By Doug Young
Live streaming—performing live via video over the internet—has been growing in popularity for a while, but is surging with the current global health crisis. With musicians locked down at home along with everyone else, streaming is replacing lost gigs, providing entertainment, and allowing musicians to connect musically with others.
For viewers, streaming offers some of the same appeal as live performances. Unlike videos posted to YouTube, which may be carefully edited and produced, streamed video is shown as it happens. Although the result is often less polished, there’s an undeniable charm to seeing people like Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, Steve Martin, and Mary Chapin Carpenter performing casually from their homes, often using nothing more than their phones.
The good news is that anyone can stream over the internet, on equal footing with the bigger name stars. If you’d like to jump in and start streaming, this article will get you started. We’ll talk about where to stream, the gear you need, and also get some tips from musicians who have been doing it.
Where the Streams Are
Where to post your stream depends on your goals as well as your potential audience. Facebook is one of the most popular options, along with Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms. Although people can watch the video live as you perform, the final result usually lives on as a video post that people can continue to watch, share, and comment on. YouTube also offers a live streaming option and there are dozens of other sites dedicated to streaming, including Vimeo and Twitch. There are even services, like Restream or StreamYard, that allow you to simultaneously stream to multiple destinations at once. StageIt is another popular platform that offers a ticketing system to allow you to easily charge for your performances. In a different category, there are web-conferencing programs like Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, and even Facebook Messenger that support real-time video streaming and interaction with a specific set of people.
The best choice depends on your goals and possibly how connected you are on these platforms. For example, if you have a lot of Facebook friends, they will typically be notified as soon as you start a live stream, prompting them to join you, and your video will appear in your feed. Facebook also offers groups—communities of people who share a common interest—that you can stream to. For example, Tommy Loose and Jon Hart, the creators of an 18,000-member Facebook group named “Fingerstyle Hub,” recently organized an online live music festival for their group. The event, which is expected to repeat periodically, was advertised on the group page. Individual performers streamed short 15-minute live sets at pre-scheduled times, creating a sequence of live shows. Each musician announced the next act, who would then start their stream. Jon Hart explains that the approach helps “keep the momentum between performers” and keeps listeners engaged.
YouTube is a somewhat different environment. Unless you have a YouTube channel with a lot of followers, people are unlikely to just stumble on your live stream. As a result, YouTube probably works best if you want to schedule an event for a specific time and promote it yourself. For example, Grammy-award-winning guitarist Al Petteway recently streamed a concert in conjunction with the Keep Music Alive project and Dream Guitars, both of Asheville, North Carolina, using YouTube. Petteway and Dream Guitars promoted the event via Facebook and their own email lists, and used Eventbrite to manage attendance, providing the YouTube url to registrants.
Streaming isn’t just about live performance. For example, guitarist and author Mark Hanson, who is highly regarded for his in-person workshops, turned to Zoom as a way to continue teaching through the current restrictions. Zoom is widely used in business settings for video conferencing, and allows anyone to set up a video meeting of typically up to 100 participants. Hanson advertises his workshops to potential students via his mailing list and website, as well as on Acoustic Guitar’s Livestream Events Calendar, and sells advance tickets using Eventbrite.
Gear: What Do You Need?
Regardless of where you choose to share your live performance, the gear you will need is similar. The simplest way to start streaming is to use a smartphone or tablet. Most relatively recent smartphones can produce impressive video, and you can stream right from your device. Starting a streaming broadcast can be as simple as clicking a button in the corresponding app. Facebook, for example, has a Live button right below the status update section at the top of your feed. Similarly, You Tube’s Create button gives you a choice of uploading a video or starting a live stream. You can literally be streaming in seconds if you have these apps on your phone or tablet.
Another easy option is to use a computer equipped with a webcam. The process is quite similar. Just find the button to go live on the desired website, and you’ll be broadcasting in seconds.
Audio quality can be an issue with both phones and webcams. The built-in microphones are more than adequate for voice conversations or casual recording, and can even do a credible job for music when positioned right. However, you will probably end up with the camera some distance away in order to frame yourself and your instrument in the picture, which can lead to a thin, distant sound. Stevie Coyle, guitarist and proprietor of Mighty Fine Guitars, has been streaming shows from his store for years and recommends using an external microphone, which he says “really cleans up the sound.” Most streaming platforms allow you to choose a separate source for the video and audio. Coyle uses a Blue Yeti USB mic, as well as the Blue Raspberry, which supports a Lightning connector for iOS devices as well as USB.
If you are adventurous and want to try to produce a higher-quality stream, you have many other options, although things can get complicated quickly. You can use audio from an audio interface, such as the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 ($159), on a computer so that you can use higher quality microphones. There are also audio interfaces that can be used with mobile devices, like the Focusrite iTrack Solo ($129.99), IK Multimedia iRig Stream ($99), and Apogee Duet ($649). On the video side, there are ways to use higher-quality cameras. Al Petteway plans to use a Magewell USB Capture HDMI box ($299) to connect a more professional-quality camera for future shows. Keep in mind that internet bandwidth and limitations of the streaming platform you use may not allow you to fully realize the benefits of higher-quality gear.
Another advanced option is to use software on a computer that collects all your audio and video sources and connects to the streaming platform. For his concert, Petteway used OBS (Open Broadcaster Software), a free software package that lets you control and switch between multiple cameras and audio inputs and stream to your destination. Using OBS requires a more complex setup. For example, on Facebook, instead of selecting your webcam, you generate a “Stream Key” and a URL, which you need to enter into OBS.
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Tips and Techniques
Regardless of the gear you use, here are a few tips for making your show go smoothly:
- Prepare your “stage”and environment. Consider your surroundings and background—you hope watchers are paying attention to you and your music, and probably don’t want them to be distracted by clutter behind you. Joe Carpenter, a Nashville-based guitarist who recently streamed for the first time as part of an online open mic, reminds us to “mute your phone’s ringer and vibrate functions.”
- Set up your lighting. Good lighting can not only make you look your best, it can affect the quality of your stream. Phone cameras generally work best in stronger light, and reveal their weaknesses in lower light. Webcams often do a great job of adjusting to varying lighting conditions, but may reduce the frame rate in lower light, producing blurry motion, or even dropped frames. Following the same basic guidelines for lighting as you would for a photograph or video shoot will produce better results—there are many tutorials on lighting readily available on the internet. Stevie Coyle advises to “get some backlight on you, if you can. A lot of people light from the front, but a backlight sets you off from the background.”
- Frame yourself in the picture. Make sure you position your camera so you look your best, using an attachment to place the camera on a stand, if possible. The all-too-common approach of laying your phone on the table in front of you produces an unfortunate up-your-nose look. Stevie Coyle comments that “precisely nobody looks good like that! Getting a nice flat angle will set you apart.”
- Use the back camera on a phone. Many phones now have back and front “selfie” cameras. The back-facing one is almost always a higher-quality camera. In addition, the selfie camera often flips the image, so that if you are a right-handed guitarist, for example, you’ll appear left-handed. Some phones have a way to change that, but the easiest way to fix the problem is to use the back camera. In addition, consider using landscape mode for your stream. Not only will it look more like a professional video, but it is easier to fit a guitar into the frame without being too far away.
- Turn off voice processing. Many webcams as well as various software programs, such as Skype or Zoom include compression and other automatic audio adjustments by default. These work great for voice conversations, keeping levels even and improving speech clarity. But they wreak havoc on guitars or music in general. Check for settings, sometimes hidden behind “Advanced” options, and turn these automatic features off.
- Do a sound check. Test your setup before starting your stream, just as you would for a live show. While you can do some testing offline or can usually preview your video before going live, it is possible on some platforms to create an actual test stream that is visible only to you. For those streaming on Facebook, Jon Hart suggests creating a private group—it’s as easy as clicking on a button to create a new group and not inviting anyone else to join. Then you can stream to that group, and watch the video afterwards to see how you will look and sound. On YouTube, you can create a private stream that only you can see.
- Enlist a helper. Although you can certainly stream a show by yourself, it’s also helpful to have an assistant. On many platforms, watchers can comment, make requests, or ask questions in real time, so having someone else monitoring the feed can be helpful. For his show, Petteway says, “we decided we needed another computer that would not be connected to anything we were doing—not signed on to YouTube, and so, to see what someone else would see. Because you don’t know for sure!” Be aware that the stream shown on another device may be slightly delayed, so it is unlikely that you would want to watch it yourself during your performance.
- Check your internet connection. Streaming requires a lot of bandwidth and a reliable internet connection. Streaming a 720p HD video requires at least five megabits per second upload speed—note that you’re sending video, so it’s the upload speed that is important! You can check your internet speed with a variety of online speed tests. Just google “speedtest” to find some services. Even if your internet service is fast, streaming over wi-fi may be slower and less reliable, and using cellular service on a phone may be even more problematic.
- Get the word out. You can create a stream at any time, and people may discover it, but you’ll probably reach more people with a bit of planning and publicity. Most platforms allow you to create a scheduled event in advance, often with the ability to send invitations. If you have a mailing list, send out a newsletter to let people know when your show is scheduled. You can also leverage communities such as Facebook groups devoted to music, but in most cases, you will get more viewers if you have been active in the group beforehand, participating in conversations, commenting on other’s videos and so on, rather than showing up as a total newcomer.
- Consider a regular schedule. Some performers are treating streaming like recurring gigs. Laurence Juber has been doing a 15-minute mini-concert he’s titled “Tea Time with LJ” every day at 1:30 Pacific time. Stevie Coyle has been streaming from his store every Friday afternoon for years. Facebook allows you to schedule repeating events, which allows potential watchers to sign up to be reminded of events.
- Save your stream. On some platforms, like StageIt, once the show is over, it’s gone. But on others, such as Facebook or YouTube, the video remains just as if you had posted a pre-recorded video, so people who may have missed the show can watch later. Even a video that draws a small live audience may reach many more people over time.
- Engage with your audience. The difference between a live stream and simply posting a pre-recorded video is that your audience is there watching as you perform, so it’s useful to try to use that to your advantage. You can’t see the audience, but you can try to engage with them. Check the comments feed, acknowledge people, consider taking requests, and so on.
- Keep viewer counts in perspective. Everyone is streaming and there is a lot of competition, so don’t be disappointed if your stream isn’t a viral sensation. As Tommy Loose observes, “We’re all kind of numbers obsessed, but even if the numbers aren’t millions of views, we’re bringing people together.”
- Adjust your performance mindset. For those used to performing live, performing through a camera to an unknown audience can be a different experience. Hanson observes, “A performer puts out a lot of energy from the stage, and feeds off the audience’s response. That’s more problematic online.” At the same time, it helps to recognize that the intimate and relatively low budget aesthetic of a live stream has an appeal to many watchers. Hart explains that “it’s not like being up on a stage. It’s pretty raw, and you don’t get to see that much these days.” At the same time, you are giving a performance, so it helps to put yourself in the mindset that you are on stage. Recalling his first streaming experience, Joe Carpenter observed that “every performer in the group I was in started off their set with a blank five-to-ten-second stare at the lens and asking: “Am I on? Can you hear me? Let me know if you can hear me?” Every. Single. Performer. Don’t be that person!”
For many musicians, streaming is a way to connect with others, share their music, and especially in these challenging times, help make people feel a little better. But with the coronavirus temporarily ending all live performance opportunities, many working musicians need to replace income from lost gigs. While live streaming can be a promotional tool, and perhaps help sell CDs, that only goes so far. Here are a few approaches to generate income from streaming:
- Ticketed platforms. A few platforms, most notably StageIt, directly support ticket sales as well as providing a virtual tip jar for performers.
- Sell advance tickets yourself. If you stream your show to a non-public location, you can presell tickets and then tell your purchasers how to find your scheduled stream. Mark Hanson uses Eventbrite for ticket sales to his workshops, but you could accept payment by any mechanism (PayPal, for example). This technique works well with YouTube, where you can create an unlisted stream that is visible only to those who have the URL, or platforms like Zoom where viewers must have an invitation to join.
- Accept tips or donations during the show. Some performers display PayPal or Venmo addresses during their performance or in notes that accompany the stream, asking for donations. One benefit of this approach is that people may continue to send money if they watch the video later—another reason to keep the resulting video available after the live stream has ended.
Gently Down the Stream
Whether you want to stream for fun or for profit, it can be surprisingly easy to start streaming your music and sharing it with the world. In this stressful time, it’s a great way to connect with other musicians, reach your audience, and brighten the day of people who are unable to attend the kinds of live events they have enjoyed.
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