AdHoc spoke with four venues about how they are using live-streaming to keep the party going during the pandemic.
It’s unlikely that music workers in New York City and across the country will ever forget the second week of March when shows began to be canceled and venues started to close their doors. The executive order that Mayor de Blasio signed the following week on March 16 would formally close all entertainment venues, plunging New York City’s nightlife community—the very ecosystem that enables the city’s 24-hour culture—into uncertainty. With venues forced closed by the city and nightlife patrons staying home instead of partying, how could New York City’s arts and culture community stay afloat?
Almost immediately venues pivoted to live-streaming. On March 13, Nowadays, a venue on the border of Bushwick and Ridgewood, announced their live-streaming offering “Virtually Nowadays” on March 13, becoming one of the first venues in New York to move their programming online. For many, live-streaming was the obvious solution to lockdown, a way for venues to beam their programming straight to viewers at home. On March 31, Baby’s All Right launched Baby TV, an online counterpart to their brick-and-mortar location that could continue providing cultural programming to their audience. Part staff fundraiser, part charity benefit for Make The Road NY, Rutkin says that Baby TV’s main focus has been providing relief to staff, artists, and the community.
“We had to improvise, really. All of a sudden we had a big pool of employees with no income,” Greg Rutkin, the night manager and marketing coordinator at Baby’s All Right told AdHoc over email. “We saw a lot of venues quickly jump to crowdsourcing for relief, which is great, but we wanted to be able to offer something to people in return.”
The pandemic had put a pause on the entire live entertainment industry, throwing music workers’ livelihoods in limbo. For Bushwick venue The Sultan Room at Turk’s Inn, which launched its live-streaming mini-series “Sultan Room Sessions: LIVE” on March 30, the pandemic struck just nine months after they officially opened for business.
“The shutdown occurred so quickly and it sort of thwarted all of the plans we had and the momentum and energy,” Varun Kataria, co-owner and one of the founders of The Sultan Room, told AdHoc. “So I think [the Sultan Room Sessions: LIVE] came out of a desire to just channel that energy somewhere. To just think about what it is we can do in this environment, and that seemed like the first baby step in that direction.”
By the end of March, New Yorkers looking to paint the town red from the safety of their homes now had a variety of programming to tune into on multiple platforms. But while some venues had prior experience with digital programming—like Babycastles, a volunteer-run exhibition space in Manhattan which had been streaming programs online before the pandemic—for many this was their first time experimenting with a live-stream format, and it would come with its own challenges.
For starters, live-streaming is new for a lot of people, and Rutkin told AdHoc that a lot of his time is spent “fielding questions about how to watch streams and teaching artists how to use the backend software that makes the streams possible.” Since live-streaming as a way of broadcasting live shows has only recently become popular, many artists have varying experience with live-stream technology. James Buckley, who helps run The Sultan Room’s live-streamed programs, has said that the learning curve has made it harder to provide a “consistent product.”
“It’s harder to stage manage a show and control the sound quality of a show or concert when you’re not running the systems that they’re using for the stream,” Buckley told AdHoc. The Sultan Room currently streams on Instagram Live, where the quality of a stream—like other live-streaming offerings—can depend on the broadcaster’s wifi connection. Kataria pointed out that the technology used to run these streams can be “kind of buggy and glitchy,” which Lauren Gardner, a director at Babycastles who works on their bbcast live-streams, echoed:
“I think we tend to believe an online event will be easier to organize then an IRL event but it takes more planning and promotion because you can not control the tech setup that is not in front of you, like if a remote performer has a bad internet connection or is using the mic on the computer.”
Even if your stream is stable, there’s no guarantee that people will watch. OhMyRockness, an events listing site, listed 70 live-streamed events in May alone. With so many shows to pick from, and the ability to tune in from anywhere in the world, Gardner has said that it has become harder to promote digital events:
“There are a lot of online events now vying for attention and people are tired of their computers, so you have to communicate that there’s something coming up they will be excited about and is worth their time.”
The viewers that you are able to attract won’t necessarily watch the entire time either. Tuning into a live-stream is very different from going to a show; whereas seeing a concert might entail buying tickets, booking travel and accommodation, and waiting in line, watching a live-stream is very low-commitment.
“It’s more like watching TV,” Kataria said. “It’s not the same value proposition in that they’re getting their night out and that’s what they’re paying for. They’re not going to see an entire set. They’re not going to clamor for an encore. They’re tuning in, seeing some stuff, hanging for a while.”
While live-streaming is a much more casual affair than attending an event in-person, it does offer new ways of interacting and expanding a venue’s audience. Gardner told AdHoc that while prior to the pandemic Babycastles offered a “one to many type of broadcast,” where the audience is a passive viewer, now “we are trying to engage with the online audience during the event and even bring them in.” Since bbcast streams on Twitch, a platform geared towards gamers, Babycastles has been able to reach not only their existing gaming audience but also a larger community.
“In our space we could only host about 15 students but online there is no limit,” Gardner told AdHoc. Live-streaming makes programming accessible for people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to go to an in-person event. Zan Emerson—the senior manager of marketing and design at the Williamsburg performing arts venue National Sawdust—also said that digital programming has expanded their venue’s reach in ways they never could have managed with a venue that can only fit 305 people standing and 150 seated. Since National Sawdust specializes in contemporary classical and experimental music, an admittedly niche market, offering their programming online for free has eliminated the barrier for entry.
“If you want to get more than 150 pairs of eyes on this type of music, you gotta really have a fleshed-out digital program,” Emerson told AdHoc. “For a show that would have been seated and would have had 150 people in the room, those exact same artists are getting 7,000 views of their streamed performance.”
Not only does live-streaming offer National Sawdust a broader audience, but it allows the venue to continue to reach viewers long after the performance has concluded. Emerson estimates that more than half of National Sawdust’s views come after a performance has been archived.
Digital programming hasn’t just affected how many people can join an event, but also the types of events that venues can offer.
“My favorite things have been the more chill events that we wouldn’t be able to do in our space. One night our friend just played the piano for an hour, Sam Johnston read through zines and graphic novels, and Emily Koonce hosts a recurring series where people read through plays. It’s just very comforting to log on and see people doing their thing, it’s not performative and it feels like you’re together in that ‘space’,” Gardner said.
Kataria also emphasized how live-streaming has allowed The Sultan Room to provide an entirely different experience to their community, highlighting the chat function that is built into many streaming platforms:
“It’s definitely a novel way to consume culture and sort of connect with the community; even just that opportunity to chat during a performance that isn’t really intrusive but enhances it. There are certain takeaways that I’ve had from this Instagram stream and this other way of enjoying music that I want to think about how to incorporate that into the live experience somehow.”
Kataria said that when live music returned, it would be worth exploring ways to encourage people to interact and connect with each other in the same non-intrusive way. Buckley added, “I’ve been on a number of security boards and calls in the last 8 weeks or more and there have been truthful conversations about using some sort of app to use the restroom, and maybe the same app could be a chatroom and communicate with other people at the show.”
Live-streaming has enabled venues to build and foster their communities online, and even imagine new ways of engaging their audiences. For live-streaming programs like Baby TV, it has also provided venues with a way to give back to their community. Proceeds from Baby TV are split among staff, artists, and Make The Road New York, an immigrants rights organization. Having previously raised funds for Make The Road while on tour with his old band LVL UP, Rutkin saw Baby TV as an opportunity to contribute again.
“At this specific moment in time the folks in our community who are truly left in the dark are our undocumented community members; the people who break their backs to keep restaurants and venues alive,” Rutkins told AdHoc. “They’re all in an especially precarious position because they can’t seek help if a landlord decides to threaten eviction and aren’t going to receive stimulus checks or unemployment.”
Rutkin has found that most ticket buyers donate more than the $5 minimum, and so far Baby TV has managed to donate around $3,000 to Make The Road NY. Rutkin told AdHoc that Baby TV was “an effort to create a space for the community that at times lived inside our walls,” and that the live-streams have offered a sense of “togetherness in such a disconnected time.”
Live-streaming is one way that venues can raise money for venue staff, artists, and charities, as well keep the party going for people at home—in many ways, it is just as much about raising morale as raising money. But because live-streaming can never compare to or replace in-person entertainment, all of the for-profit venues interviewed for this article made it clear that their live-streaming operation would never be able to fully fund their business.
The Sultan Room’s live-streaming series—which is free to watch, although donations to the venue and artist are encouraged—just keeps “the basic elements of our operation going,” Buckley said. Kataria said that while the live-streams aren’t enough to sustain their venue, “the spirit behind them is just using this as an opportunity to connect with our community and stay mentally active and creatively active.” For the National Sawdust, Emerson pointed out how the decision not to monetize the venue’s streams was informed by the fact that live-streaming has become an incredibly saturated market where big acts like Radiohead and Phish offer free content.
“It’s hard enough to sell tickets for anything to see a show in person,” Emerson said, “Would it really move the needle to try and charge people 5 or 10 dollars? But if Radiohead and Phish aren’t doing it, then at this point I just want people to see it.”
But unlike The Sultan Room, National Sawdust is a non-profit, and it runs mostly on donations, grants, and public rentals; unlike for-profit venues, ticket sales are not their primary source of income. In fact, Emerson said that this business model “put us in a really great position, because we already had a development department. Any for-profit venue isn’t necessarily going to have people on staff who know how to write grants.”
It was a donation—specifically aimed at digital programming—that paved the way for National Sawdust’s live-streamed Digital Discovery Festival. In addition to offering a large archive of previously recorded performances for free, National Sawdust has been paying artists $1,000 each to participate in their festival. The donation also included an equipment grant so that National Sawdust could provide artists with the tools necessary for a high-quality live-stream. That same donation will also fund National Sawdust’s forthcoming New Works Commission, which will provide 20 emerging composers with $3,000 each to fund a three to five-minute composition.
“Your God source is different. The non-profit model means that you can answer to a mission instead of just sales numbers,” Emerson told AdHoc. “It’s basically trying to find the right way to ask for the money so that you can help creatives put things out in the world.”
Like National Sawdust, Babycastles is also a non-profit, but it is entirely volunteer-run. Babycastles’ status as a nonprofit has enabled them to provide sliding scale or donation-based programming, with 70% of donations going back to artists.
“Being a non-profit helps us access funds that independent contractors or LLCs would not have access to,” Gardner told AdHoc. “It’s still a lot of labor to apply to those funds but it helps us pay the rent and pay artists so we can share more of the event profits with staff.”
In addition to applying for outside funding, Babycastles also operates a membership program on WithFriends where patrons can support Babycastles for as little as $1 per month. In the wake of the pandemic, other venues have also considered setting up membership programs in order to help support their business. Back in March, Nowadays launched their Patreon, and Kataria has said that The Sultan Room has considered setting up a Patreon too. The pandemic has revealed how financially precarious live entertainment is, and live music venues are looking at ways to create a business model that could weather another crisis.
For The Sultan Room, Kataria said that while the pandemic interrupted a lot of the momentum they had garnered as a new business, it has been a “blessing” to have some time to reflect and imagine new ways to grow their business; whether that be through sponsorships, performances recorded at The Sultan Room to an empty room, or even seated raves.
“There’s that saying that ‘you can’t change the tires on a moving car.’ We’re kind of living that right now. We’re able to stop and kick the tires and swap things around,” Kataria said.
Ultimately, these live-streaming efforts aren’t meant to sustain a business in the long-term, but instead provide short-term relief; for people in New York City, for music workers out of a job, and for fans stuck at home. Both Baby’s All Right and The Sultan Room plan on continuing their live-streamed programming even after venues are able to fully open up again, with Buckley likening their live-streaming operation to their restaurant delivery system:
“You know for instance, with our restaurant the delivery aspect is almost the restaurant equivalent of live-streaming. It’s like sending your product to somebody’s house. It’s our assumption that even after we re-open the doors and people can come back to the space itself, some piece of what we do is going to need to cater to people at home.”
While some venues have been able to open back up to sell food and beverages, operating as an entertainment venue is still a ways off. Even once venues reopen, it’s unlikely that venues will see the same levels of patronage that they did prior to the pandemic, or even be able to accept the same number of patrons if re-opening involves limited capacity. If venues open before a vaccine hits the market, there will be artists and fans who aren’t willing to put themselves at risk, regardless of any health measures the venues will have to institute.
Since the start of the pandemic, live entertainment venues have made it clear that their survival is dependent on more than whatever money they can garnish from live-streaming or fundraisers. In a city where rising rents have already put a stranglehold on small businesses, a new report estimates that nearly a third of small businesses, about 75,000 businesses, in New York City may never reopen because of closures—nearly 3,000 businesses have already closed their doors forever, according to the New York Times.
Owning and operating a venue was already hard enough pre-pandemic—the short-lived Lower Eastside venue The Dance is a testament to this—and without government aid, venues who have gone months without their primary source of income are at risk of disappearing forever. In the absence of federal support, organizations like the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) formed to advocate for live entertainment venues across the country—in New York, local collectives like NYC Nightlife United and Supporting Nightlife NYC sought to address community needs by distributing funds.
But fundraised money can only go so far during a crisis with no end in sight. No amount of money raised is going to support a venue without any revenue indefinitely. Emerson noted that at some point, given all of the various important causes that deserve money and attention, “people who are a part of this community are going to get tapped out.”
“A great Kickstarter or monetizing your streams for $5-10 each, that’s not going to be what saves any of us,” Emerson told AdHoc. “For a club that has an 800 person capacity, they make more than 50 grand a night on drinks alone.”
Across the pond, countries have already taken action to preserve their cultural industries. In July, the United Kingdom pledged nearly $2 billion in support of the arts, and France, Germany, and the Netherlands have also announced aid for their cultural institutions. In the United States, NIVA has launched the #SaveOurStages campaign to lobby Congress to pass the Save Our Stages Act and the Restart Act. But the federal government has been slow to act, and venues have already gone six months without any tailored aid. Without government action, the backbone of New York City’s arts & culture scene will be hollowed out.
It’s not just venues that will lose out if the government refuses to act, but everyone that relies on venues for a source of income: musicians, promoters, sound and lighting technicians, bartenders, security staff, and more. So while we’re all adjusting to partying during a pandemic, we should ask if this system, where people’s entire livelihoods can be upended without any substantial governmental action, is sustainable—and what partying will look like after the pandemic if all the venues we love are gone.
“I truly believe that music, or any way that a communal experience of creativity can happen, is going to be a major part of our processing and healing. It is a deeply essential part of our lives, and that’s why the government needs to support it and we all need to come together,” Emerson told AdHoc. “Hopefully we don’t lose too much until we can come back and meet together in person.”