There are plenty of websites and live-streaming apps: StreamJam, Daytrotter, UStream, LiveStream, Justin.tv, EdgeCast, others. Google now offers live streaming capabilities through Google Plus, its social media component, where you can easily set up a video hangout and stream it live on a YouTube player, which can be embedded anywhere. You need a professional mic and camera, but that's easy enough.
Tyler Palmer, director of artist relations at StageIt, a Hollywood, Calif.-based "online venue" for live-streaming, worked with jamband Umphrey's McGee on their recent four-night New Year's Eve run at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, Ga. "We're not a production company," Palmer said. "We have built a venue for the artist to use, in any way that they like." With the Umphrey's run, the band shot the footage, captured the audio, set the ticket price ($6 per night for the lead-in shows, and $8 for New Year's Eve) and chose how many online viewers to open it up to. "Maybe they only want 100 exclusive fans to see this show," Palmer said, "or if they want to open it up to 1,000 people around the world. They pick the size of their online venue."
Other than the costs of shooting video and handling the audio stream, there are no upfront costs for artists, and no minimum number of viewers required. StageIt pays out 60 percent of the gross directly to the band within 10 business days (via check or PayPal). Of StageIt's cut, a quarter of it covers expenses — bandwidth per user per hour, transaction fees, customer support to the artist, moderating the chat, running test shows -- and the final 15 percent is the distribution fee (i.e. profit). The band handles any hangups the physical venue might have about the stream, and can choose to offer venues a taste of the 60 percent if they wish (or if asked).
Palmer regularly sees StageIt artists — obviously the bigger ones — pulling down $25,000 in online streaming sales for a single show. He couldn't say without getting clearance, but Palmer estimated that between a few hundred to over 1,000 people tuned in online for each night of the Umphrey's McGee stream. Assuming, say, an average of 800 viewers paid for each of the four nights, that's $12,480 gross for the band.
"It gives the fans a way to connect with the artist, and it gives the fans a way to support the band," Palmer said. "[Bands] know the majority of their ticket-holders are happy to support them by giving them a couple of bucks without having to leave their home."
The most popular price model, used on around 75 percent of StageIt shows, Palmer said, is "pay-what-you-can": anything from a dime on up. (When artists ask fans to contribute what they "can," it usually amounts to around $5.) The average price-per-show on StageIt is $5.50. On top of that, there's a voluntary spend option in the form of an online "tip jar."
Palmer rattled off some of the bigger names among the 15,000 registered StageIt artists: Trey Songz, Rick Springfield, Jimmy Buffett, Sara Bareilles and Gavin DeGraw, Ingrid Michaelson, Korn. "We've got major artists on our site, but we've also got Jimmy in his dorm-room selling 12 tickets to his friends and family," he said. "Our site works all across the board for artists of all shapes and sizes." StageIt pulled off 400 shows last month (roughly 15 shows a day), and the number is going up every month. "I wouldn't be surprised if we're at 500 a month in a month or two," said Palmer.
Palmer has reason to be biased. (He works for a company that deals in live-streaming.) But he said he can't understand why bands like Montbleau's wouldn't strictly monetize the audio and/or video material they make available to fans.
"It literally blows my mind that artists would be giving away content for free these days," Palmer said. "The Facebook posts, the tweets, the YouTube videos: They're giving it all away for free, and we're sitting here thinking: Guys, we're selling hundreds or thousands of tickets a day. Your fans are willing to pay for an interactive experience, a live moment that's not archived? Fans are totally willing to pay to support you. You're denying them that right by not putting your show up on StageIt, by giving a stream away for free."
Oh. Yes, please! Rock and Roll at MSG, can't lose. #phish #couchtour — @fluffhead67, Dec. 29, 2012, retweeted twice.
For Montbleau, knowing that fans are listening online encourages him to craft unique setlists. "It does enter your head a little bit," he said. "It's not this separated thing anymore, where every town is separated from another. And I'm fine with that."
The target audience for those Z3 Stella Blue streams, Carbone said, was a specific online community of Zappa fans who rabidly consume everything related to their favorite composer. "If we were just some band playing whatever, it would have had absolutely no effect and nobody would have watched it. The guys who [streamed it] posted it in these certain forums, and it went from there. I'm glad that happened in my life. I've always wanted that to happen."
There are no universal rules for #couchtour viewing — who can tune in to what, to consume it with or without Twitter, alone or with friends, drunk, straight, on Adderall — but there are a few commonalities.
"I get the sense that people are in their pajamas, just from reading the chat," Palmer said. "They're on their couch, on social media, on Twitter, on Facebook."
If social media is involved, audience members are vicariously experiencing what it means to be in a band, through the tweets they're sharing about the band, said Johnny Eric Williams, an associate professor of sociology at Trinity College in Hartford.
"They are having that kind of backstage experience vicariously, too," Williams said. "In many ways, they are fulfilling their fantasies."
This spring, Williams will teach a course on mass media, popular culture and social reality at Trinity. When people #couchtour together, Williams said, "in some sense you're talking about an online community. These are people who like the same kind of music, are having conversations about the bands they like, together, even though they are located in different places. They aren't in the same place where the band is performing, but they are still consuming the music itself, in different locations."
Sociologically, it can be viewed as a mechanism through which a band can can retain a sense of autonomy over the creativity and the selling of their own music, rather than going through a large record company. "When you think about the political economy of it," Williams said, "the band can broaden its appeal, not just amongst the people who like it, but an even younger crowd or older crowd who've never heard of them before, and who may be exposed to their music." But ultimately, he admitted, "It's about making money. It's about advertising... It's about community, but also making money for the band."
Williams offered another, slightly futuristic take on the act of live-tweeting a show. "People are having conversations about it, the band is also tweeting back, having a conversation with the people about what the band was thinking, and so forth," he suggested, like in Star Trek: The Next Generation, specifically the super-hot cyborg Seven of Nine, "where you have a melding of the machinery of music with the human mind, to be even more creative and fragmented to a greater extent, to tailor the music to that particular crowd."