Jazz in the time of coronavirus: a model for livestreaming gigs

When news came out that the UK was entering a lockdown to contain coronavirus, one of the many thoughts and concerns that hit the jazz community was ‘how are musicians and venues going to stay afloat with all of the gigs cancelled?’ Livestreaming gigs became the obvious solution – but, in a community so willing to share their passion for free, how can we ensure both musicians and venues are protected and create a sustainable new model for ‘live’ gigs? Here, jazz pianist Sam Leak draws on his experience of performing an online concert for Sheffield venue The Lescar to argue a case for private, ticketed livestreams while we’re in lockdown.

Sam Leak at piano

As musicians realised that live-streaming was the best next available alternative to a gig, discussions began about how this could work. With latency-free group gigs an impossibility, we were going to have to embrace the live-streamed solo performance. As one musician remarked: ‘When we’re done with lockdown it’s going to be the time of the solo album!’ OK, we thought, we’ll do this. We’ll make the best of a less-than-ideal situation.

Then, as I considered how much it would be reasonable to charge for an online concert, I noticed a great many of my musician friends were also putting up shows, but for free!

Now, this isn’t surprising when you get yourself into the mindset of a jazz musician. Through the pursuit of creative autonomy and a need to network within our community, we are often incentivised to take jobs beyond monetary remuneration. We’re so used to providing the music that we care most about for free that we don’t bat an eyelid at the thought. 

But in the time of coronavirus, with all of our in-the-flesh gigs cancelled, these aren’t just live-streams anymore – these are our gigs! Under normal circumstances, a free-to-watch live-stream of a concert (which an audience has paid to see live) might serve to help us to reach a new audience, but they surely have to take on a different function now? What’s more, the venue audiences that normally come to watch us have had their gigs cut too – they haven’t disappeared, they still want to see us play!

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Musicians are often uncomfortable with viewing themselves as entrepreneurs. Many of us feel like artists who’ve had ‘entrepreneurialism’ forced upon us, and we usually don’t think we’re very good at it. We associate it with profit-seeking above all else, when our primary interest is in the creative aspect of the music. 

As a musician, I feel this wholly and thoroughly – my interest is in creating music for music’s sake, and music’s sake alone. However, while we might be ‘reluctant’ entrepreneurs, we’re good at it. In fact, it’s part and parcel of our day-to-day lives as musicians. We now have a crisis in our community, but we have exactly the right kind of mindset to deal with it. We also have a good idea of who our audience is and what they would like to see. Let’s get over our tendency, as jazz musicians, to give away the stuff we care most about for free, and let’s think about ways in which we can support not just our community but the venues that we love (and that we all want to continue playing at once this lockdown is finally over).

Sam Leak performs a livestreamed gig
Sam Leak performing his livestreamed gig ‘at The Lescar’

On Friday 3 April, I performed a livestreamed concert (from my house) for the audience of Sheffield’s ‘Jazz at The Lescar,’ promoted by the much-loved, and highly-dedicated, promoter Jez Matthews. Jez and I had discussed the logistics for this for a whole fortnight beforehand, as it was essential to both of us that we got it right.

I formulated my idea for it upon the fact that there are dedicated audiences at venues across the country, such as The Lescar, that support jazz concerts weekly, and for whom these concerts were now on halt due to COVID-19. With this in mind, we decided to recreate a gig at the Lescar as closely as we could. This relied upon a few ideas:

The gig should be specifically for The Lescar/Sheffield audience – we achieved this by hosting it on a private Facebook group. While a few others were also welcome to attend, this kept the focus on The Lescar.

The gig should sound good – we had a few soundchecks, with the Lescar team present, to ensure that it was up to scratch. I used a Shure Beta 91A microphone, running through a Saffire Pro audio interface. I streamed the audio and video to Facebook using ‘OBS.’ On my computer, I used ‘Loopback’ to keep in control of which microphone (talking vs. piano) was used at any time, and also of what was sent to each headphone.

The gig should look good – while, moving forward, I would like to source a better camera for future performances, we did discuss at length how the room should look. I used baking paper over a lamp to diffuse the light, and had fairy lights up at the end of the room (making it more venue-like). It definitely helped to create a better gig atmosphere visually (and also psychologically for me as I performed).

We should ticket the gig – we opted for an optional suggested minimum payment of £5. People were happy to pay, and many in fact very generously paid more (in some instances much more) than this.

We should split the money – the profits were split between the Lescar team and myself in a similar way to how we would divide it on a standard gig. I think that, as much as venues can support us during this time, we also really need to be supporting venues.

We would mirror the usual format – Jez would post a video of himself announcing the gig, as he would usually. For this, he went to the effort of making a backdrop to look like The Lescar itself. It was a lovely touch. 

I would hold a Q&A session – this helped ensure that the gig was interactive and inclusive (for me as much as for them!)

It would be social – we held a Zoom conference afterwards for everyone to hang out at.

We got an incredible amount of support and positive feedback from our online audience members. For me, it was a massively exciting and emotional experience. I’m missing music in my life right now, and to perform music to an audience that genuinely cared and wanted to support me was very special. The work that Jez put into promoting it made it into a really meaningful experience.

Jez shared some of his reflections on the experience with me: “I wanted the gig to retain as many of those things that I value and have tried to make happen at The Lescar as possible; in particular a sense of a community, and a place where both musicians and audiences can experience something interactive and meaningful.

“The presentation of a gig, both visually and aurally, is as important as anything. There are obviously limitations to what can be achieved quickly in a home environment, especially in the current circumstances, but we worked hard to set these up and all the preparation paid off. 

“For me it was both a wholly fulfilling and quite emotional experience; to hear Sam’s wonderful playing, to sense being in a room and sharing live improvised music with other people, and the connection during the gig and at the post-gig chat was powerful. I hope we can do it again, and that others will find ways to do this, during this difficult period for everyone.”

Why am I sharing this with you? I think that this is a useful model for venues and musicians to support each other in this time of crisis. Preachy as I’m aware I may sound, I’d really like to ask musicians to consider stopping doing free livestreams during this period (I understand that a lot of us are uncomfortable about charging, but a) why? And b) surely a suggested minimum payment would work fine?).

I also think that we should consider options for making our livestreams as gig-like as possible, with the first obvious step being to perform them to private groups (the gig space). Treat it in every respect like you would a regular gig – work on some music for it, promote it, get excited about it.

The final argument I’d like to make is that we can use this period to do something positive for venues and promoters too. Like many musicians, I love playing at the Lescar and I want to do my bit to support them, and other venues. Promoters like Jez, similarly, want to help us. 

If we can put on our events through venues then they can promote them to their audiences, we can play to an audience that cares, and we can generate some income that we can split fairly with them. Lots of other great initiatives have already been set up by other musicians/promoters to try to address similar things. This message is however intended for musicians and venues who might not yet have considered one thing: while we’re in lockdown, a livestream isn’t a livestream anymore – it’s a gig.


Watch Jez Matthews opening the gig

Watch Sam’s first song

Read the full version of this piece on Sam’s website

5 replies »

  1. Thank you, LJN and Sam leak for this poignant article. It’s touching on the very issue I’ve been having with the current abundance of free house music streams. I’ve been feeling increasingly uneasy with the way our community has been happily showering social streams with – due to technical limitations – sub-par presentations of the highest art and talent. It’s diminishing the quality of what all those incredible artists are capable of making people feel. It’s a profession, it’s valuable and it has a price.

    If we want to recover from the current situation and return to make a living from touching audiences with unique live experiences, we should indeed stop playing for free now.

  2. Interesting article. I’ve been arranging very similar style concerts for a couple of Sheffield musicians and they have been really well received.

    Interested in your post gig zoom conferences. How do they work? How do you set them up? Do you need the members contact details for this?

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