Business

Why Can’t Music Get Livestreams Right?

Marc Anthony
Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images for The Latin Recording Academy

Marc Anthony performs at the 2020 Latin GRAMMY Awards on Nov. 16, 2020 in Miami.

Virtual concerts promised to bolster the music industry during the pandemic, but Marc Anthony’s “Una Noche” crash earlier this month was just the latest example of a stream gone bad.

Marc Anthony’s highly-anticipated "Una Noche" livestream concert on April 17 was supposed to be one of the biggest livestreamed shows yet. Anthony, after all, is a global arena touring act and one of the highest-grossing Latin acts in the market: He sold 233,962 tickets in the U.S. alone in 2019, grossing $25.4 million from just 24 shows, according to figures reported to Billboard Boxscore.

"Una Noche" would have the added value of his global audience, which in Latin America fills soccer stadiums. The event was billed as Anthony’s first and only livestream show, and Daddy Yankee was scheduled to join as a guest performer. By showtime, sources say more than 100,000 tickets had been sold, with prices ranging from $25 to $40.

Then, things took a turn.

Event promoters Loud and Live, an experienced live event promotion and marketing company that has produced major global and U.S. arena tours for the likes of Juan Luis Guerra and Roberto Carlos, had contracted streaming platform Maestro to power the show. Maestro is viewed as the cream of the livestreaming crop, with major shows like Billie Eilish’s October livestream and Melissa Etheridge’s successful EtheridgeTV series under its belt. But at 8 p.m. EST on April 17, as global fans logged on to watch Anthony perform, Maestro’s system failed. Despite frantic attempts to revive the stream, the concert never happened, and fans were left waiting for hours until learning the show was officially canceled.

"They kept telling us to give them 20 minutes to get it working," Loud and Live CEO Nelson Albareda tells Billboard. "At 10:06 p.m., I texted the CEO of Maestro and said, 'We can’t wait anymore.' We couldn’t leave fans hanging like that."

Maestro CEO Ari Evans texted Albareda back, apologizing and saying that the company would "own" the event’s failure. (Billboard has independently verified the existence of the texts and their contents.) But speaking to Billboard, Evans shifted the blame back toward Loud and Live, arguing that the promoter provided inaccurate ticket sales figures to Maestro. Even though Maestro prepared for a 50% headroom on the figure Loud and Live provided, Evans says, ticket sales went far past that safety net, causing the stream to collapse.

"We're never going to know if the number is accurate or not because we didn't sell them," Evans says. "All we can tell you is the number of people who showed up claiming that they had a ticket was grossly past the number they gave us."

He adds that "tens of thousands of people" tried to enter using the same access code, putting further strain on the system. "That’s like 10,000 people showing up to a venue with the same fake ticket they bought on Craigslist," he says. "That's going to cause serious problems at the gate."

A frustrated Albareda disputes all this. "We clearly communicated to Maestro what we were expecting in terms of traffic," he says. "If ticket sales were an issue, why weren’t we told before?"

The event may have been the most high-profile concert livestream to completely crash and burn, but it’s hardly the first to be burdened by technical issues. During Eilish’s stream (also powered by Maestro), some fans took to Twitter to complain about trouble loading the show, and Justin Bieber’s New Year’s Eve livestream with T-Mobile, which was powered by VenewLive and ticketed by Moment House, was delayed -- almost missing East Coast celebrations -- due to unexpected demand from more than 1.2 million T-Mobile customers.

One year into the livestreaming boom, one might think these issues would be ironed out by now. Why can’t music get livestreams right?

According to experts in the field, preventing livestream crashes is a lot more complicated than it looks. That’s because unlike physical shows, which have seat selection and could sell out, livestreams offer little incentive to purchase a ticket early or arrive ahead of time. This leads to a surge in activity at the start of the event -- the size of which is difficult, if not impossible, to predict and prepare for.

To put things into perspective, imagine if every attendee to a physical stadium concert showed up to have their ticket scanned at a single entry point at the exact same time. Now, imagine that a good number of those people were also buying their tickets upon entry, and there’s no cap on the number of tickets that can be sold. Surely the show would be delayed, if it went on at all. But, with the exception of it all being online, this is exactly what happens at a livestream.

"You have a higher amount of volume than even regular ticketing, and it's all coming at the same time near the event," says Robert Davari, co-founder and CEO of ticketing company Tixr, which handled KISS’ pyrotechnics-filled New Year’s Eve livestream in Dubai. "It’s causing catastrophic turmoil."

Keeping the livestream feed from failing during that influx of viewers is all the more difficult for today’s experience-driven livestreams, which offer live chat, polls and other methods of interaction. (The more elements at play, the more chances there are of a crash, which is why many livestreams billed as "live" are actually pre-recorded.) The overarching problem, executives interviewed for this story say, is that some of the dozen-plus livestreaming platforms launched amid the pandemic lack the technical knowledge to understand these issues in the first place.

"When you have all those elements happening, that's not something you’re going to learn [how to handle technically] in a month or two months," says Bulldog Digital Media founder/CEO John Petrocelli, whose nine-year-old white-label livestreaming service powered Bieber's Valentine's Day TikTok concert. "You’re not going to master that because Jimmy Iovine invested in your company, or because you’re an event promoter. It’s exciting that there's so much interest in this industry, but it seems like there are all these pop-up companies that have felt, 'If I have a camera and an internet connection, I’m a livestreaming company.'"

One safeguard, he says, is creating redundancy: A technical term that means adding backups for all transmission paths that support a livestream, so that if anything fails -- whether due to a technical problem or a random internet outage -- the livestream can simply be routed to a backup path.

From there, Petrocelli says that a platform's best bet is to estimate the ultimate size of the audience and purchase bandwidth accordingly ahead of time, then test the system’s strength in a process called "load testing." But a platform could take all the right steps and still underestimate audience size when the curtain comes up -- at which point it’s usually too late to scale up the system, which is by then badly damaged.

"No one’s ever been through a pandemic before, and I think no one can accurately predict what the ticket [sales] will be," Petrocelli says.

This is why Maestro prefers to use its own ticketing system for events, Evans says, which offers the company a real-time look at not only the total number of tickets sold but the "ticket velocity," meaning how quickly tickets are selling.

"Sometimes we see traffic patterns where you haven't sold that many tickets yet, but day-of, you're selling a crazy number," Evans says. "Our operations team can be like, 'Okay, they're selling 2,000 tickets an hour' or whatever it is, project where you're going to be [at showtime] fairly accurately, and plan for that."

For perspective, one reason why platforms like YouTube or Twitch don’t crash, Evans adds, is because any surge in viewership that occurs on those platforms is still a fraction of the total active user base. In part for this reason, many livestreaming services and artists stream their shows on YouTube and Twitch either in place of or in addition to streaming on a livestreaming platform itself. "If all of a sudden, hundreds of thousands of people show up, it’s not that big of a jump relative to the millions of people that are already there," Evans says. "Auto scaling works really well when you’re going up 10%. It doesn’t work well scaling these big spikes in our situation."

Even so, other executives interviewed for this story agreed that the platform is ultimately responsible for crashes. "It’s your responsibility as the vendor to be prepared for this stuff," Davari says. "It is our job to teach promoters about the dynamics of how challenging this is, so that we’re well-prepared."

Creating a secure system -- and scaling when necessary -- isn’t cheap, nor is it easy. Evans says that to keep costs for bandwidth reasonable, companies need to have an annual or multi-year commitment. "Ours are multi-million-dollar commitments," he says. "It’s not chump change."

The system behind Davari’s Tixr, founded in 2013 to create a crash-free online ticketing service, took a year and a half and tens of millions of dollars to develop, he says. And that was for physical shows. "Even regular ticketing, for all the years that they've been in business, were never properly built for this level of scale," he says, noting that Ticketmaster recently crashed during the presale for Bad Bunny’s 2022 tour. "It still happens all the time." These days, Tixr co-founder and CTO Patrick Stavro says that updating the system to handle the new challenges of livestreaming is a "never-ending job."

These technical hurdles continue as physical shows are slowly ramping up, turning some attention away from livestreams. And although many music executives foresee a new "hybrid" touring model incorporating both physical shows and streams, the number of livestreams listed on the concert tracking platform Bandsintown has stabilized, according to data provided by the company. While there were an average of 246 livestream listings per day at the height of the pandemic in June 2020, there were an average of 167 per day in March 2021 -- not far off from the average of 139 per day in the last week of March 2020, when the music industry was still warming up to livestreams.

In light of the Anthony fiasco, Evans says that Maestro is changing its policy to require that all tickets for the events it powers go through Maestro’s ticketing platform. There will also be an affiliate program, so that promoters can still take part and earn a cut. "We need to have up-to-the-minute visibility to be able to do our job properly," he says.

But given the complexity of the issue, the livestreaming industry’s technical issues aren’t likely to go away completely anytime soon.

"I think that the most important thing for all of us in this industry is that the show must go on, somewhere," Evans says. "There's got to be some kind of backup plan -- and backup, backup plan -- that gets you there."

Additional reporting by Leila Cobo.

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