21st century house concerts

YouTube and Facebook kept 'live' music going during the pandemic; will Twitch shuffle the entire industry?

Jorma Kaukonen, co-founder of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna and member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, will hit the road in a couple of weeks — his first extensive touring since March 2020. You know, when COVID shut down live performances.

But the 80-year-old fingerpicking legend served fans regular offerings of tasty blues and jam tunes throughout the pandemic, from Fur Peace Ranch, his home in southeastern Ohio. More than two decades ago, Jorma and his wife Vanessa opened the ranch, with a dozen cabins, a performance theater, and a small restaurant, to host guitar workshops for musicians and songwriters. Concerts, too. The Kaukonens posted some of the performances on YouTube, to let fans sample what they might see if they decided to visit Meigs County.

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The pandemic temporarily ended the workshops. But not the live music. Jorma, along with the occasional visitor — including bassist Jack Casady, his Airplane/Tuna colleague, who dropped by a few times — used livestreaming to produce weekly “Quarantine Concerts” from the stage.

The audience might have been thousands of miles away. But the intimate setting, and excellent production techniques, brought Jorma and his friends virtually into living rooms. The concerts streamed in real time. Fans could donate with Venmo and other electronic payment technologies. Kinda like busking without leaving home.

Fur Peace Ranch has the equipment and staff to produce top-notch streaming shows. Other musicians used professional setups to stream pay-per-view concert-quality shows.

Those who didn’t have state-of-the-art equipment, from niche performers to Hall-of-Famers, “busked” from home during the pandemic, with the bells and whistles they could pull together.

On the traditional side, bluesman Nathan James streamed live shows from his home studio, sometimes as a one-man band (for the full effect, check out the 13:00 mark):

Other streams featured his band the Rhythm Scratchers, or a blues legend, say, Fabulous Thunderbirds founder Kim Wilson:

The Swiss-born “progressive bluegrass” group Kruger Brothers regularly streamed performances on Facebook from the living room of their Wilkes County home.

https://www.facebook.com/KrugerBrothers/videos/852592682012008

A Twitchy innovation

Some musicians may largely abandon the road, or will stop undertaking lengthy tours. Not because age has made travel difficult. Or they earn enough through licensing arrangements to retire (that’s another story, as Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen said in 2016).

These artists have found they can mostly work from home as musicians, albeit under tenuous circumstances.

Twitch, the Amazon-owned streaming platform designed for gamers, has attracted musicians, the New York Times recently reported. Unlike Spotify, Apple Music, or YouTube, which pays performers fractions of a penny per download or view, Twitch lets fans pay artists directly as they perform, with modest monthly subscriptions or payment services including Patreon. (Much as Substack or Medium works for writers/podcasters.)

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From the Times:

The band Aeseaes, a married couple in Austin, Texas, that specializes in acoustic covers, earned 70 percent of their income in 2019 and 2020 from Twitch; just 6 percent came from audio streaming services and Bandcamp, the online indie music store. …

Tracy Patrick Chan, Twitch’s head of music, said that of the musicians who can earn $50,000 a year there, their median viewership — the number of people watching their streams at any given time — is only 183. By comparison, it may take 5 million to 10 million streams to yield the same payout from major audio streaming platforms, according to most estimates of those services’ per-stream rates.

Twitch’s two challenges: It requires a consistent commitment of time and labor; and the revenue stream could vanish with little warning.

Twitch posters make money by subscriptions and views. “It is tempting to compare Twitch to driving a taxi — if you ain’t on the road (or live streaming), the meter ain’t moving,” wrote Will Page, Spotify’s former chief economist, in a report about Twitch’s revenue model.

Success, though, requires Twitch posters to be more like personal drivers. “Put simply, once a loyal base of fans are used to riding that taxi, Twitch creators can monetise them many times over.”

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Page said Twitch could create a “middle class” of professional musicians — a group that largely disappeared when streaming services savaged royalties from sales of physical albums, CDs, and tapes. 

First, the revenue model must hold.

Even though it’s owned by Amazon, Twitch is a bit like pirate radio. Twitch creators are licensed to perform live. But if they save their streams and repost them, the artists don’t have the right to collect fees for copyrighted cover songs. (YouTube, Apple Music, Spotify, and other streaming services offer blanket licensing for most copyrighted material. That’s how I can play a cover song and post it on a public YouTube channel without paying royalties.)

The Times said music industry lawyers have ordered Twitch to take down unlicensed videos. 

The company says it’s negotiating a licensing setup with publishers, but it’s resisted one that would deny its creators most of their money. Like the one YouTube and its peers use.

Without question, there’s nothing like the energy and atmosphere of live performance. Gains in audio and video technology have brought studio-quality performances to live stages of all sizes — something unthinkable in clubs and arenas alike a couple of decades ago.

But these events are costly to stage. Performers, crews, and venues expect to be paid. Plenty of brilliant musicians can’t find enough of an audience to pay the bills. 

And, as John Hartford wrote and the Sam Bush Band played, life on the road is no picnic.

Maybe Twitch can figure out a licensing deal that keeps everyone happy. Along with the lawyers. Or another platform on stronger legal footing will emerge.

If so, the house concert may take many unanticipated turns.