Jez Matthews on livestreaming, garden gigs and bumpy roads ahead

As soon as lockdown happened, I wanted to try and livestream gigs, so I was pleased when pianist Sam Leak got in touch. Sam had been investigating what was required and wanted to give it a go; so we took our first leap into the new world.

Our initial thoughts were that the gig livestream needed to ensure that money went to the musician(s) (many of the livestreams at that point in time were free or donation-only) and that both sound and visuals should be of a good standard. I also felt that we could balance the slight remoteness inherent with online gigs and provide a sense of community by holding a Zoom meetup and a Q&A with Sam. I also added a personal video introduction and a raffle to further maintain the link to our actual gigs at The Lescar.

Sam’s technical approach involved OBS broadcasting software at the musician’s end, and we used a private Facebook event page to broadcast the event. The gig was a success, Facebook allowed audience responses to be visible, giving a sense of being ‘in a room’ surrounded by fellow fans, and the Zoom meet-up was attended by a lot of the audience, and Sam’s music was of course perfect.

We stuck with Facebook for a couple more gigs, but there are some disadvantages with it, not least it excludes audience members who don’t like it, or just don’t use it, and also the payment/entry process was slightly clunky.

As a result we refocused our efforts onto Crowdcast. This is an internet platform used by the likes of Hay Festival. It allows a nice clean payment and registration process, as well as still offering the audience the chance to feedback with a built-in chat mechanism. We also focused on learning about OBS, and establishing a technical template and process for all gigs that we could pass onto musicians each time. We’re fortunate enough to have on the Jazz at The Lescar team a couple of people who have been successfully filming our gigs, so we’ve been building up some audio/visual skills without quite realising how useful they were about to become.

We decided early on that using Zoom for the gigs compromised both sound and audio too much, and presented some administrative problems, although we have retained it for our post-gig audience meet-ups, which I really love.

Over the course of eight gigs (including two Sheffield Jazz livestreams) we refined things, and learned a few lessons along the way. The musicians were amazing, and we were blown away by the audiences and their overwhelmingly positive feedback, and importantly, we’ve also ensured that the musicians involved can be paid for their art. An unforeseen impact has been feedback from audience members who’ve said that they wouldn’t ordinarily have been able to make the gigs in Sheffield, and now can do this thanks to the new technology.

The downside is that the level of preparation is high (so far between 6 and 8 hours of technical setup and sound-checking) and there is minimal control of any issues once you ‘go live’ with the broadcast. Also there is a high level of dependency on the technical setup at the musicians’ end, which puts them under additional pressure I feel.

After a few months of organising live-streams, I was beyond delighted in July to be offered the chance to arrange a gig in a private garden belonging to two friends of Jazz at The Lescar, Steve and Bo Escritt. The garden was large enough to easily accommodate enough people with the required social distancing.

Filled with joy and relief, we went away to work out what we needed to do. We took advice from a number of people, not least the amazing team at Jazz North, the police and fire service, and also from some trusted friends with legal expertise who helped us negotiate the ambiguities in the government guidelines and legislation, and to ensure that we ran our event both legally and safely. Our garden venue needed to be converted into a ‘COVID-secure’ and safe environment, with a total limit of 30 people strictly enforced, and by carrying out appropriate risk assessments and doing things like taking advance payments only, ensuring social distancing, and providing sanitiser. All this was done with the clock ticking towards the end of summer, and the threat of less favourable weather.

All the work paid off. The gig ran smoothly and was a real delight. Sheffield-based guitarist Jamie Taylor was joined in a trio organised specially for the event with Martyn Spencer on bass, and Johnny Hunter on drums. It was such a joy to see everyone there, and everyone was so pleased to experience the live music that we’d all been missing for months! Our audience helped us with some really generous donations, and the event also raised money for City of Sanctuary Sheffield, a brilliant charity working to build a culture of welcome and hospitality for refugees and asylum-seekers.

Our only regret was that we couldn’t invite a few more people along, but we hope we can run more events like it next year.

As we head into the winter months, and a lot of uncertainty around running live events, we’re currently unable to run gigs at The Lescar. They’re in such a difficult situation; the government guidelines have made it very difficult for them to run events of any kind. We love that room, and the great team of people down there. They’re so supportive, and it’s been the scene of so many great nights and amazing memories, and we hope we can get back soon.

In the meantime we’ve just had a really successful joint promotion with like-minded promoters Listen! in Cambridge, running a beautiful pre-recorded live stream featuring Chris Montague, Ruth Goller and Kit Downes, and we’re working on a schedule of events at another venue, mixing pure live streams (with no audiences) with a few live gigs which we’ll also stream so that we can make them work financially and to make them accessible for audience members who are unable to come along. We’ll also continue to share infrastructure and expertise with our friends and neighbours Sheffield Jazz.

It feels like a bumpy road ahead, we’ve already had to cancel a couple of live streams due to the pandemic, but on a personal level, it’s all been 100% worthwhile, providing focus and a sense of purpose at a time when all gigs have stopped. I sense that both musicians and audiences have also valued the experiences, and I’m so grateful to all of them, to our wonderful hosts for the garden gig, to our friends at Listen! and Sheffield Jazz, and the Jazz at The Lescar team who’ve given so much energy to making something happen in trying circumstances.

By Jez Matthews – Jazz at the Lescar