The numbers are in for Billy Strings’ six-night run at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York last week. The bluegrass phenom sold 20,000 pay-per-view tickets for four shows streamed on Fans.live, and lured another 200,000 viewers who tuned in for the series opener and finale broadcast on Twitch.
At one point during the final concert on Feb. 24, there were 24,000 concurrent viewers tuning in at the same time to see Strings play originals like “Dust In A Baggie” and debut the new song “Wargasm” as well as covers of Grateful Dead tracks including “Help On The Way” and “Slipknot.”
For Strings, the series was a chance to revive an idea that had been more than a year in the works, paying tribute to the Dead’s six-night run at the Capitol Theatre in 1971 while capping off an against-the-odds virtual and drive-in tour during the pandemic. For Capitol Theatre owner Peter Shapiro, the show was a chance to fully activate the streaming business he has been developing for years — dating back to the Fare Thee Well concerts of 2015 — that quietly turned into one of the most successful streaming platforms during the pandemic.
Shapiro tells Billboard that the Capitol Theatre and the Brooklyn Bowl were outfitted with a multi-camera streaming system years earlier to stream shows with partners like Nugs, while the Brooklyn Bowl outlet in Nashville, which opened last year, was purpose-built for streaming. The Capitol Theatre includes a control room from which director Jonathan Healey was able to live-direct 11 cameras capturing the show, while fans from home were projection-mapped onto the walls of the 95-year-old-venue.
Couple that with Relix Media, which Shapiro owns and which has been a critical support vehicle for building Strings’ profile with jam fans, as well as as well as the huge email lists he’s built from both his venues and the popular Lock’N festival which help market Strings to a wider audience. Shapiro also owns the Fans.live digital platform he built with an integration from Shopify to sell tickets, which has streamed and broadcast 250 live and archival shows since April 1, 2020.
The platform has given Shapiro all the pieces necessary to stage, market, stream and ultimately deliver and monetize streaming concerts for any artist.
“For an artist like Billy Strings that already has a strong following, we can lift them even more and get results,” Shapiro says. “We can also add production elements that are really cool, like using Zoom to bring fans into the show. Each household viewing the concert had an average of three people watching, which means nearly a half-million people were tuned in.”
Since 2017, Strings has been on an aggressive tour stretch, roaming North America in a black Sprinter van and playing an average of 200 shows a year. In 2020, Strings was set to embark on his own tour following the success of his 2020 record Home — which has been nominated for Best Bluegrass Album at this year’s Grammy Awards on March 14 — and open a number of dates for Americana superstar Jason Isbell.
When the pandemic hit, Strings found himself sidelined for the first time ever in his career, but that didn’t last long. In April, he performed a number of at-home pay-per-view concerts through Nugs, which sold 8,900 tickets. He then did nine streaming concerts at a handful of venues in Nashville, opening with two nights at the new Brooklyn Bowl followed by two nights each at the Station Inn, City Winery and Exit/In and one night at 3rd and Lindsley.
“We had a ton of interest from the venues but ultimately played the clubs that had the best internet,” joked manager Bill Orner. “We did about 21,000 paid over nine nights (tickets were $9.99 each) and we had a pretty robust merchandise piece. We sold out of almost everything, it was basically just posters and t-shirts and everything was gone.”
After the streaming tour, Strings launched the “Meet Me At the Drive In” tour in September, playing three nights at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes Barre, Penn. at the invitation of arena GM Will Beekman. Strings followed with streaming concerts for Nugs at Red Rocks in Denver and the Ryman in Nashville before revisiting a pact he made with Shapiro a year earlier.
The idea was for Strings to honor the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s ESP Experiments series, a six-show run in March 1971 where audience members, led by Dr. Stanley Krippner from Northwestern University, attempted to send psychic messages about the show to telepathic receivers, including Woodstock opener Richie Havens.
“We got the holds, brainstormed a little bit and then the world fell apart,” Orner said of the original plan for the 50th anniversary show. “And then Shapiro hit me sometime over the summer and was like, ‘Hey, you still into this?’ And I said, ‘Oh, a hundred percent.'”
Strings’ re-creation of the experiment was less formal, with an adjusted hypothesis that “concerts in the age of streaming beg fans to transport their mind and to feel connected to a live performance when we cannot physically be together,” which gives the collective mind the “the power to tap into extrasensory perception and manifest connection.”
Tickets were $20 in advance, $25 day of show and $60 for all four shows. Special guests like musician Oteil Burbridge from Dead & Company, Widespread Panic‘s Dave Schools, Nashville singer Lindsay Lou and Bill Nershi with String Cheese Incident and his wife Jillian Nershi all served as special guest telepathic receivers.
For the six show run at the Capitol Theatre, Strings played 120 songs — including nearly a dozen Dead covers — without any repeats, Orner tells Billboard, The setlist also included tracks like “Lonesome LA Cowboy” by New Riders of the Purple Sage, “Sitting in Limbo” by Jimmy Cliff and “Cold on the Shoulder” by Gordon Lightfoot.
“That’s why this genre has worked so well for streaming,” says Shapiro. “In the jam scene, there’s no two shows that are the same, no two sets that are identical. And fans have been paying [for?] live streams long before the pandemic because they want to see what’s going to happen.”
Next up for Strings are a series of socially-distanced concerts at St. Augustine (Florida) Amphitheater (March 19-21), followed by several streaming shows at Tipitina’s (March 24-25) in New Orleans and then a series of concerts at Columbia Speedway (April 1-4) in South Carolina. Shapiro is also planning a new run of streaming shows for artists including the Hold Steady, replacing their usual “Massive Nights” residency at the Brooklyn Bowl with a streaming performance of their new record tonight on Relix’s Twitch channel, followed by two live pay-per-view shows Friday and Saturday.
“There’s so much being announced out there every day, it’s impossible to keep tabs on everything,” Shapiro tells Billboard. “The only thing we can say with certainty is that the live streaming of shows is here to stay.”