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Virtual spaces for music: Is live streaming here to stay?

by Wif Stenger

As the pandemic fades in Finland and live gigs resume, what have we learned from the abrupt leap into the virtual space? And where do we go from here? Is live streaming here to stay – or just the first step?

The pandemic forced concerts quickly into the virtual space – but what does the future hold?

In 2020 artists, producers and venues scrambled to maintain ties with audiences and recoup some losses during a financial collapse. From simple living-room streams via mobile phones to high-tech spectacles featuring virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and cross reality (XR), there have been plenty of experiments.

Music-driven virtual travel

So as the technology leaps ahead, where could this go in the future?

Perhaps a Japanese or Argentinean fan will visit Helsinki to attend a gig by their favourite Finnish band at the legendary Tavastia rock club. Before the show, they might meet up with the band at a dive bar around the corner, then pop into the old-school record store next to the club. During the show, they’d be in front of the stage, feeling the jostling of fans and the thumping bass, close enough to watch the band members’ eye contact and guitar techniques.

Afterwards, maybe a quick visit to the graffiti-scrawled backstage before a midnight sauna and swim on Helsinki’s shoreline? This could all be from a sofa or virtual reality (VR) studio in Osaka or Buenos Aires – perhaps with a Finnish drink in hand.

Imagine similar visits to the Savonlinna Opera Festival in a fifteenth-century castle, a fiddle extravaganza at the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival, a We Jazz event on a Helsinki island or a Sámi joik vocalist on Lapland’s fells.

Finnish music professionals agree that streamed events are here to stay even after the pandemic has subsided – but that it must offer something more satisfying for fans and more financially sustainable for musicians, producers and venues. So could a gig be part of a virtual travel package involving a meet-and-greet and a chance to explore the city?

Mf Sxsw Showcase Alma Jesse Auersalo C Kerttu Penttila
Behind the scenes: Alma at Music Finland's and Genelec's virtual showcase at the SXSW festival.
Photo: Kerttu Penttilä

1.5m fans on Senate Square in Helsinki

In a first step, Helsinki tourism officials teamed up with one of the country’s biggest booking agencies, Fullsteam, and local XR studio Zoan to arrange last year’s biggest music event in the country: a May Day concert starring hip hop duo JVG performing virtually at the city’s Senate Square.

The event attracted international attention and 1.4 million viewers, some of them represented by playable avatars that the performers could see reacting during the show, though the level of interaction was rudimentary.

Zoan CEO Miikka Rosendahl says the virtual space platform could be scaled up to “entertain one billion people simultaneously around the world”.

Fullsteam managing director Tuomo Tähtinen says the experience laid the groundwork for another major international event this past May, when metal band Nightwish performed two concerts at an imaginary steampunk-style tavern, The Islanders’ Arms.

“This was our first globally marketed ticketed event and also our first streaming production of this scale,” explains Tähtinen. “So on one hand it was an exploration of what’s possible for virtual concerts from the production and business perspectives. We’re also trying to keep busy and produce memorable live experiences amidst this crisis that’s been tearing the sector apart and preventing artists from doing what they love.”

“Audio releases are not enough”

The Koko Jazz Club venues in Helsinki and Iisalmi are streaming more than 50 live shows this spring and summer. Each 45-minute set is available on-demand for a week for about the price of a beer, or a higher ‘supporter’s fee’. The club’s artistic director, Timo Hirvonen, says the venues have put a lot of effort into the quality of these streaming experiences, but admits it’s still tough to attract audiences.

“We’re creating a library of art documents that will be valuable in the future as well,” he says. “But people have had to look at screens so much during the pandemic that it seems like they’re now waiting for actual live events, no matter how good the streaming product is.”

Is streaming here to stay though?

“Definitely,” says Hirvonen. “This is a valuable process that we’ve learned, and we’ll use it as part of our live offerings and for documentation. Bands are moving in a direction where audio releases are not enough, so live video recording is the future.”

Live streaming gives fans a chance to see concerts they otherwise couldn’t, or to re-live ones that they did attend. But according to Tuomo Tähtinen, it’s impossible to re-create a genuine live experience virtually with current technology. “It’s better to create something that can’t be achieved in a normal live setting, whether it’s more intimate access to the artist or a completely unique setting that’s literally out of this world,” he says. 

Can streaming shows ever be a credible alternative to the real thing, or will they always be a bit frustrating?

“In my opinion they’re separate things,” says Helsinki-based musician, songwriter, journalist and radio DJ Markus Nordenstreng. “The problem is that live streaming is produced predominantly by live music professionals with the same mindset that they have towards live events. Live streaming could become a really cool new product between recordings and live events. But it’ll take a lot more R&D [research and development] and conceptualising to make it interesting enough for the paying public. 

“The biggest issue right now is that professional live streaming is really expensive production-wise, so it’s very easy to lose money rather than make money – especially when there’s R&D and new tech involved,” he says. “Most artists have just used live streaming as a way to keep up with their old audiences, rather than find new ones or even think about revenue.”

Markus Nordenstreng C Staffan Turbanov
Markus Nordenstreng
Photo: Staffan Turbanov

Pennies for performers

Nordenstreng is part of the Skaala project, which involves the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, Institute of Occupational Health and Musicians’ Union. “The project is aimed at finding new paths for live music to prosper again. In addition to virtual gigging, the Musicians’ Union has been concerned with live venues closing in recent years, even before Covid,” he explains.

In April 2020 the Finnish Composers' Copyright Society Teosto created a new license specifically for live streaming. “This has enabled at least some revenue to end up in the pockets of songwriters. But obviously it hasn’t come close to compensating for the Covid losses,” says Nordenstreng. 

He points out that some major artists have been able to make money in the past year by bundling unique merchandise or future tour ticket sales along with virtual events.

“Hybrid live streaming with unique content hasn’t really been offered to the public, though. For example, I’m surprised that hotels haven’t begun to offer unique musical content that could interest a new clientele.” 

As to other new forms of virtual performance, “financially speaking there are very few success stories so far,” says Nordenstreng. As he sees it, future directions must be audience-driven and based on R&D, rather than just trying to compensate for industry losses. “Now the only ones who are making serious money are the production companies, service providers and platforms, rather than the musicians or songwriters.”

In technology, Nordenstreng sees some interesting baby steps being taken. “Personally I’m more interested in AR elements than VR, which in live streaming terms often looks like cheap video games without the ‘wow’ factor. And many VR elements don’t really match well with organic music by live musicians, as opposed to electronic music. But immersive audio as well as AR could be amazing with organic live music and it would definitely interest broader audiences.” 

Riitta Paakki C Teemu Mattsson
Riitta Paakki, among others, has streamed living-room gigs via Twitch, originally a gaming platform.
Photo: Teemu Mattsson

From gramophones to immersive sound

Nordenstreng sees a parallel to the history of recordings in the last century, which were originally an effort to simulate the live music experience at home. “Obviously they became something totally different by the ‘50s when studio tech started developing. One of the main reasons why companies like RCA or Philips invested in making commercial recordings was to sell hardware like gramophones and turntables,” he points out. 

Today’s new home tech offers vast potential for enjoying live music.

“One big challenge is how to keep people online during their free time, now that many people have had to work from home. The idea of spending your free time watching your laptop or iPad isn’t necessarily very appealing. But since most people have smart TVs these days, it makes sense to bring live-streaming content to this world,” he says. 

“More and more consumers are building home cinemas in their living rooms, so it would be interesting to combine live streaming with immersive audio like Dolby Atmos surround sound or Sony 360 Reality Audio. This would enhance the experience for the audience and enable them to virtually move to the same acoustic location with the performer. Immersive audio has been used a lot in gaming, but not much in the music industry yet. I’m sure this is where we’re heading.” 

“Certainly online concerts will play a part in the future of live music,” says Fullsteam's Tähtinen. “I don’t think that for most companies it will constitute a significant part of the business in the near future, though. I think at the moment everyone is primarily eager to get their engines up and running again. Time will tell how artists and companies will incorporate streaming concerts into their plans.”

Okra Agimashowcase
Screenshot of Okra Playground's gig at the Agima Showcase Festival.

Interactive Sibelius and a gaming hotel

There have been varied attempts to bring live music online since Covid-19 hit Finland.

Featured photo: Screenshot of "An Evening With Nightwish in a Virtual World"