In February 2019 Marshmello caused ripples of almost tidal proportions across the music business when 10.7 million Fortnite fans watched him perform a ‘concert’ in the game. Then in April 2020 Travis Scott followed in his shoes with his own Fortnite concert, pulling in 12 million players.
Given that this was in the lockdown the 1.3 million increase was a relatively modest increase. However, Fortnite publisher Epic Games had learned its lessons from the Marshmello event and rather than limit audience demand to one event, turned it into a residency with a further 15 million players watching over four subsequent replays of the event. This took the total to 27 million, though there will be a substantial number that attended multiple performances.
What is clear is that a format has been established and that Epic Games is honing its promoter skillset. Fortnite events are labour intensive efforts to put on and currently do not scale well (hence only two events in 14 months). But there is a much bigger opportunity here for artists and one that gains new significance in the lockdown era.
With the cessation of live music in lockdown, artists have seen a dramatic fall in income. Established artists can expect to earn between 50% and 70% of their total income from live—that just disappeared. However fast lockdown measures are eased, live entertainment is going to take a long time to return to normal. Indeed, it may never do so.
Virologists point to the Spanish Flu outbreak after the First World War as the relevant precedent for understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic may play out. That was a far deadlier outbreak, infecting a third of the world’s population and killing up to 50 million. But crucially, it was not a single event. It had four major outbreaks over two years. It is likely that COVID-19 will not simply go away but instead will return, either in waves or as a continual background oscillation of infection.
As of May 1st 2020 less than half a percent of the world’s population has been infected with . Even allowing for that being just a tenth of the actual cases, that means that 95% of the population has not had . Consequently, the majority of consumers are going to be concerned about returning to potentially infectious environments.
The combination of easing lockdown measures and weak consumer confidence means that live is not going to return to normal anytime soon. Social distancing measures will likely see rows of empty seats in larger venues and smaller, standing-only venues may struggle to operate at all. Reduced, spaced-out crowds will both harm the live experience and prevent many live events from being commercially viable to operate. Consumer concern may even make it hard for reduced capacities to be met. So, artists are not going to be able to reasonably expect a strong return of traditional live income in the mid-term future.
Live’s lockdown lag may have the knock-on effect of making artists take a more critical view of their streaming income. When live dominated their income mix, streaming’s context was a meaningful revenue stream that built audiences to drive other forms of income. It was effectively marketing artists got paid for. Now that artists are becoming more dependent on streaming income, the old concerns about whether they are getting paid enough will likely come back to the fore. It is in the interests of both labels and streaming services, that labels use this as an opportunity to revisit their streaming splits with artists. Labels cannot afford to have artists united against the labels’ primary income stream.
Live streaming is not yet ready for prime time
Live streaming of concerts is gaining traction but lockdown came a little too early for the sector. It is under developed, under monetised, under licensed, under professionalised and lacks the discovery layer crucial to make it ready for prime time (perhaps an opportunity for streaming services). On top of this, it does not create the same scarcity of experience that live music does and the rise of virtual festivals with artists playing just a few songs makes live more like a playlist experience, which favours the platforms over the artists. Enter stage left games.