Is Livestream the Future of Music Festivals?

Tomorrowland festival in Boom, Belgium, in 2019.
In 2019, thousands packed Tomorrowland in Boom. In 2020, the event went fully virtual. (Photo: Tomorrowland.)

ince 2005, Belgium has played host to the most popular music dance festival in the world: Tomorrowland. Attendance in recent years has neared half a million people, attracting some of the world’s biggest artists — Steve Aoki, David Guetta, Bebe Rexha, among many others. The show, normally split over two weekends, sells out months in advance (and in minutes), bringing together people to the appropriately-named town of Boom.

And this year’s edition, the 16th, was in some ways its most successful and groundbreaking yet.

Indeed, as travel has plummeted and large social gathering is absent in most countries due to the ongoing pandemic, Tomorrowland pivoted its summer 2020 show to a fully virtual format that featured nearly 70 artists, drawing more than one million viewers worldwide. Platforms such as YouTube, Twitch, and Facebook streamed the shows to viewers on every continent, allowing in most cases a livestream chat for users to engage with fellow fans during the performances. (Several shows were later broadcasted to accommodate differing time zones.) And while the shows themselves were captivating — Katy Perry rocked, man — the livestreams and their chats helped recreate the magic of concerts, that charge of standing amongst thousands of strangers all sharing a common love for story and sound.

We’ve seen that two dimensions can work as well as three, and in some ways, surpass it both practically and emotionally.

Now, concert livestreaming is not necessarily a new phenomenon, yet it continues to grow. In 2016, Tomorrowland was viewed on Facebook by 14 million people. A year later, Ariana Grande’s benefit concert in Manchester drew 76 million viewers; and, in 2019, livestreams for Coachella hit 82 million on YouTube, up 90 percent from the previous year. But the primary difference between those livestreams and 2020’s Tomorrowland event is the number of paid viewers. Tomorrowland’s haul was by some estimates nearly $15 million and perhaps higher. While that revenue figure pales in comparison to 400,000 people dropping a few hundred dollars for a ticket (plus concession and merchandise sales), fifteen million dollars is fifteen million dollars, and even when Tomorrowland and Coachella (and Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits…) begin welcoming people back for in-person attendance, paid livestreams will undoubtedly figure into the festivals’ plans.

Kerry Perry rocked fans around the world at this summer’s Tomorrowland music festival.

Why? For one, it’s good business: livestreams can reach large new audiences and generate millions in revenue (see above). Compared to in-person shows, digital productions may carry high up-front costs but can be economical in many other ways — overhead excludes hundreds or thousands of on-site staff members, insurance and liability, trash, permits; the list goes on. Do livestreams replace in-person experiences? Many would argue no, that the sights, sounds, smells, and spontaneity of attending a show are impossible to replicate online. And fair enough. But there remain scores of people who, due to financial constraints or physical and cognitive limitations, prefer a more stable environment and would rather consume shows via livestream and interact with others through chat. Consider Lollapalooza’s fully virtual event from late July 2020. As the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “There’s no epic conflict to be tortured about, no noise bleed to contend with and — more importantly — there’s the chance for discovery of a new artist you could have been too hung over to see in that uncoveted noon time slot.” And back on the business side, livestreams only raise brand awareness, likely furthering consumption.

Affiliations — religions, sports, bird-watching — are as much about the product themselves as the company they keep.

There’s more to livestreaming than money. People enjoy livesteams and chats for a variety of reasons, not least of which includes an immediate feedback loop, driving those hits of dopamine when users submit comments and discuss topics in the moment. To be sure, humans crave instant gratification, and livestream music festivals provide both a dynamic, real-time experience complimented by chats that encourage immediate reactions and more engagement. (Just think: would you rather critique Superbowl ads at home alone or with a few friends?) It’s a duality that, frankly, can’t be replicated in person — go ahead, try discussing and learning about the intricacies and creative direction of Deadmau5’s set at Red Rocks standing amidst a throng of 10,000 fans.

Can these livestream chats become unruly? Sure. Several hundred thousand — or a few million — people all typing away at once can get carried away. But the best platforms allow chat hosts to moderate and slow down the streams, attaching governors to content and its frequency. So, if users spew offensive comments or spam the channel, they can (and should) be shadowbanned or blocked altogether. And, when the feed is flooded with comments, moderators can enact slow mode, building a chat that, well, slows down and is easier to follow. And on that note, users can close the chat outright and watch only the show, later scrolling the feed’s saved transcript to see what they missed and relive the experience.

Eric Prydz’s performs at Tomorrowland 2020, the show’s first-ever fully virtual event.

Put another way: people like having control and to feel part of something, and livestreams provide, if nothing else, the ability to curate and manage experiences on both sides of the screen that satisfy personal predilections. Livestreamers can watch the show at home, on a mobile device while at the beach or as a passenger in a car. That personalization goes along with another valuable part of chats: it’s simple, as using and interacting requires a low cognitive load. This far into the game, people have been messaging with each other online for decades, and livestream chats are an extension of what’s become an intuitive process that translates for the majority of people around the world, even more so for a younger-skewing crowd who are most likely to stream a music festival.

And demographics aside, what endures age-agnostic is the desire for acceptance. Since we could walk upright, humans have wanted to feel part of something, to be included, to find like-minded individuals who affirm our beliefs and make us feel welcomed. Affiliations — religions, sports, bird-watching — are as much about the product themselves as the company they keep. Consumers buy Nikes because they like the heel’s cushioning, but also because Lebron wears them, too. And there’s no shame in that! It’s good that we enjoy David Guetta’s music but also that we enjoy talking to people about liking David Guetta’s music. Livestream chat, when built and moderated correctly, fortifies these connections. Anecdotally, I watched via FaceTime this summer several of my friends — grown men! — tear up during DJ Eric Pyrdz’s performance at Tomorrowland, undoubtedly because of the music itself but also due in no small part to the feeling of collective viewership among people around the world.

Next year, or in 2022, or 2025, people will flood back into Red Rocks and Santa Barbara Bowl and Terminal 5. But this year has taught us the value and joy of livestream chat and watching music festivals from our kitchens, with friends and strangers in different states and countries, and that two dimensions can work as well as three and in some ways surpass it both practically and emotionally. Forced seclusion has taken its toll and may have long-lasting effects of which we’re not yet aware. But in the spirit of supplying control and opening the aperture on inclusion, when we eventually speak of this time in the past tense, let’s continue to leverage livestream and chats to open our world and give everyone a chance to enjoy the show.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store