Published May 21, 2020When Vancouver songwriter Dan Mangan co-founded the concert company Side Door in 2017, he thought he was creating an "Airbnb for gigs" — an online platform to allow artists and unconventional venues to connect and put on DIY shows. Once coronavirus lockdowns began, however, he quickly realized that he had accidentally stumbled onto the perfect platform for interactive online shows.
"If you can picture back like seven weeks ago, everyone was doing free shows," Mangan tells Exclaim! in mid-May. "Chris Martin and John Legend and every celebrity is doing free shows from home, and it's all very exciting. And I wondered: what does it do to the psychology of this equation if we put a paywall on this?"
Mangan did a test-run himself. He charged six bucks a ticket, selling through Side Door's website, and performed for fans over the video conferencing app Zoom. "The first week, there was like 250 or 300 people. And then the second week, 600 or 700 people," he remembers. "We realized really quickly that these shows were special."
Side Door's ticketed Zoom shows have a different tone than the livestreams found on YouTube or Instagram Live. Fans find themselves in a room with a few hundred of an artist's most devoted fans; you can banter in the chat window, see other fans singing along on their webcams, and speak directly with the artist between songs. The feeling is surprisingly similar to that of a small show in a brick-and-mortar venue. Participants so far have included Torquil Campbell (of Stars), Steven Page (formerly of Barenaked Ladies), Jill Barber, Sarah Slean and many more.
"What we're getting out of these shows — not just financially, but existentially — is something far more in tune with what Side Door always did well, which was to create an impromptu community," Mangan reflects. "The music or the performance was the nucleus, it was the reason for the gathering, but it actually wasn't the product. The product wasn't just entertainment; the product was a sense of connection and community. We create something together and then it goes away. The scarcity of the moment."
These at-home performances don't have the cathartic release of, say, a sweaty mosh pit at a punk show, but they're starkly intimate. According to Mangan, over 90 percent of Side Door ticket holders stick around for an entire gig, from beginning to end. He compares the atmosphere to that of a small club, whereas free livestreams feel more like "busking in an airport to a million people."
The performers are also impressed. In an Instagram post the morning after a ticketed Side Door stream, indie rockers Said the Whale wrote, "It was as if we cherry-picked the front row from every STW show across the globe and put everyone in a room together. A virtual room, but a room nonetheless. There was conversation, there was music, there were incredible stories shared, there was real connection."
Roots rock songwriter Terra Lightfoot had similar experience during her first Zoom show in late April. Describing the experience as "heartwarming," she tells Exclaim!, "I think the most emotional thing for me was seeing the number of people watching who were quarantining by themselves. It really means something to be able to bring music into people's homes at a time like this, especially for those who have been alone for months."
Side Door not only offers fans and artists a sorely needed sense of community during lockdown, but also helps to put food on musicians' tables. At the time of our interview, Side Door had already paid out over $110,000 to artists (an average of about $1,500 per show). That's triple the average gross of Side Door's pre-pandemic shows. Factor in the near-nonexistent overhead costs, and Side Door is offering a lifeline to artists whose careers have been threatened by physical distancing.
Mangan acknowledges that Side Door still has a ways to go before its streaming system is fully up to his standards. The company is hoping to create a purpose-built video platform, where friends can interact privately without interrupting the show. He also has his sights set on geo-gating, so that artists can replicate the touring experience by performing for fans in specific regions.
"I could work with a different presenter in Calgary, a different presenter in Dayton, Ohio," Mangan muses. "I could play in Vietnam over lunch, London in the afternoon, and then play in Pittsburgh in the evening. And work with local promoters and presenters in each of those places to maximize the potential play for that area." Festivals and regional concert companies can get in on the action, promoting the online shows and selling tickets like they would any other gig.
Even as lockdown restrictions begin to lift in the coming months, Mangan believes that streaming concerts are here to stay. He estimates that large venues won't be open "until the spring [of 2021], maybe not until next fall." And even when they do reopen, there will be an enormous venue crunch when every band attempts to hit the road all at once. DIY performance spaces — like the ones Side Door specialized in pre-pandemic — are likely to become more prevalent than ever, and online gigs will remain commonplace.
Fans may begin to see hybrid concerts, with a live audience in addition to an online stream; members of the public will be able to buy a ticket to attend in person, or pay a cheaper rate to watch online from anywhere in the world. Fans who used to see their favourite indie band every couple of years will be able to see them every month.
It's still not clear what the future of concerts will look like, but it's certain that the live music landscape will continue to look very different from the one we're used to.
"The quality of these [performances] and the tech is going to continue to get better," Mangan says. "It's not going to go away. It might decrease once we're able to go back and gather in real life. But I do believe that this new world is going to stick around."