For the past few Saturdays, award-winning musician Dan Mangan has played a show for hundreds of fans online.
That in itself isn’t particularly novel. In the interest of everyone’s health and safety, concerts worldwide have been canceled for the foreseeable future and musicians have gone online as an alternative; the Dropkick Murphys’ annual St. Patrick’s Day show for example.
But there are two big differences with Mangan’s shows. The first is that his shows are done via Zoom, which lets him see the audience rather than just playing for a camera. The other difference, and arguably a more important one in an era when artists are struggling, is that each of those fans paid $6 for the ticket.
Mangan sells tickets to his streaming shows with Side Door, the company he founded with Laura Simpson. But they didn’t originally intend to put concerts online.
“Side Door is a platform that connects artists with hosts to create shows anytime, anywhere,” Simpson said. “We acted like a virtual booking agent and ticket company. Our ethos was that any space can be a venue and artists can book their own shows.”
In short, they would connect small venues—business owners, community halls, churches, even private homes—with artists looking to play shows, either fill dates on tours or small artists trying to break through. The artist and the host would then split the ticket revenue.
But then the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 happened and canceled Side Door’s entire concert calendar. With no shows and nothing to do, Mangan and Simpson remembered something an engineer mentioned in a meeting a while back.
“At our heart it wasn’t something that we were pursuing,” Simpson said. “For us the magic was the in-person experience.”
“In one of our meetings a developer said ‘What if we did online shows?’ and the whole office laughed at him,” Mangan said. “We’re like, come on, we’re not gonna do online shows. But things changed fast so now we’re allocating our resources to online shows.”
With nowhere else to play and nothing to lose, Mangan made himself the test subject. He put on the first show to see how it went and was shocked by the response.
“The nice thing about being a cofounder that’s also an artist is that I can be a guinea pig, so I just put up a show on sale through Side Door and figured, you know, why not a Zoom interface,” Mangan said. “I had no idea what to expect. And the response was unbelievable.”
There are currently more then 2,400 artists registered on the site.
“When I watched that show, which was a mere week after we were canceling everything, it was the first time I actually felt hope for what could happen during this isolation period,” Simpson said. “It felt like a community. I hadn’t realized that you could achieve that in an online experience.”
Mangan’s spirits were lifted and he started seeing more of the possibilities, such as the transparency—the performer can see the audience. The audience members can see each other. It’s more like an actual concert than an artist streaming a performance through visually one-way communication. So. he began to perform weekly.
That first success brought immediate attention and artists started reaching out to become involved.
“We are barely eating, to be honest. It’s all hands on deck trying to accommodate the response,” Simpson said. “We’ve been fielding responses from artists that are sitting at home right now, that we couldn’t get to do shows in our spaces before but who are absolutely calling us now. [Three-time Juno nominee] Sarah Slean showed up in our support channel—I am a huge fan of hers and I’m like, oh my god, Sarah Slean is cold-calling us.”
The interest, according to both Simpson and Mangan, comes from artists valuing their work and the effect having a financial commitment to the show has to fans. Playing on Instagram Live or Facebook and asking for donations does bring in some money, and it does bring in listeners, but it’s practically digital busking.
“You have celebrities streaming for free, and then you have mid-level and emerging talent who are also streaming for free just to try to be at the same table as the celebrities,” Mangan said. “But … if you say, ‘You know what, I’m going to ticket my shows and force people to value them up front,’ they value the show itself as well — rather than the classic Internet approach of trying to broadcast … passively to almost nobody.
“It doesn’t matter how incredible a busker is, most people will say ‘Oh, that sounds pretty good,’ and continue walking right by. But if they paid to go to the event you can make something special out of something small.”
Side Door isn’t the only company trying to bring the concert experience online. Another entrant into the field, Cadenza, made its debut on April 5 with a show by The White Buffalo. Cadenza is taking a different angle, hosting shows themselves rather than using a third party for the broadcast, and time will tell which fans prefer.
Side Door is also evolving. Cognizant of the privacy controversies with Zoom, their current primary platform for streaming shows, it’s offering to work with artists to use any platform they’d prefer. They’re also working with Zoom directly to try and make it more suitable for their unconventional use case.
Eventually, the coronavirus pandemic will pass and concerts will resume. Side Door will get back to its original purpose. But its founders don’t see this new streaming branch shutting down when the moment passes; they see uses for the service well beyond when things go back to normal.
“This is a model that we can go forward with even beyond coronavirus,” Mangan said. “This is sustainable for artists and it doesn’t rely on donations.”
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.