3 Lessons Live Music Can Learn From Verzuz


Of all the content resulting from the global pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, nothing has matched the live music cultural phenomenon that is Verzuz.

Verzuz is the weekly, real-time, virtual DJ/artist battle on Instagram Live, founded by legendary music producers Timbaland and Swiss Beats.

The event pits music icons of R&B, dancehall and hip-hop against each other in friendly musical competition. A virtual Sound Clash.

The live battles are exciting, hilarious and engaging, boasting hundreds of thousands of participants with no paid advertising (I’ve yet to see any ads, but that’s not to say there isn’t any).

This month’s Jill Scott vs Erykah Badu battle reach a dizzying 710,000 viewers.

During last night’s face-off between Dancehall legends Beenie Man and Bounty Killer, the number was around 470k before I tapped out around 3am.

Verzuz is a viral sensation. A shining example of word-of-mouth marketing. And as nations struggle to manage coming out of lockdowns, it’s changing how we think about live music in the wake of the pandemic.

In the UK, the live music and festival sector is reportedly at risk of collapse due to COVID-19.

While in the US, a new poll found that the majority of Americans would not attend live concerts again until a vaccine for the coronavirus is available.

While there’s little a sole format like Verzuz can do little to rescue the live music industry, here are 3 lessons we can learn from it’s success:

1. Context Matters

While live performances over the internet is hardly a new concept, it’s the framing of the event that makes all the difference.

Timbaland described the event as “for artists, by artists”, and this distinction is key – it’s an event for The Culture, that was created from within The Culture.

Authenticity is a critical component to internet virality.

Verzuz is rough around the edges. There’s no host, there’s no script, and participant’s internet drop-outs are frequent.

Production values are low to non-existent. It doesn’t feel put-together or contrived.

It feels like a impromptu back-to-mine session after last orders. And that’s why it works.

2. Interaction is Key

Many other platforms have hosted live performances for years. Where Verzuz wins out is due to Instagram Live’s commenting feature.

Viewers can post comments in real time (typically unfiltered), and it’s this small detail that makes the format an event.

Interact with the battles, and you’ll likely see your comments alongside attendees like Missy Elliot, P-Diddy, Skepta, DJ Khaled.

Viewers feel connected and most importantly, an active part of the event.

It’s this feature that moves the idea of a live music performance, beyond a one-way experience.

For decades the accepted format for live music has been band/artist on stage, audience watching passively. And this exact format has often been replicated online.

But Verzuz demonstrates that the future of live music, may be to invite the audience into the performance itself.

3. Storytelling Over Selling

Historically, live music shows existed primarily to sell albums. In the wake of the streaming revolution, they’re now a vital part of artists’ incomes.

This makes for a strong case in trying to monetise online performances and content.

But – and I say this as someone who’s worked for record labels for a decade – there’s a tendency in this industry to resort to what I call, Buy Now marketing.

This is where we slap a giant sticker, URL, or iTunes logo across an event or a communication, in the fear that otherwise, consumers won’t take any action that results in revenue.

This prioritises selling over the content itself. And it doesn’t work.

The internet is contextual. We engage with products, services and artists not because of features, but because of benefits. The benefits to us, and our experience.

But music fans don’t need a button that says Buy Now to interact with their favourite artists. And to have one, cheapens the experience. See point 1.

This is not to say Verzuz is without commercial interests (looking at you, Ciroc), but they’re organically integrated into the event. No Ciroc pack shots.

And no end card with streaming platform logos (why this even happens is beyond me). No New Album Out Now copy.

But what you will find on Verzuz is a lot of storytelling. Artists talking about their experiences, the stories behind iconic songs.

This is what connects these artists to their audience, and it’s value is immeasurable.

Storytelling is genuine, it’s real, and it does a lot more to sell records than a button.

For Us By Us

Verzuz cannot solve the challenges facing the live industry post-coronavirus. And for artists and businesses dependant on live revenue, these points may offer little solace.

However it can help point to ways this industry can move forward. Opportunities for artists to connect with fans, new formats to create enduring experiences.

As said by Timbaland in a recent interview, “We’re on it. Verzuz is bigger than us.”

– GB



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