Five Things Melissa Etheridge’s Livestreamed Concerts Get Exactly Right (Guest Column)

Melissa Etheridge
Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

In the five months since the coronavirus sent everyone fleeing to shelter in place, it’s become apparent that live concerts as we knew them won’t return until 2021 at best, and possibly even later. What’s followed is an accelerated phase of scrappy reinvention that’s touched almost every sector of the music industry.

First, we were in shock and just waiting to see what to do next. Within a few days, we did what the music world does best in a crisis — began holding charity concerts to raise money and help people heal. Then, artists started streaming on their Facebook, Instagram and YouTube channels — rights clearances be damned — to keep themselves busy and engaged with their fans. It didn’t take long for those free streams to migrate to ticketed streams. And now, we’re in the middle of an exhilarating period of experimentation, as livestreaming becomes part of artists’ long-term strategy and its possibilities expand.

It seems like every couple of weeks, a livestream success raises the bar. BTS, one of the most popular artists in the world, cleared an estimated $19 million-$26 million from one livestream, “Bang Bang Con: The Live,” which broke a Guinness World record for a concert livestream with 756,000 concurrent viewers in 107 countries and territories. Using a concept that several artists have tried, Underoath recently completed a series of three livestreams, playing a different full album for each stream — by bundling merch, they grossed around $600,000. This is a promising strategy for non-mainstream artists with dedicated and engaged audiences who ordinarily thrive on the road.

Yet another enormously successful model comes from Melissa Etheridge, who revealed last week that she is earning $50,000 per month from the subscription service on her website, EtheridgeTV.com, where she streams five days a week.  Fans can also buy single-ticketed shows ($10) and stream-branded merch — and it’s all done out of her garage with a skeleton crew.

These examples illustrate that there is no one-size-fits-all model for livestreaming — there are plenty of other models — and both the artist and their audience have specific habits and desires. Because livestreaming is immediate and brings fans directly into the experience, it plays by different rules than content distribution channels. Whether the stream is a major artist selling tickets or a DIY musician with a channel on Twitch, all follow a common throughline for success — and there are several elements that Etheridge’s livestreams get exactly right.

  • The Power of Free. It’s notable that Etheridge streamed for 58 days on Facebook at the beginning of the pandemic — for free — before starting her subscription service, essentially giving fans a “free trial.” During this phase, Etheridge did some ticketed streams and sold about 400 tickets per stream, and also sold 4,000 “Concerts from Home” t-shirts in the first few weeks. By doing free streams, Etheridge generated interest in her paid streams and generally opened the door for merchandisable moments. Twitch is also free to watch and has channel subscriptions and virtual goods that expand upon the livestream experience.
  • The Power of the Superfan. 3,000 fans showed up for Etheridge’s first Facebook stream, with only same-day promotion. Almost every one of her subscribers came from her long-running fan club, which meant she could have “overnight success” with her subscription service even at a relatively steep price. Similarly, DIY artists can support themselves almost solely by streaming on Twitch with only a small amount of fans spending small (and sometimes large) amounts of money across frequent streams. Because of the authenticity and intimacy of livestreaming, it’s a promising way to turn casual fans into superfans.
  • The Power of Community. This is the single most important thing to know about livestreaming: Every successful one can be traced back to a successful fan community that was either brought to the stream, or was born there. Etheridge brought her fan community to her Facebook livestreams to lift their spirits as Covid gripped the country, and they turned out for her in a big way when she launched her subscription service on June 30 — having only taken a five-week hiatus after her son’s passing. Certainly no one expected a return so soon.Livestreams are fertile ground for building strong fan communities because they by nature break down walls between the artist and the fan and feel authentic and intimate. Repeated content can get stale, but fans will come back again and again for community, because talking with people about a common interest while that common interest is happening never gets old — especially in lockdown. The viewer communities begin to feel like family, and often have their own side conversations that have nothing to do with the streamer. It’s a mistake to treat livestream platforms like content-distribution channels: They are communities coming together around content.
  • The Power of Production Value. For everyday streams on Twitch and Facebook, the informal atmosphere is what makes it feel more intimate. But you can’t skimp on video and audio quality, regardless of where you stream and what you charge. If you are charging $15 or more for a ticketed stream, the production value has to make the experience worth the fans’ money. As fans have become used to livestreaming, the demand for quality has gone up, and it’s a fair expectation.
  • The Power of Experimentation. There are no rules with livestreaming. Etheridge’s manager, Deborah Klein of Primary Wave, says she is “still putting some of the content on Facebook and bringing them back to Etheridge TV.” Ari Evans, CEO of Maestro, which produces streams for Etheridge, Katy Perry, and others, is a big believer in segmenting an artist’s audience. He says, “Don’t do one-size-fits-all streams. Do YouTube and Twitch for free, premium paid streams on your site, and have a VIP strategy that is premium. You would never have a show with general-admission tickets only.” (Evans spoke with Variety earlier this year about multiple other livestream monetization opportunities and ideas.)

I recently produced with mtheory and Future Classic a prerecorded concert livestream featuring Flume. We turned what would normally be a simple watch party into an interactive experience where fans could trigger animations on the screen through the chat, earn points by watching the show, buying channel subscriptions, and playing games, and spend those points on merchandise. The artist even joined the chat for a while. The fans loved it, and Future Classic saw a dramatic increase in follows and subscriptions to their Twitch channel.

An artist’s livestreaming options are only as limited as their imaginations: What fans really want is connection. If you structure your livestreams to meet them where they are financially and give them an experience they could never have in person, then you’ll deepen your relationship with them overall and feel the echo of that on your next tour, record release, merch drop, or whatever else you can dream up.

Karen Allen is the author of “Twitch for Musicians,” a step-by-step guide for learning how to produce a channel, build viewership, and earn revenue livestreaming on Twitch. She advises artists, labels, and startups on livestreaming strategy and production.