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The scary long pause plaguing live events

The sudden, forced digital transition has made many event firms quickly realize the potential value in capturing granular engagement metrics online. The new buzzword is ‘hybrid events’ (Photo: Getty Image)Premium
The sudden, forced digital transition has made many event firms quickly realize the potential value in capturing granular engagement metrics online. The new buzzword is ‘hybrid events’ (Photo: Getty Image)

  • India’s pandemic-hit live events industry is estimated to employ 10 million people. Do they have a future?
  • With no other available option, all manner of bets are being placed on digital events. Over the last three months, Paytm Insider claims to have hosted over 6,000 digital events

NEW DELHI : A few weeks ago, Hitanshu Gandhi attended a live, stand-up comedy show that came with a twist. It was on Zoom and he joined in from his couch. The 37-year old marketing executive based in Gurugram fit the target profile in many ways. He did not mind attending events alone. The show featured his favourite comedian (Gursimran Khamba). He’d even been nudged via a targeted Instagram ad.

But once the show began, having paid 200 for the ticket, he quickly realised: “I have paid the money and now I am stuck." After the underwhelming experience, he now says people’s willingness to pay anything may quickly drop to zero. “Unless they (events industry) solve for customer experience, this is going to be dead on arrival. The ecosystem is going to face a lot of pain. God only knows where it is going to go."

Meanwhile, independent artists like Mumbai-based composer and songwriter Kunal D’ Costa are pinning everything on the digital pivot. He has two gigs each week which are streamed via a variety of streaming platforms – from Zoom and Facebook Live to Instagram. “I’m also taking guitar classes online," he said.

Caught between these two contradictory worldviews is the fate of India’s pandemic-hit live events industry, which is estimated to employ about 10 million people (40% of the workforce is women). While all manner of daily tasks have moved online—from work meetings to yoga classes—realisation has quickly dawned on the fact that the webinar and weekend entertainment are not the same. And simply streaming an event does not automatically create engagement.

A live event is essentially any in-person, on-ground event which uses production equipment and services such as staging, sound and lighting, communications, costumes and make-up. All manner of activities fall under that broad umbrella—conferences, music concerts, exhibitions, trade shows, theatre and sports tournaments, and even weddings. A narrow sliver of the events industry, which had broadly shied away from digitisation so far, has quickly moved online—with companies such as BookMyShow and Paytm Insider hosting virtual live events and workshops with prices starting at 200.

However, virtual events comprise a small percentage of the live events industry which is largely driven by unorganised players. The organised events and activations industry is a 10,000 crore industry, according to a EY-EEMA (Event and Entertainment Management Association) report. But as per EEMA’s informal estimates, if the unorganised segment is included, the industry size could be as big as 5 trillion. The pandemic is expected to leave behind a hit of at least 70% on annual revenues.

“If the business is not going to happen for nine months this year, the situation will be even more grim. We are pinning our hopes on the third and fourth festive-heavy quarter," said Roshan Abbas, president-elect, EEMA.

Nearly 30% of the live events business is production-related, employing people in the technical crew, logistics, venue, food and catering verticals, along with a multitude of casual and gig workers. All these jobs have been wiped out. Top event management agencies have already let go of 30% of their staff, while the remaining staff endure a minimum pay cut of 30%.

With most performances moving online, the crew accompanying major artistes is also deeply affected. “The band members who only play with a particular singer, for example, look at live events as their singular source of revenue," said Sanjoy K Roy, founder and managing director, Teamwork Arts, which organises major events such as the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Adding to the woes of the industry, several live event venues have also been converted into isolation and quarantine facilities and will probably carry the stigma long after physical distancing ends. In Mumbai, for example, the National Sports Complex of India, a stadium with a capacity of 8,000 people, was first turned into a quarantine facility and then a full-fledged covid-19 hospital. The same goes for the Dumurjala stadium in West Bengal.

In terms of brand properties, the biggest casualty of the pandemic has been physical sports, including the popular T20 cricket tournament Indian Premier League (IPL), which is expected to be held in the UAE. The decision takes away a chunk of the potential revenue of 10,000 crore, including gate receipts, event management, hospitality and travel-related costs. Tuhin Mishra, managing director of sports marketing firm Baseline Ventures, minces no words in stating that until the viral infections stabilise, he does not see much happening in the live sports realm.

“Everyone is pinning their hopes on the IPL. We feel some of the non-contact sports like shooting can be played at this time, but again, it depends on whether there is a television audience for such sports since fans will not be allowed to attend events," he said.

Digital disruption

While sports struggles to find a way ahead, the short-term pain for the entertainment and music industry may finally result in a concerted push to make digital platforms work better. Some young musicians have already started commanding brand sponsorships worth 8-10 lakh for their virtual concerns. That is of course nowhere close to the 60 lakh- 1 crore that big-name artists like AR Rahman or Arijit Singh used to earn per show in the pre-covid era.

“Live shows with a physically-present audience was also a great way to promote unreleased content and original compositions because of the possibility of instant feedback from a primarily young crowd," said singer Aditya Narayan, known for songs such as Tattad Tattad, who also has a YouTube channel where he puts out independent, non-film music.

Narayan, however, said this is a good time for upcoming artistes to put out their stuff online and acquire a digital fanbase because audiences are free and hungry for content. Artistes and companies across the board admit that experimenting with formats and geographies for music shows and events had been an ambition for quite some time now, and covid has only fast-tracked the shift.

Film festivals too have been reeling, with downsized budgets, cancelled on-ground events and the difficulty of replicating the experience online. The Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, for example, will be held virtually, while ‘We Are One: A Global Film Festival’ started streaming free on YouTube this May. It was a collaborative effort involving over 20 top-rated global film festivals, including Cannes, Berlin, Venice and the Mumbai Film Festival. The Mumbai edition, however, has announced its date—November 5-12—but has also introduced a segment which enables film lovers to watch niche films on its website.

The Indian art market, which operates between September and March, has also witnessed a huge push towards digital. Responding to the closure of public spaces and cultural institutions worldwide, several art galleries from key Indian metros and Dubai have partnered to launch ‘’In Touch’’, a digital exhibition platform, to present online exhibitions. Meanwhile, auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s have invested heavily in creating online properties, while breaking the industry norm by stretching the auction time window from three hours to 30 hours.

“Spends are increasing on digital auction. As long as the digital platform is reliable and there is familiarity with the artist and his/her work, people will buy art online. I expect this trend to continue for at least another six months," said Arvind Vijaymohan, chief executive officer of Artery India, an art market advisory and intelligence firm.

New launches

Sensing an increased demand and opportunity for online live events, ticketing and payment sites have jumped on to the bandwagon. BookMyShow has launched a video streaming vertical which will host music concerts, among other events. Offerings include comedy nights with artistes like Vir Das, Vipul Goyal and Kishore Dayani; acting classes by Rakesh Bedi, Rohini Hattangadi and others; puppet, magic and poetry shows, cooking classes with chefs and concerts with artistes such as Ustad Shafqat Salamat Ali. Paytm Insider has been conducting concerts with playback singers such as Arijit Singh and ambient pop band Cigarettes After Sex, which were sell-outs.

Online ticketing site Paytm Insider will be bringing plays across languages like Hindi, English and Kannada online through a new theatre initiative called Front & Centre. The platform is also heavily focussing on workshops.

Shreyas Srinivasan, CEO, Paytm Insider said that one will now find a range of digital workshops on the platform—from yoga and meditation to financial planning, and courses on building one’s own business, social media marketing and more.

“Nearly 60% of the events we list now are workshops focused," he said, adding: “In order to enable the transition to digital formats, we’ve also built a community channel using Slack for creators and organisers where technical and creative guidance is provided."

Over the last three months, Paytm Insider claims to have hosted over 6,000 digital events. Whether these new experiments are sustainable—even over the short-term of the next 6 months to one year—is an open question.

The future of the online show will depend heavily on the role technology can play in bringing an experiential quality to people’s home screens since top dollar is primarily paid for the physical presence of top names. Better sound, acoustics and an accompanying crew will be required; videos will have to be shot better and be made available more seamlessly.

“The attendance for virtual events may not be on par with physical events as of now, but these definitely are encouraging signs of revenue," said Parikshit Dar, co-founder and director, BookMyShow. A one-time ticket to an online music show could cost anything between Rs.500-5,000, Dar said, depending on the artiste.

Brands are still slow on the uptake but catching up with virtual shows and concerts. Companies like Vodafone, Rupay and Fastrack have collaborated on shows, for instance. “The sponsorship spends for online events cannot even come close to what a live event property can command because of the deeper engagement it offers," said a media buyer on the condition of anonymity.

Future of live events

Ankur Pahwa, partner and national leader, e-commerce and consumer Internet at EY India, said digital events are a safe and scalable way for consumers to get entertainment. Platforms like BookMyShow were selling around 25 million tickets a month for live events pre-covid at anything upwards of 500 and raking in around 10% of that sum as fees. Those revenues are now essentially down to zero. While it is too early to evaluate how much they may be making from virtual events, the potential is huge, he said.

“The pay-per-event model is a good alternative to the broader subscription packages that most online streaming services offer. And they anyway don’t host live events or any form of engagement," Pahwa said. These ‘bite-sized packages’, where the consumer is only buying what he needs, are something that discerning consumers—especially those in tier-two and tier-three towns looking for local, vernacular content—may prefer, he added. Challenges exist in the form of building a user base but Pahwa said the strategy should gain traction especially as public places such as movie theatres remain shut as of now and are unlikely to see much traction even after reopening.

Despite early signs of enthusiasm about the online pivot in some niche segments at least, the common consensus among experts is that digital can at best only complement, not replace, the offline live events industry. “We will see physical and digital events co-existing in the future giving consumers multiple ways to interact with their favourite artists, creators and events," said Paytm Insider’s Srinivasan.

Ultimately, the sudden, forced digital transition has made many event firms quickly realise the potential value in capturing granular engagement metrics. How many people minimised a livestream window out of sheer boredom; how many clicked on a brand link; how many participated in a quiz—all those things can be minutely tracked online. The new buzzword is ‘hybrid events’.

“Brands will start thinking of ways to reach out to a lot more people using parallel digital sessions married to a live event," said Brian Tellis, co-founder and group CEO at Fountainhead MKTG, a live events and entertainment agency “An automobile brand, for instance, will try to engage a large number of dealers simultaneously. While 500 dealers could attend an on-ground live event, an additional 1,000 can join them through a digital platform. That’s the future I believe."

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