who are using Facebook now save the really juicy content for their contemporaries on other platforms like SnapChat and Kik. Facebook is still the place to share graduation pictures with Grandma and Grandpa. I believe that streaming services will also see an influx of adult users, who are traditionally slow on the uptake. Don’t get me wrong, I am an enthusiastic user of Facebook. My 3 primary uses are to stay connected with distant family and friends, music evangelism and discovery, and political activism, but I also clown around a bit. Like many though, I have grown increasingly disillusioned with their financial model, which is crafted to extract as much money as possible from both users and content providers. They have no understanding or empathy for the regional, independent musician and make it increasingly difficult to use Facebook for audience development.
We live in an era where music has become formless and media free. With the disappearance of the physical CD, it becomes increasingly difficult to make audiences attach a monetary value to music. Most radio stations have been supplanted by streaming services like Spotify, Amazon Prime, and Apple Music, all of whom remunerate artists at shockingly low levels. Record stores have disappeared almost entirely. A full time musician these days must make the lions share of their income from gigs and in person merchandising. It can be a grueling lifestyle. Couple that with the ever increasing level of competition in the field and it’s no wonder that many lifelong performers are turning to other occupations.
One constant is music has always been change. In the early 20th century, composers earned their income from the sale of sheet music. In the early 1930’s live radio caught fire. In 1934, less than one household in 3 owned a radio. A year later, 2/3 of American households had one. Many homes also had a Victrola. At the end of World War II, German audio technology flooded into America, making possible high quality and multitrack audio recordings. The 45 rpm single and the 12″ LP weren’t far behind. Radio and television were transformed from live mediums into broadcast platforms for recorded content. Copyright law was amended, ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC were created to provide and income for songwriters whose sheet music sales had dropped to infinitesimal levels. At the same time, opportunities began to appear for exploiting published music in radio and tv production.
In the 1960’s Marshall McLuhan sagely proclaimed, “The Medium is the Message!”
The burgeoning middle class and booming economy led to all sorts of innovation and consumption. 8 track tapes, cassettes, CDs, Laserdiscs, DVD’s were everywhere. With the widespread acceptance of the CD, record company greed had tripled the retail prices for a mainstream record release, even thought the manufacturing costs had dropped by a factor of 3x or more. This made record companies wildly profitable, but it also opened the door for the independent music industry. For the first time, small labels and even individual artists could afford to produce, manufacture, and distribute their own recordings. Not long afterwards, home recording equipment became widespread and highly affordable. It had never been so easy or so affordable to be a professional musician. With over 25% of music sold now coming from outside the “Big Six” music conglomerates, their stranglehold on radio and retail was broken and the gatekeepers lost their ability to dictate America’s musical tastes. Musicians had never had it so good and many finally saw a way forward to make their living in music. Cable TV and subscription radio appeared. The number of outlets for art multiplied exponentially.
In the 1990’s Al Gore and others recognized the promise of the internet and transformed it from a research only platform which expressly forbid online commerce, into a marketing juggernaut that democratized the creation and distribution of all manner of digital content and information. There has probably never been a more American Innovation than the internet. It supports our entrepreneurial spirit and progressive policies, but also institutionalizes our racism, prejudice, and provincialism. It is a tool of enormous power and threat. If we don’t embrace our better angels, the Internet could eventually be the weapon that consumes our society. Only time will tell.
But now in 2017, the music industry is faced with sea change again. Record companies and radio are largely irrelevant. Retail in all sectors is on the ropes, under siege by giant internet corporations able to provide better selection and pricing for all manner of goods and services… sales of audio and video content have reached historic lows with no sign of rebound. The economic model that created the independent recording industry is no longer reliable. And, once again, the music industry needs to reinvent itself.
I hope and pray that there will always be an appetite for live music concerts. Never have we faced so much competition, but I think live performance retains substantial power. Clearly though, there are not enough live performance opportunities to sustain the talent pool and even long standing music venues frequently disappear. I don’t believe a resurgence here is what will save us.
The massive redistribution of wealth in America has had soul crushing consequences. Our eroding middle class and tone deaf politicians have pushed us into an economic death spiral. Although hopeful that we can reverse this trend, a great deal of damage has been done to the consumer and their pool of disposable income. It will be years before we can truly solve this problem. In the meantime, I think the patronage model illuminated by Patreon, kickstarter, and other platforms offers the hope that composers and performers will be sustained by those who can afford to help and music increasingly distributed to whoever loves and appreciates it.
Compelling as that Patronage model is, I don’t think it is the only solution. Life in any profession has a financial balance sheet. Your adjusted income as a musician is the net result of your income minus your expenses. Every dollar you don’t have to spend in pursuit of your art is a dollar (or more) that you don’t have to earn. Four hugely draining expenses for the professional musician are travel, food, lodging, and time. (Yes, Virginia, time really IS money…) and
This is why I believe live streaming is destined to become an essential leg of the stool that many musicians rely on to survive.
Today a typical gig for a regional musician might involve $100 worth of gas, $100 worth of lodging, a full day wasted doing non musical tasks like driving, humping gear, searching for a decent restaurant, etc. if that gig only results in a couple hundred dollars worth or ticket sales and merchandizing, a handful of names to your mailing list, many of these gigs may leave you in the red. It may erode your personal relationships at home. Occasionally you will break a toe or destroy your transmission and incur much more significant losses. It takes a lot of dedication (a.k.a. Stubbornness) to be a road dog.
But imagine you could roll out of bed, do a couple of items on your honeydo list, pick up your seven year old from school, make dinner for her and your spouse, step into the music room, push a few buttons and 5 minutes later be performing for hundreds (or thousands) of listeners on the internet. Surprise! You can. Platforms exist today where content creators are already doing that. Musical.ly boasts over 300 million active users, Live.me has over 625 million. The penultimate live performer at the Playlist Live conference I attended a few weeks ago was a young woman named Dodie Clark who has over 1.2 million followers on YouTube. Screams were deafening when she took the stage. I had never heard of her before that weekend.
I’ve been beating the drum for 5 months about Live.me with surprisingly little result in our community. Human beings instinctively hate and fear change. Many musicians have a poor technical background and a bad track record with technology, but if you learned to operate a guitar amp or PA system, you can certainly master live streaming. A lot of people ventured into concert window and failed because the conventional wisdom was that you should use a laptop, a cheap webcam, and a USB microphone. This may have made sense to the guys who invented it, but struggling musicians often aren’t computer geeks. Many have laptops that are 6-10 years old which are slow and poorly configured. By contrast, a majority of them own smartphones that are less than 2 or 3 years old which make much better broadcasting hardware.
There’s not a lot of information on piping album quality audio into your smartphone, but I demystify that for you. Check out my video on 3 alternatives. Your smartphone probably also has an amazing camera or 3 built right in. However you decide to stream or record video, you will find sensible lighting design to be important. The good news is that you can acquire this for a pittance. With very little financial outlay, you will discover that you can create a very effective stream and reach thousands of prospective listeners.
All it takes is enthusiasm, dedication, consistency, investment of time and (I believe most importantly) a quality performance of quality music.
The ease and convenience of streaming is a double edge sword. You can walk into your music room and push a button, but so can everybody else. The listener only has to listen for long enough to decide if they resonate with you before they swipe down and move on. They haven’t invested time and money in a car ride. If you bore or disappoint them, there is an endless supply of other streams.
When you investigate the streaming platforms, you will encounter enormous amounts of vapid, valueless content. You will be tempted to think that the audience is stupid and the platform is without value. This is a huge mistake. But if you want to “win” at the streaming game, you will have to be talented, entertaining, proficient musically, and an engaging personality. You will have to understand the quirks of the platform you choose and the best ways to reach out to its user base.
Above all, do not be afraid to define your streaming space as a place you feel comfortable. The gatekeepers are gone. If you want to busk, busk. If you want to stream your rehearsals or songwriting sessions, that’s okay too. You don’t need to copy the other broadcasters, in fact, you will likely do better if you don’t, but instead create a unique space.
I have seen users succeed with streaming and it is quite clear that it is possible. Brenna Katz, a partially deaf high school senior from Sudbury MA has made over $5000 in tips in the last few months on live.me which she has invested in a home studio. She’s working hard to live her dream of moving to LA and entering the professional music business. Ironically she might find it just as easy to succeed from her parents house… Alexis Rose has 125,000 fans, Amber-Tiana has half a million. There is no doubt that you can build your social media following on Live.me.
Tubefilter.com publishes a weekly chart of the top 50 broadcasters on live.me. Some of these have been wildly successful. Several Twitch and YouTube streamers are millionaires. Beyond simple in-app tipping, Agents, managers, and MCN’s (MultiChannel Networks) have discovered a myriad of ways to monetize your social media using endorsements, sponsorships, product placement, affiliate links, YouTube’s AdSense, Google’s AdWords, and a variety of other tools. (Including public appearances, book deals, modeling and acting in film, tv, and commercials.) There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are lots of opportunities for those who search for them.
At the recent Playlist live conference in DC, the message I heard over and over again was that persistence and consistency are the key. Panelists didn’t seem to think as much about quality content, but I believe that is paramount. There are so many choices, and so many more who will be joining the gold rush.
I think your music and your performance are crucial. All the persistence in the world isn’t going to build a following if you don’t make the grade.
The other thing I feel very strongly about is that Now is the time. If you wait for everyone else to figure out how to master this new opportunity before you dig in, the competition will be far more daunting. So… What are you waiting for???