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The Live Event Streaming Experience, with a few twists

The live-performance business has long been a powerful economic engine for many, many kinds of artists. This is as true for musicians in the streaming age as it is for comedians and, yes, podcasters. (Let’s set theater aside for this discussion. Different bag altogether.)

The pandemic, of course, brought live performances to a halt, pushing the business to a cascade of Zoom calls and, to some extent, underground. I can’t speak for everyone, obviously, but my sense is that success in such efforts has mostly been modest at best, chiefly functioning as marginal stop-gap measures as opposed to true virtual adaptations.

As the United States inches towards relative normalcy — though within a global context that remains tenuous — the live-performance business in the country appears to be gingerly preparing for the light at the end of the tunnel. Bands are announcing dates again. Some venues are starting to hold very small, socially distant performances. Music festivals are poking their heads back up.

Still, the full bloom of reopening will take some time. For now, there remains some room for a little more tinkering and experimentation.

One such experiment worth tracking is a “music, podcast, and comedy streaming experience” organized by Chapo Trap House’s Chris Wade and Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner in collaboration with FRQNCY, a new platform that’s hoping to inject more life and innovation into the virtual-performance arena.

The virtual festival is called FRQNCY1, named after the platform, and it’s scheduled to take place on June 5. Headlined by Chapo Trap House and the band Every Time I Die, the lineup runs the gamut, including comedy/podcast acts like We Hate Movies, Throwing Fits, Episode 1, and Tinder Live with Lane Moore, along with the music acts Zola Jesus, Pom Pom Squad, Downtown Boys, and Stay Inside.

As Wade tells me, the thrust of FRQNCY1’s design revolves around having all the acts perform in the same physical venue — you know, as if it was a normal festival — where they will be live-streamed to ticket buyers watching at home. Considerable attention is being paid to the production value of the streaming infrastructure; to that end, high-end camera equipment is being brought in for the occasion.

The venue in question is Elsewhere, located in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, so chosen for its capacity to support a multi-stage arrangement. “We’re structuring the festival around two separate stages that we can trade back and forth without having to take time to strike one down and build it back up for the next act,” said Wade.

Central to the experience is the FRQNCY platform itself. This is incredibly reductive, but think of it as a glossier cross between Twitch and Zoom. The product features a main screen over which the performances will be broadcasted, with an overlay on the side for groups of viewers to see each other, virtually congregate, and take in the show as a collective — the big idea being to recreate the feeling of many little social bubbles and clusters forming within the context of a larger show floor. There are some interactive elements involved, including a feature that lets viewers applaud (literally, into a computer mic) and have that applause be collectively transmitted to the performers. The festival is also implementing a take on the “backstage experience” to the proceedings: A camera will be set up somewhere in the venue for acts to connect with a portion of the viewership between performances.

Several ticket packages are available, some of which will contain the aforementioned backstage experience as well as merch. Prices range between $20 and $75, and a cheaper presale lot has been sold out.

One noteworthy production aspect of the festival is the way the organizers are approaching revenue splits. FRQNCY, the company, is putting up the money to shoulder the budget: They’re covering venue cost, production expenses, and guarantees paid out to the acts. I’m told that once the event breaks even in sales, the resulting profit will be split between the performers and a centralized pot for future FRQNCY festivals, with a percentage going to Save Our Stages, the NIVA fund dedicated to supporting indie live-event venues at risk of going under due to the pandemic.

Now, you might be wondering about the timing of it all, given that we’re supposedly in the waning days of the pandemic and the likelihood that FRQNCY, both the festival and the platform, will soon be progressing in a future where the live performance business has opened back up. I’m told that the company was originally created before the pandemic, and that the platform was principally designed as an add-on solution meant to help live venues even in the best of times — the key idea being to structurally broaden the pool of who can enjoy a given performance without providing a less-than experience for those watching virtually.

Zale Schoenborn, FRQNCY’s Chief Executive Officer, tells me that the overarching goal was to build something that could help festivals, venues, and acts navigate the balance between scale and experience. A useful biographical point of note: The founding members of FRQNCY also created the Pickathon music and arts festival held annually in Portland, Oregon, and as with most things like this, the platform was initially developed to solve a problem they had. “With Pickathon, we usually capped the number of people who could attend,” said Schoenborn. “It’s always been an issue, trying to maintain what’s special while still being able to economically compete on a much bigger scale.”

But all that comes later. For now, there’s the FRQNCY1 festival, which marks the beginning of a return to the road for its many acts, including Chapo Trap House. “This will be the first time the Chapo Gang is in the same room in fifteen months,” said Wade. “Everybody’s excited about that, but we haven’t really addressed the possibility of organizing a full-on tour just yet. I imagine that’s something that will come up after we do this show.”