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Go to a concert with your friends — without actually being there

With the return of live gigs and music festivals, can a virtual show still work?

By Jim Sullivan

It’s February 2022, and Surreal Neil and Super Diamond — a spot-on Neil Diamond tribute act — are playing Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco, rocking through “I’m a Believer” and “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.” I’m 2,700 miles away in Boston, but I’m into it. I’m watching on my PC, listening to audio mixed through the club’s soundboard. The hi-def cameras make me feel like I’m floating just above the first few rows of the crowd.

Oh, and at the bottom of the screen, my virtual head sits in a hexagonal window, along with other virtual heads who can see my facial expressions and text with me in a chatbox.

Welcome to a concert via Flymachine, a San Francisco-based concert streaming platform with roots in the early lockdown days of the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, musicians with no other way to perform wound up livestreaming their work on YouTube and other platforms. Those virtual gigs, sometimes just a singer with a guitar emoting into a single camera, appealed to music-starved fans and cash-strapped artists alike. Sort of. For a while. Soon, most of us went “meh.”

Andrew Dreskin, 53 ­— the man Wired magazine once called “the father of online ticketing” — was one of those disappointed patrons. The founder of the ticketing platforms TicketWeb (which was sold to Ticketmaster in 2000 for $35 million) and Ticketfly (sold to Pandora in 2015 for $450 million), he had made his career facilitating full-bore concerts, played to a rabid audience. Pandemic-era online concerts, by contrast, barely felt live. Dreskin and his pals watched livestreams from remote locations, but they couldn’t bond over simultaneous moments of pleasure or feel the sense of community a concert can engender.

“We were intrigued, but also shocked at how flat it was,” Dreskin says. “There was something missing. It was that lightning-in-a bottle [feeling] of being at the live experience with your friends, where you can move around the venue, maybe have multiple spaces, like a bar in the basement and the venue upstairs. It felt very isolated.”

That insight led to Flymachine, which pitches itself as a mash-up between a professionally filmed concert and a super-charged Zoom room. The goal: To making livestreamed concerts feel as close to being there as can be and as interactive as possible — while acknowledging that nothing surpasses being there in-person.

The virtual audience at home may hear better-quality sound than what patrons hear in the club.

Dreskin joined Rick Farman, the co-founder of the events firm Superfly (which puts on the Bonnaroo and Outside Lands music festivals) and Matthew Davis, a producer and Drake’s technical director, to create the platform. Together they raised $21 million to launch in late 2020. As of early March 2022, Flymachine had produced about 150 shows in 40 North American venues, streaming concerts from Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Folds, Bruce Cockburn, Tune-Yards, and the drag performer BenDeLaCreme. Most shows were live; some were pre-recorded on soundstages for a fully virtual audience; a few were reruns of shows that had already taken place.

Flymachine shoots a band in real time during the concert, using multiple, cinema-quality 4K cameras, some in fixed positions, others walk-arounds. Because the audio comes through the soundboard, the virtual audience at home — each fan paying roughly half the value of an in-person ticket — may hear better-quality sound than what patrons hear in the club.

And, most pointedly, the technology encourages interaction with other online fans. Viewers can place themselves in a virtual room — with a group of friends, say, or other people from their city — and talk with them as the show unspools. They can create private rooms to watch with friends or family, or solo. Further customizing tools include text chat and a simple crossfader to create the right audio mix between talk and livestream feed.

“I wanted something that felt slightly more gamified, and that gave you a sense of your place and presence within a group without being confusing,” Davis says. The dynamic is similar to an in-person show, he adds, where “you can see your whole crew, where everyone is standing, but it only really makes sense to talk to the people next to you.”

According to Flymachine’s stats, about half the people who watch concerts on the platform interact with one another, both in public and private rooms. Davis says the company is coming up with tools to encourage more chatting and conversations with strangers.

Before the pandemic, this kind of interaction tended to happen largely in sci-fi movies and dystopian fiction, says Deirdre Loughridge, a professor of music at Northeastern University. She points to Sarah Pinsker’s 2019 novel A Song for a New Day, in which a combination of a pandemic and terrorism causes large gatherings to be outlawed, and society only experiences concerts virtually.

But since 2020, “people have become increasingly comfortable and familiar with interacting with other people in virtual environments,” Loughridge says. Concerts and musical festivals are now regularly held on video gaming platforms: Travis Scott and Ariana Grande have performed in Fortnite, while acts like 24kGolden and Twenty One Pilots have staged concerts in Roblox.

Still, Dreskin doesn’t expect virtual platforms to cut into real-life ticket sales. After all, he says, cannibalizing live audiences would strip the Flymachine of its business model by killing the golden goose. “We’re not trying to supplant live events,” he says. “There is magic being at a live event: that moment when the hair on the back of your neck stands up. That’s why you keep going to these things.”

Instead, he points to the parallel with sports. “Virtually every major sporting event is televised live,” he says. “Imagine if the only way you could see the Red Sox was to go to Fenway Park. That’s very old-world; the fact is, live [music] events have caught up to the rest of the world.”

It all amounts to big expectations for online sales, at a time when packed real-life concerts have returned: Music festivals such as Bonnaroo in the U.S., Leeds in the U.K., and Rhythm and Vines in New Zealand have all sold out this year. Still, some artists say platforms like Flymachine could expand their reach to people who otherwise wouldn’t attend their concerts at all — opening up another revenue stream for performers, managers, venues, and promoters.

“It allowed cities that were not part of my routing to enjoy the show,” says Lauren Jauregui, a former member of the pop vocal group Fifth Harmony, who has performed two solo Flymachine gigs.

Other musicians are intrigued by the possibilities of fans in far-flung locations enjoying live experiences together. “Although the chat room thing reminds me of taking your cellphone out at the show and missing the show, it could be kind of cool to watch with friends,” says Dave Herlihy, the singer-guitarist of the ’80s/’90s alt-rock band O-Positive, who is now a teaching professor of music at Northeastern University.

Flymachine’s vice president of marketing, Jason Feinberg, says bands in several musical genres have used the platform. Bands that already encourage an online community, he says, tend to have the best ticket sales and interactivity on Flymachine.

“Engagement and fanaticism are the key drivers,” he says. “Artists who regularly engage with their audience — typically through viral video —and who foster a sense of community and conversation always perform best, regardless of demographic.”

The Super Diamond show I watched through the platform wasn’t super-interactive. Too few of us, too shy. But in a show that streamed in March 2022, dreamboat emo singer-guitarist Hunter Hayes generated all sorts of virtual yak.

The Hayes show had been previously recorded on a soundstage, to celebrate a record launch. This did not matter in the least to Kiera, Emilymae, Justine, Rachel, Danielle, Carroll, Tisa, Ashlee, Tiffany, or Amanda, to name but a few in the chat rooms that my hexagonal bubble bounced into.

There were 75 “rooms,” 26 of them public. Via chat, I introduced myself to my fellow concertgoers, who described themselves as first-timers between the ages of 19 and 24. A sample of the conversation:

Kiera: His hair looks so good

Justine: The audio is so clean. I’m kinda shocked. The video is good too

Rachel: It doesn’t beat an actual concert [but] I really like the perspective of getting to meet other fans

Emilymae: And fans from all over the earth. It’s a way for introverts to socialize without leaving their safe spaces

Me: Is it disconcerting to try and watch the show and keep up with the chat?

Justine: I’m always multi-tasking so it’s not that difficult to chat and listen

Danielle: My heart goes bum-bum-bum.

Amanda: OMG he totally looked at me.

Ashlee: He looked at all of us lol

Amanda: lol

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Jim Sullivan is a writer based in Boston.

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