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US Livestreams Earned $610M in 2020: Study

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Livestreaming went from niche to mainstream in 2020, becoming big moneymakers for artists unable to tour during the pandemic, according to new research by MusicWatch.

An estimated 115 million people watched a livestream in the fourth quarter 2020 on platforms ranging from the popular site Twitch to Mandolin, one of the new music-focused streamers to have sprouted during the pandemic. "When I [first] looked at the landscape, it was an asterisk," says  Russ Crupnick of MusicWatch, who found that 11% of U.S. consumers streamed a music event in the first quarter of 2019, counting clips and highlights, a multi-day virtual festival, DJ sets, and a video game stream, among other options. "It's been outstanding how many people have been exposed to one since the pandemic."

Just 9% of fans -- that's roughly 10 million -- paid for an event such as Kiss' New Year's Eve broadcast or Billie Eilish's Oct. 24 live concert. That's a small fraction of the 110 million people who pay for music through streaming services or via purchases of downloads, CD and LPs. But the $610 million that consumers spent on virtual concerts in 2020 was more than downloads ($600 million) and CDs ($572 million).

Whether or not livestreaming can maintain momentum in 2021 will help determine how artists monetize their global fanbases.

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With vaccination rates raising and new COVID-19 cases falling, people will soon return to concert venues and livestreaming will no longer be the only way to see a favorite artist perform. While 66% of fans expect to continue watching virtual performances when concerts resume, according to Crupnick, streaming services are evolving to augment the in-person concert rather than replicate it. Some platforms allow artists to take questions from fans, host virtual meet and greets, and perform encores for a select few fans — and charge accordingly.

The result is "a new format," says Thomas Hesse, co-founder of Dreamstage. "It becomes something that sits between the traditional music video and the live performance."

The format's potential is mind-boggling for superstars. K-pop group BTS sold 993,000 tickets for virtual concerts on Oct. 11 and 12. Big Hit Entertainment, the Korean company behind BTS, hosted the concerts on its WeChat social platform. Faced with 40 canceled BTS tour dates that dropped Bit Hit's concert revenue by 98% in 2020, the company hosted those and more concerts on its WeChat social platform, improving revenue from content -- including media other than live streams -- by 71% to $120.1 million, according to the company's 2020 financial release. True, BTS is an outlier with a large fanbase, but other artists have also caught on: the percentage of livestreams tracked by Bandsintown jumped from 2% in June 2020 to more than half by November.

In some cases, online concerts could be a feature rather than a product. Live Nation, which bought a majority stake in streaming platform Veeps in January, sees streaming as complementary to in-person concerts. "We think we have a unique advantage because we have the 30,00 physical shows," CEO Michael Rapino said in Live Nation's Feb. 26 earnings call.

The online concert could also become an upgrade option for ticket buyers, like VIP packages, he said. "Or possibly you can come to the show and you want some to look at other camera angles on your phone."