The COVID-19 pandemic forced musicians to rethink how we might create a meaningful live experience for our existing fans and attract new ones. These six points have been crucial in the development of my act. In fact, I’m still learning to get better at them.
1. Get the Audience Involved – Any Way You Can!
I gave my first live, online performance 17 years ago on PalTalk, which was an audio-only format with chat. I performed in virtual open mic settings, which were a bit unruly. The most important thing I had learned in those days was to encourage audience participation in the chat window.
Audience members didn’t yet have the wide array of emojis they have today, so they’d use typed characters creatively, to simulate swaying back and forth and cheering. I quickly learned to call out the usernames of audience members who were using the chat to participate. At any instrumental break or song ending I’d make sure to call someone out. Whatever means an attendee had to express joy, I was going to encourage it.
After a number of these performances, I had put that particular skill away. Instead I focused on booking and performing as many live, in-person shows as I could, touring book stores and coffeehouses. Online performances had been fun, but the audio quality was poor and the lack of visual element to the performance was a pretty severe limit.
A decade later, I had formed a band that plays children’s music at schools and libraries – Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam. When there was a snow day, I’d give an online concert for the families that followed us, so they’d have something to do. We used the platform Concert Window for these shows. I made the show as engaging as possible, calling for “freeze dances” and for kids to pretend they were jumping on a bed. It worked well. Until Concert Window closed its window for good.
California singer Janel Nabong is an absolute master at involving the audience, frequently presenting them with cause for interesting chat conversation.
2. Plan to Take Requests
Today’s more advanced online concert platforms have a song list feature where audience members can browse through the songs you’re prepared to perform. Fulfilling an audience member’s request strengthens your bond with the audience. Make sure you’re updating your song list periodically and rehearsing those songs. Remember, if it’s in your list, it can get requested at any time!
If your audience doesn’t know your original songs, make sure to have plenty of cover songs prepared. You can also remove songs from your song list for certain shows to preserve a certain theme – like if you’re doing ’80s night, maybe remove all your 2000’s songs for the night. If your performance platform allows the import of spreadsheets of your song lists, you might find them quicker and easier to make.
Michigan-based performer Kris Pride makes effective use of themed shows with her songbook.
3. Mix In Some Benefit Concerts
This difficult period of COVID-19 has brought the virtual benefit concert to the forefront of public consciousness. Major network TV was brimming with concert specials featuring Zoomed-in performances from famous artists in the first several months. A benefit concert can serve as a truly compelling reason for your community to come together, enjoy your music and support a worthy cause.
Benefit concerts also establish that your music has value to it. Your concert is the premium people get for their donation to the cause. So, when you play a regular online concert, that same audience that supported your cause will more likely support you via tips and merch orders.
At present time, Live Streamer Cafe is the only concert platform I’ve seen with a donate button for the cause the artist is playing for. I requested that feature and Kris, the site developer, delivered. As one of the platform’s first artists, I reviewed it in this linked blog post.
4. Consider Your Audience’s Total Experience
Imagine you’re driving to a physical venue to see a band – a friend of a friend. The street address is wrong and GPS is taking you nowhere. You finally reach the venue only to discover the band didn’t put your name on the guest list like they said they would. Then you get in and discover the layout of the venue dark, cluttered and confusing. The sound quality is garbled, the lighting is poor and the musicians don’t even look like they’re enjoying themselves. They’re just gazing down at their instruments. At the end of the night you leave, having gotten no acknowledgement from the act you came to see. You’ve had a night you hope to forget soon.
There’s an electronic equivalent of this, and it isn’t pretty! I’ve had some unfortunate learning experiences where I’ve sent Zoom links out for the wrong “meeting” – so people I was expecting at the show haven’t arrived (because the link was wrong!).
I’ve gotten better at this with experience, but I’ve also found that the dedicated streaming platforms work with a web address that never changes, so all your marketing can easily guide all your audience to the right place.
The layout of your streaming platform deserves consideration as well. How much explanation does the web site require where you’ll be performing. Can audience easily sign up, log in, participate in chat, make song requests and support the artist? If it requires elaborate explanation, you may want to look for alternative venues. Consider their user experience when choosing a platform to perform on.
If your audience leaves your show feeling truly appreciated, you’ve done it right! No performer has impressed me more with genuine gratitude than Ontario-based rising star Ashley Sienna. She reacts to every tip like a Grammy winner!
5. Get Your Lighting and Sound Right
In my experience, good lighting matters more than a high-end camera. I use two inexpensive LED lamps to light my performances. When you’re well-lit, your image on screen will be clearly defined and more engaging than a dull, muddy image.
For sound, ensure a good balance between voice and instruments. Make sure you’re not overloading your sound interface (that would usually produce red light indicators), which will come out distorted on the audience’s end. My sound setup is the PA system I use at my in-person gigs, which supplies a bit of reverb and mixes my vocal mic, guitar and keyboards. I use the same stage mic I use in my in-person shows.
Check out Martyn Lucas’ shows for some real next-level production value.
6. Create Special Occasions
Your online concerts are opportunities to world-premiere your new video – it makes a good break in the middle of your show and also presents your audience with another side of you as an artist. I’ve world-premiered a couple of videos in my live streams and they’ve created memorable moments for the audience and me alike. Showing a collaboration video in your concert when you’re a solo act is a great way to introduce variety.