“First to close, last to re-open” — that’s how the music and live events industries were described over the course of the pandemic. During this time, Coachella, Glastonbury, and thousands of other events were canceled (including our live event, 5X Festival), and the music industry lost hundreds of millions of dollars, and thousands of jobs. And it’s possible that the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic will affect real life events for years to come.
Although there is now a light at the end of the tunnel, many questions remain. Will there be a new variant? What if we can’t run at full capacity? What if people don’t feel safe coming to shows? These concerns beg the question: what is a festival or live music organizer supposed to do in 2022 to build resilience into their event?
Here’s what we learned from our 2020 app-based festival.
I’m an ex-touring musician who now runs the largest South Asian youth event in Canada, 5X Fest. In normal years we’d put on a large block party for 10-15,000 people, with club nights and fashion shows, all over the course of a June long weekend in Vancouver, Canada.
Back in early March 2020, facing the impending pandemic, we pivoted hard and worked with a friend of mine who runs a fan engagement company, to heavily customize their pre-existing app for an entirely new purpose—to host a festival. In retrospect, this seems ridiculous. I had never worked on an app before and had NO idea what I was getting my organization into.
Together with our partners, the Mumbai-based company Stepathlon, we built a music festival in an app that unlocked content as the user moved around in the real world, kind of like a real music festival. You walked around (in our case walking was measured by the user’s step counter on their phone), and this movement took you to various stages on which different artists were performing within the app. Voila! A COVID-friendly music festival on your phone.
Our goal was to bring some measure of our festival experience online and to continue growing our festival and our community during this challenging time. By many measures, we were successful. We had 30,000 people download our custom app, around 2,000 people per day engaging over the 6 week event, and importantly we booked over 60 artists to play on 40 stages in the app at an industry standard booking fee.
However, we were left with some burning questions. How many of these new fans will stick around — are they ‘real fans’? Is it possible to generate real revenue with this model? And did people get what they came for? Was it ‘worth it’?
Here are some things we learned:
- Apps are Hard. This project took us 7 months instead of 3. We started working in March 2020 for a June release. Instead, we worked long hours through the summer (none of our team got vacation), and finally went live in September. We worked much harder than we would normally work for an IRL festival. We had to learn new vocabulary and new skills and had to hire new contractors that could help us manage workload. We worked differently. Rather than working on site and dealing directly with artists, we were on early morning and late night Zoom calls with a dev team located on the other side of the world.
- Apps are Expensive. They’re expensive to build, requiring highly skilled developers and managers to run the project. We worked with friends, an Indian dev team, and built off of existing technology, 3 things that kept costs manageable. But building an app from scratch can easily run $150-250K or much more. This is simply beyond the reach of most organizations. And once they’re built, they’re expensive to maintain. Launching the product is only the halfway point. What happens when things need changing? Updating? Fixing? And we haven’t even talked about user acquisition. The average number of apps downloaded by North Americans every month is 0. That’s zero. So getting people to download this fantastic thing we built required a massive and very expensive performance marketing push, far beyond the scope and cost of what we would spend for our normal festival. What I found the hardest to swallow was that we spent 75% of our budget on tech and marketing. We’re a charity. We exist to support artists and build community. It felt weird to be spending so much on technology when we really just wanted to be getting funds into the hands of artists during the pandemic.
These expenses also raise the question of ‘who’s paying’? We’re lucky to live in Canada, with public arts funding being key to our viability, especially during the pandemic. But over the long term, where does the money come from? Our festival was free and it was still challenging to get people to engage and download. Putting up a pay gate would dramatically increase user acquisition costs. We played around with in-app purchases (or artist merch, for example), but the logistics proved too difficult for us to implement in a meaningful way.
- The Challenge of Global Reach. Sure, digital festival solutions allow for a massive reach. But I’m not sure if that’s such a good thing. There’s an inevitable drift in focus that happens when the target audience becomes less defined and becomes ‘the whole world’. We’re a local organization with deep roots in the South Asian community of Surrey and Vancouver, BC. We throw big parties, but we’re primarily a platform for young creatives and a voice for this underrepresented community. Our 5X Fest app had thousands of people using it from around the globe, many of them from India. It’s great to get eyeballs. But will these folks stick around? Are they truly invested in our community and do they actually care? We’re in the business of building long term relationships and making ‘real fans’. Although it’s entirely possible that we made some new ‘real fans’ on the other side of the globe. I’m skeptical and prefer to keep it local. Our organization often sees more impact by focusing on hyper local campaigns than we see from trying to serve the ‘whole world’.
- The Gamification Trap. There are plenty of examples of where gamification works well to add value to a real life experience. I think of how Strava, the running and cycling tracker app, has given rise to a community of “Strava artists”, drawing pictures with their routes. Or even the gamification of online dating where we swipe right or left trying to ‘win’ a mate. At 5X we built a highly gamified festival experience that required people to walk around in the real world to unlock performances in our app. Sounds great on paper — I just love the idea and so do many other folks I chat with. The problem is, we don’t go to festivals to play games. We go to hang out with our friends, forget our worries, and enjoy the moment. Nobody wants to have to play a game or solve a puzzle to get their beer. The difference with the Strava or online dating example is that the core value is in the experience itself — the biking or the meeting new people. That’s still happening. With Strava, you’re still going for a bike ride. With Tinder, you’re still going on a date. But in the case of an online festival, no matter how many bells and whistles you’ve added, you’re NOT still going to an actual festival. Instead of enhancing the experience or making it more accessible, we’ve replaced it altogether. In our case this disconnect resulted in a core user base of gamers and fitness people — awesome people, but not the most likely group to become real-world festival fans
- Connection and Transcendence. I remain unconvinced that an app, or any digital product, can deliver a satisfying substitute for a real life festival. It’s a different value proposition entirely. I’ve experimented with, organized, and curated a number of virtual events on platforms ranging from Minecraft to Sansar, not to mention countless live streams on Twitch and other platforms. There is value in virtual events, and if you have the proper gear, VR events are amazing and can provide more value in some ways than an IRL event. However I don’t think any of these virtual solutions comes close to addressing the need that draws people to real life festivals. Because it’s not (only) about the headliners. It’s about connection and transcendence. It’s about the magic that happens when thousands of people come together, things get a little chaotic, we get uncomfortable, and through sound and light and other people’s energy we’re zapped into a present moment where we forget ourselves and are immersed into a bigger, communal experience. This experience is by definition dependent on there being other real, live people in a real, live space. Experiencing and creating the same thing together. I have yet to experience anything that comes close to that euphoria at a virtual event. Call me old fashioned, but I believe there is a certain ineffable magic about live festivals that I'm not certain can be replicated by technology.
So if we want to play it safe and hedge our bets this summer, what’s the solution for festival fans and organizers? It’s probably not just a livestream. Or a fully app-based experience. Neither of those get us to the ‘connection and transcendence’ part. They don’t give us that core value that we’re looking for in a festival.
Our journey at 5X has taught us to think deeply before jumping into technological solutions, they’re difficult, expensive, and don’t make good substitutes for ‘real life’ experiences. That said, when paired with a real life experience that allows for connection — and even transcendence — there's no doubt that a digital product can add real value. Just as Strava adds to running or biking, or online dating apps add to meeting people. So the question is — what does this look like in the context of a festival? What is this perfect marriage that will blend technology and real-life and allow some degree of pandemic resilience to be built into future events and festivals over the next few years?
The short answer is stay tuned. The long answer is that 5X Fest has been granted funding by the Canadian government via the Canada Council for the Arts (and in partnership with the Canadian Live Music Association) to explore this issue further and develop a whitelabel solution by the summer of 2022. We’ve partnered with Vancouver-based Invoke, creators of Hootsuite. We’re beta testing now. Curious? Find out more at InCrowd.live. You can register for a demo or a test drive.
As to what we’re doing for our festival this year — it’s on. In real life. In early June in Vancouver and Surrey. And we’ll be using InCrowd to offer new and interesting ways for people to participate.
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