7 lessons learned after moderating dozens of online shows
Here we are, a couple months into isolation, with more than 100 virtual shows behind us. We’ve definitely learned that we miss being together, but an online performance becomes not a replacement, but a whole new connective experience when produced well.
A note about language: on many online shows, especially Zoom, the role of the host or co-host the one who created the meeting or is helping the creator of the meeting during the event. Meanwhile, ‘hosts’ on Side Door are people with real-life spaces to share for artists to perform. Hosts in the online sphere are more like producers or moderators—assisting the artist remotely to manage the audience discussion, help with security, sound check and/or troubleshooting technical problems. To avoid confusion, we’ll be calling these folks ‘moderators’, rather than hosts.
Below are some tips from Mark Busse, who has been our most active virtual moderator for shows on Side Door.
1. Why are you creating a show?
This might be the most important question that is never asked. Before you jump into logistics (date, time, ticket price), pause and consider what your motivation is. What is the purpose of the event? Is the show to make money? Reconnect with fans? Support a cause? Give a gift to people suffering through these challenging times? All of the above? If you have clarity on this point, and are willing to let it guide you, planning becomes easier and the experience more rewarding.
When Dan Mangan started presenting his weekly #quarantunes sessions, he told me he just had an urge to perform as well as a yearning to help people connect and not feel so alone. That intention guided every aspect of how the show was produced, from length to price to the conversational format. These shows have attracted as many as 700 attendees each.
2. Who do you want to attend? Who do you NOT want to attend?
Understanding your motivations and goals helps reveal the sort of show you want to moderate, but considering who you want (and don’t want) to be in that virtual room is helpful in creating razor-sharp focus on the experience you can create for them. Does your audience yearn for a purely entertaining livestream experience? Or perhaps what they need most is to feel connected to each other during these lonely days? There is no wrong answer.
A particular advantage of the virtual event format is that even if you have a niche audience, anyone can participate, no matter where they live, as long as they have a computer and internet access. We’ve had virtual show audiences from all over the planet.
3. What does the moment need from you?
Once purpose, intention, and audience is coming into focus, ask yourself what will serve both the artist, those participating, and the moment. Is a land acknowledgement something that feels right to set a respectful tone? Is this a show that needs time set aside for audience questions? How long should the event be, especially as time seems to pass more quickly than normal with online shows? Consider the importance of slowing down and leaving room for silence too.
A recent example: As we planned Jill Barber’s first show, she decided she wanted to create an intimate interaction and play an older album from start to finish, with no audience requests. We invited her fans to share their stories about what that album meant to her via email, from which we invited a handful of fans to share during the performance and engage in some conversation with Jill. Not only did her audience show up, but they showed up ready to relive their memories of that special music and hear some truly heartwarming stories about what it meant to others.
4. Production matters, but maybe not as much as you think.
Performing artists certainly never wanted to be sharing the precious art they’ve poured their hearts into via the web, but here we are. There is obvious value investing the time to make sure you have a good internet connection, computer, lighting, and video and audio setup, and someone who has mastered Zoom to help moderate, but again ask yourself why this show exists. Audiences are quite forgiving these days—they’re mostly just grateful to be able to connect with artists they admire.
There are lots of “how to” tutorials and articles with tips and tricks for using platforms and streaming services or how to set up audio/video tech, but if you decide your show is a balance of performance and gathering, then don’t stress out and make it overly complicated. Consider the background, use some decent lighting and a decent video camera and mic, but consider that making it too polished could result in losing the authentic intimacy that a DIY production might deliver.
5. Don’t just host, facilitate.
While planning a Side Door show recently, we asked the musician how they wanted the show to “feel,” to which they responded, “As much a community gathering as a performance.” As producer and co-host on Zoom, it was a good reminder that creating a powerful experience is less about the tools (although important) as it is good facilitation practice. Setting intentions around behaviour, providing clarity and momentum, and inviting participation or engagement while always maintaining control are skills not everyone is experienced or comfortable with.
For Zoom shows, we find it beneficial to appoint at least one co-host to support the artist as producer or show director, so the artist can focus on performing. Even better if you can have a third person keeping a keen eye on timing, watching for inappropriate behaviour in chat, and posting answers or information in the chat window.
As we work with artists to plan their shows there are decisions to make about how best to create the desired experience: How can you open in a meaningful way, perhaps a check-in with the audience? Should participants be unmuted for applause after songs (which some love and many loathe)? Does the artist prefer to have chat enabled throughout the event or just between songs? How and when will requests or questions be taken? How long should the event be and what is the best way to end a show?
You’ll never regret investing extra effort and building in additional capacity in order to stay in control of the experience. And artists will be grateful that they don’t have to worry about it.
6. Be prepared, and have a backup plan.
It’s a good idea to create a “run-of-show” and script to review with performers or speakers to clarify content order and timing. But even with lots of planning and testing, I like to remind everyone involved that not only could something go wrong, it likely will. So have a plan.
The more complexity in your tech setup—external video, mixed audio feeds, effects—the more need to test, test, and retest to make sure your setup is bulletproof. Do your best to make sure your artist has a strong upload speed (we recommend hardwired ethernet), but if your performer’s internet goes wonky, consider alternatives. Can they call in via telephone in a pinch? If breakout rooms fail on you (they sometimes do for large groups), have some questions or fun activities ready for the audience. Make sure to prohibit screensharing and restrict participants’ ability to unmute themselves, and make sure your co-hosts keep an eagle eye out for ne’er-do-wells, ready to chat with them privately or even remove them for bad behaviour.
At show time, if things don’t go perfectly, remember (and remind your artists) that a few stumbles and glitches aren’t actually such a bad thing. Audiences know the effort you’ve gone to in order to bring them this experience and will likely be forgiving, supporting, and view you as “flawesome.”
7. We’ve learned not to overthink it, but follow the feelings.
We’ve discovered that despite hesitation and anxiety about the uncertainties of hosting online performances, artists enjoy them immensely. And audiences enjoy them even more, especially when they are thoughtfully presented with a careful mix of production quality that leaves room for vulnerability and interaction.
We’ve learned that an important role as producers and moderators is largely about being a calm presence so performers don’t stress out about things going off the rails, and reminding them that it’s really OK if it does. We will continue to honour how artists want their work presented, and encourage to consider how they can best connect and serve with their audiences online until we can all be together again in person.
And then we dance. Hard.