BY ERIC PECKHAM
A friend and I watched Lil Wayne’s performance at the A-Grade SXSW party last night from the front row. It was great. Only thing: We were in Manhattan, not Austin, Texas. From there, we saw the whole concert live-streamed to our phones, alternating between a few of the 15 different mid- to high-quality streams from those in the audience, depending on which came through clearest.
Over the last 16 days, a social live-streaming app called Meerkat has exploded in the tech community, surpassing 28,000 users in its first week and tens of thousands more in the days since. It allows users to publicly live-stream video from their iPhone, with the link to the broadcast automatically shared on Twitter, from where viewers can (visibly) comment on the live video through tweets. The video stream is gone once it’s over, so if you didn’t tune in, you missed out.
Live-streaming is nothing new, of course, but the close integration of Meerkat into Twitter—and the intimate, amateur feel that’s closer to Snapchat than to UStream—appears perfectly timed (trend-wise) as the collision of the past year’s explosion in ephemeral, semi-live (within 24 hrs) Snapchat stories and the mainstream resurgence of podcasting.
As the SXSW Festival gets underway in Austin, Tex., Meerkat is likely to catch fire even more rapidly (it’s user base grew 30 percent on the first day) and define the conference like Twitter did in 2007, quenching attendees’ fear of missing out (FOMO) by showing (not just tweeting) everything that’s going on at a given moment. Proof: Halfway into Day One, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker was already using it at a panel.
So as the early adopters spread the app into the music industry crowds at “South by” as well, here’s a look at why mobile, social live-streaming should stand out to them for its beneficial application to musicians.
1) Video streams from smartphones are much nicer than they used to be
With each new iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, we see a leap in camera and audio quality. Nothing recreates the exact sound and visuals of physically being at a concert, but many amateur clips of a concert on 1080p HD video and sharper audio are actually worth watching now, unlike most of the concert clips that have long flooded YouTube.
2) Meerkat (and its competitor Periscope) dramatically reduce the barriers in converting an artist’s amassed Twitter following into viewers of a performance
There’s no “go here, sign up, click this” in order to view a stream (at least after the first time); an artist’s Twitter followers just see that they’re live broadcasting and are participating in one click. Like in any business, there’s a sales funnel to move consumers down, and for music, a key challenge is converting Facebook likes and Twitter followers into fans who actually attend concerts and buy merchandise.
Whether the Meerkat stream is by an artist having a backstage conversation with fans or it’s a high-quality stream of their actual performance, the live social video experience pulls in that large segment of light-touch fans. The more they’re exposed to both the intimacy of the live video chats and the energy of live performances, the deeper connection those fans develop and the more inclined they’ll be to take action. While there remains a segment of the industry concerned that live streaming cannibalizes ticket sales, the reality is that it acts as a marketing tool, enticing fans with a taste of what it’d be like to get the full in-person experience (just like watching an NBA game from your couch makes you wish you were there).
Meerkat’s main competitor, Periscope, was also recently acquired by Twitter for $100 million while still in private beta, which increases the likelihood of live-streaming becoming seamlessly integrated into Twitter feeds as you scroll (although they appear to be maintaining some separation for now).
3) Engagement is extraordinary
In our culture of ever-shorter-form content to stimulate the brief attention spans of mobile internet surfers, a four-minute music video has become longform. But Meerkat is hooking in one-third of its users for over two hours per day: 20 percent watch for 2–3 hours, eight percent for 3–4 hours, and four percent for more than four hours, according to CEO Ben Rubin. That puts it in the realm of competing with TV. People are staying tuned in for a full conversation or performance, and they’re hooked on finding another to watch right afterward. Admittedly, I wouldn’t normally have clicked on a stream of a Lil Wayne concert, let alone watched the full thing, if it weren’t for the fact that this time people I follow on Twitter where the ones streaming it and occasionally popping into view to say hi. But they were (and they did), and it kept me hooked.
4) On-screen visibility of comments allows a passive user to feel the activity and community around what’s going on
Nowadays it’s common for public figures to do Q&A YouTube videos, or even live streams, where they ask people to send questions over Twitter that they can pick from. That splits what’s happening across two separate sites, however, and makes it less likely that a viewer will submit their own comment. Meerkat ties those functions together so the viewers see the full scope of the conversation with an artist they care about and recognize that other people just like them are having their questions seen and answered.
Even for the fan that’s only watching passively, it provides the feeling of being part of a true discussion rather than merely a one-way broadcast.
5) Not unlike Snapchat, the ephemerality of whatever is being streamed on Meerkat incentivizes fans to tune in, for fear of missing out
If you know you can’t pull up the video on YouTube later—which in reality you’re unlikely to ever get around to—then you’ll make more of a commitment to participate in what your favorite artist is streaming in case it turns out to be a really special, can’t-believe-you-missed-it event. (Periscope, by the way, does provide the option for a user to keep their recorded stream up for others to watch later.)
In a more challenging light, these unofficial live streams of music performances also create a legal issue with performance and broadcast rights, especially if the people streaming are deemed to be undercutting the potential earnings of the rights holders. From a consumer’s perspective, ABC’s broadcasting of the Country Music Awards is an entirely different show from the broadcast off a guy’s phone in the audience, but ABC is likely to see the situation differently. While it was only a couple hundred people tuning in this time rather than thousands, Lil Wayne also wasn’t earning anything for the online segment of his audience last night.
How to crack down on inappropriate streaming—to the degree even possible—will be a big question, especially since the stream itself isn’t taking place on Twitter, which has capabilities to help monitor for illicit content on its platforms (including Vine). Like with digital music files, however, the solution isn’t going to be to fight the unwinnable battle but rather to find a smart solution to profit off of it. (New startups like appLOUD have been experimenting with models of this already.)
No single aspect of these apps is revolutionary, and each function has been done many times before. But the little differences come together in Meerkat and Periscope for a seamless experience that triggers much higher engagement than any previous efforts. Overall, the rising popularity of this social, mobile-streaming model is an opportunity for musicians, helping bring live performances online at substantial scale and enticing casual fans to finally buy tickets after their taste of the concert experience.
Whether Meerkat itself ultimately stays tied to Twitter (which has made its life more difficult), re-attaches itself to another platform, gets acquired by Snapchat/Facebook, or is overcome by Periscope entirely, social live-streaming isn’t likely to vanish anytime soon, and it’s worth the music industry experimenting with how best to leverage it.
This article was originally featured on Medium and has been reposted with permission.
Screengrab via E1/YouTube