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."
I did #couchtour first 2 nites then went to next 2.Gotta love the iPad and BTooth Beats next best thing to being there. — @chef_fasano, Jan. 7, 2013.
Most venues, Montbleau said, don't have an issue with him live-streaming shows. "We've had one or two who've gotten a little freaked out," he said. "I do think we slide under the radar a little bit." Problems only seem to arise when larger bands are working under big promoters, like LiveNation. "When you start running up against bigger entities, I wonder how much more we'd be affected. Right now, for a lot of these small clubs, it's a cool thing. It's promotion for their club, where people can listen from wherever."
At least one Connecticut venue — Infinity Music Hall and Bistro in Norfolk, and soon-to-be on Front Street in Hartford — has wanted to incorporate live-streamed shows all along. But it's taken some time to pull off.
"It's been in the plan since before the first nail was pulled in Norfolk," said Jack Forchette, director of entertainment and business development at Infinity Hall. "The vision is global pay-per-view, which is, in essence, streaming." Because so much of the organization's energy these days is directed at the launch of a new Hartford venue, Forchette can't say when it will actually happen. But he believes #couchtour will be an attractive future revenue source, for his company and visiting artists.
"This is a chance for their fans out in wherever they're from to see them perform in a very unique venue," Forchette said. "That's been the plan from Day One. That's why [the venue in Norfolk] is wired for high-def. We didn't want to try to make changes when we were ready to do this. That venue's all set up for that. Hartford will have the same thing."
When both buildings are operational, Infinity Hall plans to book two artists at a time for simultaneous two-night runs; one will play Norfolk on Friday and Hartford on Saturday, and the other will do the reverse. Forchette thinks live-streams will be based primarily out of the historic Norfolk location. "1880," he said. "Have you been in the building? That says it all."
"We won't be the only venue," Forchette said. "We aren't the smartest tools in the shed. I would imagine there are 50 other venues out there in the country that are thinking the same way we are. We've just been very lucky." Infinity Hall is already the only operating venue in the country that has a nationally syndicated show on PBS. "But I'm sure we weren't the only ones wanting to do that," he said. "My task here in all these ventures... I just want to be early on the highway, make our name and get it out there."
What about ticket sales? Will they flag if there's a live-stream available?
"I'm an old guy," Forchette said. "I still think you can't beat being there. Nothing can touch that."
I sleep at the frat house way too much #couchtour — @rybar93, Jan. 9, 2013.
Todd Stoops, keyboard player for the Connecticut-based funk-fusion supergroup Kung Fu, sent this e-mail: "I really believe the live audio/video webcasting that [names withheld] did for the earliest Kung Fu shows (a 14-week Monday night residency at a small club in New Haven, CT), absolutely kick-started the band's career. Kung Fu never had plans of touring, etc. We started as a simple collective, playing fusion music that made us happy. The webcasting brought the music to SO many more people that would never have heard... I believe that we can directly attribute some of the touring success we have realized to the initial webcasting over those 14 weeks."
Some fans approach bands — who themselves might not have any conception of or interest in live-streaming — and ask if they can broadcast their shows, a 21st-century twist on the taping scene of the '70s, '80s and '90s. Bill Carbone, who plays drums for Max Creek and a number of other area bands (and who also contributes to the Advocate), said he's worked with streamers with Z3, his organ-trio tribute to the music of Frank Zappa, at a club called Stella Blues in New Haven.
"We showed up to a show early to load in, and these two guys were there already," Carbone said. "They were putting up extra lights, and they were sort of like, 'Oh, we're going to stream your show tonight, if you don't mind.'"
A half-hour before the show, the streamers, who Carbone said were hooked into a network of taper/streamer online forums, encouraged the band to get the word out on Facebook and Twitter. Equipped with a handheld and six smaller cameras positioned around the club, the individuals (who didn't wish to be interviewed) streamed the whole show, performing live camera-edits throughout the night.
"They were playing the cameras," Carbone said, "and they could do split-screens and stuff. If you see the videos, they were having fun with it."
It got around. Shortly after, the Z3 got a call from a big European festival that wanted to book them. "They'd seen the videos, and later we got a call from a different European venue who said someone had shown up and handed them audio CDs they had made of our stuff online," Carbone said. "I thought, 'Wow, this is cool, we don't even have a CD.' On that level, I'm totally sold on the idea."
Carbone understands why fans want to participate in the technology. "In my experience, there are people who love to go and watch shows," Carbone said, "and then there are people who need to be involved on some level. They need something to do. Unless I'm really awestruck by a band, I get bored really fast. I want to be playing. I want to be engaged deeply. I can understand it. I think it's a modern-era thing."
Hey everybody on #COUCHTOUR I'm on #COMPUTERCHAIRTOUR & it sure is SWEET out here on the "interweb" — @johnpoyner, Jan. 12, 2013, 1:41 a.m.
There are plenty of websites and live-streaming apps: StreamJam, Daytrotter, UStream, LiveStream, Justin.tv, EdgeCast, others. Google now offers live streaming capabilities through Google Plus, its social media component, where you can easily set up a video hangout and stream it live on a YouTube player, which can be embedded anywhere. You need a professional mic and camera, but that's easy enough.
Tyler Palmer, director of artist relations at StageIt, a Hollywood, Calif.-based "online venue" for live-streaming, worked with jamband Umphrey's McGee on their recent four-night New Year's Eve run at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, Ga. "We're not a production company," Palmer said. "We have built a venue for the artist to use, in any way that they like." With the Umphrey's run, the band shot the footage, captured the audio, set the ticket price ($6 per night for the lead-in shows, and $8 for New Year's Eve) and chose how many online viewers to open it up to. "Maybe they only want 100 exclusive fans to see this show," Palmer said, "or if they want to open it up to 1,000 people around the world. They pick the size of their online venue."
Other than the costs of shooting video and handling the audio stream, there are no upfront costs for artists, and no minimum number of viewers required. StageIt pays out 60 percent of the gross directly to the band within 10 business days (via check or PayPal). Of StageIt's cut, a quarter of it covers expenses — bandwidth per user per hour, transaction fees, customer support to the artist, moderating the chat, running test shows -- and the final 15 percent is the distribution fee (i.e. profit). The band handles any hangups the physical venue might have about the stream, and can choose to offer venues a taste of the 60 percent if they wish (or if asked).
Palmer regularly sees StageIt artists — obviously the bigger ones — pulling down $25,000 in online streaming sales for a single show. He couldn't say without getting clearance, but Palmer estimated that between a few hundred to over 1,000 people tuned in online for each night of the Umphrey's McGee stream. Assuming, say, an average of 800 viewers paid for each of the four nights, that's $12,480 gross for the band.
"It gives the fans a way to connect with the artist, and it gives the fans a way to support the band," Palmer said. "[Bands] know the majority of their ticket-holders are happy to support them by giving them a couple of bucks without having to leave their home."
The most popular price model, used on around 75 percent of StageIt shows, Palmer said, is "pay-what-you-can": anything from a dime on up. (When artists ask fans to contribute what they "can," it usually amounts to around $5.) The average price-per-show on StageIt is $5.50. On top of that, there's a voluntary spend option in the form of an online "tip jar."
Palmer rattled off some of the bigger names among the 15,000 registered StageIt artists: Trey Songz, Rick Springfield, Jimmy Buffett, Sara Bareilles and Gavin DeGraw, Ingrid Michaelson, Korn. "We've got major artists on our site, but we've also got Jimmy in his dorm-room selling 12 tickets to his friends and family," he said. "Our site works all across the board for artists of all shapes and sizes." StageIt pulled off 400 shows last month (roughly 15 shows a day), and the number is going up every month. "I wouldn't be surprised if we're at 500 a month in a month or two," said Palmer.
Palmer has reason to be biased. (He works for a company that deals in live-streaming.) But he said he can't understand why bands like Montbleau's wouldn't strictly monetize the audio and/or video material they make available to fans.
"It literally blows my mind that artists would be giving away content for free these days," Palmer said. "The Facebook posts, the tweets, the YouTube videos: They're giving it all away for free, and we're sitting here thinking: Guys, we're selling hundreds or thousands of tickets a day. Your fans are willing to pay for an interactive experience, a live moment that's not archived? Fans are totally willing to pay to support you. You're denying them that right by not putting your show up on StageIt, by giving a stream away for free."
Oh. Yes, please! Rock and Roll at MSG, can't lose. #phish #couchtour — @fluffhead67, Dec. 29, 2012, retweeted twice.
For Montbleau, knowing that fans are listening online encourages him to craft unique setlists. "It does enter your head a little bit," he said. "It's not this separated thing anymore, where every town is separated from another. And I'm fine with that."
The target audience for those Z3 Stella Blue streams, Carbone said, was a specific online community of Zappa fans who rabidly consume everything related to their favorite composer. "If we were just some band playing whatever, it would have had absolutely no effect and nobody would have watched it. The guys who [streamed it] posted it in these certain forums, and it went from there. I'm glad that happened in my life. I've always wanted that to happen."
There are no universal rules for #couchtour viewing — who can tune in to what, to consume it with or without Twitter, alone or with friends, drunk, straight, on Adderall — but there are a few commonalities.
"I get the sense that people are in their pajamas, just from reading the chat," Palmer said. "They're on their couch, on social media, on Twitter, on Facebook."
If social media is involved, audience members are vicariously experiencing what it means to be in a band, through the tweets they're sharing about the band, said Johnny Eric Williams, an associate professor of sociology at Trinity College in Hartford.
"They are having that kind of backstage experience vicariously, too," Williams said. "In many ways, they are fulfilling their fantasies."
This spring, Williams will teach a course on mass media, popular culture and social reality at Trinity. When people #couchtour together, Williams said, "in some sense you're talking about an online community. These are people who like the same kind of music, are having conversations about the bands they like, together, even though they are located in different places. They aren't in the same place where the band is performing, but they are still consuming the music itself, in different locations."
Sociologically, it can be viewed as a mechanism through which a band can can retain a sense of autonomy over the creativity and the selling of their own music, rather than going through a large record company. "When you think about the political economy of it," Williams said, "the band can broaden its appeal, not just amongst the people who like it, but an even younger crowd or older crowd who've never heard of them before, and who may be exposed to their music." But ultimately, he admitted, "It's about making money. It's about advertising... It's about community, but also making money for the band."
Williams offered another, slightly futuristic take on the act of live-tweeting a show. "People are having conversations about it, the band is also tweeting back, having a conversation with the people about what the band was thinking, and so forth," he suggested, like in Star Trek: The Next Generation, specifically the super-hot cyborg Seven of Nine, "where you have a melding of the machinery of music with the human mind, to be even more creative and fragmented to a greater extent, to tailor the music to that particular crowd."
The most promising aspect of #couchtour, Williams said, is a band's ability to empower their audience, to nudge them toward some sort of greater good. "It can either lead to the maintenance of the status quo, when it comes to societal ordering and change," he said, "or it can lead to transformation of the status quo. But one doesn't know. It depends what the band is doing."
Live-streaming may have the capacity to achieve some sort of large-scale societal change (imagine what Woodstock might have been like with live-streaming and Twitter). But it rarely happens, if ever. "Usually when you have this kind of mass-media pop culture, it's disseminated from one to many," Williams said. "What's going on here is an exchange between people, but it's largely an exchange within the group itself." Anyone not part of the group won't get exposed, however, to the exchanges happening within the group, unless considerable word of mouth spreads outside the community. "But pretty much, [the exchange is] going to be constrained to that fragment of the audience."
Contemporary music, Williams concluded, has become standardized to the point where it doesn't mean anything anymore, and record companies are glad to see that happen.
"It's totally de-politicized," Williams said. "It has nothing to do with the drudgery of life or how to get over it. It just has to do with sex and violence."
Except for musician-activists like Tom Morello, the former Rage Against the Machine guitarist. "He's bringing his groups out into the street to work for change." (Morello is a registered StageIt artist.)
Nice #couchtour ripoff KFC... #couchgating... Meh... — @joshkorin, Jan. 12, 2013, 11:29 p.m.
So why don't more bands and venues live-stream shows, and why are the ones who do still reluctant to monetize it?
"There's not really the technology that's cheap, ubiquitous and easy-to-use for this yet," Harding, the former Billboard editor, said. "What you see so far are big events — Jay-Z presented by AmEx at Madison Square Garden — and that takes a lot of money to handle."
Harding said bands rarely see much return on investment: the quality is too poor, or their fan bases are too small. "No company yet has come up with the technology yet that can be installed in every club, super-easy to use and cost-effective. Nobody's struck the deal yet to make that happen." She has researched numerous companies with pilot projects (including StageIt), but none of them seem capable of taking the next step.
"I think it's coming really soon," Harding said. "I think 2013 is the year that this stuff really starts to take off in a meaningful way."
CT.COM MINI PODCAST: #couchtour
Listen to Mike Hamad discuss the #couchtour concept in this short CT.com podcast
Streaming Acts: clockwise from upper left, Phish, Jay Z, Louis C.K. and Ryan Montbleau.