How one trio turned livestreaming into a sustainable COVID business

Meet Keila, Garrett, and Alex – three friends, roommates, and artists who were hit hard by COVID-19. In their spare time, they’re co-founders of the West Coast-based artist group, Inquiry Collective – but their full-time jobs were taken away when the pandemic hit.

Like many DJs, producers, and visual artists, they took to livestreaming as a creative outlet for their musical endeavors in their newfound free time. But rather than utilizing the space as hobbyists, they took their interest in this fast-growing industry and found a way to make their own business out of it.

We sat down with the trio – K, G, and A – to hear about their path to the livestreaming biz they run today, as well as their tips for any newcomers to the space and their thoughts on where it’ll head from here. Dive in below!

Describe in a nutshell what you do, and how this started. What were you doing pre-quarantine vs. now? What made you pivot?

Keila: I’m an event producer by trade – I was the one who planned the school dance, and then turned into the one who planned the parties. Eventually I joined forces with creative friends to make Inquiry Collective, and [pre-COVID] we plan[ed] renegades & club nights. Now I work to coordinate our virtual events too.

Talks of livestreaming graced Inquiry’s meeting a few times before COVID, but really what stopped us diving in was the funds it would require to get us going. Plus, we were having so much fun in-person that items like squish, art supplies, and recording gear took priority. We had a massive show planned right before quarantine that would’ve been our biggest to date. We were heartbroken when we had to cancel it, and we made the decision then and there that we wouldn’t give up, throw in the towel, or let our community down. We would have to bring the good times in another way.

Alex: I’m one of the co-founders of Inquiry, a music and art collective spread across the West Coast (mostly California) that throws (or used to throw, at least) events and releases original music via our label – Inquiry Records.

In mid-March, we were forced to cancel one of our biggest club events due to COVID-19. Keila, Garrett and I happen to all live together and felt we wanted to find a way to stay connected with our community, so we started to dig into livestreaming. Before we knew it, we were not only running our own shows, but running other people’s too.

Garrett: In addition to working on Inquiry, I’ve actually been a professional Mobile DJ & AV specialist for ~5 years – so the transition to livestreaming (though unexpected) wasn’t too far away from what I’d been doing, just all from home!

My entire professional career has been in events & entertainment, so when it became clear that those industries had to move online for the foreseeable future, I committed 100% to streaming. It hasn’t been easy to accept the change, but I’m incredibly grateful that I’m still able to work with musicians & artists to keep their communities thriving through such difficulty.

How did you start finding clients, and how many do you currently work with?

G: It all started pretty naturally. We started one channel very early on (Inquiry Collective on Twitch) and as more counties/states in the US went into lockdown, people from all over were asking us for advice or to help get them started. The biggest thing that we were able to make happen early on – earlier than most – was the ability to run a multi-location, uninterrupted stream with multiple feeds on-screen. It took a lot of experimentation, but by the time some larger groups/festivals were ready to move online, we had figured it out.

Our first large event was the legendary CA-based Moontribe Collective’s first-ever online event, streaming from 8 locations. It was a smashing success, with over 1,600 max viewers and over 13,000 unique viewers. From there, we became swamped with requests! We now work regularly with Desert Dwellers & Pivotal Agency for their hugely popular monthly Beyond Borders event, Berlin-based label Electro Swing Thing, & Ben Annand’s Tropical Events – in addition to having produced 6 Moontribe events, including their 2-day 27th Anniversary Festival. Plus, we host tons of special events on Inquiry’s and other channels.

K: We started off by diversifying our skills amongst the team – broadcasting, graphics, technical setups for various systems, marketing, and planning – all of it needed attention and each of us needed to focus energy on making this a success. From there, we started our own show. Once we had a few weeks under our belt, we cold reached out to other collectives and artists – yes, cold. We found that what was an icy tundra of no response was now a fruitful land of , “yes, please, oh my God, we need help”. Those clients then recommended us to others, and we got bigger and bigger artists like Christian Martin (check out his sets from one of our Inquiry nights above), Dela Moontribe, and more. We now operate 3 livestreams a week on our own channel, and run the shows for 3-5 other groups a month.

What kind of preparation goes into these livestream gigs? 

K: We’ve streamlined this process quite a bit. We have a 4-person team that runs most of the tasks – marketing/promo/social media, artist communication, broadcast technician, and graphics. Each member has assigned tasks, including a promotion schedule, testing artist feeds, setting up the broadcast, creating graphics and logos etc. 

A: I mostly focus on prepping event graphics and visuals. That includes gathering artist logos, building visual shows, brainstorming and creating different scene looks, and constantly trying to find ways to make our streams look more clean and professional. I’ll also help out with testing DJ feeds ahead of the show to rule out any possible issues, as well as create most of the promotional graphics for upcoming streams.

G: There was a lot of gear & software that we had to purchase and get familiar with up-front. The prep time at the beginning was pretty intense. I’ve become the main broadcast technician and technical director, which includes helping people get set up remotely. At the beginning of lockdown, most musicians didn’t know how to livestream – so we were starting from scratch on most of our phone calls! Now, people have started to get some experience streaming, so we can concentrate on making more interesting shows by spending more time on details.

What does a typical week look like when you have streams scheduled (i.e. preparing, executing, post-production etc.)?  

G: If you include all of our clients, channels, & shows on Inquiry Collective, we’ve ramped up to working on 4-5 streams a week, so we spend about a normal work-week’s worth of time on it. Most communication is done as events are planned, but in terms of prepping the shows, it’s a lot like the in-person gigs I’ve been used to for a long time. Most days start later in the day and consist of a few hours of setting up, a period of checking in with everybody before starting, and then a 4-6 hour event of active work into the nighttime. Then there’s a little breaking down/wrapping up and a bunch of thank you messages for a successful event!

K: We spend an hour at our collective’s group meeting each week to discuss the shows. This is where ideas, who is playing, and some real magic can happen. This gives all of our logistics team (myself included) the framework to run with. Another half day or so is spent scheming with the promo, graphics, and broadcaster – figuring out to-dos for the week and touching base with artists. From there, it’s about staying on top of communication – which eats up a bit of every day for me. Some artists are a piece of cake to work with, super organized and have streamed before. Some artists have never used Instagram and don’t know why a stream won’t work from their forest retreat in the middle of nowhere. Every week is a little bit different, but that’s what makes it fun! 

A: When we first started, the 3 of us were spending way more time prepping, especially if one of that week’s streams was from our house. We didn’t have a designated spot to stream, so our house became a mess of cables and tables shifting all over the place until we finally picked a permanent spot. That, along with testing everyone’s feed ahead of time, making the graphics and prepping our own performances (if any of us were playing), was A LOT of work for us. Nowadays, I feel there is pretty minimal stress. The 3 of us know where our strengths lie, and we play to that well. For instance, it now takes me ~30 minutes to prep show graphics as long as I have all the assets, whereas it used to take at least 1.5-2 hours (or longer if I was feeling ambitious about the design).

What tips do you have for someone starting their own stream? What advice would you give to people looking to learn how to run high-production streams (whether for themselves or others)?

A: Upgrade your internet! Then get an ethernet cable and connect your streaming computer to it. If you are serious about diving into streaming, the most important thing is your streaming computer’s internet connection – particularly if you live with other people. It’s a crucial investment especially if you are wanting to run other people’s streams. Also, don’t use your phone camera to stream – it just complicates things.

G: Treat it like you did in-person events & music. Lots of people are willing to spend money on nice speaker systems, copious Ableton plugins, & gear for DJ gigs, but are attempting to stream off the lowest-tier internet or using 10-year-old iPhones as cameras. It’s no different than a DJ bringing crumby-looking or broken gear to a gig – you can do it a few times but its hard to get rehired.

Obviously this time period is difficult for artists, so don’t break the bank! But getting a solid internet package, a 1080p webcam, and a subscription to something like & will give you the edge that makes you hirable. These simple investments go a long way.

K: Two things. First, divide and conquer! When we started, our team each tried to take on whole shows. While this is doable, we stepped on each other’s shows and it was really hard to share information. If you are fortunate enough to have a group, divide roles based on what everyone likes to do the most.

Second, create an organizational system. That may sound daunting, but it can be as simple as a Google Form or a spreadsheet to collect artist info like logos, PayPal emails, phone numbers, etc. I had an artist tell me that we were the most professional group she’s ever worked with (during one of our first shows), and I think that’s because i only asked her one time for all of her info. She filled it out quickly, got my technical instructions, and was ready – take out all the guesswork and back and forth that you can. 

What do you wish you knew when you first started? What are some of your biggest learnings?

K: I’ve learned so much. I was a broadcasting major in college and when I started streaming, I realized nothing I learned was valid anymore. Haha! I think one thing I would say is to breathe. If a feed drops or someone freezes, your gut instinct may be to panic and start yelling explicatives. This is not the way to live long and prosper! 95% of the time it’s an internet issue, but if you’re calm, you’ll figure it out much faster. 

G: Consistency is key. Channels that don’t have the luxury of starting off with 100,000 social media followers who they just need to direct to their Twitch can’t rely solely on one-off events. If you want to go into streaming and expect growth, you have to stream frequently. 3 times a week is best, 1 a week is good, and if you’re a collective/label it should be at least 1 per month – but more frequent is better.

Are you able to pay the bills with this? How have you made it profitable? 

K: This has been a great way to diversify income streams, but we aren’t working with groups who are charging high ticket prices for their virtual events at this time. We are subject to budget or the donations of a certain event. That means that most of the shows we take on are for the love of the music or the group throwing the event. It’s been good side money, but not enough to pay the bills in the Bay Area.

Those who are making a full living with this are individuals or production companies that take on corporate gigs like virtual trade shows, galas, or big ticket festivals in affluent areas. I’ve decided to do this to support the art & music community so I haven’t chosen that path, but there is opportunity there for those who have. 

G: Being a professional musician and AV person has meant that I always have multiple streams of income, so I’d say these gigs have effectively replaced my DJ gigs. However, there still isn’t as much money in art & entertainment as there had been before so I still have to make ends meet with other work. If you wanted to solely stream and produce streams for work, it’s fully possible as Keila said. But you’d want to diversify into multiple industries (which we’ve tried out, we ran a 3-day online spa trade show!) or stream at least 3x a week if you want to see real Twitch revenue start paying out in the future.

Where do you see livestreaming’s future heading? Will the scene live on, even when events come back? 

K: I think virtual solutions will become a part of in-person gatherings. I’ve already seen artists being “booked” (streamed) to physical gatherings at clubs as a headliner or virtual livestreams of an-in person show. This synergy could have a lot of positives – as a promoter, you’d have the ability to sell a discounted ticket tier to anyone in the world. You aren’t just limited to your city anymore. Livestreams have given many musicians their own safe space to control their performances without any hindrances (like a genre theme for the night, opening for a specific type of act, management influence, etc). I think a lot of us enjoy that too much to just give it up once in-person bookings are back. 

A: As one of the million DJs who got into streaming since the COVID outbreak, it has been interesting to watch other DJs’ interests in livestreaming come and go as time goes on. I’m sure there will be a large amount of artists who will completely ditch streaming all together once events come back, but I think there will also be people who want to keep what they have going on top of the in-person events. I will be a part of the latter, especially as someone who makes music that isn’t always meant to listen to in a club. I personally love that I can play more of my own productions on our streams because there is a bit more of an open format with the virtual events lifestyle – not to mention being able to directly connect with people in the community via chat during streams.

G: Streaming is 100% here to stay. Professional events (and academic events particularly) were already regularly webcasting to YouTube, so it only makes sense for that to spread to all industries – especially as everybody gains more experience doing it now. We’ll see lots of concerts that have a local, paid, in-person ticket, but are also streaming to paying subscribers around the world. That means more work for broadcasters, more entertainment for fans, and more money for everybody. I view it as an extension to the foundation of the modern/globalized entertainment industry. It’s like the modern “opera hall” – it might not be fashionable forever, but it’s definitely not going anywhere any time soon.

Where would you like to see its future go with its technology & production capabilities?

A: Lately I’ve been obsessing over video quality and how to get a cleaner image, so I think any sort of advancements in that realm. I’m just excited for the day when 1080p is the lowest quality option online. Or faster internet being more accessible to the general public so that everyone can enjoy.

K: I’d love for there to be a way for bands to perform together remotely. As someone who works with musicians from across California, it’s a dream whenever I can get my full band together. I haven’t been able to jam live with any of them due to lag, so that bit of technology would be a game changer.

G: VR accessibility would be huge! I love what Burning Man’s Multiverse did, but it’s still too far out of reach from the common person to create something for VR or enjoy VR experiences. It kind of reminds me of CG in the early 2000s – it looks cool and futuristic now, but I know we’re not even close to unlocking its potential. In 20 years, our current method will look so cheesy!

There you have it, folks. The massive uptick of artist livestreaming, though a topic of much debate, truly can be monetized when you can build a team of stream specialists. It’s great to see that even when COVID knocks artists down, there are ways to utilize their skills in other ways – and maybe this’ll even spark ideas for your own pandemic skills.

You can watch Inquiry Collective’s upcoming livestreams – every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday – on Twitch.

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