Two of the industries affected the most by social distancing are live shows and professional sports. And it goes beyond economics, jobs paused or lost, or events that were scheduled months in advance and had to be called off until further notice.
People who work in the industry were affected by the changes at a more personal level. Artists are limited to giving concerts from home or doing online events, and certain sports people who are lucky enough to be competing again, have to do so behind closed doors. It’s no mystery that, many times, artists and sports people get a boost to their mental strength and energy from their audience: their fans and crowds, voices, applause and excited faces are part of what makes them feel alive. And these are the fans that are now missing the chance to express their feelings and be close to their idols too.
Among the industries mentioned, there are two cases in which the absence of the crowd is more noticeable: the NBA and K-pop.
The Case of the NBA and K-pop
In the NBA, the “courtside”, i.e., the seats at the side of the basketball court, are part of the sports culture. Interactions among players (and the coaching staff) and the audience sitting in this area are vital for the big show.
As for K-pop, we have to say it’s quite a strange case. K-pop is a label coined by the Western world and it’s got different meanings depending on who’s using it, but overall, it’s related to pop music produced in South Korea. In South Korea, K-pop generally has two different meanings:
- Hallyu, or the “Korean Wave”, refers to the expansion of Korean culture all over the world through its movies, TV and music.
- The “Idol Industry”, which is a complex concept, but which basically offers an integral content package. It’s a bit of everything, from music to visual concepts, outfits and choreographies, but there’s also a special touch: interactions between artists and their fans. This interaction is intended to be more personal than in other parts of the world.
However, both for K-pop and the NBA, technology can bring in solutions that might not replace a stadium full of fans, but which might let players and artists feel a bit of the crowd’s energy, even if it’s through a LED screen or a sound system.
Bridging the Gap with Technology
The NBA has partnered with Microsoft to use, through Microsoft Teams, a system of “virtual fans.” Depending on what teams can implement (not all of them have the same budget or number of fans), the system offers different possibilities. These have one thing in common: people who manage to obtain the status of “virtual fans” get, when purchasing a ticket or enrolling, an individual username and password that allows them to access Microsoft Teams and see a schedule with available events. Apart from that, possibilities vary:
- In the most basic scenario, fans can feel “part of a whole”, accessing a virtual meeting, something like the new “Together Mode” that simulates the presence of all the fans in one place.
- In the case where clubs manage to put together a “virtual crowd”, they show it (or, at least, part of it) to players on a giant screen, located in the stands.
- In other cases, every fan has their own LED screen.
For K-pop there are also a variety of solutions.
- One is what we call “virtual fansigns.” When fans have to purchase an item in an official store (an album, some merchandising) and, whether it’s through a raffle, a competition or paying extra, they have access to the events through normal video chat platforms or specialized sites, such as MyMusicTaste. Artists place themselves in front of tablets or computers, sign albums and answer certain requests, such as saying a certain phrase or posing so that fans can take a screenshot. Then, whatever they purchased is sent through the mail, with the signature and all.
- Other events to reach the fans have also moved to the virtual environment. “Meet & greets” are similar to a fansign, but without the merchandising. There is also “hi touch”, very popular in K-pop: artists stand in line and fans get to meet them for a couple of seconds, getting a handshake or, as the name implies, “a high five.” In the virtual version, fans go online and have very short video calls with every member of their favorite band, or just the ones they’ve chosen. For some events, the activity can also include animations that simulate the “walk” between members in line.
- The most exhaustive solution is the “reverse streaming” system, which Kiswe, an American firm, created with sports events in mind, but which it optimized for Big Hit Labels, the producers behind BTS. Big Hit has been experimenting with different ways to keep the massive BTS fanbase happy almost since the beginning of the pandemic.
Connecting Music and Fans
All throughout the year, we could see different events such as the ones mentioned before. Here we have a month-to-month detail:
- April 2020
Big Hit organized a free event called “Bang Bang Con” (a pun in Korean between “BTS concert” and “concert in your bedroom”) and broadcast both on YouTube and Weverse (Big Hit’s own app). For two days, the platforms broadcast a total of 12 hours of BTS original, paid content, from concerts and events for fans and broadcast through V Live or Weverse, but also included in limited-edition DVDs. Fans who had one of the official band’s lightsticks (known as “ARMY bombs”) could also synchronize them to Weverse using Bluetooth, so that it would change its color with the rhythm of the songs, as in a physical concert.
- June 2020
In order to celebrate the 7th anniversary of BTS’s debut, Big Hit, already partnered with Kiswe, raised the stakes: a live concert called “Bang Bang Con: The Live”, but this time, it was paid. Every ticket allowed fans to access the Kiswe platform from two different devices. Every user could watch parts of the live concert (which also included ads from BTS sponsors in the intervals and pre-recorded videos, in order to allow artists to breathe for a while, the same as in a normal concert) from five different cameras, plus a sixth one that showed content selected by the technical team, from those five cameras and some more.
In addition, the system showed a live chat and a map of the world. Every fan had the chance to press a button in their chat to “start” their virtual ARMY bomb. And every time that button was pressed, a little purple light appeared in the world map, in a close location to that of the fan. In different parts of the concert, artists could see the map and the virtual chat on a screen, and interact with the audience by reading their messages or asking for more “lights”. Bang Bang Con: The Live broke a Guinness World Record: 756,000 fans, from 100 different countries, went online for the event.
- October 2020
The time came to launch reverse streaming in two live concerts of Map of the Soul: ON:E. Even though they were originally created to combine a physical and an online event, a second wave of COVID-19 in South Korea forced them to go completely virtual. Apart from the multi-camera system, the chat and the virtual lightstick previously mentioned, in different songs and moments of “chat with the audience,” artists had giant screens in front of them or, even, around them (in one case, they had the width of the stadium where the concert was performed) that showed live reactions and the sound of a thousand fans selected through a raffle (500 on one day and 500 the next).
Besides that, certain fans had early access to a space where they recorded some “fan chants”(the names of the band members or parts of different songs that are usually used to interact with fans in the concert) and the chorus of some songs. These were later shown on screens or through augmented reality to improve artist immersion or replicate their real concert experience in greater detail.
Another company from the K-pop industry that has been using technology to connect music and fans is the Korean media giant CJ ENM. This company, that has been organizing giant KCON conventions in different cities around the world for many years, hosted two virtual versions in June and October. Those festivals included days and days of online content, live concerts and pre-recorded parts, which included both concerts and discussion panels, interviews, album or merchandising presentations, and other activities that you may find in theme conventions.
In order to carry it out, CJ ENM used standard versions of several technological products. It broadcast on YouTube, and fans interested in participating had to purchase a “membership” for a YouTube channel. For the first edition, they used a channel called MNET, from a subsidiary TV channel, and for the second one, the channel of the convention.
Different levels of membership (some of which are still available, allowing fans to watch the basic content of the transmissions) offered access to different video content or exclusive content by clicking the “Community” tab in the channels. For example, there were surveys to choose question topics for the artists, links to forms to register for the virtual meet & greet with their favorite artists, and opportunities to compete and win merchandising. For the second edition, known as “Season 2,” there were raffles to appear in the virtual fan walls. Winners got a username and password to enter virtual meetings in Zoom, and their images were transmitted on screens the chosen artists could see during some of their presentations.
The New Normality in The Events Industry
Reverse streaming, virtual meetings, simple video chat apps… These are all solutions technology offers to the events industry in this new “normality”, so that the audience can break through the screen and reach the protagonists. Have you taken part in any of them? How do you feel using these new alternatives?