The crowd of a few hundred begins to gather a half-hour before Rhett Miller takes the stage. While they wait, one fan recounts meeting Lou Reed at a long-gone Tower Records. Another makes an early request for a David Bowie cover. People shout out their hometowns—Seattle, Austin, Detroit—and despite the distance, there’s a sense of reunion in the crowd. Someone going by “Coombie” reports having seen Miller 13 times, including 11 times as the frontman of the Old 97’s, and attendees exchange a flurry of inside jokes about one another’s dog photos on Instagram right up until the moment when Miller, dressed in black jeans and a black shirt, appears on all their screens.
A lanky 49-year-old with straight, long brown hair, Miller looks every bit the stereotype of the American singer-songwriter, and he has for a long time. His hometown alt-weekly, the Dallas Observer, dubbed him a “ubiquitous teen folkie” after his first shows at the Club Clearview more than three decades ago. In the 1990s, with the Old 97’s, he graduated from bar-conversation interrupter to a main event. For the past month, though, Miller has played all his shows from the small office he built in his garage in upstate New York, allowing his audiences to enjoy his songs without fear of Covid-19.
“Thank you for coming to my house, and thank you for letting me come to your house,” Miller says during the 45-minute show for Coombie and the rest of the audience, seated in front of a red wall decorated with a half-dozen guitars and a signed poster of the punk band X.
The performance streamed live on a website called Stageit, where fans can buy tickets to see musicians play sets for a preselected price, plus tips if they like. (A typical Stageit viewer pays about $15, but Miller’s ticket prices are flexible.) The members of the digital crowd are about as raucous as they can be in a chatroom, typing “WOOO!” and “Yaaa!” as Miller plays a deep cut from his first solo record. At the end of the song, he looks straight down the barrel of his camera to engage in some one-sided stage banter. “This is weird,” he says, “but what isn’t, these days?”
The coronavirus pandemic has shut down the live-music business. Promoters, venues, and musicians around the world have postponed or canceled more than 50,000 shows, from coffee houses appearances to Coachella, the unofficial start of the summer festival season. At least $2.8 billion in ticket sales will be gone for good if there are no shows in the second quarter, estimates Pollstar, the industry’s leading trade publication. Pollstar says the lost ticket revenue could easily surpass $5 billion if there are no shows until the fall, as promoters and agents are starting to concede appears likely, and that’s before factoring in merchandise, advertising, or alcohol. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has said the city may hold off on large events until 2021.
Live Nation Entertainment, the world’s largest concert promoter, has seen its share price cut roughly in half this year, erasing about $7 billion of market value. Countless bars, clubs, and ticket sellers at risk of insolvency have laid off employees. Thousands of sound technicians, drivers, and backup dancers are out of work. No one stands to lose more money than the artists who collect the vast majority of ticket sales. “It’s a desperate situation,” says Mitch Glazier, chief executive officer of the Recording Industry Association of America. “If this goes through concert season, I don’t know what people are going to do.”
Miller is part of a stampede of professional musicians testing how much they can recoup with a livestreaming performance model. For every pop star playing pro bono on Instagram to raise money for charity (John Legend, Chris Martin), there are hundreds of artists who can’t pay their bills without the concert income they’ve lost. The website Bandsintown, built to alert fans when their favorite acts are playing nearby, has adapted by notifying people about upcoming livestreams. Facebook and YouTube are sending out daily updates about musicians’ show schedules, while Amazon’s Twitch has struck a partnership with MTV to host concert series.
Streaming shows can’t fully replace live ones, says Miller, who normally receives 90% of his income from touring. “The vast majority of the money I use to feed my kids or pay my mortgage comes from driving to a club,” he says. He’d been planning to play in Pennsylvania and Colorado in March and strum his way through the southeastern U.S. in April. Still, by streaming four days a week from his office, with each show tailored to a different set of fans, he’s netted at least as much as he was going to make on the second leg of the trip. “Being able to do these shows,” he says, “has been literally lifesaving.”
The music industry, like much of the rest of the global economy, was slow to treat the novel coronavirus as a grave threat. Pop stars continued their world tours as the number of Covid-19 cases in China topped 80,000 and the virus spread across Asia. Days after Washington state reported its first death in late February, the Los Angeles bassist Thundercat, Nigerian-American singer Davido, and California rock duo Best Coast all performed in Seattle. It wasn’t until the organizers of South by Southwest canceled the annual Austin music festival that reality began to sink in. On March 12, the world’s largest concert promoters, talent agencies, and management companies collectively urged a global moratorium on large shows.
Music has changed a bit since the 1600s, when violinist John Banister charged his fellow Britons 1 shilling to see him play. But through the centuries, concert venues have offered artists a place to feel out their sound, develop their personas, and forge deeper connections with audiences. And from a business perspective, live music has grown far more important to artists in the two decades since Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker created the file-sharing website Napster. As customers switched from buying $20 albums to downloading the tracks for free—or, later, paying 99¢ a pop on iTunes—record sales declined by more than 50%. They’ve recovered somewhat because of the growing number of people who pay for Spotify or Apple Music every month, but artists who haven’t been able to rely on making a living by selling their recordings have focused instead on selling tickets.
From 1999 to 2005, the North American music industry’s annual ticket sales doubled, then tripled, and now sit north of $8 billion. (The global business is at least twice as big, though reliable numbers on global touring are hard to come by.) Prices rose in tandem. Artists who used to tour to promote their album now release an album to promote a tour. The likes of Lady Gaga and Sam Smith have delayed releases until they have the free time to fully capitalize on the new music on the road. “Touring is the big money,” says Joshua Perry, the head of an Israeli record label and management company. “It is the bread and butter, where the most income gets to the artists really quickly.”
For a little over a decade, Evan Lowenstein has been pitching Stageit, based in Los Angeles, as a supplement to live concerts, an easier option for fans who want to avoid finding parking, food, or a babysitter. The shows are like hanging out backstage with your favorite rock star, according to Lowenstein, himself a former singer-songwriter.
Lowenstein’s early investors included former MTV chief Van Toffler, media tycoon Strauss Zelnick, Napster co-founder Parker, and Jimmy Buffett. In its first couple of years, the company attracted some glowing writeups from the tech and music press and counted Jon Bon Jovi among its acts. “We were the darlings for a while,” says Lowenstein. But Stageit proved to be a novelty for most of its early artists. Some felt uncomfortable asking their fans for money, while others never got used to playing from home. As the performances dwindled, so did the number of users. Five years ago, Lowenstein wrote a letter to his board saying the world wasn’t ready for Stageit. He stopped taking a salary and cut his staff. A couple hundred musicians kept the business alive.
Heading into 2020, Lowenstein started to think more seriously about shutting the site down. Now, he’s got something close to the perfect pitch for musicians looking for a digital venue with a familiar-enough commercial process. Whereas Instagram, Twitch, and YouTube are asking artists to play for free, some offering the equivalent of digital tip jars, Stageit allows performers to directly charge money for access to their shows, with comparable ease of use. Users bought a record 64,394 tickets to Stageit shows in March—up from just 747 in February—and the company booked more than $1 million in revenue for the month, double what it made during all of last year.
Lowenstein has begun to hear from agents, managers, record labels, and promoters, at least a couple of whom have expressed interest in buying the company. New artists sign up every day, including psychobilly trio the Reverend Horton Heat and singer-songwriter Alicia Witt. Lowenstein predicts that many of his new partners will keep performing on Stageit on a weekly basis even when they can tour again. “It will definitely play a role in people’s future,” he says.
Miller says Stageit appealed to him because, while it also includes a tipping system like some other streaming options, the primary pay-for-play mechanism feels a lot more like selling tickets for a show. Still, he chose to let people pay what they want, and hesitated to promote his first home-office performance on March 18. After posting announcements about the show online, Miller sought advice from Glenn Phillips, the leader singer of rock band Toad the Wet Sprocket. Phillips warned him not to look at the comments, which can be addictive but also distracting. Look too long, and you can forget your own lyrics. After setting up a microphone and his MacBook camera in his office, Miller performed a sound check with Nick Cox, Lowenstein’s only employee, watching along.
Soon enough, Miller got used to it. Hundreds of fans streamed his first Stageit show, so he did another two days later, and a third two days after that. More than 1,800 people showed up for one of them, paying anywhere from 10¢ to $20, plus tips. The average Stageit customer spends about $15 a session, says Lowenstein, 60% from tickets and another 40% from tips. (His company takes a 20% cut, generally comparable to a ticket seller for live shows.) Miller wouldn’t say how much he makes per show, but 1,800 tickets at $15 a pop comes to $27,000. Other artists have made as much as $60,000 a performance.
Now, Miller’s got a rotation. On Mondays, he plays an album in full. Wednesdays mean a show later in the day, usually around 11 p.m. Eastern time, aimed at the West Coast. On Fridays, he plays a regular set at 9 p.m., and Sunday brings an earlier 3 p.m. show for fans overseas, mostly in Europe. (There’s some fluidity to the schedule; he took Easter off, for example.) The viewer who spends the most between the ticket and tips gets to pick an encore song. Each show is supposed to run a half-hour, but Miller usually plays for closer to 45 minutes.
In the second full week of shows, the attendance for Miller’s shows shrank a bit, which he attributes to his increased availability. When he’s touring like normal, he’s only in, say, Colorado once a year. Now that anyone can see him four nights a week if they want to, only the biggest superfans will show up every time. The flood of competition on the open web doesn’t help, either. When he plays Colorado, he’s not usually up against free livestreams from Metallica, Questlove, and Diplo all at once.
Yet Miller has had enough success that he’s started donating some of the proceeds from his Wednesday show to a music charity, and doesn’t have to worry about his credit card bills. Stageit has also connected him with fans who otherwise would never have had a shot to see him live, from sparsely populated states to distant countries. When he played an international show in late March, the live chat included comments from Budapest, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Germany, and Cardiff, Wales. One fan is celebrating his 50th birthday, and another is drinking before noon. Miller has gotten a little more camera-savvy, too. He starts playing offscreen before walking into the frame of his MacBook’s camera, just as he might at a live show.
He opens with Four-Eyed Girl, a song off his debut solo album, that prompts many of the women watching to share their glasses prescriptions. (One laments that she no longer qualifies—she just got Lasik.) Miller then sings a song he wrote when he visited a family in London and met the woman who would become his wife. He’s telling stories just as he might at a normal show, and he’s unfazed when the feed briefly goes on the fritz. “I find these incredibly therapeutic,” he tells the camera once the feed is back in working order. “It makes me feel like I’m connected to the world, like I have a reason to wake up.”