Platforms for broadcasting live gigs include Facebook Live, Periscope, YouTube, YouNow, ConcertWindow, and StageIt. They are not all created equal.
Updated March 2020.
If you perform live music, chances are you’ve broadcast yourself or participated in a live broadcast online. The speed of smartphone technology and the quality of the audio/video available to iPhone/Android users are pretty amazing — especially for those of us who have been professional musicians since before the tech existed. There are more streaming platforms and apps available than ever before, and the audio and video quality of the broadcasts gets better all the time with each new phone and software update.
In my own experience, broadcasting my gigs regularly has led to new fans and a deeper connection with my existing audience. I have people who tune in for every broadcast! Very gratifying when you are playing to an empty restaurant; as long as there’s WiFi, I have a crowd online. And I made an extra $500 just from broadcasting in 2017 with very little promotion or effort beyond posting a tip jar link. My goal for 2018 is to improve that number with promotion, more targeted broadcasts aimed at my core audience, and more merch options. But that was still $500 I didn’t have before! That’s practically three weeks of groceries in the slow gig times.
For those who are adept at playing an instrument but not as comfortable manipulating technology, this idea might seem a bit daunting. Once you get the hang of it, though, it’s truly easy and the benefits can be huge. Broadcasting live is a valuable tool that all forward-thinking 21st-century musicians should be aware of. There’s really no reason not to do it.
Here’s a brief guide to how to get started. You’ll need a smartphone, access to WiFi, and some computer skills. The big players in live broadcasts right now – Facebook, Periscope, and YouTube – have pushed out some of the small apps; Busker, with its excellent ability to monetize, just recently shut down. There are also paid platforms available by subscription, but for our purposes, we’re going to stick to the free ones.
- The more effort you put into creating a good visual image for your online audience, the more they will enjoy the experience. Those of us playing in corners of restaurants and rooms without stages sometimes have very few options where to put the camera, but it’s worth it to find a suitable camera angle where what you’re doing can be seen. The #1 complaint I get from my online viewing audience concerns the camera angle. Sometimes I’ll inadvertently capture a ceiling fan or some other distraction and my crowd always lets me know about it!
- If the room is noisy, you’ll want the camera to be closer to your PA to minimize distance between the microphone and the sound.
- It’s important to interact with the online audience as much as you can. If you’re doing a broadcast solely for them with no live crowd, it makes it much easier. My solution at my regular gigs out in the real world has been to take some time on set breaks to answer comments and interact with the online crowd. But unlike some in-person audiences, the online crowd is focused almost entirely on you. Smile! You’re literally on Candid Camera.
- Give yourself extra set-up time when you first start broadcasting. There’s nothing more frustrating than troubleshooting the WiFi and your broadcasting app when you should be starting your set. You’ll also need a moment or two to figure out where you’re going to place your camera. Especially with an older phone, sometimes things can load more slowly than you’d like; with a little extra time, you can get set up and ready to go so that all you need to do is push the record button when it’s time to start.
- Invest in a tripod for your phone, something sturdy that will give your phone some steadiness and a better perspective. I use a small one made by Joby that can be placed on a stool, a nearby ledge, or even on the floor if need be. You might want something that could be placed in front of you more like a photo tripod. There are also options with boom stands that can be attached to mic stands. I bring an extra stool with me to gigs so I always have a place to put the camera.
The broadcasting platforms
Your first step will be to determine which streaming platform to use. I recommend trying them all at least once to determine which is the best fit for your music, your audience, and your needs.
This is the platform I personally use. Facebook Live broadcasting is extremely simple to set up. It rarely glitches, the quality of the streamed and saved broadcast is fairly high, and you can watch your Facebook friends log in and see live comments as they happen from the main screen.
If you have a new phone, setting up the broadcast is simple: Click the Camera button in the normal Facebook post window, and that opens up the broadcast window. There you have many different configuration options. I put the link to my virtual tip jar in the header, and make sure to flip the camera the correct way so I’m not in mirror image (one of my favorite features). You can use crazy filters if you’re so inclined, though I’d recommend against it for any pro broadcasting. I also make sure to set my broadcasts to public so they can attract random followers and friends of friends. You can broadcast up to four hours now, which is good for those of us who play long sets of 45 to 90 minutes.
When possible, I monitor my broadcast from my iPad (also my lyric book) so I can see the live chat and take requests; sometimes my phone is too far away for me to watch the chat stream as it happens. It’s a nice function, though, to have a one-stop shop of chat stream and broadcast window, so if your phone is close enough to you, you can see the chat. Thankfully, the comments people make get saved on Facebook forever; I usually spend my set breaks interacting with the online crowd. Sometimes they are more lively than the in-person crowd!
The main drawback to Facebook Live as I see it is that Facebook seems to go out of its way to squelch organic reach. I have 2,900 Facebook friends and I never get more than 200-250 views on any one set broadcast. Generally, I average about 100 views a set. The good news is that sometimes I play 25 sets a week in summer and that average stays consistent. I’m of the mindset that one should broadcast everything and let the audience sort it out; it works with my core group of devoted watchers who enjoy the marathon gigs I do. However, I’ve noticed that those musicians who broadcast less frequently occasionally get better views than I do, in the 300-400 range.
So if you experiment with Facebook Live, you might want to play with broadcast length, times of day, and accumulating as many real Facebook friends as possible to boost your views. The other experiment I have not yet tried is broadcasting from my business page and paying to boost the reach. My guess is this will work as this is what they want you to do (ugh), but I’m curious to see how much you have to pay to have a noticeable effect.
Another drawback is that Facebook makes random changes to their algorithm and their app all the time. Since November 2017, you can no longer immediately save your broadcasts to your phone; you have to do it later on a desktop or laptop. Kind of a drag if you’d like to watch/listen to the broadcast immediately after and aren’t going to be on WiFi.
More game-changing is Facebook’s aggressive practice of policing copyright violations in their videos. I had a video removed because a pay-per-view UFC event was being shown on TV in the background. Because they no longer allow you to save your videos directly to your phone, the set was lost forever and I was threatened with being post-blocked on Facebook. I am appealing this decision to try to get my set back, but I’m guessing it’s gone forever. I have heard about other musicians getting videos with cover songs in them removed unceremoniously; this hasn’t happened to me yet, but 95% of the posting I do on Facebook is through Facebook Live, and it doesn’t seem that they are policing that in the same way as videos uploaded directly to the site. You might want to consider uploading your cover to YouTube first before posting it on Facebook.
In general, I have found the positives of using Facebook Live have outweighed the negatives, and I have built a core viewing audience over time. Some musicians I greatly admire have also tuned in to my Facebook Live broadcasts and I’ve made some wonderful new musical friends and contacts.
Like using Facebook in any sense, you have to roll with the punches and stay focused on your goals – it’s easy to get distracted! Remember, sharing your music is the primary objective – don’t get bogged down in the minutiae of social media. I will admit, the aggressive copyright policing and inability to save the videos yourself are making me rethink Facebook Live as a platform.
I used Periscope for a solid year before switching to Facebook Live when the Periscope app stopped working after an iOS update. It appears Periscope has added Facebook connectivity (the app will post your broadcast link directly to Facebook), which I wish it had when I used it. Periscope also added an Android app, which wasn’t previously available, and now I see that many of my broadcasts from two years ago are still saved (it used to only save them for 24 hours).
One of the greatest upsides to Periscope was always the number of random people who would float through the broadcast: I was getting my music in front of new faces constantly. The composer AR Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) tuned in once and gave me a heart! This doesn’t happen as much on Facebook Live, mostly the viewers are your Facebook friends. You can see who the Periscope viewers are through their Twitter accounts, which is great because you can connect with random viewers after the broadcast (if a viewer has a registered Twitter account, you see their account information and can follow them back if they give you hearts).
On Facebook Live, you can’t see the viewers who aren’t your friends unless you set the broadcast to accept comments from the public and they comment. The statistics feature on Periscope is very enticing as it allows for more audience building.
The main drawback to Periscope, when I was using it, was a high incidence of trolls and spammers, which you can now control with a “followers only” setting in the chat, so only followers can comment.
A downside to Periscope is that your fans need to download and use the app, versus the ease of your video just popping up in someone’s Facebook feed, and the sound and video quality may be slightly inferior. But with the higher likelihood of gaining new followers, I think Periscope might have an equal number of strengths as Facebook Live.
YouTube Live is a new option, integrated right into your YouTube channel page, where your live broadcasts come up as a streaming video in your channel lineup and are directly saved in your videos. There is a chat window during the broadcast, but the chat log disappears when the video is saved. The audio and video quality appear to possibly be the best of the three platforms profiled so far, which makes sense, as video quality is YouTube’s strength.
Unless I’m mistaken, your audience is limited to your YouTube subscribers. I didn’t see a lot of potential for random passersby to join the broadcast. YouTube does have a Live page where you can see who’s broadcasting live, but the list is auto-generated based on popularity, so you have to have views in the thousands to register on the page. My Twitter account is connected to my YouTube account, so the broadcast link did auto-post to Twitter, which is a nice feature.
YouTube is very much its own animal, and if you have spent significant time and effort building up your YouTube channel, a live broadcast there would probably reap rewards, but there’s zero organic reach for someone on the bottom of the views food chain. Nobody randomly happened by my broadcast. People find your broadcast by either going directly to the link itself or by going to your channel page, where it is just one video in a sea of videos. There is the possibility of monetizing the video with Google AdWords, but you need 10,000 views just to get going.
Ultimately, live broadcasting could be an effective part of a serious YouTube strategy (and every independent musician should have a YouTube plan), but it may not serve the musician who doesn’t already have an established, large base of YouTube followers.
The current hot app for broadcasting, YouNow, is more than a live broadcasting app, it’s a thriving community. Simple to set up, YouNow broadcasts from inside its app and allows you to share your broadcast to seven different social media websites: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Google+, and Tumblr. It should be noted that the majority of the users are under 24 years old, but this old man broadcast on there for 20 minutes and had a very positive experience and found the crowd to be super friendly. And there is a crowd: at 5:30 AM, playing for 20 minutes, I got 87 views, 17 likes, and one person captured two moments from my broadcast.
However, YouNow’s sound quality is disturbingly subpar. Apparently, they are working on it, but as the app is not used exclusively for music (many of the users are just talking), this has clearly not been a priority in YouNow’s three-year existence. No data is shared with you after the broadcast and the broadcasts are not saved. Your audience can capture “moments” (tiny snippets of your video), but these are very short and I’m not really sure what the point is. YouNow is fairly complicated to use, the share buttons didn’t seem to work correctly, there’s no way to shoot in landscape mode, and there’s no general FAQ forum to provide clear info on how the whole thing works.
But the fact that the site is so popular means there is value for musicians. This could be a good place to do short promotional videos and drive traffic to your other sites, but as a professional broadcasting application for performing musicians, it has a long way to go.
One way to make money when playing online is to post a link to a virtual tip jar. You can do this on all of the apps above except YouNow. Options seem to come and go, but Paypal.me is one and Venmo is another you can try. Both deduct a small fee, though Paypal’s are slightly less. Digital Tip Jar actually allows the audience to text your ID to their smartphones to give tips.
You can also post links to your online merch store. Like the music guru Martin Atkins says, “It’s not your audience’s fault if you don’t have anything to sell.” Use your opportunities in front of any audience – online or in-person – to promote whatever you are selling: CDs, vinyl, T-shirts, hoodies, etc.
YouTube allows you to monetize your videos using AdWords, but you need over 10,000 views to be considered for the program.
The three ticket-based sites described above will give you a percentage of tickets sold: ConcertWindow keeps 30%, StageIt keeps a percentage based on how many tickets and tips you receive (the beginning percentage is 38%), and Gigee keeps 20%.
Basically, it is just as hard to make money online as it is in-person at gigs, but with perseverance and consistent effort aimed at building your audience, your income will naturally grow. The important thing to keep in mind is that it’s all about connecting with and growing your audience! Providing your audience with great music and a quality online experience will keep them coming back for more, and when you let them know where your tip jar is and what you have for sale, they will keep giving.
Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 20 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and has two full-length albums of original music available on iTunes.
Live streaming your show: A Facebook Live case study
Facebook Live broadcast: Our case study show and its aftermath
Getting started with Instagram Live
Vlogging For Musicians: The equipment you’ll need
YouTube for musicians – how to grow your YouTube channel and other advice
Three approaches to recording and performing cover songs