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Kulture Kolumn: The Future of Live Entertainment in a COVID-19 World

Is paying $30 to watch a concert on your screen the new normal?

Riddhi Chakraborty May 03, 2020

SuperM interacting with fans at the first edition of Beyond Live.

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I remember back in 2009 when my favorite band Tokio Hotel launched a slew of ‘live’ holographic concerts, the fandom pretty much went insane. A literal holographic version of the band performed a couple of the tracks in malls and several other public locations across Europe and America. Fans gathered in droves to see it and I think it was the mix of fascinating new technology as well as the circumstances of not being able to see the band in the flesh that led to crowds gathering around these stages and screaming as though Tokio Hotel was right before them. It was new, unforgettable and not unlike the kind of concerts we’re looking at right now, in the era of COVID-19.

When the world decided to #StayAtHome to combat the coronavirus, a lot of things came to an abrupt halt. The music and entertainment industry to big hits; massive tours and festivals were postponed, some canceled, and with live shows making up the biggest percentage of artist and label earnings, the situation for everyone involved in show business is looking grim. A lot of artists and organizations are wracking their brains about how to keep the industry going. However it was South Korean label SM Entertainment that decided to dream big and bring back concerts. The company partnered with South Korean online search engine Naver to announce an ambitious new venture called Beyond Live. The goal was to replicate a full-sized arena show online and feature one of their leading artists every weekend. SM explained the show would feature new performances, last the duration of a regular concert and incorporate special features like Augmented Reality to build a brand new concert experience that does right by their fans.

It sounded great on paper, but there was definitely one thing the fans didn’t like. The show wasn’t free.

To tune in to a Beyond Live concert, fans have to pay between $26-$30, depending on their device. There was a lot of conversation on social media around the ethics around this and many fans agreed they found it a little unfair–the world is, after all, in the middle of a pandemic and $30 (INR 2,274) is no paltry amount. In India, it’s pretty much enough to sustain a family’s meals for 10 days. While it’s a fraction of the price of a regular concert ticket to see any of SM’s artists live, it’s a lot of money to the millions of people around the world who have lost jobs, are living on reduced incomes and digging into lifelong savings just to get by. Spending money on a virtual concert where you don’t get to experience the joy of seeing your favorite artist in flesh and blood can seem illogical.

SM Entertainment decided to launch Beyond Live with K-pop supergroup SuperM (comprising members of WayV, NCT and EXO), and the concert took place on Sunday, April 26th. The show aired on the popular livestream app V Live at 3 p.m. KST (11:30 a.m. IST.) It was definitely everything SM promised it would be and more; once fans had paid and logged into the app, they had the option of turning on their web cams to interact with SuperM’s members on a giant screen during the livestream–a once-in-a-lifetime moment for those lucky enough to be selected. There were also numerous AR graphics that paired with several of the performances, including two leaping tigers when SuperM performed their unreleased track “Tiger Inside” as well as fantastic visuals during “Jopping” and Lucas’ solo “Bass Go Boom.” SuperM’s label mate girl group Red Velvet made a tiny cameo to wish them good luck, a special treat for many fans. The artists, mindful of the fact that fans were tuning in from dozens of different countries, also made sure to speak in as many languages as they knew among them–Thai, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, English and more. Mark, the member most fluent in English, did his best to translate for his members as much as possible. The show was fun, partially interactive and allowed the members’ personalities to shine through. Not to mention the setlist was a lot longer than SuperM’s concerts last year with new tracks and never seen before stages. So it begs the question–was it worth it?

My opinion post watching the show settled on both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ I did definitely get a lot more ‘bang for your buck’ from Beyond Live than I’d initially expected, plus the artists and production team really did give it their all, so I do believe asking for payment is valid. In my head its about the engineers, stage hands, managers, graphic design teams and more–who have their own families to provide for and aren’t the glittering superstars you see on your screen–that need to be paid for their work. To be fair, SM Entertainment did make it clear that the fee was to pay production crew working on the show, individuals without whom the concert would not have been possible.

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The amount that had to be paid however, was what I had an issue with. Telling fans they need to cough up anywhere between $26-$30 or more per show while the world is in the biggest financial crisis it has ever seen, is a bit questionable. If there truly was no budget for a free show, perhaps $10 or $12 would have been more acceptable. It’s damn difficult to think about, because the reality of the matter is that while I might have some cash for SuperM or perhaps even NCT’s Chinese unit WayV (who take their turn on Beyond Live today), I’m not sure if I’ll get enough of salary this month to afford watching the next act, no matter how much I adore them. For most fans, watching an unofficial livestream is not about spiting SM Entertainment–it’s simply born from an inability to afford watching their favorite artist perform. None of us are safe from salary cuts, being put on furlough or losing our jobs completely.

According to Forbes, a whopping 75,000 paid viewers tuned into the event from 109 countries, earning the inaugural Beyond Live concert featuring SuperM over two million dollars just from virtual ticketing. There’s no way of knowing how many viewers tuned in via other ‘illegal’ streams, so the total number of concert ‘attendees’ may have cruised into the 100,000s. SM’s earnings are still impressive however, and that plus the company’s status as a multi-million dollar corporation won’t help dissuade fans from streaming future concerts however they like. Fans were particularly displeased with the stern warning SM Entertainment posted on SuperM’s official social media that threatened legal action over unofficial, unpaid livestreams.

Other artists in South Korea and around the globe have over the past couple of weeks offered livestream entertainment free of cost; Global Citizen recruited dozens of A-list entertainers from around the globe (including SuperM) for a day-long, scheduled series of live performances titled ‘One World: Together At Home.’ British rockers The Rolling Stones are launching ‘Extra Licks,’ a weekly livestream series featuring bonus footage from six concert films from throughout their career while K-pop juggernauts BTS treated fans to a weekend-long livestream marathon Bang Bang Con in April, Korean hip-hop label AOMG has launched specially curated live performances on YouTube–all for free. Not to mention the flood of free celebrity-led livestream content on Instagram, Twitter, Twitch and YouTube already available. Some of the these concerts and livestreams are collecting money–but then donating it to those who have suffered because of the coronavirus.

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It’s true, however, that none of it was packaged and presented as beautifully as Beyond Live. No one else has gotten as close as SM Entertainment and (the production company) Dream Maker Entertainment to truly creating a full-scale concert experience of this level. There’s a lot of hard work, dedication and innovation that made it all possible, but more than that it’s a new perspective on live entertainment and an answer to a lot of the music industry’s problems. The global pandemic isn’t ending anytime soon and even when we do begin to slow the spread of the virus, there’s no way we’re getting anywhere close to resuming life as we knew it. Adapting to the ‘new normal’ over the next year or so may mean paying to watch your favorite artist ‘live’ on your computer screen. The definition of ‘live in concert’ is bending every single day and doing shows for free on a long term basis won’t sustain the music industry.

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