Live video is an increasingly common way for musicians to interact with their fans, from album and tour launches on Facebook to fan Q&As on Instagram and even streaming gaming sessions on Twitch or YouTube.
One aspect of livestreaming that still flies under the western music industry’s radar, though, are standalone live-video apps like YouNow, LiveMe and (until it was shut down in June 2018) Live.ly. Yet these apps, with their native stars and tip-based economies, are well worth studying.
One example of a musician building her audience through this route is British artist Emma McGann. She has nearly 204,000 fans on YouNow, where her videos have generated nearly 11m views since she started broadcasting using the app four years ago.
“I was doing the whole slog of touring independently, paying for myself. Then one day I did this livestream from the back of the tourbus, and I got so much more impressions on socials and sales on iTunes from that one livestream than from anything else I’d done,” she tells Music Ally.
Since then, McGann has become one of the most popular musicians on YouNow, with her broadcasts blending her own original songs – pop tracks in their recordings, stripped back to acoustic-guitar when broadcasting – with chatting to fans.
“When I was starting out, it was intense: I was broadcasting six hours a day just to build the fanbase,” she says. “Now it’s more live 2-3 hours a day: a couple of hours in the morning then one in the afternoon. It’s flexible: if I’m in the studio or writing, I may do less broadcasts.”
YouNow remains McGann’s lead platform, although she also has a presence on other social networks: 14,600 followers on Twitter and 10,000 on Instagram; 34,000 subscribers on YouTube; and nearly 8,000 fans on Facebook.
One of the key aspects to YouNow is its tips economy, where viewers can donate to the channel they’re watching or – if they’re really keen – pay a monthly $4.99 subscription fee that gives them ‘Super Chat’ privileges and a badge to display their fandom.
McGann has 98 of those subscribers at the time of writing, but what’s driving her business more are the tips from viewers.
“I like to call it ‘online busking’. The content is totally free to watch for the viewer, with no ads, and I don’t do any brand sponsorships. Then the tipping side of it is completely optional: if people enjoy a song, they can choose to pay a tip,” she says.
“It’s been great seeing that willingness of people who are watching to decide to support me financially. It gives me more faith in the music I’m making. It’s not really being taken full advantage of by many other artists in the music industry: it’s almost like a secret weapon in a way.”
Putting in the hours on YouNow has taught McGann what fans want on the platform. Her regular viewers are keen on original songs rather than covers, for example, while her broadcasts make room for off-the-cuff interactions – such as singing Happy Birthday if a fan is celebrating their birthday that day.
McGann has also broadcast more-structured shows, such as songwriting-focused broadcasts where guests share their tips on writing, while also performing songs. She has also collaborated with other YouNow musicians, such as The Dapper Rapper.
“There’s a large community feel between broadcasters, whether they’re musicians or not,” she says. “Like YouTube, there’s definitely a community where people help each other. There’s less drama than YouTube though!”
One of McGann’s ambitions for 2019 is to expand her team – currently it’s her and manager James Plester – and translate her YouNow audience into more ticket sales and music streams / sales on other platforms. She was recently awarded a grant by British industry body the BPI’s Music Export Growth Scheme (MEGS) to fund a tour of the US later this year, for example.
She has also been keeping an eye on YouNow data to see where pockets of fans are collected. For example, her following in Greece “skyrocketed” in 2018, buoyed by a series of YouTube videos where she tried Greek snacks. Concerts there are now a possibility too.
Livestreaming is 90% of McGann’s income, though: the other 10% comes from a mix of PRS payouts, streaming services, YouTube and Patreon, as well as concerts. On the latter front, she tends to play a few shows a year rather than plan lengthy tours. “The audience is so spread out over the world, but if we do one or two concerts a year, people fly in for them,” she says.
McGann’s audience on audio music-streaming platforms is still small: fewer than 4,000 monthly listeners on Spotify at the time of writing. Rather than a reason to write her off, this is what makes her story so interesting: that her audience really has grown mainly on YouNow so far, outside the radar of the regular music industry.
McGann sees YouNow as part of her wider interest in experimenting with technology to help her reach new listeners and viewers. She recently released a ‘VR180’ music video encouraging fans to pan left and right to see behind the scenes, for example.
Like other artists in the streaming era, McGann is also figuring out her strategy for releasing music. In 2017 she raised £21k on Kickstarter to make her debut album ‘B.R.A.V.E.’ which was made available physically and digitally.
“Since then it has been singles, more or less. Going forward the plan is to drop a new single every two months, leading up to an EP. An album is a lot of content to offer people these days,” she says.
“We will try different things: sometimes a lyric video, for example, or trying new tech like VR180. We want to try something a little bit different every time, feeling out the trends and finding out what’s going to work for us and the audience we already have. I’d love to do a concert in VR…”
YouNow will remain her lead platform. “We have a very good relationship with them: the lines of communication have always been really open, and they’ve opened a lot of doors for us in the US,” she says.
“I feel a sense of allegiance to them, especially because the platform is good! The team there seem very innovative: they were the first to bring in the whole tipping system for broadcasters. And livestreaming has been the enabler to allow me to be creative and try different things.”