5 Minutes With... James Garside

Introducing our 5 Minutes With… series where we speak to industry professionals about their views, opinions and predictions.

For our third segment of the series, Principal Talent Partner, Jasmine Bindley caught up with James Garside about the future of the live music events industry in 2022. James is a music x tech product leader, who worked throughout the pandemic on virtual gigs, helping artists engage with fans online and generate new revenue streams.  
How has covid affected live events and the new world of virtual gigs? 
The past two years have steered us to take large strides towards what a music livestream or virtual gig can become. The effects of covid accelerated the interest in being able to connect an artist with their community of fans, exclusively online and via the medium of video streaming, which gave rise to the term “virtual gig” and a fast-forward to artists of all sizes valuing this approach to connect with their fan bases. This representation of an artist’s body of work, combined with a new normal of how we’ve been living, meant virtual gigs became an attractive proposition.  
Creatively, virtual gigs revealed an audio-visual art form that allows artists to have a direct relationship with their fans, by creating a bespoke livestream virtual gig. The first principle of which is putting the camera as the first person in the production of the show, and the artist performing exclusively for those watching online. These fans have the artist’s full attention and creativity flowing through the camera. The flip of which is the artist performing to an in-person crowd at a traditional gig venue, with the fans online watching the artist focusing their energy on the in-person crowd, whilst the camera catches the moment as the second person. The concept of camera-first is what should drive the most focus as a future of virtual gigs post-pandemic. 
Fans of an artist will always want to show their fandom, most likely in small groups of friends, and this concept hasn’t changed during covid. By far the most popular way of enjoying a virtual gig is collectively watching together on a smart TV. We’re comfortable socialising in a small group together in the living room, sharing a musical moment with an artist, filmed exclusively for watching at home. There’s a lot of art and passion going into the production of these shows and they’re best enjoyed on a big screen in high definition with bigger speakers, rather than through your laptop or phone. This model of enjoying music is reflected in the data and on an upwards trajectory. The comfort and safety of a virtual gig only compounds any normal friction fans may have with in-person events (crowded, queuing for drinks, travel etc) which you don’t get in your living room.  
What new challenges did you face as a product manager for virtual gigs?  
Throughout the pandemic I’ve been lucky to work with three virtual gig companies and have been involved with a variety of gigs, including Liam Gallagher going down the Thames on a barge, Birdy playing with her band in a restored music hall, Sheryl Crow on guitar in her own chapel, to Wireless Connect - a three-day virtual festival.  
Primarily the biggest challenge was the ‘Give and Get’ betweens fans and artists. When an artist performs they give their art and performance to fans and get appreciation (and revenue) from them in return. Fans give their attention to artists and get to be part of the artist’s community. An aspect of give and get which had a noticeable vacuum across many shows was the artist finishing a song and expecting a cheer from the fans. Getting that response is arguably the key part of get for why an artist does what they do on camera / on stage. Creating some level of reciprocity between artist and fan - by connecting the tech product layer with the artist and production story of the show - through emoji, gif, video, text, live reactions (the list continues) helps to fulfil the give and get, and will create the best synergy for top class virtual gigs going forward. 
Fans missing the start time! It’s always going to happen for both in-person and online worlds. As a product manager there are levers to pull to improve conversions - push notifications at key artist headliners throughout a long show, or an email reminder 15 mins before show time, or add to your native calendar. A large % of tickets bought are within 24 hours of show time, and you sell loads even once the show has started (a massive advantage of an infinitely-ticketed virtual gig) so the purchase and activation steps need to be understandable and slick. Like any live event hosted online, the vast majority of the audience arrives within a 15 minute window of show time.  
As the pandemic went on and we became more accustomed to living online, the terminology around a virtual gig became increasingly understood by fans, a particular point was when a show was ‘live live’ vs ‘as live’ (pre-recorded and played out live). Knowing how to set fan expectations throughout the gig discovery and ticket purchase flow helped us avoid fans saying.. “I thought it was a proper livestream, not someone pressing play, I want my money back” which is a big blow. 
Prioritising support for smart TVs was always a fundamental product management requirement. These events are long-form video so you want a device to match. Living room devices like PlayStation, Fire TV and Chromecast have risen in popularity during the last two years and some level of support for the virtual gig was always a must. Lots of fans access through the web browser on those devices, loading the website and watching the show there in full screen. The living room is a hotly contested space already for major TV streaming services, and it’s positive to see virtual gigs companies investing in their support for leanback viewing. 
What surprised you the most about fan (user) behaviour with virtual gigs? 
I was most surprised to see how much superfans will pay for value-adds, separate from the livestream component. Most notably of all value-adds were virtual 121 Meet & Greets with the artist(s). These would be 2 mins, consisting of a hysteric hello, chatting about the livestream, before saying goodbye. These meet and greets are especially effective if scheduled straight after the livestream ends. In many cases, the fan doesn’t even need to switch platforms. Virtual gig platforms have become succinct at combining multiple revenue-driving value-adds into the event experience to accommodate superfans. Physical and limited-edition items have a particularly high value if created specifically for that event, and why NFT minting of virtual gig memorabilia is on the up.  
The concept of selling merch at a gig is always appealing to a band of any size as they can make good revenue from a wider range of fans. In the online world, I was pleasantly surprised to see how popular it is to add extra items to your cart when purchasing a ticket, like an album vinyl, t-shirt or event poster. The artist getting a % of ticket revenue is just one revenue stream of a virtual gig and why value adds are so important for the bottom line. 
Throughout the process of designing fan experiences for a virtual gig, we liked to follow traditional behaviours of attending a gig, and whether virtual or not, attending with friends and family remained a key component. Sending tickets as gifts - i.e. gifting the love of music - is increasingly popular, especially if the fan buys a ticket for themselves at the same time. Music has a natural network effect - everyone knows someone that shares good tunes or introduces you to a new artist - and we encouraged this behaviour through our virtual gig UX.  
How are artists responding to this new technology? Can product management help? 
Artists are embracing a new model of production between them and the camera, which includes a new ‘stage’ layout for them and the band. They’re no longer lining up on stage in a venue performing to an audience - they can perform for each other and the camera in a unique setting. There’s certainly a world with virtual-only gigs living alongside in-person gigs and not cannibalising, as they can be dramatically different experiences to each other. An increasingly common model for artists to choose is to do a virtual gig date as part of a live tour, which not only reaches a fanbase previously outside of in-person events but encourages a model of greener touring which is important to artists and fans alike. 
The best artists to pioneer what a virtual gig could become were those most willing to participate with the technology that connects them with their fans, and explore how to interact with it. The show production is always elevated by the feature set of the virtual gig platform it’s hosted on. The plethora of choices can generally be plotted against monetisation vs promotion. Going Live on a social platform will provide greater reach and can still follow the virtual gig first principle of camera-first, but the project will be without ticket revenue. Bespoke virtual gig platforms focus on higher production values and build product features that wrap monetising an artist’s fanbase with luxury quality to the event experience. Looking and sounding great is important to the artists (which will come as no surprise) and why so much importance is placed on video and audio quality, and the reason why a lot of artists choose to pre-record - approve it - and play the show out ‘as live’.  
It’s very encouraging for the future of the online live event sector to see how many players are running successful virtual gig platforms. To name a few.. LIVENow, Moment House, Mandolin, Dreamstage, all providing a set of features and formats for artists to do increasingly experimental shows. It’s clear to see a future for these platforms have given multiple investments from large music (tech) platforms that now have an accompanying or integrated virtual gig platform. Product management in the virtual gig space will continue to grow. For me, the next stage of attending a virtual gig remotely-but-together with family and friends around the world is a fantastic challenge to solve, and one inevitably on a course aligned with the emerging Metaverse. I’ll see you down the front 🎶