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How the pandemic revealed the power of live video

   Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Olga Strelnikova

For years, video consumption was rising — from television to streaming apps to social media platforms. But one of the most thrilling parts of entertainment was mostly missing from the video world until the pandemic hit: the power of truly "live" streaming content.

But with large gatherings off-limits during the pandemic, musicians and arts organizations started putting together live performances over streaming platforms. These events have turned out to be well worth the price of virtual admission. Yo-Yo Ma performed a spectacular series of concerts (there's another one coming up in May); the Met and Carnegie Hall streamed their annual galas; and even the guys from #SeaShantyTok joined in the action.

It turns out to be a surprisingly intimate experience, with cameras tightly focused on the stars. Every viewer has a front row seat to witness a unique moment in time — along with hundreds, thousands, or even millions of others. (Pop star Dua Lipa's virtual concert over the Thanksgiving weekend drew more than 5 million viewers.)

The economics of paid virtual events are promising, too. A streaming concert might command just a tenth of the typical ticket price for a seat in a theater — but having access to a worldwide audience can easily make up for that by bringing in more than 10 times the viewers. Artists can also charge more for VIP access or urge appreciative fans to leave tips.

On the production side, costs for most live performances have quickly declined to the price of a good microphone and a smartphone with a decent camera. All kinds of entertainers — known and unknown before the pandemic — have been able to start building followings over TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Patreon, and other platforms.

The pandemic has also driven a massive increase in the overall audience for live content. Livestreaming trailblazer Twitch, owned by Amazon.com, has seen 300% audience growth in some categories, and the overall industry had 45% growth in hours watched just between March and April 2020.

Meanwhile, performers and creators stuck at home have been looking for new ways to reach audiences, driving innovation in streaming models. This week, a veteran of Spotify and Beats Music made a huge bet on the permanence of premium livestreaming, announcing a platform called Doors, which will enable musicians "to curate and perform online concerts, communicate with fans and manage ticket sales and royalties in one place," according to Bloomberg News.

And thanks to the rise of creator-focused social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram, livestreaming has unlocked creativity and collaboration of a type and scale never realized before. This past winter, for example, a musical TikTok meme about Remy the rat — star of the Disney/Pixar movie "Ratatouille" — eventually led to a worldwide collaboration to write and produce a complete musical based on the film. The "Ratatousical" (full name: "Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical") ended up being blessed by the powers that be at Disney, and then being staged virtually in a livestreamed benefit performance, featuring Broadway stars. The production raised over $2 million for The Actors Fund, a performing arts charity. That represents a significant market — before that, has a crowdsourced musical ever raised seven figures in a weekend?

New platforms are emerging to specifically take advantage of all this demand — with Clubhouse and Discord leading the charge. These apps have helped a whole new cohort of live audio superstars gain prominence, and are already enabling creators to receive tips and other payments from their fans.

While many are itching to attend in-person live events, it's likely that a large fraction of them will be "hybrid" going forward, with streaming options available to people who aren't able to attend in person. "It's a new creative form for live," as one of the planners of Dua Lipa's event told Rolling Stone. "We'll do more." The media universe is expanding before our eyes. The only limit is our appetite, which is vast indeed.

Scott Duke Kominers is the MBA Class of 1960 Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and a faculty affiliate of the Harvard Department of Economics. This piece was written for Bloomberg.

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