Over the weekend I joined the millions of people who purchased exactly one month of Disney Plus in order to watch Hamilton. I’d never seen it before. When it came to the Kennedy Center tickets were jaw-droppingly expensive, even for someone with a developer job who’s used to spending money on live performances. I figured I’d wait until it came around a second or third time for those of us who didn’t get the platinum level east coast elite membership when they moved here.
I’m not going to review it because that’s been done. I’m not going to explore the way it opens the door to revisit a thousand old stories with new music, new style, or a Broadway that looks like New York, because that’s all obvious. When theatre comes back, and it will, this is going to be the thing to do.
Instead I have another question:
While we avoid crowds to suppress the virus, musicians are live-streaming sets and Hamilton landed in everyone’s living-room for the price of a breakfast sandwich. The first few were rough, spotty Instagram Live videos for charity, but production quality is getting much better, and just doing back of napkin math with the audience and ticket prices make the economics look doable.
When the world is back and the virus is all but exterminated, should we keep doing this?
Act 1. The Case Against Streaming
Let’s try three:
I. Our world is already too virtual. Everywhere is the same place and no place at all. We need the specialness, the here and now of live shows.
DC’s live music is was the first part of the city that I really felt like I had any connection to at all. I saw the same people from concert to concert. There’s a sense of community at the 9:30 Club that’s rare in modern life. We’re at risk of losing that sense entirely, and we can’t afford to.
II. Immersion and distraction. Live performances are the last place on earth you will silence your phone and pay attention here and now.
III. As we’ve become all too aware of as, live events employee staff, crews, venues, and all sorts of business businesses. None of these people have jobs right now.
But all of those arguments assume this is an either-or case. They seem flawed. They seem to underestimate how badly we crave experiences in this disconnected reality.
It’s also not necessarily true that virtual events replace live events. Radio sold vinyl back when it played actual records. It was so effective there was a whole scandal about bribing the DJ’s. Burning CD’s, as much as it pissed off the record labels, likely increased sales for tickets and digital music.
What we need to consider is whether the live stream replaces real shows (a supplementary product) or makes you want to see them more (a complementary product). Given that these aren’t free, it can see be a net positive even if it’s a little of both.
Act 2. Have our cake and stream it too
The argument in favor is a lot simpler: reach.
Andrew Bird’s solo act in a guitar store, played to an “audience” of acoustic guitars wearing hats, doesn’t care where you watched it from.
If you live in a small town, this gives you access. Even a mid-sized city like Kansas City goes pretty low on the touring list. Livestreams put pieces of Broadway and Andrew Bird in North Dakota and remote islands.
It needs a strategy, of course. If you’re a band, you may want to play their albums in living rooms just before they come out or tickets go on sale. The superfans buy the live stream, the album, and the tickets. If you’re a theatre company, you could use streaming to drum up hype, or wait until after the tour to grant access to all the places you couldn’t go.
For really expensive tickets like Hamilton, streaming opens the show to people who don’t have the budget for it. For busy parents, it puts live performances on par with Netflix, without the cost or logistical commitment of a full night out.
And I think that’s the strongest case in favor: We spend so much time on screens, the demand for living-room entertainment is off the charts, and most of it has been filled with, well, 💩. I used to joke that after moving to two new cities in three years I’d reached the end of Netflix, but I don’t think that’s even unusual anymore. The golden age of TV ended at the season finale of The Americans, but our watching habits kept going like it hadn’t.
Standup comedy found a new home in streaming. Why not music? Why not a serialized play broken up like a television series? It’s not the same as being there but nothing is. We can win the battle for attention by tapping things we already have in a series of smaller streaming events.
I still have to ask, am I an idiot? Does all this lose its specialness when you do it too much? Aren’t we watching crappy old sitcoms for a reason? After all, I could easily get access to the whole Criterion Collection, or rent my way through 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and that’s not what I’ve been watching.
I wrote this as a debate because I have no idea.1 But with very little else to do, it sounds like it’d be interesting to try.