Why Artists Need To Embrace The New 360 Model [Cortney Harding]

1As 2016 shapes up to be a landmark year for VR technology, it's time for artists to begin embracing 360 video technology. The cost of creating such content continues to drop, but the returns continue to increase, as the ways in which fans interact with live content continues to shift.

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Guest post by music tech consultant Cortney Harding

It’s already becoming abundantly clear that 2016 is going to be the year VR starts to break in a big way. Headset prices are falling, Google Cardboard is widely available, and you can’t turn around at a tech event without bumping into someone getting a demo on an Oculus. Major brands are hustling to pour money into developing VR experiences, and ten years from now, this year is likely to be to VR what 2007 was to the smartphone — the time it all began.

But with all that being said, there are still major hurdles and limitations when it comes to artists making experiences for VR. One, while people who work in tech have grown used to seeing folks with half their faces obscured by screens, the average user probably hasn’t experienced VR and might still find it odd and off-putting to be that cut off. The prices for creating a great, custom experience have come down dramatically but still remain out of reach for many smaller artists, and fragmented content distribution means that there’s no central place for fans to find great immersive artist experiences. As amazing as it would be to have hundreds of artists suddenly release more compelling (and monetizable) content, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

There is, however, an interim step that artists and live music venues should start taking — recording content in 360 and releasing that video as often as possible. The costs for that are much lower than a custom experience and fans don’t need a headset to interact with it, although that certainly helps. If more artists embraced 360 concert recordings, we’d start to see a huge change in the engagement around concert videos, which to this point haven’t generally been as compelling as they could be.

The Blue Note Jazz Club in New York has been at the forefront of this, with a 360 installation in the club and videos of shows going live on a regular basis. The camera and mic setup is fairly incongruous and the sound quality is excellent — while watching it on a laptop certainly doesn’t equal being at the club, it’s leaps and bounds above traditional video or, worse, the shaky handheld content that many people post from their phones. For people who live in other markets or are curious about acts and might buy tickets or merch after watching a performance, it’s an amazing conversion tool.

Installing the system does come at a price, as does producing the sound, but it could easily pay off for clubs if they charged a few dollars to watch a show or subscribe to an app to view the video. Artists could easily share in the profits and make some extra money for a show they’re already playing.

Even if artists just wanted to put 360 video on YouTube or Facebook, they’d see returns far beyond anything from a traditional live or even a produced music video. Mark Zuckerburg has already thrown resources at 360 video and recently announced that the Facebook algorithm will prioritize 360 content — a huge win for artists struggling to break through and be seen in feeds.

Beyond Facebook, 360 video posted on all channels has a 30% higher view rate than fixed video and nine times the click-through rate, so no matter where fans watch it, the engagement is substantially more than a normal video — a pretty massive payoff for not that much more money. Add to this that increased interactivity leads to a higher rate of return viewing — if you want to see the video from every band member’s perspective, for instance, that means multiple views of the same video. Finally, because users are interacting with the video, it’s stickier, and they’re less likely to bail out halfway through.

360 video won’t replace the traditional video as a lean back experience, although you can certainly play a 360 video in YouTube’s app and only listen. But it has the potential to create many more engaging experiences for artists — now they just have to make it happen.

First, clubs need to take a page from the Blue Note and install systems to capture 360 video. For very small venues this might be too expensive, but mid-range and larger venues should make the investment, and the smart ones should make it early — if they are early adopters, it could be seen as a great point of differentiation by booking agents and bands. The rights issues associated with this content could also be thorny, but now is the time to start crafting agreements and getting publishers and PROs to buy in on this technology, with the realization that this could be a financial win for all parties involved.

For bands, this means pushing for 360 recordings of shows, whether the venue provides it or not, and then thinking of creative uses for that content. A simple 360 video of a show is perfectly fine, but if there’s a little more budget or creativity, adding in other footage can make the experience even more exciting. Making sure that content is shared everywhere is also crucial, and encouraging fans to experiment with watching it in a headset so they can be even more immersed is also a good move (and, as a bonus, a customized Google Cardboard is a great piece of merch that fans can reuse).

For years, some of us in music tech beat the drum for live-streaming, but it never quite made it to primetime. With the rise of 360 video, we could see a massive shift in how fans interact with live content — and artists and clubs could see impressive financial returns.