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Virtual shows are here to stay, say artists and venues who spent the year producing them

Bad Bad Hats take flight to 'Islands in the Livestream.'
Bad Bad Hats take flight to 'Islands in the Livestream.'

by Darby Ottoson

December 28, 2020

On a Saturday back in April, Kerry Alexander and Chris Hoge of Minneapolis indie pop band Bad Bad Hats appeared on screen sporting sunglasses, flannel, and ‘90s band merch. A stretch of silence took the place of sound check as they waited for fans to join the first episode of “Islands in the Livestream.”

After their first song, a cover of Fastball’s 1998 hit “Out Of My Head,” Hoge read comments from the stream’s live chat and declared, “This is our first time doing this, let us know how the video is looking, if it sounds okay and, uh...thanks for bearing with us.”

A stream of heart emoji followed, along with words of encouragement from a couple with tickets to a cancelled Kansas City show and an excited French fan who had never seen the band play live.

Livestreamed concerts aren’t entirely new to the music industry. In 2019, close to half a million viewers tuned into Beyonce’s seminal live “Homecoming” performance at Coachella. Local venues like the Palace Theatre were also livestreaming shows (sometimes in partnership with The Current).

In 2020 however, livestreams exploded. As venues shuttered and tour dates disappeared indefinitely, creatives from around the music industry began constructing a vast virtual infrastructure for live music. While some avoided it altogether, many players in the local music scene ventured into this new territory.

When Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz declared a state of emergency on March 13 and cancellation emails flooded Nur-D’s inbox, the Minneapolis rapper put on his first of many livestreams, in the form of a March 15 hip-hop cabaret to raise money for local musicians.

“I got on the phone with my DJ and said hey we’re gonna do some livestream concerts,” Nur-D remembered. “How that looks? No idea. What exactly we’re gonna do? I’m not quite sure, but we’re gonna figure it out.”

Other artists and venues also took the leap. Violinist Gaelynn Lea started livestreaming weekly shows from her Duluth bedroom, fellow Duluthians Low kicked off their “Friday, I’m in Low” livestreams on Instagram live, and Bad Bad Hats turned their living room into “Studio A,” where they livestreamed each Saturday.

At first, these home set-ups were shoddy across the board. “The sound was awful at the start,” said Lea, who began with just a built-in webcam on her laptop and no external microphones.

After describing a D.I.Y. Steadicam made with a water bottle and plastic tube, Nur-D also admitted that it was “real kid-next-door two-by-four technology those first few streams.”

Local venues pivoted too, offering services like the Hook and Ladder’s “Hookstream” shows. “42 kitchen ukulele shows later, I thought we have to do something better than this,” said Jesse Brodd, marketing director and talent buyer at the Hook and Ladder Theater & Lounge.

The production team behind Hookstreams helps artists record and broadcast high-quality streams from the venue or remotely. According to Brodd, the production value and paywall options allow the Hook to continue carrying out its mission of providing local artists revenue and exposure. 

At-home productions also steadily improved through the year as artists hooked up new microphones, webcams, and carefully arranged Christmas lights. Less troubleshooting made way for more creative expression.

“The biggest challenge was making it interesting each week,” Nur-D said. “I’m competing against the internet. I’m competing against literally everything.” In his performances, he’s shifted from a larger-than-life stage presence calibrated to reach the person in the back of the room, to a more intimate, emotive style. “I’m finding myself really focusing on eyebrows and the connection between me and this green dot on my MacBook,” he laughs. 

The attention of a virtual fan feels fleeting compared to an in-person audience. Seasoned live streaming musicians have found strategies to keep fans engaged, knowing each is one click away from tuning out. Some of the resulting specialty programming ends up being unlike anything a fan would find at an in-person show.

Lea, who introduced weekly virtual guests to her Sunday streams this summer, would never have thought to produce intriguing interviews under normal circumstances. “I feel as excited about [livestream shows] as I do touring,” she said. With guests lined up through the end of July, including names like Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) and Jenny Conlee (Decemberists), she sees no reason to stop the weekly streams.

Fans have certainly fueled the success of virtual shows through their financial support, comments and feedback. “We feel grateful that music fans have been willing to adjust with artists,” said Bad Bad Hats’ Alexander. The band, who now livestream monthly through Patreon, view it as an ongoing option for connecting with fans. Even when in-person shows return, Alexander said, “I’m curious to see if there’s a certain type of fan who really enjoys watching from the comfort of their living room.”

Artists producing livestreams today recognize that they’re still no substitute for live shows, but they’re also not trying to be. “It's obviously not the same," said Lea. "Nothing about this year is the same but when you get over that, then you can be like well, what is it?” Lea hopes musicians understand how livestreams increase access to live music. Many who get left out of the art scene due to accessibility issues, chronic pain, or other reasons view the influx of livestreams as a positive change.

A 2015 NAEE study revealed how adults with disabilities are underrepresented in concert audiences, though they are just as likely as all Americans to create art and just as likely to use the Internet to consume art. “The world needs to think about how we can be more inclusive and I think virtual shows are definitely a way to do that,” Lea said.

Venues like the Hook and Ladder have already committed to livestreaming beyond the pandemic. Brodd plans to wire cameras and microphones to a studio above the stage, making live streams a permanent option for musicians playing the venue.

“Think of it as a second audience,” Brodd said, explaining how hybrid shows could expand beyond the 300-person capacity and bring the show to those who can’t make it to their Minneapolis venue. This month the venue saw 525 viewers pay $10 to watch a holiday live stream with Davina and the Vagabonds. “Hookstreams will not go away for the Hook,” Brodd said.

Any music fans seeking New Year's Eve dance parties will find virtual options this year. Brodd helped assemble a benefit concert of local musicians livestreaming from the Hook and Ladder. A stream of performances recorded at Mortimer’s will include Gully Boys, Bugsy and Nur-D.

“I’m super excited, I love New Year’s Eve shows,” Nur-D said. “And it’ll feel nice to say goodbye to this year.”

Follow The Current's Virtual Gig List for a regularly updated roundup of streams from your favorite artists.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.