Almost two months into the COVID-19 pandemic, “going live” at home has become the new normal for scores of musicians. There’s homegrown operations, like Waxahatchee and Kevin Morby’s weekly living-room sessions; charity-based efforts have abounded, from Angel Olsen’s new-music-previewing concert earlier this month to Global Citizen’s Lady Gaga-assisted and star-studded telecast that aired over the weekend; even music media has gotten into the mix, as Phoebe Bridgers teamed up with Pitchfork a few weeks ago to deliver a stay-at-home performance via the publication’s Instagram.
But as it becomes increasingly clear that the pandemic will severely wound (if not entirely end) the live music industry in existence, a question looms behind every single musician’s front-facing camera: how is anyone supposed to make any money from this? A potential answer comes in the form of a once-struggling livestreaming platform with outdated technology and a founder responsible for a one-hit-wonder from 20 years ago — specifically, StageIt, which was founded in the beginning of the 2010s and now stands as one of the few-so-far financial success stories in the music industry’s COVID-19 era.
Boasting the ability for artists to “perform live, interactive, monetized shows for their fans directly from a laptop,” StageIt requires potential audience members to pre-purchase “notes” at $0.10 each, the platform’s digital currency used to purchase admission to livestreams. During the performance, audience members can use their notes to tip the artist as well as chat with other audience members; there’s even a ranking of the biggest tippers that runs on the bottom of the screen, presumably to gamify the act of tipping itself. Unlike IG Live and charity-focused livestreams like Olsen’s, the performance isn’t archived — so, just like a real concert, if you purchase a ticket and miss the performance or have technical difficulties accessing it, you’re more or less out of luck.
The mastermind behind StageIt is Evan Lowenstein, whose (first) name you might recognize from his work with twin brother Jaron as Evan And Jaron. The pop-rock pair scored a minor hit with 2000’s “Crazy For This Girl,” which ended up peaking at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100. (You can see him performing the song for a StageIt demo here, if you wish.) Since then, Lowenstein’s career both alongside his brother and solo has seen myriad twists and turns. In 2006, they appeared together on ABC’s proto-Shark Tank reality show American Inventor to hawk a fruit pit-storing tray called the “Pit Port”; while his brother pursued a short-lived country music career in the early 2010s, Lowenstein founded StageIt and, more curiously, became Kevin Spacey’s live-in manager in 2016.
Last year, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Lowenstein was allegedly responsible for lensing the disgraced actor’s infamous “Let Me Be Frank” video from late 2018, in which he appeared to channel his House Of Cards character Frank Underwood while addressing the multiple allegations of sexual assault and misconduct he faced in real life. “I’d rather talk about StageIt, if you don’t mind,” Lowenstein told me with a nervous smile and after a prolonged silence over a Zoom call earlier this month. “I respect that you ask, but he has nothing to do with StageIt. I’m still great friends with everyone I’ve been friends with my entire life, if that helps.”
When we spoke, Lowenstein had dialed in from his London home, where he was forced to decamp when the pandemic began instead of his usual Los Angeles digs. “I was here and took the gamble of Boris over Donald. Not sure how that’s paid out yet,” he joked after affecting a fake British accent for a few sentences — but the growth that StageIt has seen since COVID-19 began its spread is no laughing matter. For the last five years, the company has practically been on its last legs, with a total of $8,000 in revenue amassed between New Year’s Day 2020 and March 10; StageIt went on to earn $1.5 million the rest of that month, and took in another $600,000 in the first five days of April.
Director of Artist Relations Nick Cox came aboard in 2014, and for the majority of his time at StageIt the only effective full-time employees have been him and Lowenstein — a two-person operation that has since grown to five staffers as business has picked up. “We’d had a decent amount of success early on but lost a bit of momentum,” he explains. “We were trying to hang in there as long as possible, but that’s obviously not the case anymore.” The number of artists who use the platform has dramatically increased, and Cox estimates that an artist who would’ve previously used the platform 1-3 times a year max is now playing multiple shows a month. “We’d see wallet fatigue from people trying to do too many shows,” he reasons. “But now that this is one of the only ways to experience live music, I think that’s calmed down a little bit.”
Cox cites an ongoing StageIt success story with Old 97s frontman and alt-country singer-songwriter Rhett Miller, whose healthy use of the platform pre-and-during-pandemic has spanned full-album performances and taking on guest-curated set lists from folks like Nick Offerman. Performers that aren’t strictly in the live-music game have also taken to StageIt, as last month the drag queen world came together to put on Digital Drag Fest, which Cox claims has brought new and unexpected business to the platform as well: “It [was] a little outside of our traditional performance focus, but they have a very passionate community that supports their artists, and they’ve also welcomed other people in the drag community to get involved.”
— Jenna Fischer (@jennafischer) April 10, 2020
Fort Lauderdale-based drag queen Latrice Royale — who you might recognize from his multiple appearances on RuPaul’s Drag Race and RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars — first used StageIt as part of his contributions to DDF, and has since used the platform for a solo show of his own with plans for more in the future. “I think it’s an amazing platform for artists to showcase their talent and bring in a little coin — we do have bills to pay,” he states, while also admitting in the same breath that technical difficulties on StageIt’s end prevented several paying fans — including his own mother-in-law — from “attending” the gig.
Royale isn’t the only performer who’s found some of StageIt’s technical peccadilloes difficult to navigate: Chicago indie-poppers Beach Bunny also recently used the platform as part of the still-ongoing digital festival Uncancelled (with which StageIt are partners), marking bandleader Lili Trifilio’s inaugural journey into the livestreaming arena. “It was a little tricky to navigate,” she admits. “I’ve never had to soundcheck the day before a show, and I’m not that good with technology. It was a lot more prep than turning my phone and going live on Instagram.”
That pre-show prep is an element of Cox’s job (“You’d be surprised how many peoples’ internet is not good enough to livestream with”), and even though he claims that StageIt’s sudden success has allowed him to “focus more on making sure shows run successfully,” he’s quick to cop to the technical limitations that have only increased since StageIt’s been forced to coexist in a world in which everyone is nothing but online, all the time. “We need to be vigilant that our systems are working all the time,” he states, noting that internet providers have struggled to provide the juice required for StageIt to run smoothly. “Internet traffic is crazy right now, so we have to be on top of anything that comes up.”
But StageIt’s technical limitations are also owed to the platform running on what is essentially outdated tech — in other words, the demand suddenly created by the pandemic might be a boon for the company itself, but a boon that they were anything but prepared for. “It’s been humbling,” Lowenstein admits. “We have a site that isn’t exactly in fresh condition. The car’s been sitting on cinderblocks for five years, and suddenly everyone wants to use it.”
As one of the few profitable ventures in the world of live music right now, StageIt’s also had to face the music when it comes to their responsibilities to a creative underclass turning anything but a profit, and Lowenstein admits that the company’s decision to raise artist payouts to 80% of what they make on the platform has made for unhappy investors: “This was always intended to be additional revenue for artists, but right now unfortunately it’s the sole revenue… We’re trying to pay artists as much as we can, but if we’re dead, it’s not gonna be helpful to anybody.”
It's tough times for everyone. Including us. So artists, BEFORE you play on @Stageit I'm asking you to please manage the expectations of your fans. Our site is being held together with duct tape right now. FB/Insta/YouTube are multi-hundred billion dollar companies.
— Evan Lowenstein (@EvanLowenstein) April 4, 2020
If the present seems chaotic and minute-to-minute, then StageIt’s future is equally if not more uncertain. During our conversation, Lowenstein seemingly gestures towards the possibility that StageIt isn’t long for this world despite its sudden success, discussing the future of livestreaming “whether it be StageIt or something else.” But even the mere format of livestreaming concerts — a practice that’s been around for a decade-plus but has only recently become vital — can be called into question when it comes to its longevity and appeal. “If Judas Priest was touring where you lived every week, you wouldn’t see them every week,” Cox reasons. “A lot of people don’t have the money to spend on the same thing over and over again. Unless the artist is consistently changing up what they’re doing, people are going to be like, ‘Well, I don’t know if I want to spend money again on this.'”
“Livestreaming isn’t as gratifying as playing live,” Trifilio plainly states. “I like livestreaming if there’s a charity to back up, or a greater good. [But] it’s a lot more fun for people watching than people playing — I’m not super comfortable in front of a camera.” “You don’t have anything tangible bouncing off of you, so you have to up the ante a bit in terms of energy,” Royale adds, “It’s a different way of performing.”
But he also has no hesitancy to point out the truism that, as with so much that’s changing in the age of COVID-19, preference often gives way to necessity — and if the live music industry really is shuttered until further notice, performers might have no other choice than to use StageIt or whatever comes in its eventual wake: “I don’t see us getting out there live until well after the summer — maybe until 2021. It’s a new way of doing things, but we have to adapt.”