It’s a mild Saturday evening in early November and South Kensington is a scene of hushed tranquillity. Like the rest of the U.K., this plush corner of West London is back in pandemic-enforced lockdown. A man walks his dog in an otherwise empty street. A gabble of Deliveroo drivers loiter silently outside a takeaway. There’s nothing here to write home about.
But inside the Royal Albert Hall, there’s a hive of activity. Tonight, ex-One Direction member Niall Horan is performing at the stately venue, which normally hosts everything from the BAFTA Awards to the BBC Proms, for an audience-less live-stream that will be beamed around the globe to four different time zones. It’s an hour before showtime. There’s lots to be done.
Inside the main auditorium, roadies and crew members buzz around the circular stage that’s been placed where the crowd would normally stand. Downstairs to the backstage area, past the grand piano that will form the centrepiece of the gig’s opener, touring staff are just getting the hang of the Albert Hall’s labyrinthine layout. “I’ve been here a day and I’m only just getting my bearings,” says Millie Wells, a production assistant.
In a concrete cellar that looks like the sort of place only usually visited by maintenance workers, director Paul Dugdale sits in front of a bank of screens, making last-minute notes. The waft of hot dinners floats down the corridor as you pass through the catering room, crammed with crew members. Tonight requires the sort of perfect execution that’s just not possible on an empty stomach.
The concert is the latest co-venture between Driift, a live events company, and “Gangs of London” producer Pulse Films. Their union was initiated back in March as Ric Salmon, a partner at the music management and ticketing agency ATC, saw his artists’ touring plans shelved for the foreseeable. “It was an idea born out of necessity,” says Salmon, taking a seat in a downstairs screening room. “How can we get our artists performing again but doing it in an exciting way?”
It was a period of artists embarking on more rudimentary broadcasting from home. There must be a better way than that, Salmon thought. “It felt like digital busking,” he says.
The singer-songwriter Laura Marling was one such artist on Salmon’s books who had seen her schedule evaporate. Reflecting upon their options one Sunday, Salmon and his business partner Brian Message came up with an idea: a live stream but done properly, in a beautiful venue, shot by a proper director, with tickets sold. He spoke with Sam Bridger, head of music film at Pulse, who immediately got on board. A new medium was born.
“We can’t claim any credit for the concept of a live stream,” explains Salmon, “but we can definitely lay claim to be the first people to put on a full production ticketed live stream event with no audience.”
From Pulse’s perspective, the opportunity to collaborate on a game-changing experience was enticing. “Because there’s no audience, it’s the catalyst for a whole host of creative options,” says Bridger, taking a seat next to Salmon. “Directors wouldn’t ever openly admit it, but [the placement of] audiences can be kind of annoying because you can’t put your camera where you want to put your camera. You’re literally giving the greatest live directing minds a free ticket to create what they want and put the camera where they want.”
The second major attraction, says Bridger, was not being constrained by a stage, meaning directors can move through rooms if they so wish. It’s a visual device they employed during Dermot Kennedy’s live stream from the Natural History Museum, when the Irish artist took off from the stage and began wandering around the museum’s cavernous interior.
“There’s genuine thought about, ‘How do we hold the audience’s attention for 60 minutes?’” he says. “What’s very exciting for everyone involved is the combination of live jeopardy and production values, which feels new. It’s not a live concert: the way to think about it is that, this evening, the Royal Albert Hall is a TV studio, not a concert hall.”
As Bridger heads to the gallery for final prep, Salmon explains that tonight is their biggest live-stream yet. Horan is a huge draw, having made a seamless transition from boyband star to grown-up rock-pop artist with hits like “Slow Hands” and “Nice to Meet Ya” under his belt. They have sold 125,000 tickets at £16 a pop in 151 countries across the globe. “151 countries!” Salmon marvels. “You’d never come close to that on a tour.”
Salmon says the data suggests that two-to-three people are watching each stream sold. “There’s going to be nearly 400,000 watching today, which is a phenomenal figure. That’s six Wembley Stadiums in one. The scale of it is really exciting.” All of their gigs so far have been profitable, he divulges, generating a genuine revenue stream for artists.
Tonight’s proceeds are being donated by Horan to charitable causes that will see the money directed to touring crew who’ve been left high and dry by the cancellation of live music. In the U.K., a second month-long national lockdown through to Dec. 2 has especially lowered morale about the industry revving back to life in the near future.
The show begins and we creep up to the gods to get a peek, out of the eyeline of Pulse’s numerous cameras. It’s a slick pop show, with Horan’s natural charisma filling the vacuum where there would usually be the screams of a frenzied crowd. Playing at the iconic Albert Hall was Horan’s idea, reveals Salmon. “Niall wanted to come here because, in his mind, this is the most prestigious venue in music and that really resonated with him,” he says.
Salmon says no-audience live streams are here to stay, even beyond the return of audiences. “Without a doubt,” he affirms. “In the early days, it was, ‘Is this just a lockdown thing?’ but very quickly it has been established that this is a new format. It will be a format that can sit between tours, in album campaigns — an additional tool that can be used by an artist to communicate. We realized that the freedom you get from not having the audience in the room completely changes the viewer experience at home. It feels like an era of establishing a new creative format.”
As the show ends and Horan hugs his crew, waving into the cameras to those watching at home, you feel that Salmon might be right. Hopefully, one day soon, an adoring crowd will fill the seats of this grand old building once again. But, out of this odd moment in time, something exciting has emerged from the standstill.