On Tuesday night, critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers took to the stage at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the celebrated Denver-area outdoor auditorium built into a natural rock formation. From their seats, the audience could see Bridgers and her band on stage, clad in full bodysuits that glowed with a skeleton design. Behind them, images were projected on the rock walls of the amphitheater.
But, in accordance with pandemic restrictions, the audience’s seats were on their couches at home, far from Bridgers and the venue. This was the first night of Red Rocks Unpaused, a three-night live-streamed music festival. Like live streams on Facebook and other popular platforms, the Red Rocks Unpaused platform lets viewers chat with one another and send emoji-style symbols that are displayed alongside the stream. But the stream of smiling and winking faces was also at times projected onto the rock formation, and comments from the chat appeared above the stage, meaning home viewers could still make their presence known in the auditorium even if they couldn’t actually set foot there. Viewers could also vote on the colors of images, such as an animation showing a liquid pouring down the walls of the venue.
It’s an experience that will continue through the rest of the concert series, which included performances by rappers Megan Thee Stallion and Lil Baby on Wednesday. Country artists Sam Hunt and Brett Young are set to appear Thursday night.
“Meaningful connections are just the most important thing for us, whether it’s an experiential activation or a digital activation,” says Charlie Smith, account supervisor at Madwell, a Brooklyn marketing agency that worked on the project with Verizon-affiliated wireless carrier Visible, which hosted the event. “That was a gap that was missing in a lot of these live streams that were popping up.”
Fans can even vote on the encore songs played by each artist, starting with Bridgers and rockers Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, who followed her onstage. “What song are we playing?” Bridgers asked, as an onscreen message revealed the audience picked her 2017 song “Scott Street,” with its “Don’t be a stranger” closing line.
Viewers can choose between three camera views: one traditional, curated concert feed panning the stage and zooming in on performers; one “rock cam” focusing on the rock formation itself and what’s projected there; and a “high cam” giving a bird’s-eye view of the venue. With no audience present, the stage has been relocated to the center of the scenic amphitheater. Streaming is available through the official site and through Twitter.
The experience isn’t the same as going to a live concert, of course: At times, as performers bantered with bandmates onstage, the lack of cheering and laughter made the experience feel eerie, seemingly for audience members and performers alike. While switching from one camera view to another is an option not available when physically attending a concert, the slight delay in toggling does distract a bit from the performance—maybe the at-home equivalent of being bumped by a nearby fan or setting out for the bathroom or bar.
At a few chosen moments, viewers who chose to let their microphones pick up sound could cheer from home, with their loudness making sound volumes and projected lights grow through the auditorium. The trick lets people participate in the concert through more than just clicking on an emoticon—even if they might not wake up as hoarse the next day as after a physical trip to Red Rocks. The Night Sweats hit “S.O.B.” drew a big, perhaps cathartic cheer response from the virtual crowd.
“The whole setup, it makes you feel both small and big at the same time,” says Minjae Ormes, chief marketing officer at Visible. “Without putting people in there physically, what we wanted to accomplish was how we actually use that grand backdrop and that venue in itself and bring that sense of being part of something that you would have experienced in person.”
Since the pandemic has shut down venues around the world, with scientists still researching how in-person performances can safely restart, artists and promoters have been looking for ways to still bring the concert experience to fans starved for live entertainment. Some artists, including legends such as Neil Young and Brian Wilson, have simply hosted live streams from home, while some venues such as Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn, The Hideout in Chicago, and Tipitina’s in New Orleans have launched more formal streaming series that also can bring in revenue through digital ticket sales—or at least tips.
Some formats are perhaps closer to traditional TV than to an in-person concert: Virtual musical “battles” hosted by the streaming series Verzuz TV, available through Instagram Live, have drawn millions of viewers, most notably recently to see ’90s R&B legends Brandy and Monica. And artists including heavyweights such as Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga have participated in telethon-style events designed to raise money for victims of the pandemic and other disasters.
For Red Rocks Unpaused, Visible reports that more than 4 million people tuned in for the first night of the festival. The experience wasn’t nearly the same as watching from the arena—I’ve never seen Bridgers or the Night Sweats in person, and I certainly wouldn’t claim to have seen them live after the show—but it was still a (virtually) scenic alternative to listening to Spotify or Apple Music. And if audience comments displayed during the show are any indication, many will be looking forward to the return of live music.
“Yo red rocks,” one fan wrote, “I miss you.”