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The Show Must Go On: Why The Future of Concerts Is Hybrid

Mike Schabel, the president of video tech startup Kiswe, explains the preparation that goes into organizing a virtual show and why the future is hybrid concerts

Divyansha Dongre May 31, 2022

It wouldn’t be a hyperbole to state that the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we function. Virtual classrooms were no longer a distant future nor was working from home a wistful dream we assumed would not fit within the corporate structures of the world. Regardless of the setback of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown imposed on several sectors, no industry was as severely hit by the repercussions as the live entertainment industry. 

According to World Economic Forum, the revenue generated from live performance was the “biggest casualty.” To put things into perspective, a six-month halt was estimated to cost the industry over $10 billion in sponsorships. The music industry, especially K-pop, was quick to respond through a series of interactive live concerts that fans could enjoy from the safety and comfort of their homes. This experience didn’t guarantee the adrenaline rush a live, in-person show would offer, but it kept the fans, music and artists connected to one another.

Today, nearly two years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the live industry is back on its feet. Major music festivals such as Coachella, Head in the Clouds, as well as live performances by artists such as Olivia Rodrigo, Harry Styles, BTS, TWICE, NCT 127 are back in full force. In fact, for some artists such as BTS, the in-person performance in Las Vegas was marked by a week-long extravaganza, where Vegas was painted purple and the city hosted several BTS-themed events, including their four-day sold-out stadium show. With the economy slowly opening up and fans looking forward to catching their favorite artist on tour in person, where does that put live concerts? Does the live entertainment industry still have a spot for its saving grace that supported the industry through the turmoil period of 2020-2021?

“The future of concerts is hybrid,” states Mike Schabel, President of Kiswe, a video technology startup providing live media solutions to global sports and entertainment content owners. “In fact, the goal has always been to provide hybrid live events. It is the pandemic that forced us to consider performances uniquely built for a purely digital audience. Our view is that there has always been a limit to the size of live events because there are finite numbers of tour dates and seats. The only way to grow that top-line for the industry is to perform more concerts in bigger venues, or to charge more for each ticket; this makes it sometimes financially challenging to be an artist (you need to work more) or for a fan (you need to pay more),” he explains the profit rationality driving live performances. “We like digital because it complements the in-person experience with new experiences. A digital concert allows me to see my favorite artist who didn’t tour through my town on a date when I was available or allows me to watch that awesome concert again. The music industry, and in particular, the artists, only benefit when we can help them share their art with more fans around the world.”

VenewLive, the global live streaming platform powered by interactive video company, Kiswe has been the trusted partner for several sporting and music artists including BTS, Sunmi and SEVENTEEN, providing its client an efficient digital pay-per-view model to stream their content. The platform is the first project to come from KBYK Live- a collaborative project between Kiswe and K-pop powerhouse BigHit Entertainment (formally rebranded to HYBE Corp) launched in September 2020. In February 2021, VenewLive attracted two additional investors – YG Entertainment and Universal Music Group (UMG). 

VenewLive takes live streaming a notch higher through two-way video technology, creating an immersive viewing experience where the audiences can both consume and contribute to the content being streamed. Fans can comment in real-time and they are visible to the performing artists. Fans, as well as the artist, can also see where the viewers are tuning in from through a digital map. As for viewing, the set-up is such that it allows a viewer to enjoy the performance through various angles in video resolution that goes up to 4K.

“Music reminds us that what the GPS coordinates of where we were born does not change the fact that we are humans who experience emotions, and, in particular, true common joy when experiencing music. “- Mike Schabel. Photo: Courtesy of Kiswe.

“There are a lot of really cool immersive technologies that are on the market, from full-immersive games and avatars, to 360 video, to XR tech which is like digital-real hybrid displays, and more,” elucidates Schabel. “We have chosen to provide audience members with the choice of watching an event from the perspective of different cameras. So while our audience can always choose to watch the produced program presentation, they can also choose cameras that have specific storylines to present. For example, one camera might focus on choreography. Another camera might focus on one of the performing artists.” 

Schabel handpicks his favorite features that Kiswe’s patented technology offers, “One of my favorite perspectives is to watch all cameras at once as if I was a director. My other favorite is our 4K video resolution. You wouldn’t think it would matter when watching on a small screen, but the quality of screens in mobile devices, computers, and TV’s has increased so much that presenting native 4K video really makes a big difference.” Schabel touches upon the dynamic nature of the video and live streaming industry, explaining that this is just the beginning, “There are a lot of very cool new technologies emerging that step beyond the traditional 2-D linear presentations. We are just at the beginning of the trend of video evolution, but the common reference is to provide an amazing experience for the at-home audience which empowers them to enjoy the concert in a very personal way.”

I’ve sat through a handful of live concerts by VenewLive, the most memorable ones being BTS’ ‘Map Of The Soul ON:E,’ which saw the pop titans perform tracks from their critically acclaimed LP Map of the Soul: 7 for the first time and ‘BTS Permission To Dance On Stage – LA’ which marked the first time the group had performed live for an in-person audience since their 2019 World Tour ‘Love Yourself: Speak Yourself.’ Needless to say, both performances were monumental, and like Schabel said, viewing the concert from various angels gave me a sense of control over my experience, allowing me to take in BTS’ nuanced approach to their artistry and dexterous choreography. 

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Kiswe’s patented technology delivered as promised, allowing fans from around the world to share their thoughts and emotions in real time. What I found particularly fascinating was the attention to detail in this layout. From the ARMY Bomb (fandom lightstick) illustrated tab placed at the bottom right of the chatbox to the color palette rooted in purple (fandom color); the visual aesthetics enhanced the overall concert viewing experience, bridging the gap between fans and artists. 

In an exclusive conversation with Rolling Stone India, Schabel breaks down the workings and technology behind a live-streamed concert, trends in the industry and what the future holds for hybrid concerts

Could you please elaborate the workings of an online concert? What are the preparations that go into hosting a large-scale online event?

Online concerts require extraordinary preparation. On the technical side, we must create a video production that creates an amazing experience for the audience at home. While existing video solutions at a concert are designed to provide visibility for the people that are far away from the stage, it doesn’t quite provide the right vibe for the people at home. We need a different kind of production that conveys the same energy as if you were there on the stage. You then must digitize all of the cameras and audio, arrange for amazing redundant networks so you can get all of those signals up to our processing servers in the cloud. While we are processing the live video, we are also checking the tickets of all of the digital buyers from around the world, and letting them into our exclusive experience. It is very intense. Imagine trying to process millions of people’s tickets all at the same time and without mistakes! Also, since people can buy tickets digitally, we never know how many we will be serving. As such, a lot of preparation goes into getting ready for serving an unlimited and global audience. We also think very carefully about providing an amazing experience for the audience at home, so they don’t feel like they are just watching an event passively on a screen, but that their participation actually has a positive and meaningful impact on the event.

What do artists and fans expect from live-streamed concerts? Have you noticed any similarities between these demands across genres [sports and entertainment?]

What we believe, which is reinforced by what we have learned, is that the audience at home wants to feel like they are enjoying something unique and truly live, and to be acknowledged as part of the audience. If the concert does not include or recognize the at-home audience in some meaningful way, they won’t feel included in the event or that they matter. Concerts are community experiences, and fans at home want to feel like they are part of that community rather than a spectator. It takes courage for artists and producers to consider this audience in a meaningful way. Think about it like this: if there are two concerts, one with 10 people participating from home, and one with a million at home participants, the vibe of each concert should feel different. The first should feel intimate and exclusive. The second should feel powerful and like a movement. If the event feels the same no matter how many people are participating from home, then I’d argue we haven’t done enough to get the experience right.

SEVENTEEN and TREASURE have partnered with KISWE for their upcoming live shows. Will we be seeing any new technology or features in these live events? How have the preparations been so far?

We are so lucky to have the opportunity to support these great groups through our partnership with Hybe. Hybe is a visionary company that never fails to amaze as they create and provide platforms that bring artists and fans closer together. They have used digital technology to an amazing level to help create and foster these artist-to-fan and fan-to-fan relationships. We just finished the SEVENTEEN concert, and we provided 16 components of the multi-cam experience: one program feed, one camera following each member, and a director mix of all 15 cameras. It was intended to give every fan an opportunity to enjoy the experience from their preferred perspective. Such contributions are hard and we spend a lot of time testing each feature to make sure it works flawlessly for consumers. Also, there is a never-ending set of changes to devices, browsers, and settings, and we need to make sure that we understand the best configurations for consumers so we can support them. I should also mention that WeVerse has made a lot of awesome improvements to the user experience for fans to discover and easily access the events. They are a very innovative group and very much focused on the fans!

How did BTS’ ‘Permission To Dance: On Stage’ live show perform? Could you share any relevant statistics from the show: How many people tuned in, top countries that bought the largest traffic, and so on?

I’m afraid to say that this is not my information to share. We carefully respect the data that belongs to our partners and artists, and direct all inquiries for information to those partners. What I can say is that I am always amazed with the incredible loyalty of ARMY towards BTS. It is a loyalty that we are privileged to support with great experiences, and we work extremely hard to support ARMY, BTS, and Hybe. We are lucky to have such opportunities.

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I noticed Kiswe allows artists to obtain live fan sentiment analysis. What is the tech behind this analysis?

The only way to respect and adapt to what a fan community is telling you is if you listen to them. During the live events, the digital fans tell you so much about whether they love a moment in the show, want to see an improved experience, are moved by the concert, etc. From our experience, we need tools that help us understand how an audience is feeling – just like you would have at an in-person event where the audience might give a standing ovation, sing along with a song, cry, or are moved to absolute silence. Sentiment analysis is simply another way to say – we care and the artists care what the entire audience has to say, even the ones that are at home. 

‘Sustainable Concerts’ is an effort many artists are going for. Do you think online concerts fit that narrative?

We haven’t used this narrative yet, but the shoe does fit and maybe we should wear it. The narrative we focus on is that live music really serves a small fraction of fans who are available on the night of the event, can travel to that event, and who have the financial means to attend. If we look beyond this well-served audience, there are the underserved fans. Those are the ones we’re trying to help. If there was an ability for all of those underserved fans to buy a ticket, travel to the concert, and see it in person, the ecological footprint would be big. But we already know that the underserved audience is simply not contributing to the footprint by nature of the fact that they cannot attend. So in fairness, we should say that we are providing access to a new audience in the most ecologically efficient way we can with the best digital technological advancements available.

During the pandemic, several outlets published articles on  how K-pop always had an upper hand in live streaming, which, in turn, softened the financial blow. Is this a trend you noticed too? Are K-pop labels more willing to explore live streaming activities as opposed to western acts?

We’ve heard similar messages, but actually have a different point of view. K-pop acts are associated with companies that are vertically integrated in that they have internal businesses that each are responsible for all of the key ingredients that have proven important for live streaming. They have artist management, marketing, promotion, production, touring, finance, and so much more. As a result, the company makes a decision and the many internal business units all support. It is all under one house.

Western artists also have the benefit of the same functions, but they are all independent businesses. As such, when there is a decision to conduct a livestream event (a decision that generally lives with the artist themselves), there is no natural company that takes point. That creates new market opportunities, but they require experience and excellence to make great business decisions and manage financial risk. I don’t think that western acts are any more or less supportive of live streaming, but the structure of the value chain needs a bit more organization so as to be as as the situation experienced by eastern artists frictionless. 

What are some of the trends you think will impact online concerts?

Here’s the trend that I hope to see: more engagement from at-home audiences. When they sing, cheer, dance, cry, and are moved by the music, that should have an impact on the live event. Also, we continuously see the global connections made by music. Music reminds us that what the GPS coordinates of where we were born does not change the fact that we are humans who experience emotions, and, in particular, true common joy when experiencing music. It unifies, and digitally sharing these moments with a global fan community reminds us of that. 

Kiswe has been hosting an array of events, from entertainment to sports. From a financial standpoint, which genre of events have significantly boosted and impacted the business?

They are all important, because fans love live experiences. We don’t prioritize sports and music, just like we don’t prioritize large events over small events. The power of our technology is it levels the playing field for talented artists and athletes to share their gifts with their fans. Our arena is both small and exclusive, as well as large and global. And as such, what we focus on is how we can share great live stories with music, sports, and entertainment, and help connect creators with audiences, and audiences with creators. When we figure that out, the money works itself out. We’re lucky to have the ability to support all live genres.

Online concerts have gone the length to ensure fans have an immersive viewing experience. From multiview technology to fan engagement features, 4K viewing and more. How much further can live streamed events go? Are there any new features or add-ons Kiswe is currently working on?

We work on new experiences for consumers every day, thinking in particular about how to provide unique digital experiences that are different from what one might expect from a live event, and could not be experienced otherwise. I think that one of the most incredible concerts I’ve ever experienced was the digital BTS Map of the Soul live concert. It blew my mind, and would not have been the same if it were in person. We’re just getting started in this new innovative space, and I don’t want to limit anyone’s thinking about the way forward. We don’t have limits, especially with the creativity of the artists who can use this new medium for their art.

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