The Startup That Got Livestreaming Concerts Right
Flymachine raised $20 million and nailed the formula for virtual shows. Will that be enough to succeed in a post-pandemic world?
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The first thing you see when you enter the show is the merch stand: $40 for a Death Cab for Cutie t-shirt, $40 for a poster. When you head inside, you’re greeted by an artificial firefly swarm of shining cell phone lights, “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” blaring in your ears. And then the curtain comes down, show’s over, good night!
In my case, as it happened, I’d written down the wrong start time in my calendar and arrived just as the concert was ending. But unlike a typical show, this one offered latecomers a do-over the following afternoon, enabling me to come back and catch Death Cab up so close I could see the sweat dripping down lead singer Ben Gibbard’s face.
In fact, anyone in attendance could’ve seen the sweat: it was a broadcast of a real show courtesy of Flymachine. The livestreaming startup has raised $20 million from investors including venture firms like Greycroft and SignalFire, as well as individuals such as management maven Coran Capshaw and musician Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons.
“You’re going to find that virtual events are going to become part of the fabric of society going forward,” says Andrew Dreskin, who cofounded Flymachine with fellow music industry veterans Rick Farman and Matthew Davis in July 2020. “If the only way you could see the Yankees was to go to a game in the Stadium, that would be bonkers. But that’s how a lot of events are today.”
Rather than treat livestreamed concerts like static events—parking a camera in back and recording shows as with a high school musical—this startup’s approach is more akin to a Sunday Night Football production. A squadron of cameras flick between wide views of the arena, closeups of the band and action shots. And you can bounce between virtual rooms seamlessly with friends or strangers, tuning crowd noise and conversation volume up or down as you please.
That’s a notable departure from the approach some livestreaming platforms have pursued over the past year and a half, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic. Take Stageit, a company in the space that was bought out for an undisclosed sum two months ago.
“We’re like the basement club that reeks of piss and beer that has a stage that’s too small for your band and only one mic stand,” explained its founder, Evan Lowenstein, when I interviewed him for Forbes in March 2020. “But we’re still here and happy to help as many artists as we can.”
Dreskin has experience with tiny venues, too. He cofounded TicketWeb, which sold the first concert ticket online back in 1995, at a 350-capacity spot in San Francisco called Bottom of the Hill. Five years later, Ticketmaster bought TicketWeb for $35 million. Dreskin then cofounded Ticketfly in 2008; after Pandora bought it for $450 million in 2015, he took a long break from full-time work.
But when the pandemic hit, Dreskin found inspiration in an unlikely place: a group chat with a bunch of Deadhead friends. Hoping to find something more fulfilling than trading texts, he suggested that the crew, mostly made up of live music industry veterans, could try to find a way to watch a show together virtually.
“Everyone’s heads exploded—like, how would we do that? And that’s when the light bulb kind of went off for me,” he says. “We would fire up Zoom separately and we’d all kind of chat and watch the show, but you couldn’t get them both on the same screen. You had to watch half the concert if you had Zoom open. At any rate, that’s kind of what got me going.”
Flymachine collects its cash through service fees on ticket sales, which usually run about half the price of the real life version. In cases where it’s acting as a promoter, Flymachine also takes a cut of the face value. The company generally doesn’t share financial metrics, but says its September revenues are tracking toward exceeding August sales by a multiple of 50.
Indeed, Flymachine works well in the pandemic, and it’s proving to be a useful platform as the return to normalcy remains compromised by the rise of contagious coronavirus variants, as well as the continuation of underwhelming vaccination rates. But can it remain a force in the After Times?
We can see encouraging signs beyond Flymachine itself. In the Before Times, DJ/producer Marshmello drew more than 10 million people to a virtual show in Fortnite. And hip-hop superstar Travis Scott’s widely viewed mid-pandemic performance offered a template compelling enough to lure millions to an online concert regardless of Covid.
For Dreskin, the challenge is to unite those young audiences with his Deadhead pals on Flymachine (or convince one of the live concert giants to buy him out as a hedge against future pandemics). In any case, he’s adamant that although his latest startup might have been prompted by the pandemic, that’s not its raison d’etre.
“The idea of Flymachine from the first moments was, ‘We are building a business for post-pandemic,’” says Dreskin. “You can’t build a business that’s going to be viable for 18 months. That’s not a sustainable strategy. We believe that live streaming and virtual events are here to stay, and they’re going to take many different forms.”