Behind the Scenes: The Mechanics of Livestreaming Made In America Festival

Dave Moser
Scott Mirkin

The fifth annual Budweiser Made In America Festival kicks off tomorrow (Sept. 3) in Philadelphia, and for the fifth year straight it will be livestreamed, this time on Jay Z's streaming service Tidal. And for a two-day event with more than 60 artists across five stages -- four of which will be livestreamed on three different channels -- there's a lot of ground to cover.

But for Scott Mirkin, executive producer and president of ESM Productions, running the livestream is just another day at the office. The longtime industry vet co-founded ESM with Jenny Woo in 1996, and has produced live streams for events featuring President Barack Obama, Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, as well as several Tidal concerts, and each installment of the Made In America Festival since its 2012 debut. Jay Z must be pleased -- ESM partnered with Roc Nation in April of this year.

For an event as big as Made In America, however, the trick to pulling off such a production lies in everything done before the event begins, a preparation which Mirkin tells Billboard starts in earnest about five months before it begins. Mirkin runs a 150-person operation for the festival, including cameramen, technical experts, creative teams, runners, accounting reps and more, all helping broadcast the show to hundreds of thousands of people worldwide who can't attend the downtown Philly showcase but want to tune in to see the likes of Rihanna, Coldplay, Chance the Rapper and more take the stage.

Ahead of this year's Made In America Festival, Mirkin speaks with Billboard about the mechanics and logistics of livestreaming such a large scale event, and explains where he feels livestreaming will move in the future.

Billboard: What goes into the process of livestreaming an event like Made In America?

Scott Mirkin: Everything we stream, we think about the live experience, the audience, the quality -- in fact, we use the word "broadcast," because really there's no difference. But from day one we always wanted to deliver the highest quality audio/video experience to that viewer possible. So HD, high-level audio. So that's how we treat it on the ground with production: many, many cameras, very thought-out shots, choreographed shots, making sure the lighting is right, mixing the audio. And of course, for an outdoor festival like Made in America, it has a pretty large footprint. So the cable planning, a lot of the technical stuff just takes a tremendous amount of planning, and of course, redundancy, because it's live. So getting the signal to the distribution points is something that we make sure we [have] well-planned out.

What are the most difficult aspects of pulling off a livestream at this scale?

We want to make sure that the creative and what the artist is presenting is exactly what we present. If an artist wants to change that, there's only one answer, and that's, "Yes, of course." So whether that's a different channel count, or a different configuration on stage, a different set list, whatever it may be, being able to adapt to those kinds of things in real time is hugely, hugely important. I mean, it's difficult, but we're up for that challenge. We do it every day.

And you know, we're outside at an event, and this event in particular is a very cool, unique location where up until a certain point it's in the middle of a bunch of city streets. So we need to be able to deal with making sure the rest of the world can exist while we're working -- traffic, people who want to just come see the park, those types of things. I don't ever really call it difficult; I think those are just the challenges that we tackle every day.

Are there any other festival broadcasts that you admire or have taken inspiration from over the years?

We keep an eye on some of the other ones, and I think that the larger festivals -- like, Lollapalooza has done a really great job. [But] my inspiration hasn't necessarily come from other live streams as much as I've been a student of live music broadcasts for a really, really long time, and some of that inspiration actually came way before live streaming. Like, I'm a child of watching MTV when they actually had music. [Laughs] I'm a child of watching Live Aid in 1985 when it was here in Philly, and that was some amazing stuff -- literally as a kid I was like, "I want to do that." 

One of the first-ever pay-per-view live broadcasts via satellite, that I was actually able to watch when I was 13 years old in 1983, was The Who on their first farewell tour, a show that came live out of Toronto. And in those days that was a tremendous undertaking; they were designing trucks specifically for that show. I was a student of that. I was able to get a copy of that, even as a kid, and I watched it probably every single day for a year. And I really learned what it meant, and that's my kind of inspiration. There are many, many talented production companies out there producing live streams and live broadcasts, [but] my formula for inspiration goes before live streaming, I would say.

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How do you see this evolving in the future?

I think that VR is going to be a really interesting additional component. The continued growth of this kind of high quality broadcast coverage, both audio and video, I think there's tremendous demand for that, so this style of what we're doing for Made In America this weekend is going to continue to grow. And to offer things like Tidal -- the audio quality on Tidal is amazing, and people are understanding the difference; we're widening the understanding of high quality audio. So high quality pictures that go with high quality audio that I think grows with the over-the-top evolution of all these different pieces of entertainment that are available via the internet or any kind of digital delivery is just going to continue to grow. And I think that VR is going to be a part of that, but I think that being able to watch a really highly produced concert, whether it be on demand or whether it be a live show, will continue to grow.