Evolution of Livestream: It’s Getting Better All the Time

A year into the pandemic, the improved quality of livestream concerts is helping to bridge the gap between artists and their socially distanced fans.

It’s now been a year since most of us have been to a live concert in a packed venue. The last live show I personally attended took place on March 10, 2020, when I saw Dave Mason (“Feelin’ Alright,” “Only You Know and I Know”) at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda, New York. Little did I know when I walked out of the Riviera following my aftershow chat with Mason that it would be the last live gig I’d see until, well, who knows when?

Ever since that initial early-2020 lockdown period, artists have sought to fill the live-experience void in many intriguing and creative ways. One cyber-remote live option that’s matured greatly over the past year — both in terms of visual presentation and sound quality — has been livestream concerts. Initially, artists were finding their virgin livestream footing by treating us to brief, decent-sounding solo performance clips on social media platforms. Then, as many an artist’s handle on homebound technology began ramping up, one-person one-off songs gave way to better-sounding, quarantine-approved multi-performer mini-sets and, eventually, full-on full-set concerts. Performance locales began rotating among living rooms, home studios, professional rehearsal spaces, and, eventually, inside actual known clubs and live venues — albeit sans in-person audiences for the most part, given the stringent capacity regulations still in effect.

Livestreaming outlets like Twitch, Facebook Live, Instagram Live, YouTube Live, Mixcloud, and Periscope were early-adopter go-to’s, but as the pandemic continued marching on, artists began turning to other options like Bandcamp Live, Bandsintown PLUS, NoCap, and StageIt as they ventured even further beyond the aforementioned home-stationed mini-set offerings.

Me, I’ve been choosing among a smorgasbord of livestreamed events with varying degrees of presentation style and sound quality. More often than not, I’ve been mirrorcasting these shows directly from my HP laptop to my home theater system by way of a Chromecast-to-Roku Express pathway. I’ve generally encountered much better SQ results that way since most livestream stereo mixes are being handled by skilled live engineers. That said, I readily admit to deploying my own 7.1 up-mixing magic here and there to enhance playback. My reasoning — any intended ambience and/or socially distanced audience chatter and cheering tend to permeate the rear and back channels, and that helps me get as close to an “I am there” kind of feeling as I can while I’m sitting in my vintage, comfy Eames lounge chair.

Note that virtual attendance costs will vary. Some livestreams are free, but many others have a pay-what-you-want, pass-the-hat, good-cause benefit, and/or charity element to them. Certain livestreams have a baseline fee to get you in through the code-access door, and they might also offer tiered add-on fees depending on whether you want to pony up to watch from multiple camera angles, attend virtual meet and greets, participate in artist Q&As, nab some merch in real time, and more.

My favorite livestream gigs to date include Lindsey Buckingham’s first public performance following his 2019 open-heart surgery via Arcivr Live in December 2020, which was an absolute treat. Buckingham’s vocal yelps, yowls, and inflections — not to mention his signature deft guitar work on songs like “Shut Us Down” and “I’m So Afraid” — were as strong as ever. I’ve also enjoyed the full-album livestreams from alt-rock icon Juliana Hatfield, who has given us her impassioned solo run-throughs of 1993’s Become What You Are and 1998’s Bed on acoustic guitar and 1995’s Only Everything on electric guitar and stompbox, all of it via Q Division Studios’ YouTube channel.

Recently, I watched the kickoff of Todd Rundgren’s 25-date Clearly Human Virtual Tour through NoCap. Though all performances took place in an unnamed Chicago venue, each gig is tailored toward being in a specific city — or “geo-targeted,” in livestream-world parlance. For example, opening night in February was geo-targeted to “be” in Buffalo, New York (and Rundgren made the appropriate reference onstage about the audience enjoying their wings). Kudos to George Cowan for expertly dialing in the telecast audio mix for the volume swells and shared male and female vocal harmonies on “Can We Still Be Friends” and Rundgren’s impassioned wailings on the elegiac final encore piece, “I Love My Life.” As Kasim Sulton, Rundgren’s go-to bassist/vocalist for the past 45 years, told me the day following opening night, “I have to hand it to Todd. He’s a brilliant songwriter, and we’ve really been able to bring his songcraft to life out here. I’d rather be playing in front of 1,500 people in this theater, but doing a two-hour show this way is the next best thing.”

While you don’t have to break the bank to livestream gigs by your favorite artists, you can opt to go all-in as a virtual VIP if — to borrow a phrase made famous on Parks and Recreation — you wanna treat yo’self. And why not? Until we can all get back to sharing physical space in the live performance garden, livestreaming is where artists are blooming.

Mike Mettler, a.k.a. The SoundBard, is the music editor of Sound & Vision.