As music venues across the U.S. temporarily shuttered in March, Vito Rinaldo, an avid live music goer and retired teacher, wanted to do something to keep the music going – and get artists paid. As the New Yorker watched free livestreams beamed from musicians’ homes on Facebook and YouTube, he felt an element was missing: the interaction between the audience and the performer.
In May, Rinaldo launched TOF Productions with an entirely virtual music venue dubbed the Tree. (The venue’s name was loosely inspired by a lyric by the legendary folk singer/songwriter John Prine, who died in April from COVID-19 complications.) Rinaldo started selling tickets through Eventbrite, using a password-protected Zoom meeting to host the concerts. This way, fans could mingle as they would at a normal show before the music and applaud after songs, while the musician could see who they’re performing for – and make money from ticket sales and tips. Since launching, the venue has raised $13,000 (almost £10,000) for its artists and various charities through sales and donations, Rinaldo says.
“We’re trying to simulate every aspect of what the real music world is like,” Rinaldo says. “It’s as close as we can get to that symbiotic relationship that artists and their audiences have – how they feed off of each. That takes shows to a higher and higher level, and right from the first show, we knew that was happening.”
Working with artists performing out of their homes on Zoom has had its challenges – the platform wasn’t made with music in mind, every show requires a soundcheck, and every artist has different streaming capabilities — but the Tree has also shown how musicians, venues, and promoters can still bring music fans together. (Concert streaming is also getting easier thanks to Eventbrite’s new partnerships with Zoom and the streaming platform Vimeo.)
For venues with a physical address and promoters that are used to producing events in a variety of spaces, figuring out how to present live music (and bring in revenue) when fans can’t safely gather due to a global pandemic has been a challenge unlike anything they’ve experienced before.
Being able to stay nimble while pivoting to different business strategies has been key for venues and promoters that have found slivers of success in recent months. Many venues have turned to streaming, hosting artists on Instagram Live or, when restrictions eased, streaming straight from the venue. Others are bringing concerts directly to fans’ gardens and neighbourhoods via trucks and trailers. And drive-in concerts are suddenly en vogue as a safer alternative to densely packed amphitheatres and indoor concert halls.
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Drive-ins are a new normal for in-person concerts
Drive-in events were among the first in-person gatherings to return to Eventbrite in the pandemic’s early months. Compared to the same time period last year, the category grew by a staggering 1,200% on the platform.
When COVID-19 made hosting a music festival nearly impossible, the founders of Colorado’s annual Beanstalk Music & Mountains Festival improvised, reimagining the event as a drive-in concert and rebranding as Beanstalk: At the Drive-In. “We put a lot of work into Beanstalk, so we put all our energy into trying to make something happen,” says Scott Hachey, the festival’s co-founder and the guitarist for headlining band The Magic Beans.
Tickets sold-out just hours after June’s drive-in event was announced, as some attendees converted festival tickets into drive-in tickets, something Hachey notes was made easy with Eventbrite. The two-day event was so successful that they added a second iteration in July.
California’s CBF Productions, which helped usher in the modern craft beer festival trend with the annual California Beer Festival, usually hosts about 12 large-scale festivals across the U.S. each year. In June, the company pivoted to drive-in events, setting up a pop-up venue at the Ventura County Fairgrounds for concerts, comedy, and movies, beaming audio through FM radios with video screens. (A pop-up Arizona drive-in launches in September.)
“This was a pivot for us and definitely a learning curve,” says CEO and founder Vincenzo Giammanco. “We’re creating a brand new space so we’re figuring it out as you go.”
The Concerts In Your Car series has proved particularly popular. CBF recently hosted back-to-back sold-out concerts from SoCal favorites Sublime, one of which Giammanco took in with his family.
“I opened up our hatch and I turned on a radio and I had a boombox and I faced it towards us, and it sounded awesome,” he says. “Is it as loud as the thumping bass at a concert? No. Is it as enjoyable? Yes, 100%. My father-in-law always said that my festivals are too loud. This is a perfect opportunity for him to kinda control how loud he wants it.”
The venue has capacity for 700 cars and strictly enforces physical distancing and wearing face coverings. Don’t follow the rules and you’ll be asked to leave. CBF staff is tested for COVID-19 once a week and high-touch surfaces are cleaned every 15 minutes.
“I would argue we’re probably the most regulated venue in the country,” he says. “We can’t afford to get shut down. It’s weird. We’re used to creating environments for people to get together, have some drinks and dance. Now it’s like, ‘Hey, put the mask on and don’t get too close!’ Usually, we’d have to deal with drunk people. Now we just deal with stopping the spread of COVID-19.”
Another big change has been adapting to a more frequent cadence of events – 30 in the span of a couple of months versus 12 in a year. But Giammanco is still borrowing things from the old ways of doing things, like charging more for parking spots closer to the stage.
“I do think there’s a future in this space,” he says. “We will probably be in this space for a while. We all want to get back to 15,000 people in a venue enjoying a live concert. This is not a replacement. It’s another lane for us.”
Discover how a music festival turned a drive-in cinema into a two-day concert.
Streaming is taking shape
The most common way to watch a live concert in 2020 has, paradoxically, been on computer screens, iPhones, and TVs. Artists and venues have been regularly streaming audience-less shows from homes, outdoor spaces, and empty venues since the live concert industry shut down in March.
Joe Lapan, co-owner of the bar, restaurant, record store, and music venue Songbyrd Music House and Record Cafe in Washington, DC, recently made the investment to retrofit his 200-capacity basement venue for livestreaming. To promote the venue’s first livestream on July 1, Songbyrd partnered with the music website Spin and registered attendees on Eventbrite, broadcasting through Twitch. He’s since hosted several suggested donation streams with local artists from the venue and envisions a world where local venues and music scenes could band together, like a TV network, to offer a regular stream of music content.
“I’d rather have a DC channel where all the venues are on it, and people can subscribe, and then we can share the revenues,” Lapan says. “The next challenge becomes how and where we’re going to use it. How are we going to monetise it or how are we going to correctly calibrate everybody’s time investment?”
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Thinking outside the concert box
Many venues don’t have the infrastructure (or funds) to set up livestreams. Without revenue from ticket sales coming in, it puts them in a tough spot (which is why NIVA is fighting so hard for federal relief in the next stimulus package). Songbyrd has, like many venues across the U.S., turned to selling merchandise like t-shirts, hats, and totes. Since Songbyrd is also a record store, Lapan is selling records, too. Many venues, like Lowbrow Palace in El Paso, Texas, are offering gift cards that can be redeemed for discounted tickets when the venue reopens.
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At Songbyrd, Lapan is embracing a similar idea with what he’s calling a drive-out concert. Lapan recently bought a 1978 Chevy C10 pickup truck that he’s equipping to host local musicians in D.C. neighbourhoods, driveways, and gardens. He first tested the concept on July 4th weekend, driving around the city for fun.
“It was great,” he says. “I had a four-piece brass band driving around and playing in the back of my truck, it was so fun.” Then he drove around and filmed a video of a local guitarist performing the national anthem in different D.C. locations for a video. “I got good feedback from what I’ve posted and shown so far, I’ve gotten bands [interested]. Then I’ve gotten other people saying, ‘I’ve got a location for you.’ So there seems to be something here.”
All of these examples – from creating an entirely virtual music venue, to pivoting to drive-ins, to focusing on high-quality livestreams – show the dedication that music venues and promoters have to making sure everyone can share in the power of live music, even when we can’t gather in close quarters.
“For most of us in the music world, in the live event world, and the bar and venue world, it’s sort of in our DNA to try to bring music to the people,” Lapan says. “I’m gonna try to do whatever I can.”
Live-stream a high-quality concert using these tips and tricks.