Coronavirus pandemic

As the pandemic lingers, DJ tests virtual 'tours'

DJ Michael Brun (above, in a 2018 photograph) is using geofencing for his virtual shows, which limits virtual viewers to a specific geographic area.
DJ Michael Brun (above, in a 2018 photograph) is using geofencing for his virtual shows, which limits virtual viewers to a specific geographic area.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Live-streamed concerts are now a common feature of the coronavirus age, with musicians vying for a spot on the overcrowded virtual stage even when they are doing it for free.

Last weekend, Haitian disc jockey Michael Brun hoped to find a way to make streams more profitable, testing a model rarely used in music. The practice is known as "geofencing" - limiting virtual viewers to a specific geographic area.

His strategy aimed to draw an audience for a fee by catering to certain cities.

Like many artists, the New York-based Brun - who has played at top festivals and seen his remixes generate millions of streams - has delivered several free virtual shows from his apartment since the pandemic began.

His first three paid concerts since then was geofenced to people within 160km of Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago, respectively, at US$5 (S$6.80) a ticket.

The 28-year-old spun from Manhattan's Le Poisson Rouge venue, with higher-quality production than the often-minimalist streams that have become the norm.

Brun said he hoped making his shows location-specific heightened the experience for fans, with each show limited to 500 viewers.

"It's not just a random live on a random day," he said. "This feels like more of a moment."

Brun said he was happy to do free shows from home - especially in the early days of the pandemic plagued by job loss, fear and uncertainty.

And though he made no money off of that work, he said for many artists, the makeshift streamed shows were a "necessity" to sustain their audiences. "Nobody really knows when live music is going to come back, so you don't want to just disappear," Brun said.

Most artists make the vast majority of their income from touring, so the hiatus of in-person shows sent shockwaves through the industry.

Brun hoped experimenting with ways to make digital streams more financially sustainable could alleviate the pressure.

His set design and setlists were specific to each show, which was aired live via Zoom. Viewers bought access via ticketing company Tixr.

Beyond the entry fees to his digital shows, Brun was sponsored by rum brand Bacardi, a type of partnership the electronic music producer said would likely be key to supporting musicians going forward.

"The brands that are associated with the entertainment industry benefit from artists," he said. "For them to be able to continue having someone to market to, you have to sustain the people creating the culture" that brands target.

Mr Thomas Fiss, vice-president of Marketing at Awal - Brun's label and a producing partner on the show - said the last several months have been "trial by fire" as the industry crossed its fingers the pandemic would be short-lived.

But it is now clear live performance will not be "back to normal" for quite some time and Mr Fiss said the industry must rebuild creatively in the meantime.

"Fans are craving connection again," he said, adding that "we've seen a slight dip in the wider live streams".

While geofencing is "by no means a perfect solution", he said "it's a genuine step forward", which could hopefully "help other artists create their own model in the same regard".

Brun thought the model could prove useful even in a post-pandemic world, especially for reaching audiences outside the usual tour destinations - his native Haiti, for example.

And though digital shows cannot replace in-person concerts, the producer said he enjoys elements of streamed performances.

"You're interacting with people on a scale that you would never be able to interact with them at a real show," he said.

"People sending messages can feel intimate. It feels like you're in a community."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2020, with the headline 'As the pandemic lingers, DJ tests virtual 'tours''. Print Edition | Subscribe