Puffing dabs. No mawltards spilling schwill on me. No Alaska bathroom lines. And puffing dabs. #couchtour positives. — @walker_albert, Dec. 28, 2012.
It's a weekday night in the suburbs. The kids are in bed, and you're wide awake. What to do?
This isn't 1995. You can't drink a beer, walk to Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, N.C., and catch Whiskeytown. There's work in the morning (and you've since moved to Connecticut). You flip around on your Apple TV setup, trolling for interest on Netflix, Hulu Plus, even regular old cable. Nothing's grabbing you.
Imagine this: Toubab Krewe's on the Cat's Cradle live-stream channel. Aimee Mann's on the Infinity Music Hall channel. Dirty Projectors are on the Carnegie Hall channel. The Bad Plus is on the Village Vanguard channel. Il Trovatore's playing at the Sydney Opera House (if you're still up at 4 o'clock). You can't get to a show — tickets are too much, it's too far away, you've got kids, you're agoraphobic, whatever. But you can still catch the concert, live on your TV or your laptop, as it happens. Night saved!
That's one scenario floated by Cortney Harding, a freelance writer, business development consultant and former Billboard music editor, during a recent phone conversation. Harding, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., has written about live-streaming concerts for the music-technology website Hypebot.
"I can almost see it being a TV channel," Harding said, "an app or website... 'It's Tuesday night, I don't feel like going out, I'm tired. What's playing at the Bowery tonight?'... And just sort of flip around: 'This band's kind of interesting, I'll check them out.' And if they're cool, maybe I'll buy their album... That type of thing is what it's really going to turn into."
Whether or not you realize it, if you've ever streamed a live show on your television, iPad or laptop, you've been out on couchtour (hashtag: #couchtour), and large-scale acceptance of the practice is not far off. The term (and maybe even the practice of commenting) appears to have originated in the online community of Phish fans. The Rolling Stones, Jay-Z, Metallica and other huge acts have also streamed shows, using their own elaborate web infrastructures or simply using free applications — UStream, Daytrotter and others — that are available to anyone. If the Grateful Dead were still around, you can bet they'd be streaming whole tours, and nearly as many people would be tuning in online as occupying venues.
If you search Twitter for the hashtag #couchtour right now, most likely you'll see tweets related to jambands: Jackie Greene, Donna the Buffalo, Umphrey's McGee. Phish offered streams to their sold-out New Year's Eve run of four shows on their own site, livephish.com, for around $60 (you could also purchase streams for each show individually). Fans watch the live streams from home and then tweet or share their comments on social media under the heading #couchtour. For artists, it's undeniably a huge source of revenue above and beyond actual ticket sales, as long as they have the setup to pull it off.
Couchtouring, most people seem to agree, will never replace the experience of seeing a live show. But there are advantages to staying home: there's never a bathroom line (well, probably not). Beer, if you remembered to buy some, is a short walk away. Parking's never an issue (unless it always is). And it doesn't matter where the show takes place: Hong Kong, Brazil, London, New York, Los Angeles or Atlanta. As long as you're awake with a WiFi connection, you can tune in.
It's also different than watching an archived live performance on YouTube, DVD or a cable TV rebroadcast; you're in the moment, sharing the experience with a like-minded community on Twitter or through a website's comment widget. Tweets on #couchtour largely go silent, for example, during an incredible stretch of group improvisation, redoubling when it's over: Wow... sick Antelope jam. #couchtour, and so on. Alone, together: so very 21st-century.
a lot of bands incl. phish and the Rolling Stones charge 4 webcasts 2. #couchtour is the next best thing. — @deadgirltoo, Jan. 4, 2013.
Entry to live-streaming is hardly restricted to the music world. Louis C.K. famously bypassed HBO and other major comedy outlets in the fall of 2011, when he offered a stream of a Beacon Theatre performance directly to his fans on his own website, for $5. Three days later, C.K. issued a statement saying he had covered the film and website costs ($250,000) in 12 hours and had grossed $550,000 (that number is purportedly much higher now, after sales of archived copies). Piracy was an issue, but not a huge one. Other c omics have since followed suit.
Ryan Montbleau, a New England-based musician, streams audio of every show on his website, rmblive.com. He's become a sort of model, after the New York Times and Forbes Magazine profiled his setup earlier last year, for other mid-level artists.
"For us, it really came out of the capabilities of the soundboard," Montbleau told the Advocate by phone from Asheville, N.C., where he was preparing to play a show. "It wasn't like, 'Hey, we're going to stream all of our shows. It just evolved."
Montbleau and some of the more technically minded of his band members and crew asked a friend to design a website with a chat box, for fans to talk to each other as they listened to the audio-only stream. For the ones who actually make it out to see a show, Montbleau sells USB drives of the night's performance if they want something to take home. "The original idea wasn't even the streaming," Montlbeau said. "It was the 'instant-live' at the end of the show." Every RMB show ends up archived on the website, and buyers can name the price, even $0. "That's fine with us," Montbleau says, "as long as people are listening."
Montbleau has considered upgrading to an audio-video stream, but not until he can get it right. "The main challenge for us is bandwidth," he said. "It's probably five times what we're using now to do video. We're so happy with our audio stream right now. The quality is really good. It's a professional engineer mixing it and putting it out there. We don't really want to mess with video until we can do it as well as the audio." When video is up, Montbleau still wants it to be free. "We need people listening, we need people watching. I've never personally paid for a stream, not that I wouldn't, but I think it's such a barrier to entry that I think we'd still somehow offer it for free... For us, it's still a way to give to our hardcore people and let it develop from there. And I honestly believe it drives people out to shows."
Montbleau also doesn't think live-streaming competes with ticket sales. "There's people in Idaho who can't get to a show in New York City," he said. "They physically can't get to the show. So when we play in Idaho, they're going to come out to hear us." He appreciates the press, but said small bands shouldn't be fooled into thinking even an audio stream is easy to pull off.
"The main difference is that we're carrying a $20,000 soundboard with us to every show, which most start-up bands can't do," Montbleau said. "The tagline [from the New York Times article] was that we did it with an iPhone... That's a little misleading. Our sound guy can control the soundboard from an app on his iPhone. He can go out to the front of the house and mix us from his iPhone. But the sound isn't going through there."