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A new partnership promises a more connected virtual experience for live events

A show at the Wang Theatre. (Courtesy Boch Center)
A show at the Wang Theatre. (Courtesy Boch Center)

What’s the shape of concerts to come?

They’re not all going to be played just for the people who paid to be in the seats. At least, not at the Boch Center’s Wang and Shubert theaters in Boston. Soon, those two venues will join about 30 others across North America — those sites are clubs and smaller — in selling virtual tickets to livestreaming concerts throughout the world. Ticket prices for the stay-at-home crowd are estimated to be about half of an in-person ticket.

Yes, certain concerts have been simulcast for years — think back to Live Aid in 1985 — and livestream pay-per-view concert situations arose frequently during the peak of the pandemic lockdown, appealing to music-starved fans and cash-strapped artists.

But this is something different, more high-tech, more immersive and, potentially more connective.

Fans can watch livestreams together in real-time from anywhere. In addition to a high-quality audio and video stream of the performance, they can see and hear other fans right on the screen. Viewers control the experience, meaning they can join public rooms and meet other fans, or create private rooms to watch with friends with nothing on the screen except the performance.

The Boch Center has entered into a partnership with a new company, the San Francisco-based Flymachine. There are seven permanent 4K cinema-quality cameras installed at the 3,500-person capacity Wang Theatre and there will be two walk-arounds in use. There are five at the 1,500 capacity Shubert with one walk-around. Those in the virtual world will hear the soundboard mix.

“We want to be one of a handful of theaters around the United States or the world where the artist says, ‘If I’m going to livestream, I would livestream from the Wang Theatre because it’s pretty gorgeous,’” says Boch Center CEO Joe Spaulding, on the phone from Florida.

Before the Boch hookup, Flymachine’s concerts — there have been about 70 — were at prime clubs like First Avenue in Minneapolis, Bowery Ballroom in New York, Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco and Teragram Ballroom in Los Angeles. Featured acts included Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Folds and Tune-Yards.

With the Boch spaces, Flymachine wanted to elevate and expand the experience.

Last year, the Wang presented 10 half-hour acoustic shows they called the “Ghost Light” series. Noel Paul Stookey, Jonathan Edwards, Tom Rush, Keb’ Mo’ and Lori McKenna were among the players. There was no audience. Spaulding produced and the Wang’s Scott Towers directed, using “two cheap cameras and a cell phone,” Spaulding says. The gigs were not livestreamed; they were taped, edited and shown later on NBC Boston and NECN.

But these caught the attention of Flymachine founder and CEO Andrew Dreskin, a man Wired magazine called “the father of online ticketing.” He previously founded TicketWeb (which was sold to Ticketmaster in 2000 for $35.2 million) and Ticketfly (which sold to Pandora in 2015 for $450 million).

Dreskin formed Flymachine with Rick Farman, the co-founder of Superfly (which puts on the Bonnaroo and Outside Lands music festivals), and Matthew Davis, who is Drake’s live show programmer and also designed a virtual music and art museum for Radiohead. Together, they raised $21 million to launch the virtual venue platform.

“I’ve made my career in live events technology and events tickets technology,” Dreskin says in a phone interview. Created during the pandemic, Flymachine came about, in part, says Dreskin, because “we had a lot of time on our hands, and therein lies the opportunity. We were all stuck in our homes like everybody else in the world. All of a sudden, people can’t go to live events but people are clamoring for live events because people love live events.”

During lockdown, Dreskin and his friends had all been watching livestreamed concerts on YouTube, but felt they were ultimately unsatisfying. Dreskin and his pals weren’t necessarily watching the same thing at the same time. They weren’t sharing the simultaneous moments of pleasure or the sense of community a concert can engender.

“We were intrigued by it but also shocked at how flat it was,” he says. “We all have our flat-screen TVs and our Sonos speakers and it sounds great, but there’s something missing. It was that lightning-in-a bottle [feeling] of being at the live experience with your friends, where you can move around the venue, maybe have multiple spaces, like a bar in the basement and the venue upstairs. It felt very isolated.”

Another realization hit: Virtually every major sporting event is televised live. “You’ve got to realize that live events are the only form of live entertainment where the only way you could experience it is going to the venue,” Dreskin adds. “Imagine if the only way you could see the Red Sox was to go to Fenway Park. That’s very old-world; the fact is, live events have caught up to the rest of the world.”

And, of course, this opens up another revenue stream for the venue, the promoter, the artist and the artist’s management.

Everyone at the Boch Center, Dreskin says, “has been unwavering in their quest for the most progressive livestreaming technology.”

Dreskin says in no way are they trying to cannibalize concert attendance or discourage people from going. “We’re not trying to supplant live events,” he says. “We would never succeed at that and that’s not what this is. There is magic being at a live event, we all know what that is, that moment when the hair on the back of your neck stands up, and that’s why you keep going to these things.”

Both Dreskin and Spaulding feel the “chat room” aspect will be one of the chief selling points. “For our generation, you don’t have to go into a chat room,” says Spaulding, who is 70. “You’re listening to very good sound quality of a show. But young people want to go into chat rooms and they don’t want to go into chat rooms texting; they want to be able to have an open conversation and still listen to the music. We were trying to find that balance, that new platform, that new technology.”

Dreskin says it was about seizing the opportunity “to make this a more immersive, communal and social experience and to create a platform where fans can watch with other fans around the world. It’s not going to seem like a little box off to the side. Everyone is seeing the same show, but basically in a different room with different people.”

Spaulding’s hope is that the first Wang Theatre show to be livestreamed will be Nick Cave & Warren Ellis on March 22.

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Jim Sullivan Music Writer
Jim Sullivan writes about rock 'n' roll and other music for WBUR.

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