Stageit, the music live-stream platform, finally comes into its own


  • Technology
  • Wednesday, 08 Apr 2020

In the past, brand names such as Jon Bon Jovi (pic), Common, Sara Bareilles, Trey Songz, Anthony Hamilton and Jimmy Buffett have graced Stageit's stages. — AFP

LOS ANGELES: If ever a platform was built for the stay-at-home era and took years to realise it, it's Stageit. The site is the spot where fans are paying to see upward of 700 artist performances a week in an intimate setting – face-to-face, laptop-to-laptop. With touring, a musician's financial lifeline, ceased until this pandemic ends, Stageit has suddenly become crucial to the survival of many smaller, independent artists.

"We're very blessed to be in a position where we're able to help so many people right now keep a roof over their head and put a smile on fans' faces who are locked in their homes," says Evan Lowenstein, revealing that Stageit made US$884,000 (RM3.8mil) in the last two weeks. "To counter that, we did US$500,000 (RM2.17mil) all last year." Lowenstein went on to add that Stageit's year-to-date through April 4 had reached US$1,378,924.40 (RM5,995,701.18).

That's how blessed.

Stageit now has 500,000-plus registered users logging on to the site to watch one-of-a-kind, live, laptop performances from independent artists such as Rhett Miller, Waxahatchee, Janet Devlin and Jeffery Gaines. In the past, brand names such as Jon Bon Jovi, Common, Sara Bareilles, Trey Songz, Anthony Hamilton and Jimmy Buffett have graced Stageit's stages – the latter an early investor in Stageit and its US$3.5mil (RM15.2mil) startup cost. But it is the "little guy", in Lowenstein's estimation, that makes up the bulk of Stageit's artists. For now.

Credit, or blame, a near-universal ban on gigs amid the Covid-19 crisis for the sudden upswing in business for a self-serve platform where artists can chose their start time, set their ticket price (along with tips from a "tip jar"), play and talk directly to their audience and get 80% of the take. One thing that isn't optional: holding individual performances to a half-hour.

Five thousand-plus performers have either signed up or reactivated their Stageit accounts in the last three weeks. "It is a moving target," noted Lowenstein. "Over the years, we've had 25,000-plus artists sign up, but most haven't used the service since, or didn't even play a show."

They're playing shows now. Stageit has always been a great idea within its 11 year-old lifespan, with shockingly little success. Now, as musicians and audiences must shelter in place, this live performance and conversation platform is a godsend for singers and players who need to maintain a living.

There was no time for foolishness on April Fools' Day for Lowenstein, one-time member of a twin brother-pop band (Evan & Jaron) turned founder-CEO of an interactive concert venue, as he was multitasking his way through several bank emergencies at a time when no banker was in the office.

"All of our third party vendors shut down in the last several weeks," said Lowenstein at the start of his fast-talking rap. "They've opened for us, now, but, the email providers think we're spamming everyone. Plus, with all the activity they're seeing from us, three different banks figure that it must be fraud, with all those algorithms triggering."

The name of the game for Stageit is, as it always has been, getting musicians paid for services rendered, offering "a front row seat to a backstage experience," as its motto states. "I have other tag lines – 'desktop rock', or 'the world's largest sidewalk’," he said with Barnum-like brio.

"I'm up at all hours trying to convince banks that we're like the Red Cross for artists in need of money," he said, pointing out how, in the last two weeks, several musicians have made over US$50,000 (RM217,405) each on Stageit, and that the platform's highest earning shows have netted US$100,000 (RM434,810) (Stageit does not give out artists' specific earnings for privacy's sake).

Later, on the afternoon of April 5, Lowenstein said that over 25 of April 4's live shows made several thousand dollars each. He won't name names, but slipped in that alt-country giant Rhett Miler, old pal Edwin McCain and Northern Irish singer-songwriter Janet Devlin have done well for themselves on Stageit whenever playing for their hardcore fanbases.

"Success... I hate that word in light of everything that is happening in the world," said Lowenstein. Rather than see a success for himself, Lowenstein believes that the good that is happening through Stageit at present – beyond making money for touring musicians who cannot currently tour due to the coronavirus pandemic – comes from alerting artists and audiences that music is a commodity, something that earns daily bread for its makers, and takes as much time as it does talent. And time is money.

Artists might get US$0.00318 (RM0.0138190) per stream from Spotify. And most of the current wave of live-stream shows are happening for free at Facebook Live and Instagram – something Lowenstein frowns upon, naturally. But besides money, the CEO is hoping that musicians get hold of a greater sense of self-worth and maintain making music as a commodity, as well as an art form, rather than do it gratis.

"If you don't play with a real payment system, you are making it hard for fellow artists and for fans who want to connect in that matter," said Lowenstein.

Dave Haus, a Rise Records punk rocker with an earnest, Springsteen-ian edge, has forever been a road dog, and began using Stageit in 2014 at the urging of fellow musician Chuck Ragan.

"Chuck called with an evangelistic fervor and said it was really successful for him," recalled Haus. "I floated the idea to my management at the time, who were very much opposed. They thought it 'wasn't cool’, wasn't the sort of thing a 'serious artist' would do. Chuck's counter to those fears was, 'Think of the insanity around touring, all of the places we go hoping people come to a show where the promoter takes an inordinate amount of the money, and so many people who are fans either can't come or have other commitments, etc. You do that hundreds of times a year. Why not try this once and see how it goes?'"

Haus' 2014 gig went well enough so that he mounted additional Stageit events into the present. With touring stopped due to Covid-19, the guitarist-singer performed, most recently "and most successfully", on Stageit in March 2020 in front of 800 people. "I've filmed all the others in my little garage studio, so this one, I did in my side yard in front of some nice foliage... I wanted to share some California sunlight with people," said Haus. "It had some technical difficulties, so, the CEO actually called after to apologise, and asked me to do another show, which I thought was really cool of him. He said, 'Look, we're a small company dedicated to artists. Facebook and Instagram don't give a damn about artists. They only care about money. Give us another shot, we believe in what you do.' So, once I get done the many handwritten lyrics I have to finish, I'll schedule another one, maybe for April. People need music and something to look forward to."

Gina Orr of Orrigami Entertainment wasn't an artist manager who thought Stageit was uncool in any fashion. Instead, early in its existence, Orr introduced Stageit to her artists as the perfect one-on-one experience between musician and fan. "They found out immediately that their fans loved Stageit," said Orr. "It was a nice way for both sides of the equation to interact directly, and it was around before Facebook Live."

Orr stated too that Stageit was a useful tool with bands on tour to fill in dates in their calendar. "Perhaps we were stuck in the middle of nowhere, in-between shows, but needed to pay crew and musicians... Stageit was a way to offset costs... even if we made US$500 (RM2,173) just to pay for rooms for the day."

One Orrigami artist who uses Stageit regularly is Diane Birch, a soulful Portland-born singer-songwriter currently based in Wales while working on her next album. Along with having her tour canceled and looking to reach out to her fans, Orr sees Stageit as a tool for Birch to test new songs with die-hard fans that also love chatting with her client. "You don't want to have your hand out all the time, and do the starving artist routine," said Orr. "This is different. Stageit is collaborative. Diane can talk back and forth, take requests. It's amazing."

Birch agrees. She's been playing Stageit shows for eight years ("Any excuse to share music with the world without leaving the house"), but was daunted, at first, by the possibilities of staging her own show for the Internet. "I thought it was a big deal, so I got a fancy mic, had someone come and help me set it up," said Birch. "Now, I just play into my laptop speakers and lounge around in my PJs, and fans say it sounds better than ever."

The Birch shows developed to become more interactive than her usual live dates, to the point of impromptu costuming and other on-the-fly elements. "It's always based on my mood in real-time... never rehearsed or formal, but rather, intimate and often a bit ridiculous or full of mistakes. It seems as though fans have come to love and expect or hope for that part about it."

Expectation runs so high that now, twice a month on Sundays, Birch's Stageit shows are known as the "Church of Birch" and are treated by followers with reverence. "Stageit has provided a place that feels special for fans to tune in and know they'll see the usual suspects there, meet new ones, perhaps, and get some hopefully uplifting inspiration."

Lowenstein didn't start Stageit because of lost revenue or divine inspiration.

The identical twin brothers' pop act Evan & Jaron came up among the boy-band era of the late '90s, and peaked with their hit single Crazy For This Girl in 2000. By 2003, however, the boys had turned to men, started families, saw that the recording industry was becoming overrun with pirates, and wanted to try something new. Add to this an entrepreneurial spirit and yen for invention (the brothers appeared on ABC's reality show American Inventor with their Pit Port, a container for pits and seeds from fruits and nuts), and Evan's next move wasn't solely a melodic one.

"Hey, in third grade, I came in second place in my school's Invention Connection for my sparkling rubber ball car tires," said Lowenstein. "I was always fascinated... why were there no colored tires?"

Lowenstein mused that, before Evan & Jaron's retirement, there was no social media. "But there was MySpace, where we realised that we had pockets of fans we never knew we had, across the world. Rather than pick up and fly to Tempe, Arizona or Bologna, Italy, I figured the Internet could allow you to give fans there something interesting, some experience that was special to them."

Add to that something that could be neither decimated by piracy or pirate-able, and Lowenstein came up with Stageit.

"I wanted to do something with live music – that's the best feeling, playing in front of people – but I didn't want to replace live concerts, or just do live concerts and film them," he said." I wanted to make it unique, intimate and interactive – something different from the usual show."

Like a live concert, Stageit gigs happen in real time, wherever an artist decides – bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens – and whenever, in what Lowenstein calls "now you see me, now you don't" fashion. Nothing is archived or recorded, and when a show is over, you've missed it.

With 750 shows set for the week of April 6-10, Lowenstein said you'll have to stay on your toes to catch every artist you love ("or want to try out") in what's become a virtual, interactive Coachella. There's even an "UnCancelled Music Festival" running until April 11 featuring rockers and rappers such as Cautious Clay and Brian Fallon whose tours were crashed by Covid-19.

"Venture capitalists wanted to know why we were not capturing or recording these shows, and said we were leaving money on the table," stated the Stageit CEO. "I didn't care for video to go viral. I wanted the artist to go viral."

Lowenstein also wanted artists to get paid and created several options to do so. The first ensured that artists would get 63%-67% of the ticket price and tips, a number upped to 80% as of March 12.

"Like everything from time, location, price and how many people you want to let into a show, you're creating it," said Lowenstein. "Do you want to do a set price or a pay-what-you-can? There's a tip jar too. At first, musicians freaked out – 'I haven't played with a tip jar in 20 years' – but it's another way for your fans to show their appreciation. Ironically, it was an artist as big as Jimmy Buffett who loved the tip jar. He thought that was incredible. And along with the interactive experience, maybe you can offer a reward to your top tippers. You can have conversations after the gig. And when it's over, you get a show report immediately with your payout. You hit a button that says 'cash out' and within seven business days, we send money."

Lowenstein made the decision to up artists' percentages on March 12, to help what he calls the "smaller guys... if you were making US$1,000(RM4,345) on Stageit, you were usually taking home around US$650 (RM2,824). Now, you're taking home US$800 (RM3,476) which is really making a difference for the working musician."

Stageit keeps 20% of the ticket price, but also covers broadcasting fees, music licensing fees, bandwidth, web hosting and credit card transactions. "Our margins are super small, and there're two of us at the office right now, but in April, we're going to do over a million dollars... so that's US$200,000 (RM869,020) we'll keep."

Artists set the fees. "You can come in for as little as 10 cents on these shows," he points out, while US$15 (RM65) tends to be the upper end of the scale. Also, an artist can limit the amount of people who come into an e-show.

"I hear it all the time: 'How can you "sell out" a show? It's the Internet.' We're just like a concert venue or club: if you reach capacity, you can't see it," Lowenstein says. "Same thing with the timing issue: if you're not there by the time a show is over, it's gone. We sell time."

According to Lowenstein, giving fans everything they want for free, at any time, has taken the mystery and romance out of the relationship between artists and fans, something he's worked hard to bring back since opening Stageit in 2009.

"This is an unpopular opinion... but artists need to stop playing for free. If you are successful enough to afford it, then fine. But you're hurting artists who can't afford to do it for free. Ask anybody who does some sort of service – why would you pay one lawyer when the other guy does it for free? Artists at the turn of the century found themselves in an awkward situation: If big labels are the quote-unquote bad guy, do I tell my fans to steal my music or not? Now, they can't recover from that moment, so they found themselves in this uncomfortable position of apologising for needing to get paid. With Facebook and such, our fans became our friends. It's hard to charge your friends for things, right?"

He believes not just in fees but in fixed time limits. "Some artists, at first, ask to play for an hour and a half or two hours. My take is that 30 minutes is optimal. You're not replacing the concert experience with Stageit; this is different and unique. It's better to play three 30-minute shows rather than one long one. Fans report better experiences and they spend more money" on repeat appearances, he says,"which is further proof that they're enjoying it more."

Although Lowenstein clearly always believed in the platform, he's pragmatic about how fortune has figured into it. 'We're talking now because Stageit is having a moment, but we're having a moment because our model was way too ahead of the curve," he said. "That's not a compliment to me. Standing up on a surfboard 20 seconds before the wave hits is not an accomplishment – we were just too soon. All the things that were not working then for an artist are working now, and we're protecting the artists who need it now the most." – Variety.com

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