A Pandemic Playbook

How L Devine Pulled Off The Most Inventive Livestream Series Yet

L Devine
L Devine Claudia De La Mata

The breakout pop phenom explains, in her own words, her URL Tour — five unique shows on five platforms

During a recent concert, British pop singer L Devine finished a performance of her grungy single “Boring People” and was met with the sound of thousands of people cheering. Except the noise wasn’t coming from an audience — it was a stock recording available online, cued up by Devine herself, who was looking to make a livestream from her childhood living room less awkward. “Instagram, how you feeling tonight?” she asked her phone as she moved through some hyping-the-crowd gestures. Then she added that she needed a laugh track “for when I make shit jokes like that.”

Like many artists whose careers have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, the 22-year-old (real name: Olivia Devine) turned to the internet to keep busy after a European tour opening for fellow pop breakout Fletcher was canceled March 10. Days later, when musicians were just beginning to experiment with livestreams, Devine unveiled a high-concept URL Tour: five unique shows for five different social-media platforms — Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube — each corresponding with the date of a canceled show.

“The tour got canceled when I was in rehearsals,” Devine, known for her immaculate electro-pop and too-real lyrics about millennial angst, told Billboard the day after the final show on March 30. “I saw the reaction from fans. Aside from being sad that they couldn’t see the tour, people were starting to become a bit more panicky about the virus. I thought, ‘Is there any way we could lighten the mood a bit, still do something but keep everyone safe?’”

As she and her team reached out to various platforms to assess their options, Devine struck on the idea of treating each app as a tour stop, embracing each platform’s users as though they were residents of different cities. “In the same way I would have been reaching different fans on different nights in different settings, I could do it across social media,” she says. “TikTok is going to be different from what Facebook or YouTube would be, and I thought [using all of them] would be the best way to reach new audiences. That’s what a support tour is — you’re trying to reach people that may not know about you.”

Helping her coordinate the shows were her manager, Teresa Raeburn of Major Influence; Warner Records digital marketing manager Luna Cohen-Solal; and Robyn Elton, senior account manager at social media and design agency CYOA, who works with Devine to manage her social media accounts. The streaming partners in turn provided best practices for livestreams and promoted the shows. “Some of the tips were no-brainers — I was laughing at the one [from Instagram] that said, ‘Make sure your phone is charged,’” recalls Devine. “But to be fair, I did the TikTok one with 15% battery, so maybe it was good that they told me that.”

A mix of stripped-down and full-production sets also allowed Devine to employ members of her crew affected by the touring freeze. “My sound engineer and my lighting guy were going to come on tour with me — that was like 20 dates of work for them canceled,” she says. Yet even the URL Tour wasn’t entirely safe from the disruption of the pandemic: Amid speculation that U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was going to issue a shelter-in-place order, the singer scrapped plans for a live YouTube performance with her band and debuted a backup show they had prerecorded instead.

Still, the tour was about as successful a trek as an artist could hope for right now: The announcement brought on a flurry of press coverage, she sold out her merchandise (which has since been restocked), and Devine’s follower counts rose across the board as the digital gigs reached some of her biggest-ever crowds, online or off.

Devine says the biggest indicator of success has been the sheer number of messages in her inbox. “People were telling me it took their minds off things,” she says. “A girl from Italy mentioned that she had been in isolation for so long and sent me a heartfelt message that made me really emotional. Knowing how much of a hard time everyone is going through, to be able to bring light to people through music is unreal. That’s what live music is — everyone’s in a room together for the same reason: to forget about the outside world. And it really felt like that.” In this URL Tour Diary, she explains how it worked.

Instagram (March 16)

I expected Instagram to get the most attention because it was the first one, it’s the main platform that people follow me on, and it’s the most familiar livestreaming platform for a lot of people. My core fan base was definitely there, but in response to all the media attention the URL Tour got, so many more people watched. I think we had 2,000 viewers overall, and normally I’m getting about 200 when I go live on Instagram.

It was an acoustic show with just my guitar, so it was pretty low-key. My music is electronic-based, and I like trying interesting productions on songs, so I rarely do acoustic performances. It felt like going back to my roots — I was literally in my living room in Newcastle [England], which is where I’m from and where I started playing gigs in pubs as a teenager. That was probably the last time I did a 45-minute set on acoustic guitar. I did songs of mine that I’d never played before. I had to Google “L Devine chords” — I was pretty chuffed that I could just go on GuitarTabs and learn my own songs.

The weirdest part was when I was playing and would catch a comment in the corner of my eye and think, “No no no, don’t focus on the comment.” My fans take the piss out of me all the time, so I’d see comments in the corner where they were making fun of me. I’m used to lnstagram comments — that’s where me and my fans chat a lot — but it’s just a totally different experience when you’re performing.

Going live on Instagram feels really intimate. That’s the scary thing about it: “Am I going to forget I’m on a livestream?” I previewed a new unreleased song — I’m notorious for leaking songs on livestreams, but it’s also like, “Who’s going to tell me what to do? I’m in Newcastle by myself on my phone, so they can’t really stop me!” Usually I delete the livestream afterward, but this one I saved so more people could see it. I watched it back to see the comments, and I started to recognize usernames and wanted to respond to them more. It has been fun to see the people who keep coming back and whose names are familiar because they’re so engaged.

Twitter (March 20)

It was cool to go from such an intimate Instagram set to a ramped-up show for Twitter. This was closer to the kind I would actually play live: We had the giant flashing “L” that I would sit on and jump off, we had a full lighting rig, we had my band member Louie Shepherd there playing keys. But we had some technical difficulties and started late — it wasn’t as straightforward as just putting it on an iPhone and pressing “live.”

We filmed it at The Premises Studio in Hackney. My management has a studio there, and we’re really good friends with the people who run the studio. We wanted to help them out and support local businesses and friends. Everyone had had a tough week and was scared about the future, so it was lovely for us all to come together — potentially the last time we get to see each other for a couple of months. It was a really fun and warm atmosphere.

When I first announced the tour, I said I was going to switch it up and make sure each show had a different vibe, so it was important to me that the shows including Louie were the ones you could dance to. I wanted to make sure he and I had all the bangers. We played “Peachy Keen” and “Runnin’” — uptempo party songs. Even though it felt like what fans would have seen on the Fletcher tour, it wasn’t exactly like playing a live show. It felt like a group of friends messing around — like I didn’t have to take myself as seriously. I think the people watching really appreciated that as well. It was lighthearted fun.

Facebook (March 23)

The Facebook show was mostly just me. It was still the full production with the lights and stage setup at The Premises, but I wanted more low-key, stripped-back versions. I did a piano version of my single “Naked Alone.” I did a fan favorite called “Panic.” I did some songs I don’t usually play in my set. I also did a new song, “Don’t Say It”; that’s one of my next singles. I’ve never played it before, so nobody knows what the production for that song is like yet. It felt fresh, and compared to the Twitter show, I felt like I was giving fans something they wouldn’t have seen even if they did come to the tour.

When I was about to start playing “Daughter” [a 2018 song about dating a woman whose mother doesn’t approve of a queer relationship], I was like, “Wait, let’s tell a little story first.” I usually tell a shortened version of what it’s about when I’m playing live, but it was nice to talk more about it in-depth. That’s what has been so fun about the URL Tour — there are no rules. I can chat for five minutes. When people are sitting in the comfort of their own homes, you can keep them for as long as you want. It was a completely different vibe.

The Facebook one was way more chill and laid-back. Some people might prefer to watch a show that’s more piano- and acoustic-based right now, as opposed to a set of party songs. And Facebook ended up being the show with the biggest reach. I checked this morning, and it was just under a million views. Outside of Instagram, where I know my reach and have gone live before, I had no expectations about what the response would be. But having a million views on Facebook is mental. The team at Facebook was brilliant — they helped me out so much and put a lot of work in to get that reach.

TikTok (March 26)

I’m still new to TikTok — I didn’t even know they had a live feature — so I was like, “Wait, am I going to have to do TikTok dances?” I actually was going to try: I told fans we’d go live together and they’d teach me how to do TikTok dances. But unlike Instagram, you can’t request to go live with other people. The other thing is that I’m used to being able to swear and say whatever I want, but I kept getting warnings every couple of minutes, like, “If there is any more vulgarity on this platform, your livestream will get cut off.” It just pops up on the screen. I was like, “How do they know?”

It makes sense, though, because it’s mostly a platform for younger kids, and the audience did feel like a mix of my younger fans and also new people. I don’t know how they discovered the livestream — if it showed up in their feeds or what — but new people definitely followed me and tuned in. It was funny, because I’d see them in the comments asking things like, “Who is this girl?”

Another thing different from Instagram is that you can’t save the show afterward, which was kind of fun, actually. During a normal show, if I fuck up and forget the words, no one is ever going to see it again. On these shows across all the platforms, there’s definitely more pressure. But with TikTok, it felt like it didn’t matter as much — even though fans probably screen-record everything. There are already uploads of some of the URL Tour shows on YouTube.

For TikTok, I decided to let fans choose the songs and do an acoustic request show from my living room. We did “Party on Our Own,” which is kind of a social-isolation song about staying home and not going to the club. During these shows I was like, “Wow, I really write a lot of songs about being alone.” I also did “School Girls,” which I haven’t played in years, and a lot of unreleased ones that fans know about because I’ve leaked them. It felt like a proper fan show — like it was for them.

I’m obsessed with TikTok now. When I first joined, I was like, “Wow, some of these kids are editing wizards. How are they producing content at this quality?” But I could spend hours on it. We’ve got the time to do it, so why not mess around on TikTok? It makes me feel a little old sometimes, and some people think it’s a bit uncool, but it’s just another place to engage with new people.

YouTube (March 30)

When we did the Facebook show, things were getting a bit more tense with news of the virus, and people were waiting for the U.K. to go into lockdown. So it felt like the smartest and safest thing for all of us was to prerecord another show and do it as a YouTube Premiere, which lets you count down like it was a new video and talk with fans. I went into the chat room and watched the show with them, which is something artists never get to do — watch their own live shows with their fans. I felt like I was there with them. It was heartwarming, and it ended up being a really nice way to wrap it all up.

Louie came out and danced with me during “Naked Alone,” which he does during our normal shows, but this just felt like we were having a party, me and him. That really resonated — fans were messaging me going, “My family and I are dancing along in the living room!”

These shows definitely changed how I want to approach live shows in the future. Now that everyone has seen the show — and people who would have never seen me play live have access to it — there’s an opportunity to totally reinvent it, create something fresh. Engaging with fans and having the intimacy of an acoustic set is so valuable, so I’ll incorporate that and take some requests, ask fans what they want to hear. I’ll approach it even more from a place of wanting to give them what they want and make the show what they want it to be.

I’d be up for doing more of these shows again, but once we come out of lockdown I’m going to be gagging to go back on tour. The feeling and the adrenaline you get from performing to a responsive crowd is totally different. People are going to be so ready to see live music when this is all over — I know I’m going to appreciate it so much more. I really can’t wait.

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