In August 2020, the [Switch~ Ensemble] led a Community Survey about the habits, preferences, and interests of concert-goers for livestreams. We are pleased to provide a summary of the responses, as well as recommendations based on our analysis of the data.
We publicized the survey through direct email marketing and in our social media. Several organizations, including New Music USA, helped boost the reach of our announcements through their channels. In total we had 52 respondents. Responses were collected in a Google form.
The first section of the survey helped us have a baseline for who was responding. Respondents tended to reflect [Switch~]’s audience overall, including a significant number of other musicians and industry insiders. One-third of respondents indicated they are “very familiar” with [Switch~], and the average survey respondent had a relative fluency in music technology. One shortcoming in the breadth of responses was that none of the respondents identified as disabled/having a disability. So, for example, we do not have the perspective of anyone who is blind/low vision or deaf/hard-of-hearing and their experiences trying to navigate video livestream performances.
Two further sections asked detailed questions about past attendance and preferences for future engagement and opportunities.
In the months between survey and publication of this essay, vaccines raced from experimentation to delivery, indicating a return to concert halls may come in the next 6–9 months. Yet, livestreaming and virtual interaction have been around for some time and are undoubtedly here to stay. While there is no substitute for in-person interaction, livestreams do have significant benefits. They can allow us to reduce our carbon footprint, invest more in artists and less in plane tickets, and more equitably engage in collaborations with artists from across the country and around the world.
6 KEY TAKEAWAYS
- Livestreams are a lifeline for connecting with friends and/or artists you like. Strong results in this area is the most important predictor of success.
- Improving the standard of production value and audio quality are critical for the ecosystem.
- There is some skepticism of the value of livestreamed shows, which ensembles are inadvertently exacerbating through their marketing and messaging. Instead, we should be building trust in broadcast performances as a valuable way to experience music.
- There is a growing divide between those in the habit of regularly attending livestream performances and those who are not. From initial marketing to concert time, each cohort has different needs when it comes to helping them feel welcome, supported, and engaged.
- Repertoire choices matter a good deal, in complex ways. Respondents seem well-aware we are all in uncharted waters, and that the sky is the limit for imagination and innovation. There is great interest in new works, premieres, and using this opportunity to work on repairing longstanding issues around equity and the exclusion of talented artists.
- People are not always forthright or self-aware in what drives their attendance or interest, and tastes can change quickly. Accordingly, some information is curious if not self-contradictory. This topic has a long history, notably: the Ford Edsel.
A FEW DEFINITIONS
Let us pause for a moment and define some terms. We’re defining a livestream as any way of sharing artistic content where the performers and audience aren’t in the same place, but the audience can watch/listen thanks to technology.
A situation where all the performers are in one place and sharing a video stream out to their audience is commonly referred to as a broadcast.
A situation where all the performers are in different places—coordinating by way of teleconferencing software, then sharing a video with their audience—is commonly referred to as a telematic performance. Musicians have been researching these topics for decades. For example, we encourage you to read about Pauline Oliveros and her research in this arena.
Many artists and ensembles are presenting livestreamed performances where the audience observes at the moment of performance. We could call this a synchronous livestream: the music is made and consumed at the same moment, with performers and audience together on a video conference like Zoom.
Others are opting to assemble performances/recordings that are then released on a streaming platform at a later date. We might call this an asynchronous livestream.
SOME BASIC LEARNINGS & DATA
For several questions, options ranged from “Really Negative” to “Very Positive” and/or from “Irrelevant” to “Very Important”. To help analyze data quantitatively, “Really Negative” and “Irrelevant” were both assigned a value of 1.0, and “Very Positive” or “Very Important” assigned a 5.0. For example, a quality score of 2.5 and an importance rating of 4.5 would suggest a given feature is of low quality and very important to the experience of a livestream.
Reflecting on the decisions to attend past livestreams, the most important factor was “get to see friends/colleagues perform”. It scored an average importance 4.3/5.0, with 42% ranking it Important and 48% ranking it Very Important.
That livestreams “Feel like a return to normal” were largely irrelevant, scoring an average of 2.2. There appears to be a collective understanding that “normal” is not possible and that livestreams do not support a sense of normalcy.
Choice of platform was also rather insignificant: an average importance of 2.3, with only 2 Very Important and 14 Irrelevant. A wide range of platforms are popular, with 44 respondents indicating past attendance on YouTube/YouTube Premiere (36), Facebook Live (32), Zoom (25) and Twitch (15). (Respondents could check multiple entries). However, regardless of platform, qualitative comments suggest a strong preference for a flexible schedule of consumption rather than a limited release only at “concert time”.
Generally, when asked to name reasons they would attend a [Switch~] livestream, respondents favored innovative repertoire (40 votes) and to support members (35) above all. A sense of community, “repertoire I know and like”, and interesting ancillary content saw moderate support (15-18), and “feels like a return to normal” saw few (8).
These responses support earlier data on the importance of social connections, and elevate the importance of new and excellent repertoire.
We took a deeper dive into consumer preferences with a closer analysis of four questions in particular. (Fair warning, the next few sections get a little wonky!)
- How important were the following factors to your experience of past livestreams?
- How did the following factors impact your choice to attend past events?
- What are some reasons you would RECOMMEND a [Switch~] livestream to a friend
- What are some reasons you would HESITATE to recommend a [Switch~] livestream to a friend?
The factors considered in each question fell in three analogous buckets:
- Audio & production quality
- Getting to see friends or artists you support
- The content of the performance itself
Separately, all respondents were asked: “Would you recommend a [Switch~] livestream to a friend?” as a yes/no/maybe question. In the following sections, we’ll talk about two groups: those who answered this question yes (we’ll call them advocates) and those who answered maybe (we’ll call them fence sitters). The cohort of respondents that indicated they attended 4-or-more prior livestreams will also be frequently compared against the cohort that attended few-to-none.
As mentioned above, audio quality had the greatest impact on experience but the lowest quality score. This is a problem, as it appears to be eroding trust that livestreams are worth going to.
Audio quality was nearly unanimous in importance but respondents were displeased with its success. The average importance was 4.4/5.0. However, most found the success rate poor (3.0). Production and technical skill, more broadly, were very important too (an average of, 4.1, with 14 Very Important, and 0 Irrelevant) but also saw a mediocre score for quality (3.3).
Scores around 3.0 may seem average, but, generally, consumers tend to be optimistic when filling out surveys like these. For example, the Net Promoter Score used by many Fortunate 500 corporations considers a score less than 7 on a 1-10 scale to be a “Detractor”. Accordingly, anything at or below 3.0 on our scale warrants some concern.
So, we’ll start with the bad news: the level of satisfaction with audio quality warrants some concern. The single-lowest quality score assessed by any group (2.7) was on audio quality, from those who attend few-to-no livestreams. 2.7 is even lower than the already troubling score to this question overall (3.0). This perceived lack of quality from the cohort of few-to-no show-goers is particularly significant as it suggests we are either losing audience members or that they don’t attend at all due to threshold fear of an undesirable experience.
Interestingly, our group of fence-sitters had more favorable views of the audio quality in livestreams they attended than just about any other cohort (!), with above average (3.2) sense of quality and equivalent sense of importance (4.3). A separate question on “Production/technical quality” saw similar results, with fence sitters holding slightly more favorable views on average.
So, why are they on the fence? Data suggest that, as a group, they report a significantly lower sense of quality experience getting to see friends or artists or they know.
“Got to see friends &a colleagues” was generally positive (4.2) and influential to the experience (4.2). This was most true for advocates (4.5 & 4.5, respectively), and for attendees of 4+ prior shows (4.3 & 4.2). But responses grew more tepid with those who had attended few-to-none (4.0 & 4.1) and most of all with the fence sitters (3.8 & 3.7)—i.e. those who hesitate to suggest a livestream show to a friend.
Taken all together, we see an important distinction: The most important reason people are not going to shows is because audio quality is important to them and it’s bad. The most important reason people are hesitating to recommend them to friends is because they have not felt good about getting to see friends and colleagues in a compelling performance.
To see friends and colleagues perform is once again the gold standard. It scored equally highly among survey respondents familiar with [Switch~] and unfamiliar with [Switch~]. In other words, this is a field-wide phenomenon, not a reflection of [Switch~]’s specific fans.
Those who attend livestreams regularly have stronger and more polarized feelings about new works designed for the medium. But, interestingly, the platform matters less to those in the habit of attending more livestreams. The latter were more than twice as likely to name it an Irrelevant feature.
While “Feels like a return to normal” scored badly across the board, it was most influential to those who had attended few to no prior livestreams.
“New works designed for the medium” scored highest among those who use music tech professionally, but a bit less strongly among others. It is logical that experts in the field want to see innovation.
Advocates and fence sitters largely agreed about which features were irrelevant to their experience, but a few key issues separated what did matter to them. Advocates ranked getting to see friends and colleagues perform more highly. And where fence-sitters cared more about getting to see repertoire they know and like (3.5 vs 3.0) advocates had stronger feelings about seeing new works designed for the medium: 27% vs 5% who named it Very Important.
Perhaps predictably, the fence sitters consistently gave more tepid responses to each of the 5-point scale questions compared to the advocates. The most noticeable divergence was with the importance of having a connection to a member (3.8 vs 2.8), with thoughtfulness about equity in programming a close second (4.3 vs 3.5).
But, advocates and fence sitters agreed that getting to see new works and premieres was an important factor. Not a single person deemed this feature irrelevant. The only attribute that fence sitters thought was more important to a recommendation than advocates was “It’s repertoire I know and like.” Perhaps those who are unsure about livestreams feel more comfortable with some familiarity with the repertoire.
Those who have been attending livestreams often were more likely to care about new works and premieres than those who had attended few to none (4.0 vs. 3.6), and less likely to be influenced by knowing a specific member (3.2 vs 3.5). Overall, the number of respondents who named “new works and premieres”, “thoughtfulness about equity”, and “technical skill/quality” as “Very Important” was about 10-15 percentage points higher among those regularly attending livestreams. These therefore seem like 3 key areas for capitalizing on most ardent supporters.
The group of respondents who had attended 4 or more previous livestreams gave relatively similar answers in this section than those who had attended few to none. The greatest average difference was in the importance of good marketing. Just 5% of people who had attended few-to-no livestreams said this feature was irrelevant, compared to 23% of those often attending livestreams. It stands to reason that those regularly in the habit of attending livestreams are less reliant on attractive marketing to get them “off the fence”.
In separate questions, the importance of “New works and premieres” tended to score less favorably than “new works designed for the medium”. At first, that seems a curious finding: the two are functionally synonymous. We believe it suggests some lingering hesitation about livestreams as a medium. The salient takeaway is likely that “come see a world premiere” is a more effective call to action than “come see a new work made for streaming.”
The difference between advocates and fence-sitters was most noticeable when considering the reasons to recommend a livestream. Their responses about reasons for hesitation were similar. In other words, the two groups shared hesitations but the advocates had significantly greater excitement. This suggests the problem is not one of “like and dislike” but rather of excitement versus apathy.
Overall, there is an uphill battle with livestreams: 42% of respondents said they “just don’t think livestreams are interesting” as an important or very important reason they would hesitate to recommend a show.
Those who had attended 4+ prior livestreams had fewer hesitations overall than those who had attended few to none. The greatest variances were around concerns of poor marketing, a lack of familiarity with the repertoire, and technical difficulties: Those who had attended few to no livestreams named them 10-20% more important, on average. While 53% of respondents who regularly attend livestreams said that unfamiliar repertoire was irrelevant in provoking hesitation, just 30% of those who rarely attend livestreams said the same.
What does stand out for the fence-sitting group? Getting to see new works and premieres and a thoughtfulness about equity feature prominently. But technical skill/quality tops the chart with an average of 4.1 and almost 30% of respondents rating it “Very Important” to recommend a show to a friend or colleague.
However, our fence sitters were less willing to admit that concerns about technical difficulties were a source of hesitation. You may also remember earlier data that the fence sitters felt audio & production quality of shows they attended was actually better than average.
In the words of Kenan Thompson, What’s up with that? While this at first seems contradictory, the wording of the questions provides two clues: 1) the concern is not discrete technical difficulties so much as an overall lack of enthusiasm about the quality of livestreams, and 2) the concern is not that something will be bad so much as a reluctance to suggest to someone else that it will be good.
Finally, fence-sitters appear among the most price-sensitive for ticket sales, ranking that more important than average as a source of hesitation. However, in a separate section about the financial impact of COVID, respondents in this group were less negatively impacted than respondents overall. In fact, nearly half of respondents in this group were making similar or more than what they used to, compared to pre-COVID times. Only 14% had lost more than half their income.
Taken together with above data about the poorer sense of connection to known and beloved artists, we believe these data suggest not an inevitable inability to afford shows, but rather a skepticism of their value.
Accordingly, we feel the solution is not ever-cheaper tickets and centering “free show!” in one’s marketing. Rather, the solution may be to earn trust by cultivating excellent content, and hone our skills at naming its value. Whether or not to actually charge for tickets will depend on each ensemble’s community and specific goals, but regardless we should be mindful not to perpetuate a lack of trust in the value of artistic work by centering how “cheap” they are to attend. That might well make it harder to attract audiences.
COMMUNICATION, IMPLEMENTATION, AND ATTENDANCE
Marketing and communication can likely play a key role in fostering greater confidence that livestreams will be a compelling concert experience. At the moment, respondents seem to be expressing a gap in trust that livestreamed shows will be a quality experience, which is hindering the sector’s overall ability to connect with audiences in this format.
We know that people are willing to watch performances and listen to music on a laptop or phone: we do it all day long. We would be best served to compete for attention on an axis where we see we have an advantage, like:
- connect with artists you know and like despite quarantine
- see friends and colleagues
- see new musical works and premieres
On the latter point, new music ensembles tend to thrive in ordinary circumstances. However, the logistical constraints of quarantine have challenged many ensembles but empowered others. Improvisers, mixed media artists, and ensembles interested in multimedia have been able to produce new and significant bodies of work. Some groups may not be able to perform right now, and that’s okay too.
On the first two points, there is likely considerable room for growth. How to enhance the possibility for social connection in these events is a rich area for discussion and sharing ideas. When asked if they would want a chance to socialize in a livestream performance, 49% of respondents said yes, 43% said “maybe”, and just 8% said no. A prior familiarity with [Switch~] did not necessarily correspond to increased interest in socializing. The most likely groups to say yes were the “advocates” (those who said “yes” I would recommend a livestream to a friend) and those who had previously attended 4 or more livestreams. The least interested in socializing were the “fence sitters” and those who had attended few to no livestreams. This divide, mentioned elsewhere, suggests a fundamental split between those who have enthusiastically incorporated livestream events into their routine and others who are less skeptical of engaging in that way.
Our colleague Megan Ihnen asked a great question: How can we, the performers, help individuals further foster a sense that they are connecting to the artists they like? Something like a listening party, side-by-side with a pre-recording livestream release, has a lot of merit. Zoom breakout rooms—like cocktail tables at an album release party—could work too. Concerts can’t be everything for everybody all the time. Getting the fence sitters off the fence may require different work than further activating the advocates.
With tools like YouTube Premiere or StreamYard, ensembles have increasingly sophisticated capacity to pre-assemble recordings and release them as though they were live. Interweaving pre-recorded performances with interviews or live questions over Zoom can foster a sense of “liveness”. Specific tactics—like having performers wear the same clothes or film at the same camera angle as their original performance earlier in the week—can enhance it further.
There are a few important factors to note in the marketing and communications of livestreamed concerts that appear to impact attendance significantly.
About 80% of respondents said that at some point since March, they had been interested in a livestream but ultimately did not attend it. Given a list of possible reasons in a multi-choice poll:
- 31% said they wound up missing the show because they didn’t get a reminder
- 12% said because there were no tickets or reservations it was easy to skip
- 22% had technical difficulties
- 34% said the event was poorly marketed or communicated
- 61% said they simply “forgot”, as opposed to 31% who “lost interest”
In other sections, respondents indicated they felt marketing had little impact on their choice to attend livestreams. However, given the above data, we believe they may be significantly underestimating its influence on their behavior. When over a third of respondents acknowledge they accidentally missed a show because it was poorly marketed or communicated, the conclusion seems self-evident.
Or, as our colleague Megan Ihnen put it: if a show doesn’t have effective marketing, how did you even know about it?
Some simple best practices could include:
- Well timed reminders (including day-of) about the show
- A registration system with personalized link & reminder (like house shows: “RSVP for address”)
- Charging a small admission fee
The last point is rarely done, and was something respondents are sensitive to in their reasons for hesitating to recommend an event. However, we all know audiences are more than willing to support artists if they believe in the value of the experience. And, as anyone who’s ever worked a box office knows: pre-sales always have a low no-show rate.
LOOKING TOWARD FUTURE
In the long term, being able to produce effective livestreamed and/or telematic performances can hold considerable value for the sector.
A vaccine may be on the horizon, but livestream performances are almost certainly here to stay. Grantors and arts services organizations could fulfill at least 2 key responsibilities:
- Grants for ensembles and musicians to acquire at least basic level professional audio equipment. Not only would these investments help enhance our capacity to produce higher-quality virtual events, but so too would they alleviate many longstanding inequitable access issues.
- Lead open workshops on technical questions and production/audio skills, and host convenings for ensembles to share best practices. There is no need for so many artists to have to stumble through the same questions in their own silos. Grantors like New Music USA could support trainings and workshops—even “office hours” style drop in sessions—with technical directors and marketing and communications staff of larger organizations who have already seen success in this medium.
Among the many benefits of livestream shows we might count limiting unnecessary travel. How often is the principal beneficiary of an artistic project an airline? It’s also terrible for the environment. While there is no substitute for in-person interaction, vast time, money, and environmental impact is spent flying new music ensembles throughout the country. If even a small share of that travel could be replaced by high quality virtual interaction, it would cut down our outsized carbon footprint and put more money in musicians’ pockets.
Telematic livestreams in particular are also an occasion to consider further experimentation with an innovative and rich medium. Many artists have made vivid work with digital software for a long time, so there is a fertile tradition on which to build.
Moreover, as many ensembles continue to reckon with the homogeneity of their social and professional networks—on lines of race, class, gender, and other aspects of identity—experimentation in a new medium may open connections to brilliant artists who were pushed out of traditional contemporary western classical music channels by its history of orthodoxy and oppressive gatekeeping. And more facile collaboration across physical distance would have democratizing impact by alleviating the advantage of living in high-rent urban areas to be near a “scene”.
So: how are you making livestreams work for you?
[Ed. Note: Switch~ Ensemble’s next livestream is on March 5, 2021. Learn more about the event and register for it on EventBrite.]
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Zach Sheets enjoys a multifaceted career as a composer, chamber musician, orchestral flutist, and advocate for new works & arts education. He has performed with Spoleto Festival USA, Talea, Ensemble Signal, the Boston Ballet, Slee Sinfonietta, and many more, including as part of the Klangspuren, TIME:SPANS, June in Buffalo, ManiFest, and Aldeburgh Festivals. A founding member of the [Switch~ Ensemble] and Duo Axis, Zach has held a variety of fundraising and administrative leadership roles.