Because the whole point of live music is to bring people together, the concert business has been particularly hard-hit by the COVID-19 lockdown in North America.
Even when things start to stabilize at some point in the future, it’s likely going to take a while before music fans feel comfortable packing clubs, soft seaters, and stadiums. Because among those hardest hit by the pandemic have been musicians who pay the bills by touring, which is money is made in a world where streaming has torpedoed traditional revenue streams like album sales.
The superstar likes of Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, Post Malone, and Tame Impala are going to have no trouble riding out the coming months. For those operating on a more grassroots level, the cancellation of spring and summer tours means no money coming from tickets sales, and no helping out the bottom line with album and T-shirt sales at the merch table.
That’s made Side Door—a Halifax-based venture cofounded by Vancouver singer-songwriter Dan Mangan—something of a life preserver for musicians who’ve been desperately wondering where they go from here.
Recognizing that artists are desperately looking for a way to generate some income, Side Door is now operating as a one-stop home shopping hub for ticketed livestreamed shows.
An artist announces a performance, except that it’s online only. Buy a ticket, and you’re able to livestream the concert on Zoom, joining others who’ve also purchased tickets.
Side Door was originally set up as a means by which artists could not only map out their tours and determine what venues might be best for them, but also get a sense of how many folks would be coming to a show long before they pulled into town.
"It's like Airbnb for gigs," Mangan tells the Straight. "Traditionally, we’ve allowed absolutely anybody access to bring the arts to their communities, presenting shows in whatever space they have—living rooms, book stores, cafes, warehouses, juice factories, you name it."
For reasons this was important, talk to anyone who has ever toured the country. And after deciding to roll the dice on Hanna, Alberta on a Tuesday, what it was like to end up playing for three people at the Last Chance Saloon.
Since launching last year, Side Door has had 2,200 artists and close to 900 venues join the platform, leading to over 700 shows across North America.
Mangan says that the platform was initially rocked by the arrival and quick spread of COVID-19 in North American.
"We’ve had to cancel probably 50 Side Door shows and it’s been kinda devastating on that front," he said. “We lost our entire Side Door to SXSW campaign, which we’d worked toward for months."
But with no one touring anywhere anytime soon, Side Door has been quick to adapt to a locked-down world. And more imporantly, it figured out a way to help artists monetize their work.
As tours were cancelled, artists began to stage livestreamed concerts from home. That was great for reaching out to fans and letting them know they weren’t alone, but no substitute for income from shows that was no longer taking place at the El Mocambo or the Biltmore.
Mangan calls the online shows a sustainable model for artists that doesn’t rely on donations, and which help people connect at a time when they might feel isolated and alone.
"Funnily enough," he said, “in our transition to doing interactive ticketed online shows, our core offering hasn’t changed in the slightest—which has always been to foster connection and community through the shared experience of art in alternative spaces--the internet maybe being the most alternative space possible. The thing that has changed is the platform, of course. We’ve had to adjust things on the fly really quickly to accommodate a totally different workflow.”
Mangan was one of the first artists to move to livestreaming when Canada began self-quarantining last month. When the second of two shows at Danforth Music Hall was abruptly cancelled on March 13, he and his band chose to play the concert to an empty venue, later posting the performance on YouTube.
Since then, Mangan has been putting on a livestream show every Saturday, donating proceeds to charities like the Vancouver Food Bank.
“The pilot tests I ran were just incredible. Six hundred and fifty-plus people logged in where they can all see each other, and I can see them,” he said. “It’s so much more powerful than just streaming blindly to the internet. There’s a chat thread, of course, which seems to get really active with people cracking jokes et cetera."
Mangan continued with, “Aside from the experiential difference, of course, gating the experience with a hard ticket puts a value on the experience, and we find that over 90 percent of participants are logging in for the entire show, rather than just tuning in passively for a few minutes. And it means that artists are getting paid, and it means they don’t have to ask for ‘donations’ or pass ‘the digital hat’. Overall, it’s a better experience for artists and audiences alike.”
Brooklyn-based Hayfitz is one of countless artists who's life was turned upside down by the COVID-19 lockdown. The singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist was already using Side Door for booking shows before the pandemic.
"Side Door shows completely eliminated the monotony of touring for me," Hayfitz tells the Straight. "No ego, no bells and whistles, just one human with the opportunity of playing my songs for other humans free of both the literal and industry noise that can so easily exhaust a touring musician. Oh, and the consistent free meals and lodging didn’t hurt."
When COVID-19 exploded into a serious health concern in the States, Hayfitz lost both a three-week tour and an appearance at SXSW, which was cancelled for health-concern reasons in February.
The idea of people paying to see an online show much the same way they would make plans to see a concert in a club is important, for no other reason, Hayfitz suggests, than that people who have invested in a ticket have done so because they want to be there.
"I've done an Instagram Live show and it was one of the oddest ‘shows’ I've ever done," he said. "I attribute that to not being able to see or hear the audience--it felt lonely. It was also jarring to see people leave the stream mid-song or after just one or two songs. If 10 people walked out of your show after two songs you'd probably be pretty discouraged, right? I look forward to being able to see the entire audience on Zoom and even turn on their mics every now and then. not all at once of course!"
Upcoming shows being promoted through Side Door include peformance by Mangan, Sarah Slean, Danny Michel, and Jon Capus, with prices ranging from $5 to $7. For a list of upcoming Side Door ticketed shows, or to get involved as a performer, you can go here.