I’ve seen the future of concerts, and it’s streaming.
Keep in mind, the future isn’t always better. (Remember how futuristic 2020 sounded?) Sometimes, it’s just what’s next.
The first night of Visible’s high-production Red Rocks: Unpaused — the mother of all live-streams in a year bursting with them — was just that: a glimpse of what will undoubtedly be a new normal for live music.
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On Tuesday night alone (the final night of the series is tonight), rising star Phoebe Bridgers and Denver favorite Nathaniel Rateliff pulled more than four million viewers, according to a Visible representative. The catch? None of them were in the venue, which was emptied out and turned upside down for Visible’s latest marketing effort.
Those numbers could mean business for a venue like Red Rocks, which is “taking a hard look” at incorporating live streams into its calendar “on an ongoing basis.”
“Done right, [live streams are] a fun way to include fans from around the world in what’s special about a night at Red Rocks,”Brian Kitts, Red Rocks’ communication director, said in an email.
Still, live stream demand will probably wane with the pandemic, Kitts conceded, stating in person shows “will be the primary focus as soon as COVID lets up.”
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Visible wouldn’t comment on budget, but watching a 30-foot jib swing one of 15 cameras from my perch side-stage, it was on the scale of a Hollywood blockbuster.
If you wish you’d seen it live, don’t be: The video was the real experience. Being there on Tuesday night was more like visiting a film set than going to a show. Dozens of top-level camera operators, lighting techs and sound engineers — with pedigrees that stretch from The Grammys to tours with Beyonce — turned the venue’s bandstand into a moody video village, dedicated to squeezing every drop of drama off the stage and into viewers’ cell phones.
As you might expect, that’s not easy. As much as we like to think they are just about the band, concerts are multi-celled organisms. You slice the crowd away, they die fast. Visible did its best to keep blood flowing between the two sides, going so far as to projection-map fans’ reaction-emojis onto the rocks and pipe a few seconds of real-time crowd noise into the band’s stage monitors.
In the pinch of a pandemic, it worked.
“Playing music in this way isn’t bad or good, it’s just very anthropocene,” Marshall Vore, drummer in Bridgers’ band, said in a DM after they left the stage. “I have a feeling these sort of higher production quality livestream events will continue far into the future, post vaccine. It’s a far cry from the way we’ve consumed music events until now, and boy does it feel strange.”
That was my take, too. Standing side stage, I heard a fog machine hiss out over “Garden Song,” smothering a hapless Vore. He played through it dutifully and the song ended. I wanted to clap, but a Visible employee reminded me we weren’t supposed to; this wasn’t a concert. I punched an “:o” emoji on my phone instead.
A cell phone company disguising a marketing barnstorm as a pandemic music festival — It was natural to be suspicious. But in some ways, wasn’t it better than a concert? From an artist’s POV, Bridgers and Rateliff played one of the most relaxed Red Rocks gigs of all time. Fans could essentially pee and stand front row at the same time, a luxury afforded only to a shameless drunken few at a concert.
Unless all of that hassle was exactly what was missing. I watched the show again the next day on my laptop, the way it was intended. It was entertaining, sleek, seamless. It captured everything on stage. What it missed from the night before was everything else — the wind picking up on the first line of Bridger’s “Emotional Affair,” a crew member coaxed into dancing by Rateliff’s “Shake,” the orange moon behind the bandstand.
It feels cliche to talk about this kind of stuff, but concerts and live streams are different categories — the play versus the film adaptation. Tech wants to make the world as efficient as possible. But like ice cream with grandma or an awkward first date in the park, concerts are inefficient experiences made beautiful by their inefficiency.
For better or worse, we’ll probably be seeing more live-stream-only concerts, even after the pandemic is over.
But so it goes. For generations, there was no such thing as not-live music. To hear music, you had to play it or be in the room where it was happening. Recorded music changed that.
Standing side stage on Tuesday, watching my react-emojis float up one of Red Rocks’ towering stone slabs like a ghost, I imagined I knew what that felt like. Not good, not bad — just different.
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