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As the sector turns to technology, here’s what you need to know about running online-only events.

A man sitting with a macbook on his lap while wearing headphones
The technologies you use will depend on your organisation's purpose

Amid isolation strategies, arts and cultural organisations are finding creative ways to connect: live streaming concerts and performances and is a way to continue sharing with the public in a safe and responsible manner.

There are advantages to online events – fewer costs for producers and access to a wide audience – but for many the sudden need to transition will be challenging. 


Streaming for beginners

In a live Twitter chat hosted by ArtsProfessional on Wednesday, technologist Jason Crouch said "learning through doing is key" - sometimes the newest tech is not the best for your needs.

The "minimum requirement" is a phone, he said. Streaming platforms like Facebook Live and Instagram Live will work from a phone or tablet. YouTube Live is restricted to accounts with 1000 or more subscribers.

"The phone in many ways is a perfect package as it has camera/mic/data all in the same device. It does mean it can be quite difficult to troubleshoot problems though," Crouch said.

"Good troubleshooting generally means swapping out different bits of tech to see where the problem lies."

A camera connected to a laptop for livestreaming should be able to livestream at 1080p because it's passing data straight to the stream. But if you're streaming directly from your laptop at 720p, the laptop will have to change the livestream's resolution in real time - this is called "transcoding".

"This takes a lot of processing power and can dramatically affect the quality of the stream," Crouch said.

You'll also need high-quality visuals: "Most laptops do have a webcam, or you can use a USB webcam but they're not generally super quality."

Upload speeds

When streaming from your phone, the main concern is upload speed.  

Crouch recommended YouTube for streaming in HD, saying it also offers lower resolution formats, "which is great if your audience[s] don't have good bandwidth". It can also be embedded on lots of websites, such as your organisations'.

For a 1080p stream to YouTube Live you need about 4-6mbps of upload speed - thankfully much of the country should support upload speeds two to three times faster than that. It helps to check your internet speed and lower your resolution to match if need be, Crouch said.

If your livestream doesn't rely on participation - chairing and commentary for example - it can be worth thinking about audio-only streaming, which is less bandwidth intense.

"You can set audio options in the stream, but at the end of the day the quality will be dependent on the mics you use to capture the audio (if you're playing an instrument, singing etc), the bandwith [for] the streaming platform, [and] the compression options used by the platform," Crouch said.

Making the most

Ticketing company Eventbrite has some useful, common sense advice on staging online events: test your video and audio beforehand, use a wired internet connection if you can and look directly at the camera.

If you can’t livestream via your organisation’s website, Facebook Live can be a good option for sharing performances (or anything where the background scenery matters). For participation-based events, Zoom can allow for better interaction with your audience and can be integrated with Facebook and YouTube.

You can also incorporate screen sharing and use Q&As to maintain a sense of community. Consider making content available to audiences after the event. 

Student Engagement Officer at the University of Glasgow Kezia Falconer says invite-only Zoom is a more formal option - "intuitive for the host, less easy for participants" - and can cause some confusion for UK-based users because the dial-in codes are designed for the US.

She says Instagram Live is less exclusive: [It's] more of a free-for-all so you could get better reach and new audiences."

But unlike Instagram Live, Facebook Live lets you save the video file so it can be reused.

Deviate Digital Founder Sammy Andrews suggests organisations who can’t live stream gigs and productions can focus on wider content – getting artists to record lessons, share playlists or host discussions, for example.

Podcasts are great for captive audiences, as is advertising: “this sounds simple but with everyone increasingly stuck at home they are also increasingly stuck on their devices and we’re heading into a massive recession. If you have stuff to sell, I would seriously consider selling it now,” Andrews says.

If online isn’t an option altogether, inform ticketholders about a replacement date and venue as soon as possible and be prepared to offer refunds. 

Creator’s rights

Andrew Girvan, Co-Founder and CEO of event management platform Scottie, says “rights and permissions will be the first hurdle to cross” when distributing events online.

What’s missing is a profit-sharing arrangement that covers live -streaming and distribution for public domain works, he says. Scottie is offering to sponsor an entertainment lawyer at full cost to draw one up if there is no existing model. 

“We're going to redouble our efforts to support the community in the reality we face and want to enable producers and performers to connect with their audiences even if that has to be online for the time being,” Girvan said.

Andrews said this is a good opportunity for organisations to utilise archived content – provided they have the licensing rights. Existing recordings can be displayed as livestreams with minimal effort.

What’s out there

Organisations globally are opening their virtual doors. New York’s Metropolitan Opera is streaming performances, the Berlin Philharmonic’s digital concert hall is free for the next month, and Vienna State Opera is offering a different free opera each day. Even the World Health Organisation is getting involved, partnering with Global Citizen to host the first ‘Together, At Home’ virtual concert – Coldplay’s Chris Martin – on Monday.

The Social Distancing Festival has rehearsals, workshops and recordings of cancelled events from several countries. And closer to home the Creative Distance Festival, a collaboration between Looping the Loop and What’s Coming Out Of The Box, will be streaming filmed and live events on a pay-what-you-want basis.

Lambert Jackson Productions and Theatre Café have teamed up on ‘Leave a Light On’, a series of piano concerts streamed for a fee. There will be three 45-minute concerts per day from 23 March.

“The idea that people who are self-isolating can help performers who have lost all of their work is a really beautiful thing, and also speaks volumes about our amazing industry and the community it fosters,” the partners said.