Groundbreaking local business Virtual Venues Network gives live music fans the next best thing to being there
In the late ’90s, local music promoter Michael Horne went to a Rolling Stones concert that changed his life. It wasn’t the music that made such a big impression—it was the fact that rather than watching the band, Horne found himself focused on a giant screen that was showing the concert to audience members too far back to get a good view of the performers. “We were way, way back in the nosebleed seats, and it started to rain,” he recalls. “I remember looking at my girlfriend: ‘You realize we paid 130 bucks to watch a screen’—because Mick’s an inch tall—‘in the rain? And everyone’s happy! We’re stoked to pay $130, 20 bucks to park, $8 for a bottle of water, sit in the nosebleed seats, watch the screen and call that rock & roll!’”
It so happened that at the time of this concert, Horne was finding it challenging to book musical acts in his nightclub Palookaville 28 nights a month. “You can fill 20, but it’s always that last week, that six, seven, eight shows, that you’ve got to be really creative to fill a Wednesday or Thursday,” he explains.
Putting two and two together, Horne hit on the idea of creating “a closed-circuit network of clubs and college campuses that would all participate in exclusive concert screenings, much like pay-per-view boxing in sports bars.” Audience members would pay $8 to $10 to enjoy one-time showings of recent concerts.
Horne let this notion rattle around in his brain for about a year before putting it to the test. The pivotal moment came when the management for the rock band Widespread Panic offered him an opportunity to show concert footage of the group on a big screen at Palookaville. When Horne accepted, he was pleased to find that he sold hundreds of tickets to the show. What’s more, people enjoyed themselves just as they would at a live concert.
Now convinced that his business idea could be a success, Horne founded Virtual Venues Network (VVN; virtualvenues.net; 421-9500) with local music mogul Jon Luini (also the cofounder of the Internet Underground Music Archive and founder of Chime Interactive, which has provided consulting, production and technology services to such artists as Bob Dylan, Radiohead, Madonna, Sheryl Crow and My Chemical Romance). Based in an office on downtown Santa Cruz’s Pearl Alley, VVN offers nightclubs, sports bars, colleges and theaters across the county the opportunity to present one-time virtual concerts by such artists as String Cheese Incident, Taj Mahal, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Sound Tribe Sector Nine and Camper Van Beethoven. In April, the company held a screening of a concert by the rock supergroup Chickenfoot at The Catalyst.
VVN delivers its Internet and satellite broadcasts to subscribing venues by way of a proprietary receiver called the ClubLync™. The company expects to begin delivering ClubLync units to its first 25 subscribing clubs this fall. Each participating venue provides broadband access to this rack-mounted device, whose auto-delete software erases the digital footage after a single play.
VVN’s high-resolution video content, which the company generally obtains from artists, labels and management as well as from independent filmmakers and DVD and music distributors, is projected onto a large screen (anywhere between 9 by 12 and 20 feet) at the front of the venue’s stage. “It’s rear projection, so if you come up on the screen, you don’t cast a shadow. You can get right up on it,” Horne states. To discourage piracy, VVN places a forensic watermark on its screens. “The public can’t see it, but if you’re actually in the room with a camera, we can tell that we have a problem venue if it’s on YouTube the next day,” Horne states.
A stereo digital audio combination of ambient room and board-fed sound is sent through the house’s system. The venue’s sound engineer performs the same procedures as he would for a live concert, including a soundcheck before the show.
Though VVN has the ability to show concerts in real time, the company’s usual practice is to leave a slight time gap between the actual show and the virtual concert. Broadcasts are typically available about seven days after the live event. Horne explains, “The biggest issue with live shows, oddly enough, is time zones: If a show is live in New York City, are we going to be able to sell tickets for 3 a.m. in Japan or London?” He adds that leaving a little lag time also helps avoid conflict with club schedules that are already full.
Virtual concerts are a win-win for VVN and its featured artists, with the latter sharing in all ticket sales. Without going anywhere or expending any notable effort, these artists get money, exposure and promotion through the virtual concerts. The artist maintains ownership of all intellectual property, which VVN licenses in partnership with the artist for a short while, sharing the revenue. When that period ends, the artist has the choice of making the material available in multiple formats or placing it into the VVN archive for later rebroadcast.
Also likely to benefit from the advent of virtual concerts are tribute bands, which can play immediately after showings of concerts by the bands they’re mimicking. “I think we’re going to help the tribute band business,” Horne remarks with a laugh.
The virtual music experience also presents an opportunity for fans to enjoy classic shows by artists like Frank Zappa and The Grateful Dead. “That Stevie Ray Vaughan [Austin City Limits] show that everyone has seen—I want to see it on a big screen with loud sound with my friends,” offers Luini.
Along with music, VVN provides a forum for independent films that work better in club settings, such as 2007’s Punk’s Not Dead, which VVN took to venues in San Diego, Seattle and Kansas City in late 2008. By availing its technology to movie theaters, the company can also offer fans one-time broadcasts of theater, Broadway shows and comedy events.
That’s (Almost) Rock & Roll
Since Horne and his associates launched VVN in 2001, various other companies have joined the virtual party. For instance, in its one-week-only American theatrical run, the 2008 Disney film Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert outsold most national tours. Last month, Jewel fans plunked down $100 each to catch VELOCITY Broadcasting’s simulcast of a concert by that artist in Morton’s The Steakhouses across the country, and local metalheads besieged Regal Cinemas Santa Cruz 9 to see and hear the NCM Fathom concert film The Big Four: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax.
“We’re stoked to pay $130, 20 bucks to park, $8 for a bottle of water, sit in the nosebleed seats, watch the screen and call that rock & roll!”
Horne recalls that when he and Luini learned that NCM Fathom was offering a product similar to VVN’s, their first reaction was one of apprehension. “But it’s actually been a great thing, because it’s helped get people used to accepting the virtual concert experience as something that’s legitimate,” he says.
But why are music fans going to clubs and theaters rather than just watching concerts at home on DVD or computer? “I kind of liken it to a reverse of the movie-to-video industry,” Horne offers. “What if videos had started first—home theater was all there was, and then somebody had an idea: ‘Let’s put this movie content into a big room. We’ll all watch it; we’ll call it a movie theater.’ Would you go? Because there’s something about the collective experience. Well, that’s certainly true with music: The audience is critical [to an exceptional concert experience].”
For this reason, a virtual concert is probably best enjoyed at a club, where the audience has room to dance. Though Horne acknowledges that it can take a while for the crowd to warm to the experience (“There’s always about a 10-minute disconnect when people walk in the room: ‘What do I do at this thing?’ People stand there and fold their arms”), he says that once critical mass is reached, the event takes off. “You have to get 100 people or more,” he says. “If there’s 15, 30, 50 people in the room—and that’s happened before—it’s really hard, just like it would be [if the band were playing] live, to get the juice going, to make it feel like it’s rocking. If it’s a party, if there’s a crowd there, just like a live show, the thing comes alive. We’ve done 60-something shows, and when it goes off, it really goes off.”
“Music happens magically in little spots all over the world, and [it would be great] for us to be able to go into a funky club in Havana, shoot that show and bring that show into clubs across the country.”—Michael Horne
Luini mentions a particularly lively virtual String Cheese Incident show at Portland, Oregon’s Bagdad Theater: “People were bringing their hula hoops, and they had glow sticks—they were sort of recreating what the live experience was for them.” According to Horne, this continued to happen in the larger SCI markets across the country for about 40 shows.
But by making a close simulation of the concert experience available at a lower cost and with less hassle than a big-ticket show, do participating artists run the risk of diminishing their live-concert attendance? Luini says this is not an issue, as VVN lets participating artists decide where the film will and won’t be shown. In fact, these virtual shows can actually help build a fan base in areas where the featured band might want to tour in the future.
Horne points out that VVN concerts are primarily shown in smaller, secondary-market venues where big-name acts don’t tour. He notes that the virtual medium gives peripheral venues a chance to broadcast sold-out events, citing a hypothetical nationwide simulcast of Manchester, Tenn.’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival as an example.
Horne adds that VVN hopes to create what he calls a “global nightclub,” in which he and his associates travel the world in search of great music that they can bring into social settings nationwide. “Music happens magically in little spots all over the world, and [it would be great] for us to be able to go into a funky club in Havana, shoot that show and bring that show into clubs across the country,” he says.
Luini enthuses about the possibilities of “bidirectional feeds, so when you have live events, you have someone in Timbuktu and someone in Santa Cruz, and you’ll be able to see each other while you’re responding to the same event that you’re watching.” Horne adds that he envisions cameras pointing at audiences all over the globe and oscillating every 10 seconds. “If Maceo [Parker] is taking a solo in New York, you’re watching audiences react to the solo around the planet,” he proposes.
VVN’s staff eventually plans to hold holographic virtual concerts in which the screen isn’t visible, and the band appears to be in the room with the audience. For an idea of what this might look like, check out the YouTube clip of Madonna performing with the virtual band The Gorillaz at the Grammy Awards: youtube.com/watch?v=jWQIyV2Grqc.
But with all their possibilities, could virtual concerts condition music fans to favor the big screen over the live experience? No, insists Luini. “What we’re trying to do is take something where it might normally be a dead night where there’s nothing going on, and bring people live music,” he says. “It’s a way of getting people not to watch it at home, not to watch it by themselves, but to go and have this community, social experience around the show.
“There is no substitution for a live show,” he adds. “There’s the unpredictability of what is going to happen, and there’s that thrill of having a person next to you who’s maybe a little too sweaty for you, but the experience is worth it. And I think that’s why we do it: We love live music so much that we’re doing this.”