Adventures in Livestreaming: Student Music Ensembles

An occasional series in which I fumble my way through the world of live-event coverage. I screw up so you don’t have to. 

If your university is home to the kind of wonderful student performing groups we have here at the University of Rochester, and you are not currently livestreaming their performances over the Web, may I humbly suggest that you make it your belated New Year’s resolution to start. Or to at least try. I promise you they are the low-hanging-fruit of awesome when it comes to starting and sustaining a live-event-coverage program.

Last semester, I started a livestreaming pilot program with a few of our music department ensembles: the Jazz Ensemble, Wind Symphony, Symphony Orchestra, and Chamber Orchestra. I can happily report that these events have been the most successful events I’ve livestreamed so far. And I am measuring success in terms of both the total number of viewers and the sheer blissed-out happiness expressed by viewers and performers alike at the opportunity to participate in something they had no way of experiencing before.

The first “shake out cruise” was the Jazz Ensemble’s fall concert. With very little promotion, the livestream attracted a sustained viewership of around 40 listeners, with a high of 53. Earth shattering? No. But consider that most of this group’s performances attract around 150-200 in-person attendees. The livestream availability increased their usual attendance levels by between a quarter and a third, without detracting from that in-person attendance.

And that online audience was beyond thrilled. Here is the very first comment received on the built-in chat during that very first livestreamed concert:

8:10 PM  universityofrochester: This is the first jazz ensemble concert to stream live on the Web
8:10 PM  universityofrochester: We appreciate any feedback you may have
8:11 PM  parent: pan the camera left-we can’t see the rhythm section
8:14 PM  universityofrochester: is your student in the rhythm section?
8:14 PM  universityofrochester: I can try to zoom in. :-)
8:15 PM  parent: yes – thanks – the bass player

And it only got better from there. Here is some of the commentary from the Wind Ensemble performance the following week, which sustained 100 viewers throughout the entire concert, and hit a high of 121 (again, with an in-person attendance of around 200):

8:15 PM  MommaLi: Go Greg from Ma and Pa Danchik in Pittsburgh!
8:15 PM  Jay: Kedar u played well and nice job! made me and your dad very proud…
8:18 PM  Jaclyn: go vicky, go! love you, lady!
8:19 PM  MommaLi: “Rust Belt” making us proud tonight : ) Go horns!!!
8:27 PM  Websters: Enjoying this very much!  Thanks for livestreaming for those of us who can’t be there in person.
8:28 PM  akshay: Beautiful! Enjoying this sitting in Carlson doing my assignments!
8:29 PM  Jairo: I am abroad and this is awesome!
8:30 PM  memphismary: I see my girlie sitting between the 2nd and 3rd sax players–yay!
8:44 PM  MommaLi: Thought we’d get the tree decorated tonight but we’re glued. Go Emily! And huge thanks UofR for this privilege.
8:45 PM  URalum89: UR doing a great service and these are wonderful artists. It is a great way to stay connected to the University. Thank you.
8:45 PM  lysolmom: You are doing great, UofR – Miss everybody there so much -you are All fantastic, and this is better than an old lady like me could ever imagine!

When I shared this feedback and viewership stats with the conductors – along with the fact that the livestreams had attracted viewers from Kuala Lumpur, Brussels, Australia, Florida, California, North Dakota, Virginia, etc. – their jaws literally dropped. Needless to say, we are planning to livestream all the major music ensemble performances this semester. This data also helped justify my department’s decision to go ahead and purchase the ad-free version of the livestream platform we are using (Livestream.com; $3,250/year for 3,000 ad-free viewer hours/month).

Here are some tips on how to get started livestreaming your own students’ musical magnificence.

(1) Talk to the right people. Finding out who the right people are on any campus can be a challenge in and of itself. In my case, I first spoke to the press officer in our Communications office who handles publicity for our concert events. She put me in touch with the Music Department’s concertmaster, a faculty member who also administers the department’s performance programs. He then put me in touch with his student technical staff – they set up the house sound before each concert – and with the director of the Jazz Ensemble – he was an eager and gracious “guinea pig” for the first livestream. NOTE: it took two-and-a-half months between my first point-of-contact to my first dry-run of livestreaming a rehearsal. So be patient, young grasshopper. And persistent.

(2) Address issues of copyright. You’d need to take a course in copyright law to understand all the intricacies of rights to sound recordings and performances. In fact, I have taken a course in copyright law, and I still don’t understand them. Luckily I don’t have to. The aforementioned concertmaster handles all copyright concerns when the ensembles are putting together their programs for the semester. For much of the classical music repertoire, copyright is not an issue since works are in the public domain. Also our university has signed contracts with the three major publishing rights organizations – ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. So far, there has been one song in one concert that we did not have clear rights to based on these agreements, so for that song I simply unplugged the audio source from the laptop and explained to the online audience what was going on. And we did Not. Lose. A single. Viewer. They stuck around for six minutes of silence; that’s how much they want this stuff. On your campus, talk with those involved in planning performances of musical works and possibly your university counsel to make sure you have all your intellectual property ducks in a row.

(3) Get the conductor on board. The conductors of the major ensembles I’ve worked with so far – Bill Tiberio of the Jazz Ensemble and David Harmon of the classical ensembles – have been amazing, enthusiastic, and gracious. From the very first one, Tiberio welcomed the online audience from the stage (just as he would welcome the in-person audience), repeated the livestream URL multiple times, and encouraged attendees to send the URL to their friends and relatives at home (which I saw several audience members doing from their phones as the concert began). This has set the tone for the rest of the performances.

(4) The technical stuff. Short answer: it’s all about audio. These are musical performances, after all. For me, my setup is probably embarrassingly low-tech, but it works. (You can check out the archive of the Wind Symphony performance at http://livestre.am/4eYB8  for a sample; fast-forward to the 20-minute mark unless you enjoy watching people mill about.) I use a Canon Vixia HV40 camera – an older model HD camera with a Firewire output. I connect the camera to my Macbook Pro via Firewire, and then connect to the output from the auditorium’s sound board with an RCA audio adapter into the stereo mini-jack input in my laptop. The craziest part is that the sound board is in the back of the stage, so I run a 200-foot extension cable from the stage to my laptop, which is set up in a break in the auditorium seating. Honestly the part of the set-up process that takes the longest is taping this cable down with gaffer tape. But on the upside, I do get to say “gaffer tape” with an air of knowledge and authority.

So what’s next? Obviously the parent audience is key here. These are folks who have probably been watching their child perform at recitals and concerts since the kids were in grade school. Now imagine that for the first time you can’t attend every performance, because your kid is in Rochester and you are in Pittsburgh. It’s kind of a no-brainer that for this audience, this content is unbelievably valuable. My next step for this semester, though, is to try to work with our Admissions office to see how they might use these livestreams as a way to reach out to prospective students. I have to imagine that showing a high school student with an interest in the arts and biomedical engineering just what it would be like to study and perform at our university could also be potentially helpful to students making their college choices.

–lori

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*