From September 2022 to October 2023, Live to your Living Room worked in partnership with Folk Arts Oxford on an Arts Council England funded project to investigate the impact of running ‘hybrid’ events – events with an audience in venue as well as online. LTYLR are continuing to build on the work done in this project, and as well as improving our technical set up, are currently developing a more in-depth research project to look at the impact of online gigs for people who face barriers to attending live music events in person.
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Exploring ‘hybrid’ gigs
Adding an online option to in-person events
A Folk Arts Oxford & Live to your Living Room joint project
For this project Folk Arts Oxford (FAO) and Live to your Living Room (LTYLR) worked closely together as project partners, with the aim of delivering a series of high-quality hybrid events (events that take place in a venue and are also streamed online), working with different venues and organisations in Oxford, and experimenting with different technical, logistical, and partnership set ups.
An evaluation of this project is set out below under the following subheadings:
– Project beneficiaries
– Project learnings
– Next steps
Online gigs provide a unique opportunity to remove barriers to attending live music events for many Disabled, Neurodivergent, and chronically ill people, so this is the main focus for project beneficiaries in this report. As venues are re-opening, many of the cultural activities that were available online during the pandemic have once again become inaccessible to many Disabled people, and as part of this project we were interested to engage with members of our community to find out their views on this.
Overall the project was extremely successful in enabling disabled audience members to engage with live music events. Some of our audience members commented:
“These gigs have enabled me to see so many musicians I would otherwise not get to see. I am disabled and find travelling too arduous – it’s wonderful being able to see gigs from my own home.”
“I am disabled and find it very hard to get to gigs, even locally. So these online gigs are a wonderful way to see/hear people I wouldn’t be able to otherwise. The production and sound are really good, the atmosphere is good, it’s amazing to be able to hear such great musicians playing live without leaving my sofa.”
As well as taking feedback from the live events via audience surveys, we undertook four focus groups with disabled artists and audience members on accessibility in live online events, in order to explore this concept in more depth. Forty five people responded to our open call for participants, and eighteen people took part in the final focus groups. Focus group participants had experience of physical access/ mobility issues, visual impairment, neurodiversity, geographical isolation, mental health issues, childcare issues, vestibular disease, and chronic pain. Just under half of the focus group participants had not previously attended an online event with us, as we deliberately recruited people who had not experienced our events in order to get a wide range of views.
Feedback from the focus groups was overall extremely positive, with comments from previous event attendees focused on how to spread the word so that more people could enjoy the gigs, and comments from people who hadn’t attended a gig largely impressed with what we already had in place, such as having a team of people to support the artist, and ensuring the quality of sound.
Focus group participants praised the fact that Live to your Living Room and Folk Arts Oxford had continued to promote online gigs even after lockdown ended – this was described as the exception rather than the rule. They appreciated the fact that Live to your Living Room’s gigs are ‘purpose built’ for an online audience, which meant they felt included and valued, and not an ‘afterthought’. Participants wanted the gig to be something more than simply watching a recording, and shared that some other platforms had made them feel like they were “on the side” and not part of the “real” audience. One participant spoke at length about problematic language around online gigs, and shared that the practice of comparing online gigs to so-called ‘real’ (i.e. in venue) gigs had made them feel “alienated, [like they were] second-class audience”.
Some participants shared that online gigs allowed them to go to live music events that their partner wasn’t interested in; they commented that Disabled people often can’t easily go out by themselves so they are restricted in the physical events they go to as it has to be something both partners enjoy. Physical venues also have to be investigated thoroughly beforehand, as participants shared that they need to know they can ‘escape’ if they become overwhelmed, with one participant describing it as an “expedition”, and others agreeing that just the planning in itself is exhausting. One visually impaired participant talked about how the world ‘shrinks’ when you lose your sight, and said that our online gigs had “opened up the world again” for them. Online gigs were described as an “easy yes” by a neurodivergent participant, who explained the difference was not having to think about or plan all the other aspects such as travel, access, and whether they could get support to attend in person.
Focus group participants spoke at length about the community around the events, as well as the actual gigs themselves. They enjoy seeing the faces of the event host, MC, and stewards and this makes them feel connected. They particularly enjoy when artists join the Zoom room during the interval, as this feels really special and is something that the venue audience don’t experience. Some participants enjoyed seeing where others were tuning in from in the in-app Zoom chat, but others found it overwhelming, and it is particularly inaccessible for visually-impaired people. Many of the participants spoke about wanting to connect with others who were also watching the gig, and brainstormed ideas such as having a group WhatsApp chat that people could join. There was a lot of discussion about the importance of atmosphere, and lots of suggestions for how to create it at home; for example decorating the room with fairy lights, or inviting friends over to watch together.
As well as all the positive aspects of online gigs, there was some concern that online gigs might be seen as ‘the Disabled option’ and mean that venues feel they don’t need to worry so much about access, because Disabled people can just watch online.
There were fewer direct benefits to the Disabled artists in our focus groups than we had expected. Although participants spoke about the ‘nighttime culture’ of gigs being intimidating, and obvious physical access issues in many venues, they were nervous about streamed gigs. Artists spoke about the shared experience of attending a physical venue, and how they were able to read the audience energy and respond to it, and how they were unsure about doing that via an online platform. There was some anxiety that even with the sound set up being as good as it can be, you can’t control how the audience are experiencing the music, as they could be listening on poor-quality devices. Some were also concerned that for many people Zoom equals work, and that might put people off attending gigs on that platform.
In general, the artists who attended our focus groups appeared to consider online gigs as ‘just another venue’, albeit a virtual one, and although there were benefits mentioned (e.g. not having to rush out, having all of your instruments to hand), in general online gigs were seen by those who hadn’t done one as the equivalent of an unfamiliar venue they hadn’t performed at before. A possible reason for this could be that people who self-identify as ‘artists’ already have a preconceived notion about what that involves, which includes gigging in physical venues. It will be interesting to see how the prevalence of online events changes (or not) the potential career trajectory of upcoming Disabled artists.
There were lots of good ideas generated by the group of artists, including inviting artists to another gig before their performance to get used to the format, and creating a set of resources to support artists who are unused to streaming, such as a video demo of how a gig works. This is something that Live to your Living Room are planning to take forward in a more in-depth project looking explicitly at removing barriers to accessing live music
Audience members in general
Audiences have continued to support our online streamed events, and on the whole have enjoyed the additional aspect of having an audience in the venue with the performer, with 70-80% of survey respondents indicating that having an audience in the venue added to their experience watching online.
Example feedback comments include:
“I really enjoyed having a hybrid gig – the musicians can interact more with a live audience, and it was so nice to hear applause.”
“I’ve enjoyed many LTYLR gigs already, but the hybrid is more natural, and probably the musicians prefer.”
For one of our gigs we learned from our feedback survey that 71% of the in-venue audience thought that the knowledge that there was an audience watching from all over the country enhanced their concert experience. One audience member commented:
“Was amazed to hear they had 150 online! Great to widen participation and presumably allow people from further away to listen. Jim [Causley] was great explaining the songs and as a performer. Truly a lovely evening!”
The addition of an online audience to an in-person gig gives a significant financial bonus to the performing artist. For many of the gigs during this project the online audience numbers exceeded the numbers in venue, and in one case by more than double the capacity of the venue itself. The exception to this was when the artists were from the local area, then the in-venue numbers were higher than online; but for all other artists online sales exceeded in-person ones.
Online gigs are beneficial to audience members who live in isolated or rural communities:
“We live in a relative wilderness when it comes to folk venues able to attract the big names. You provide us with an experience we’d otherwise be unable to obtain or afford.”
“Living in Scotland I can’t get to many events held in England, travel costs alone are expensive.”
We hope as time goes on that more and more artist and agents will see the huge benefit for online gigs to broaden access and inclusion to live music, and we believe that the work we are doing with this project and beyond helps to raise awareness of that.
We established very early on that the sound quality from a single audio mix in the venue was not sufficient to give a good experience to online listeners. To ensure the quality of sound that we were striving for for both venue and online audiences we needed two engineers and two separate mixes.
In order to do this most efficiently we used mic splitters to allow the audio from artists’ microphones to be sent to two separate mixing desks, where it then could be mixed separately without the need for additional microphones. Initially we did this with two engineers who were both in the venue where the gig was taking place, but found it was hard to mix effectively for an online audience when you can also hear the sound from the room. As ‘traditional’ LTYLR events involve an engineer remotely accessing the sound desk and mixing over Zoom, we already had the technology in place to utilise this for hybrid gigs, so we shifted the set up so that one engineer was in the room mixing for the venue audience, and one accessed the desk remotely (sometimes from another room in the venue, but more usually from their own home) to mix for the online audience. This way we could ensure that the engineer doing the mix for the online audience was getting the same audio experience as the audience were, and could optimise the mix for that specific experience.
We were able to use the time and resources this project provided to work on improving production values for our online events, specifically the visual experience. Unlike gigs that are streamed from artists’ own houses, there are fewer options for positioning cameras in most arts venues, so we needed better quality cameras that could cope with being placed further away from the artist. We also experimented with having multiple camera angles so that we could have a close up view and a wide shot so the online audience could get a sense of the whole room. This created a more professional and slicker watching experience for the audience.
Increased production values also bring increased logistical challenges, as the multi-camera set up requires someone in the venue to be confident with setting it all up, and operating the cameras. For the purpose of this project we were able to engage a dedicated local volunteer who took on this role, supported by the project team, but it is a consideration moving forwards and expanding this model to other partnerships; ideally we want to offer a solution that is low-hassle for our venue partner and doesn’t require significant extra work, but as the LTYLR set up is designed to work remotely we don’t currently have an easy option for using a multi-camera set up, and are reliant on there being an extra pair of hands available at the venue. This is something that LTYLR continues to work on addressing.
The audience experience
As well as producing high quality visual and audio experiences, we felt very strongly from the outset that we needed to find ways of connecting the online audience and the venue audience, so that the online experience of the gig didn’t feel like an add-on. Wherever it was possible we used room mics so that the sound of the audience in the venue would be included in the online mix and heard by the audience at home. In some cases we were also able to get the online MC coming out of the front of house speakers in the venue, which allowed us to do our usual housekeeping with the online audience, and then to ‘hand over’ to the venue MC, encouraging the online audience to clap/ cheer so the audience and artists in the venue could hear them as well. This was very much appreciated by venue and online audiences, and led to a much more cohesive and joined up feel to the events.
We also made sure to brief artists beforehand that there was an online audience also watching the gig, and encouraged them to speak to them during the gig in the same way they would speak to the audience in front of them. We ask our online audience to post in the Zoom chat and let us know where they are watching from, and were able to communicate this to the artists, who often shared it with the audience in the venue. This contributed to a feeling of shared experience between the online and venue audiences.
Events that are running concurrently in a venue and online require specific and coordinated management. Over the course of the project we developed a protocol for this so we could ensure that events ran as smoothly as possible and audiences had a good experience. Central to this was good communication between the venue and online teams.
Both venue and online teams would usually consist of the following personnel:
– Event manager / host / MC
– Sound engineer
– Volunteer stewards
with the addition of a camera operator in venue if needed.
LTYLR’s usual event management protocol is to create a ‘backstage’ WhatsApp group for crew and volunteers to communicate via, given that everyone will be in physically separate places during the event. In addition to this, for hybrid gigs we also created a separate WhatsApp chat specifically for communications between online and venue staff, which only included the event managers (or designated representative) and sound engineers. This comms channel was not used for any general chatter, in order to keep it clean for communication between the teams.
The Event management protocol for event start is as follows:
• Venue doors open – report in comms chat
• Online ‘doors’ open – report in comms chat
• Online MC welcomes audience as they arrive, plays background music, and shares information slides • Venue give warning of five minutes before start in comms chat
• Online MC gives Zoom-specific briefing e.g. keep muted, and explains the plan for the evening
• Online MC reports in comms chat when this is complete, and resumes background music
• Venue give cue in comms chat when they are about to start
• Online crew stop background music & unmute artist feed
• Online MC ‘hands over’ to venue MC via front of house audio (if applicable)
• Venue MC introduces artist
• Online and venue engineers take over audio control and mix as needed
Obviously this can be flexed as needed depending on the circumstances.
Intervals at hybrid gigs are longer than would be usual for an online-only gig. in order that the venue audience can make use of the facilities. Sometimes the artists will join the Zoom room during the interval and have a chat with the audience, and sometimes the online MC will hold a raffle in order to fill the time. Again, communication is important so that timings can be coordinated, and a similar protocol to the event start will be followed at the start of the second half.
Live to your Living Room are continuing to develop their model for hybrid events, and are developing partnerships with other cultural organisations and promoters, including ACE Space in Newbury, Downend Folk and Roots in Bristol, Live at Sam’s in Sheffield, and the English Folk Dance and Song Society in London.
The cultural sector continues to struggle post-pandemic, and we are very aware of both needing to ensure the artists are properly recompensed for their work, and the fact that without also supporting grassroots venues and organisations the folk sector will struggle to continue. As a result of the work done on this project, LTYLR have the basis of a solid system for managing hybrid events, and will continue to refine this moving forwards.
Careful consideration needs to be given to the nature of any partnership with cultural organisations or co-promoters, in particular ensuring that the financial agreement between artists and co-promoters is transparent and balanced, and is agreed well in advance by all parties.
Live to your Living Room have put together a self-contained box of technical equipment which can be sent to venue partners and co-promoters for use in hybrid gigs. This should reduce the need to rely on the venues having enough equipment to supplement what we can easily send, particularly as our current set up triples the number of XLR cables that would usually be needed to amplify a gig. LTYLR are continuing to work on improving the set up for hybrid gigs, and are developing a ‘plug and play’ version of the tech set up, to try and make it as easy as possible for venues to add a hybrid element to their events.
Live to your Living Room are also laying the groundwork for a more in-depth study into access and inclusion issues as they relate to online events. Data gathered as part of this project – in particular the focus groups – will be used to guide the strategic direction of this work, and we are intending to have a proposal ready for potential funders in the early months of 2024.