Are you and your organization ready for the future of live entertainment? The pandemic hit live entertainment harder than any other industry, but it also revealed new possibilities. Online streaming and hybrid events opened the door to bigger audiences, better finance, and more innovative content for live producers. If you’re not in the game yet, now is the perfect time to start!
Jim McCarthy’s new book, Beyond the Back Row, breaks down the why, how, and what of online streaming and hybrid live events. It helps you understand the opportunities, avoid the pitfalls, and learn what you need to master to give you a major head start on the competition, whether you are a seasoned vet in your live entertainment career or if you’re just getting started.
Hey, listeners. My name is Drew Appelbaum. I’m excited to be here today with Jim McCarthy, author of Beyond the Back Row: The Breakthrough Potential of Digital Live Entertainment and Art. Jim, thank you for joining. Welcome to the Author Hour Podcast.
Jim McCarthy: Thanks, Drew. Good to be here.
Drew Appelbaum: Jim, help us kick this off. Can you give us a brief rundown of your professional background?
Goldstar & Live Entertainment Since COVID-19
Jim McCarthy: Well, I’ve spent most of my career selling tickets to live entertainment. Founded a company along with my co-founders and friends, Robert Graff and Rich Webster, in 2002, that many of you will know in the United States, and that’s Goldstar. We sell a lot of tickets. The company still exists to this day, although I’m not there anymore. We started the company in 2002, dedicated to the idea that people love to go out, see shows, music, theater, comedy, etc. One of the biggest barriers to doing that is just knowing what’s going on.
What we did at Goldstar was we worked with venues and show producers of all kinds to make their tickets available for sale on our website. We built an audience around that content, around the idea of great service, and great prices. We really did something completely unique, especially at the time. We were the first to do email-based discount marketing. We were the first to do third-party offers for live entertainment shows. We were pioneers in many ways and we built a big audience around it. So, for about 20 years I sold $1,000,000,000 worth of tickets to over 2 million shows.
Before that I was in the Internet business going all the way back to GeoCities, which many people listening will probably remember, because they had a GeoCities website. That’s my background, generally speaking, the Internet for a long time growth companies and then, more specifically, for the last 20 years or so, in the live entertainment business.
Drew Appelbaum: Yeah. Now, you did have a pivot, and COVID came in and there was a change there. Why don’t you talk to us about what happened to you professionally when COVID came to town, so to speak?
Jim McCarthy: Well, we had a bad day. The live entertainment industry had a bad day along about March. I want to say 12th, 13th of 2020. It wasn’t really a bad day. It was a bad, much longer period of time. That was the week that in the US at least, that became very clear to everyone that things were about to change. The live business—the impact on everybody was serious, but the impact on the live business was just total. We went from 100 to zero over the course of about 36 hours.
When you hear stories about travel being down 30 percent, or restaurant—I’m not denigrating the struggles that those industries have gone through—but the live entertainment industry essentially ceased to exist, which is really a problem if that’s the business that you’re in, right? That’s how business makes its money. It’s a little bit of a snag. I’m joking about it now. I don’t think I joked about it then, but I guess I always found the absurd humor in it to some degree, because once you get past a certain level of this is bad, you just go, “Okay, well. Yeah, it just doesn’t exist right now.”
I spent time with the team at Goldstar saying, “Listen, our industry has ceased to exist.” I was among those, at that stage, saying, “This is not going to change quickly. There’s not going to be some rapid turnaround where in six weeks everything’s back to normal.” And then some people were saying, “I don’t know why they were saying that.” I was not of that view.
Drew Appelbaum: You had this view of: you would almost be out of business for a while with no end in sight, and you decided to pivot. Talk to me about that next phase. Talk to me about that pivot.
Jim’s Pivot to Global Live Entertainment
Jim McCarthy: It was such an interesting time, because you go through various stages of understanding what you’re facing. My first concern was for everybody’s well-being on the team, and fortunately, we didn’t have to do a huge layoff. We did have to do a lot of furloughs and reductions and things like that, because we’re facing the possibility of long stretches of not being in business. In fact, at first it was worse than just no business. We were refunding lots and lots and lots and lots of tickets that had already been sold, so running rapidly in reverse.
During this March, April timeframe, in addition to just trying to recover from the car crash, so to speak, of what had happened, we spent a lot of time doing a very, very methodical and thoughtful strategic planning process about the future. When we talk about strategic planning in this sense, my approach to it is always, what are the things that we cannot control? The main thing in this case, of course, was the pandemic, and the effect on the industry. So you look into the future and say, “Well, there are things that we have absolutely no control over but, depending on how this goes, we’re going to be living in a different world.”
What we did was we said, “Well, there’s an optimistic, a base, and a pessimistic scenario for the effect of the pandemic.” That’s going to happen without any input from us, no matter what we do. Then we thought very hard about, what could we do? What are the things that we could legitimately do? We came up with five or six good ideas, legitimate ideas, of, “Here’s what we have the capability to do.” And one of those was to shut down for as long as it took to get through it. So we then mapped out those five or six ideas against the three scenarios. What you’re looking for is one that makes sense, no matter what happens. If your idea only works in the most optimistic scenario, that’s probably not a great strategic choice.
Yeah. That was it. So what we came up with was the idea that if we built the right software, the right platform for people who produce live events to deliver those events online, in a way that was better than what we were seeing, which you’ll recall at the time was zoom shows on people’s sofas and things like that. If we built that kind of platform, people would use it and they wouldn’t just use it during the pandemic, they would come to see the value of the reach of digital live events and hybrid live events for years to come. Whether the pandemic was short, medium or long, the enduring value there was so overwhelming and the opportunity was so big, if we were doing it right and we were thinking about it the right way, we would create something of value. That’s when we launched the Stellar Project in May of 2020.
Drew Appelbaum: Yeah. Let’s talk about that, especially the new world that we’re in. What kind of reach can you now have that you didn’t have with Goldstar? Goldstar is very much local or cities where you’re traveling, but now can you really have people in Asia tuning in to a rock band doing a show in Toledo –
Jim McCarthy: Of course. Yeah.
Drew Appelbaum: Is the reach that big?
Jim McCarthy: Yeah. I mean, it’s global. You’d probably watch it on the International Space Station if you wanted to. The thing about live entertainment is, the good thing about live entertainment, is that it’s great to be somewhere. The experience of being somewhere in-person is cool, but as a marketer of live entertainment, and this is what we’ve been working with in supporting marketers of live entertainment for 20 years. The first thing you do when you begin to make your marketing plan for your show is eliminate 99 percent or more of the audience that might be interested in your show, because they’re not in the town where the show is, right.
That’s just step one. That’s painful, because for any given thing that you can fill a room for, whether it’s a theater or a club or whatever, for any given thing, if you can fill a room in a city for that thing, there’s a good chance that there are people who would be interested in that same thing all over the world. So live entertainment has always been a business that is high risk in the sense that it’s expensive to put on a show, and you usually need to get to about two thirds sold in a given venue to break even. Then after that, it gets good, you’re making money and so forth. But then, of course, just when it’s getting really good, you hit capacity and that’s it, game over, right?
What hybrid does or what online events provide to the live entertainment producer or show creator artist is the ability to just transcend that limit. Particularly now that we can (thank goodness) we can go back into the venue, we can do live shows, we can have that experience. Adding the hybrid dimension to it, where you’re doing the live show and presumably making money or at least breaking even or making a little money minimally from the in-person show itself. If you layer that hybrid show onto it, you really get to have the best of both worlds, which is an audience all over the world and the audience in the room. This is really transformative to people in the industry, not only from a business point of view, but also from a mindset point of view.
Where is your audience? Well, it could be anywhere. It could be everywhere. So, it’s great. It’s the biggest disruption to live entertainment, I would say, since television, because you all of a sudden have the power, a distributed power, as professional creator of a show to have Internet reach an Internet scale, which was impossible before.
Drew Appelbaum: Are there increased risks in some areas to producing live online events, though?
Jim McCarthy: What do you mean by risk? What kind of risk?
Drew Appelbaum: That’s what I’m asking you, I think. What could go — it sounds like, “Oh, there’s this amazing new stream to doing a live show now it’s for everybody.” But there are certainly new pitfalls and new things that could go wrong?
Jim McCarthy: Well, there’s a couple of things you have to learn, right? It’s not a good idea to just turn on a camera and point it at the stage. Probably not the way to go. There’s a few new skills that you need. We talk about this a lot in the book. You have to think when you’re creating a show that’s online, you have to think in terms of how the show is being presented and it’s being presented on the screen, right? So you’re not just putting a camera or two in the venue as though it’s a witness to what’s happening in the venue. You have to do a tiny little bit (and you can do a lot), but minimally, you have to do at least a little bit of production on how does this come through on the screen in a way that looks good and is exciting and fun.
If you do that, you can learn that very quickly. What’s interesting is that in many venues, for example, the people running the sounds and the lights have all those skills already, you know what I mean? Because they live in this world and they stream on Twitch or they edit video for other jobs or just in their personal lives. It’s not hard to find that talent or do the little bit of skill building that you have to do, but you do have to do it. You have to make a little bit of an effort to say, “Okay, what is this show as it appears on the screen for the people watching at home?” There’s that aspect of it, but really shouldn’t be a barrier. It should be thought of more it’s just something that you need to do. It’s a little investment of time and energy that needs to be made as opposed to a showstopper, because it really isn’t a showstopper.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, this isn’t something that you necessarily have to start your own companies or producing your own events. This is something where you could start bringing streaming events into your own company and your own corporate life, right?
Jim McCarthy: Yeah, absolutely. Our primary audience is actually people who are already professional show creators anyway. So if venue owners, people who run organizations that produce a slate of content, whether maybe a performing arts organization or music club or a comedy club or something like that, theatrical organizations that produce shows. But you’re right, It really — and what we’re seeing increasingly, for example, is we’re seeing — we’ve got, can’t tell you who it is, but we have a major video game company that is producing a show in support of the product that they’re launching.
Producing shows may not be part of their everyday routine, but they can produce a show or certainly get the help that they need to produce a great show. They want that show to have reach to all over the world if they can, because they have fans of this game all over the world. So, absolutely a company or a vicious individual could absolutely produce shows and then reach an audience anywhere in the world. That’s actually one of the most exciting things about it. My prediction is that the largest, let’s just say, performing arts organization in the world in terms of how many people it reaches.
The largest performing arts organization in the world, seven years from now, may not exist today. Or maybe in its infancy today. Because when organizations cracked the code on building online audiences for their live digital productions, the opportunity or the possibility that they can scale their audience to millions and millions and millions is absolutely there for them. That’s as opposed to organizations that only in-person, where it’s obviously limited by how many people can be present. I think there are kids out there— and I say kids only, because I think of people who come into the field unburdened by assumptions about what they can and can’t do—I think there are kids out there, young adults out there, or even older adults out there, who come to this now with a completely fresh perspective. They’re going to absolutely make breakthroughs in this field in the years to come.
Drew Appelbaum: Do you think live ticketed events in person should be worried? Is this, as you’re saying that, is this the end of the worldwide tour for certain artists?
Difference between Live and Online Experiences
Jim McCarthy: No, I don’t think so. What I think of is the live experience and the online show watching experience, are two different experiences. You can’t replicate the in-person experience with the online experience. It’s not about having a pale imitation of the in-person experience. It’s a different kind of experience. In some way, if you’re watching a show online, you’re aware that there’s an audience that’s watching it in person. You’re looking at the heartbeat of that event. You’re looking at those people thinking they’re at the center of this thing, right? The exciting thing that’s going to happen, but it doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of it either if I’m watching it at home.
I think you’re right to say there are probably some music acts or organizations that will reduce the amount of physical touring they do, because they can do a lot less. I mean, when you look at what BTS, for example, has done with their online shows. They’ve had consistently, I don’t know, three or four months, they have online shows with a million people watching and paying $40 a ticket or whatever. That’s a tour in a 90 minute show. So does that mean they won’t tour? I don’t think that means they won’t tour. I’m sure they will, but on the other hand there’s probably a model for some artists, especially the ones with an online fanbase, to where they tour less, because they don’t have to quite as much and because the opportunities there are online. At the same time, I mean, know people are not going to stop wanting to go to festivals and concerts and music halls and everything else.
I think there’s going to always be both. I mean, I think of it as the hybrid model is so exciting, if you’re in this industry producing live events. If you know how to produce a great live event, the idea of layering a hybrid event onto it is so exciting, because you’ve already incurred the vast majority of the costs of doing that show by having it in person. Then you have this opportunity, on top of that, to really blow the roof off your financials and reach an audience that you could never reach before, and have this really exciting thing that happens. I’ll give you an example. There are a couple of venues that Stellar serves that I show up at a lot, because I live in LA. And this one in LA called the Bourbon Room.
I was at a show at the Bourbon Room a couple of weeks ago, and there were — I don’t know the how capacity of the Bourbon Room, I think, is about 200. The room was full—and there were about the same number of people online watching the same show on Stellar. That was really great. What was so funny is that there was a point in the show where one of the performers said, “Hey, my dad’s at home watching and he’s having a hard time, so I want everyone to cheer him up. I want us all to cheer him up. He’s listening right now. I want everyone to say, you got this Gary” or whatever the guy’s name was, “You got this Gary.”
The whole audience in that room in unison says, “You got this, Gary.” Then, simultaneously in the chat on Stellar, everybody that was in the chat watching online is just heaping encouragement on this guy at the same exact time, heart emoticons and all the other things, right? It’s one of these things where, when you get that interplay between the online performance and the live performance, it creates a new dynamic. It creates a completely new dynamic.
One day, in the not-too-distant future, the online audience is going to be three, five, ten times the size of the in-person audience, and that’s going to be something that’s very exciting. It’s just very exciting to think—there’s people all over the world (and people have watched shows on Stellar from every continent except Antarctica), there’s people all over the world tuning in to see this. If I happen to be there at the venue, then I’m at the heart of the excitement that everybody’s tuned in for, right? So that’s pretty cool.
Drew Appelbaum: Absolutely. Talk to us a little bit more about the book itself. Who did you write this book for? Is this for people just breaking in? Is this for people already involved in the live events business?
Jim McCarthy: I wrote this book for my colleagues in the live entertainment industry, very specifically. In the dedication, I say that it’s for everybody who’s in the live entertainment industry or wants to be, but especially those who were there in March of 2020, because that is a group of people that kept the light on, so to speak. It was a real gut check to figure out how to navigate and get through that time. I built Stellar for the same reason I wrote the book, which is not only because it’s a great opportunity, but because it’s something that, when people in the industry fully embrace what this is all about, it’s going to make their lives easier. It’s going to make what they’re capable of — it’s going to take off some of the limits that make the industry challenging.
It’s going to give them potential for visibility and success that they really deserve, because it’s a tough business, and the people in it are really great. So for me, I wrote this book specifically for people in the industry or who want to be in the industry or are joining the industry as a primer, as a relatively straightforward guidebook of why they should be doing hybrid and digital events, what kinds of events to do, and how to do them.
Drew Appelbaum: It’s a great book to follow along with as well. You lay it out in a really great way with rules for revolutionaries and steps for online event success. We just touched on the surface of the book here. There’s so much more inside of it. But I want to say, putting this book out there to help folks bring this new medium to life, is not easy. So congratulations on having your book published.
Jim McCarthy: Thank you. It was a lot of fun to write, and I hope that people get a lot out of it.
Drew Appelbaum: I do have one hot seat question.
Jim McCarthy: Oh, sure, all right.
Drew Appelbaum: If readers could take away only one thing from the book, what would you want it to be?
Jim McCarthy: If they only take one thing away from the book, it’s that hybrid digital events are the biggest stroke of luck for the live entertainment industry in decades and decades and decades. And don’t miss it. We got a lucky break on top of all the terrible stuff that we went through. This is the silver lining. Don’t blow it, because it’s here, and you should seize the opportunity for all it’s worth.
Drew Appelbaum: Go out and embrace it. Jim, it’s been a pleasure. I’m excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called Beyond the Back Row, and you can find it on Amazon. Jim, besides checking out the book, I want you to tell us about your website and what is there, and then anywhere else where people can connect with you.
Jim McCarthy: Well, they should connect with me at Stellar. Stellar, as I said, we’ve built a company that provides a platform that enables you to do these events much more easily. Everything in terms of the ticketing and streaming of the event is handled by Stellar in a way that your ticket buyers are going to love. It’s easy for you, self-serve platform. It’s like the Shopify of hybrid and digital events, if you want to think of it that way. We go beyond that, in that if you’re curious and interested in doing online events or adding hybrid to your existing events, we are there to provide some help me guidance. We can help you get through and understand the things that may be barriers for you or maybe questions for you.
You can always reach me. I’m pretty easy to find, but you can also go to workwithstellar.com and find us a million ways there. We will be happy to walk you through what we think is possible for you and how we can help you. I will say, we’ve built a fantastic platform that I think is multiple generations ahead of any other approach to ticketing and streaming live event. It’s really nicely built and designed for people who want to be successful with their digital events, by people who have helped literally tens of thousands of professional producers in venues successfully market and sell shows for a long time.
You want that kind of help or you’re interested in figuring out how to do it? Just contact us there or there’s a million ways to contact me, and I’ll make sure that you get into the hands of the right people on the team that can get you going.
Drew Appelbaum: Well, I guess it’s only a matter of time before Author Hour goes live.
Jim McCarthy: Why not?
Drew Appelbaum: Around the world.
Jim McCarthy: Why not? Sounds like you need to call and go to workwithstellar.com, because.
Drew Appelbaum: I’m going there now. Show this off.
Jim McCarthy: Awesome.
Drew Appelbaum: Anyway, Jim. Thank you so much for giving us some of your time today. Best of luck with the new book.
Jim McCarthy: Thanks very much. Appreciate it.