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Can Livestreamed, Full-Production Shows Save Empty Music Venues?

San Diego band Scary Pierre performs to an empty venue at the Casbah on July ...

Credit: Tim Mays

Above: San Diego band Scary Pierre performs to an empty venue at the Casbah on July 25, 2020. The performance was livestreamed for free on Twitch.

On Saturday, a band took the Casbah stage for the first time since March, performing a full set … to an empty venue. Scary Pierre, a local post-punk and dark-wave band, celebrated the release of their new record with a performance from the Casbah, but their audience could only experience it live via the streaming platform Twitch.

"I've been performing for a long time," Scary Pierre's Lucina Mays said, who also admitted she was still somewhat nervous. "It was a little bit bittersweet going in, knowing that there wasn't going to be an audience. Not because of the attention per se, but because I miss that interaction, and the energy that is created between you, your bandmates and the people that are there to see the band."

In Scary Pierre's case, lead singer Lucina Mays is married to Casbah owner Tim Mays, and she said it was a good test case for the venue's foray into livestreaming.

Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

A still from Scary Pierre's livestreamed performance from the Casbah on July 25, 2020.

The Casbah didn't sell tickets, and instead just posted a donation link in the chat feed during the show to support the personnel staffing the show. There were very few people inside the Casbah at the time of the show, just an essential technical crew, plus the band. It was a no-frills approach, but the concert, broadcast live on Twitch Saturday night, was impeccably produced (and multiple fans in the Twitch chat feature commented on how nice the new stage carpet looked).

RELATED: Industry Interrupted: Music In San Diego In A Pandemic

After months of living room livestreams — and the Casbah's only shutdown in its 31-year history — it was a welcome sight: a familiar stage, with professional, rock-and-roll-grade stage lighting and sound, even through face masks.

The entire band wore masks, to protect the Casbah staff present in the building but also to protect each other. The group was in the final stages of putting together their debut release when the pandemic hit. They decided to release "Boys Club" as an EP, since they didn't have a chance to record a few remaining tracks to make it a full-length album. This performance was the first time Lucina had seen or played with her bandmates in months, and neither the absence nor the masks impacted their performance.

While masked singing has the slightly muted quality of masked speaking, the mask didn't otherwise impact Lucina's dramatic vocal performance.

"I go from this range of singing very softly and up close to the microphone to the point where I'm practically eating that thing, to pulling it away when I'm really projecting and screaming so to speak, and everything else in between. So that's a challenge. But it's totally doable," Lucina said.

Tim Mays said that the Casbah is currently planning more livestreamed productions from their stage.

Photo credit: Brett Michel

The Belly Up sets up their venue for a livestreamed performance on July 27, 2020.

Further north, the Belly Up sprang into action much earlier in the pandemic than most other outlets or musicians. "We were planting the seeds for this capability for several years without even realizing that we were gonna need it," said Chris Goldsmith, president of Belly Up Entertainment. The Belly Up has produced seven seasons of a television show of live performances that airs on KPBS. "So when we closed, in that deafening silence the following week, we were like, 'well here's something we can actually do.'" Goldsmith said.

Over the years, they'd built an institutional knowledge about lighting, sound, video tech and more and were able to draw on that to produce their first livestreamed, empty venue performance on May 15, with local act Hirie. More shows followed.

For the Belly Up, they've tried two financial structures for the livestreams. One, like the Casbah, allows anyone to watch the stream for free, but asks for donations via a link shared with viewers. The other model requires a ticket purchase to access the stream. Goldsmith said that while free streams may see larger numbers of viewers, both models have similar financial results.

Each show costs several thousand dollars to produce, according to Goldsmith's estimates. He said the shows require four camera operators, lighting and sound techs, someone to operate the stream, and a technical director for the video. Other costs include marketing, general facility expenses and equipment. "I think that the long-term success of streaming is gonna need to have certain baseline quality elements," said Goldsmith. "Or people are going to get tired of it once there's a lot more options."

And Goldsmith does think this model is going to stick around moving forward, even after touring picks back up again. "I have no doubt that the sort of perception of streaming as a legitimate way to be entertained has arrived."

As for the difference between performing to an in-person audience and performing to a still-live audience hidden behind the internet, Goldsmith said it's doable. "When I've seen artists really embrace it and not comment about how weird it is, I feel like it's been great. Play to the camera. Play to the home audience," he said.

The Belly Up aims to have 15 to 20 of these livestreamed, fully produced shows on their stage each month, though even then it would only get them to a financial break even point. "No way is it sustainable," Goldsmith said. "It's not a business model that can live on its own. It might help us get to the other side."

RELATED: Independent Venues Face Bleak Future Without Aid

He said that while they've weathered the disruption so far, the long-term survival of live music venues in general depends upon government funding. "This new bill going through the Senate right now, the Save Our Stages Act … that's gonna go a long way. I think the Belly Up will make it to the other side no matter what, but I'm reading that like 90% of venues might not make it if it goes on two or three more months without federal assistance. Which is just a horrifying number," Goldsmith said.

The Belly Up's next livestreamed performance is Saturday, featuring Belly Up regulars Common Sense.

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Julia Dixon Evans
Arts Calendar Editor and Producer

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI write the weekly KPBS Arts newsletter and edit and produce the KPBS Arts calendar. I am interested in getting San Diegans engaged with the diversity of art and culture made by the creative people who live here.

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