Startups raised the curtain for online concerts during the pandemic. Now Live Nation and other corporate giants want in — and touring is coming back.
Not even Jennifer Lopez could liven up an empty Times Square this New Year’s Eve, when she headlined the annual ball drop for a handful of shivering crew members and front-line workers. The real party was online, where a parade of flashy pay-per-view livestream concerts rang in the new year around the world: Justin Bieber marked his first performance since 2017 with a Beverly Hills, Calif., show in partnership with T-Mobile; KISS broke two Guinness World Records by setting off $1 million worth of pyrotechnics in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and BTS headlined Big Hit Labels’ three-hour celebration in South Korea with guests Halsey and Lauv. It was a fitting way to cap the year that livestreaming transformed from a niche business to an essential, eight-figure industry amid the coronavirus pandemic, spurring the launch of over a dozen new platforms in a market that now looks pretty crowded.
What started as mostly free virtual bedroom performances early on in the touring shutdown have evolved into costly, ticketed productions that keep growing bigger and bolder. Dua Lipa’s futuristic Studio 2054 in November had a budget of $1.5 million-plus and drew an estimated 5 million global viewers to its premiere, with tickets priced at $10, while KISS’ livestream cost a reported eight figures to produce, with tickets ranging from $40 to $1,000 for a VIP package that included a collectible engraved metal ticket. Major players in tech and touring are now entering the space — Amazon-owned Twitch has built up its music team and become a virtual music festival destination, Live Nation acquired a majority stake in Joel and Benji Madden’s leading service Veeps on Jan. 19, and YouTube is doing its first paid access livestream with Blackpink on Jan. 31, signaling a new phase of growing competition and risk for the still-nascent sector. The livestream market has the potential to become "exponentially larger than what the live-music market was," thanks to virtual concerts' unlimited global audience capacity and lower costs than physical touring, says Mary Kay Huse, who last May founded the popular platform Mandolin. But with at least 30 companies now competing for artists and audiences’ attention, don’t expect them all to stick around.