Looking back just over a year ago live music was the norm, and millions of us attended gigs or even performed them ourselves. Since March 2020 all of my live work has been cancelled, and like so many others, have been searching for potential ways in which to still perform and earn a living. After a few tentative performances on YouTube, and occasional live pop-up shows on Instagram and Facebook, Bandcamp Live recently launched to offer a genuinely committed forum for live online gigs. So, I thought it might be of value to others to share all the information I have learnt in the last weeks preparing for my debut show, and how to embrace the joys of online streaming.
This blog post isn’t fixated on Bandcamp though, and the advice could happily work for other online streaming services such as StageIt or Twitch. At heart, you really don’t have to invest your life savings into this new adventure, as you can actually perform just as efficiently with a laptop, a webcam and microphone. Nor do you have to have studied as a sound engineer or worked as a cinematographer, with a vast budget spilling over to cameras and stage sets!
The key focus is connecting with your those who want to listen, so don’t be intimidated either. Now, there are countless other blog posts sharing advice on how to broadcast online and I won’t necessarily dwell on the basics here. A quick tap into Google will bring up everything you need. However, in learning about my own live broadcast, I’ve had numerous enquires as to how exactly I set up my own Bandcamp Live show, so thought it could be of value to share my experience.
Setting up your Bandcamp live stream
If you have a Bandcamp account most of you should be able to schedule a live broadcast. At the time of writing it’s still continuing to be expanded to everyone, so if you don’t currently have access, be patient! Under the menu at the top of the screen under ‘+add’ you will find, in addition to the familiar album, track and merch options, a new one, ‘live stream.’ Click on this, and then it’s relatively straightforward to simply follow through the guidelines. You choose a name for the event, add a photo and choose a ticket price. What’s always rewarding about Bandcamp is the level of flexibility here. Fans are always welcome to pay more than the advertised price for any product, be it an album or single, and it’s the same with live performances. In fact, some people generously paid for two tickets as they were intending on watching the show with a partner. Now, that’s touching indeed!
Once you click through, you can even test your stream as many times as you wish before the actual broadcast date, just to check that it is working okay. You need to use OBS software which might seem a little daunting first of all, but is actually very simple to set up. Again, Google is your friend here. I watched this six minute video a while back, and it immediately resolved lots of questions for me for example.
In previous live broadcasts of mine, such as Live from the Factory, I used OBS and my iPhone running an app called CameraVision which is essential. Without this app it means that all the overlay details on your screen, such as the play button, the time, your wifi network, will be visible on screen, and no-one wants to see that in the broadcast. Nor do they want to see your WhatsApp messages appearing on screen midway through the performance! The addition of a long USB cable was handy too as it means you can offer a wider overview shot of the performance.
Setting up the audio
This can be as simple or as complex as you wish for it to be. For my own personal live streams I keep a pretty simple technical set up. I have a small portable Mackie 1202 mixer with 12 inputs. I plug in all my instruments into this and output a stereo mix from this. This means I can be as flexible as I wish with my choice of instruments. I can just use two of the inputs, or all 12 if I want. I also plug my microphone into this so I can introduce the broadcast and chat when necessary to listeners. The stereo output goes into a Focusrite audio interface which is connected to my iMac.
Opening up OBS software gives you the option of choosing your audio interface for the input. It’s important to remember that OBS does not support multi-channel ASIO driver types, which means, simply put, that it will only be able to receive audio from the first two inputs of an audio device, so you will need to ensure that you connect your mixer / microphone / instrument to Input 1 or 2, or both of course. So, if you have an audio interface with 8 inputs, then anything you plug into 3, 4 and so on, will never be received by OBS. And, of course, keep an eye on the volume levels. OBS has a clear display to show you if you are turned up to 11! Remember too, if you are using an iPhone as your camera to mute the audio input from that, or else you’ll have some strange echos happening!
Remaining competitive and upgrading the quality
All of this was perfectly adequate for previous broadcasts, but I wanted to add a more professional approach here to my Bandcamp Live show, so here’s where the research really paid off. I was conscious that over the last year people have adjusted to watching more content online, so wanted to upgrade the camera quality and overall production values to remain competitive. Days of mailing back and forth to friends, researching online posts, and reading through camera forums led to these discoveries.
I felt that multiple camera views would offer a more dynamic experience for viewers. I chose to purchase the Blackmagic Atem Mini, which in essence is a camera switcher. It offers you the opportunity to create professional multi camera productions for live streaming, switching live between four high quality video camera inputs. Remember to connect the highest quality camera to input 1 as that sets the standard for the remaining 3 cameras, and only use the ‘cut’ facility, not cross-fading, to switch between the difference views. Although cross-fades look so undeniably slick, for streaming you want to always maintain the highest possible output, and a cross-fade between two images uses significantly more bandwidth than just a sharp cut, and could potentially cause drop outs, so don’t do it.
You can even build macros and use effects with the Atem Mini. That means you could programme it to move between four cameras over a certain time, which is handy if this is a one person live performance, and you want to maintain the illusion that you have an entire team operating the system for you! In actual use, the Atem Mini is remarkably simple and you barely need to glance at the manual. It uses USB-C to plug directly into your computer. So simple. I picked up a set of these USB-C adaptors, which mean you can easily re-purpose a standard USB cable, which most of us have sitting in a drawer somewhere at home!
Choosing the right camera
Now cameras were the biggest challenge. GoPro cameras from 6 onwards can work well, so something like the GoPro 8 is great. You can switch off the wide angle option in these too, so it doesn’t look like you are broadcasting from inside a fish bowl too. Beyond cameras that would simply break my bank balance, there were several key factors to keep in mind in purchasing a camera:
Aperture as wide as possible f/3.5
Shutter speed 1/60
Lens as wide as possible
Automatic white balance
Battery life and run time of the camera
All of these are key, but the first and last are absolutely essential for live streaming. As with the iPhone, you won’t want to display all of the camera settings across the screen, so you’ll need to ensure the camera outputs clean HDMI. Just as important is the run time of the camera, which is frequently limited to 30 minutes, and means that it will simply switch off after that time. Now, that’s just the kind of thing you don’t want to happen in the middle of your broadcast, as you demonstrate your dexterity on the keyboard, and then SWISH…and no-one gets to admire your awesome chops! I found this extremely helpful site that answers all the questions you might have regarding these issues. It systematically runs through many cameras and their options.
New or second-hand?
New or second hand? Well, I didn’t have the budget for new, so picked up a used Sony A6000 on eBay. Even though this camera came out in 2015 it’s still a workhorse, but what makes it especially appealing is the ability to upgrade the lens, so I can save up and improve the quality later on, with the purchase of a new lens in the future, such as the Sigma F1.4 16mm lens. I was also fortunate that my good friend, (hello Ben) was able to loan me his Sony A6000, so I had two great cameras ready for the broadcast, plus two iPhone Plus 8’s (thanks to Dutch Girl in London for the loan of the second phone).
To power the Sony A6000 I used dummy batteries that plug into the mains. I ran these on a test before the broadcast for five hours non-stop and the camera never went to sleep once, so even amateur progressive rock bands can play their opening five hour long introductions with ease, before they kick in with the rest of the show. The iPhones were a different matter though. For them to connect to the Atem Mini you need to use Apple Lightning Adaptors, which create an HDMI output, plus a mains supply, so you can keep them charged. For my live set, I decided against plugging them in to power, naively thinking that an hour or so of simply keeping it switched on would be sufficient. However, on finishing the broadcast, I noticed the battery life had dropped from 100% to 18% in that short time. Lesson learned! You will also need HDMI Mini-D cables from the A6000 camera, or whatever you use of course, into the Atem Mini, and HDMI cables from your iPhone(s) to the mixer too.
Mounting the cameras is also crucial. For the iPhones I used these handy Cell Phone Holders, which can attach to a table top, a desk, in fact any piece of furniture at the right height, and then bent into shape. Be aware of the weight of the phone too, as it will inevitably make the stand droop, so it takes a little patient adjustment to get it just right. I also picked up two adjustable camera tripods for the Sony A6000’s too, which meant I could adjust the height and angle of each camera exactly. The ones I use are lightweight, but equally strong and stable. Just like me.
Don’t be a fool and be tricked by a scammer
What you must not do is make the same foolish mistake that I did, of finding a deal that seems almost too good to be true. I was after another Sony camera and found one on Facebook Marketplace. I wrote to the seller, I downloaded the photos and checked them on Google Image Search to see if they’d been stolen from elsewhere, and engaged in a friendly conversation with the seller. They were patient enough to set up a Paypal account as they apparently never had one, but that would take a few days, and even offered for me to come and check out the camera in person in Wareham. My enthusiasm and belief in the goodness of others was just too overwhelming though, so with the exchange of bank details I transferred over a significant amount of money and ‘Natali Frei’ promised to get me the tracking number from the post office within the hour. And yes, that was the last I heard of them.
Messages back to them hours later went unanswered and it was clear that they had blocked me. I patiently waited. Perhaps they were at work now and would text me back in their tea break, but still no response. 24 hours later, and a horribly sleepless night, I was on hold to my bank, for three desperately stressful hours, numbed by the repetitive hold music and my own stupidity. Then on to Action Fraud to register the crime. Reporting it to Facebook was a fruitless task and in fact even more numbing, as the very next day I checked and the camera was still on sale. A friend wrote pretending to be interested, and they swiftly answered ‘yes the camera is still here, you can come and check it out if you want. We live in Wareham.’ And, as of today, the scam still continues and Facebook still fails to close this account down. It’s horribly dispiriting and I still feel ashamed of my stupid behaviour.
Lights make all the difference
Now, back to the positive things. Lights. Any broadcast can be vastly improved by some decent LED lights. I picked up a pair of these Neewer LED lights, which are amazing. They come with adjustable stands and ‘barn door’ flaps so you can adjust the amount of light emitted. You can adjust the intensity, the level of cool and warmth and even programme them with the remote to change them together at the very same time. I also picked up some blue and red gels off eBay to offer a more cinematic tonality to the light. Gaffa-taping them across the front of the lights, I found that red simply made me look disturbingly sick and rather than people call for an ambulance, I went with the blue one on just one Neewer light to balance against the more natural warm white light from the other light.
I rehearsed with the entire system for a while, ensuring that the lights and cameras all functioned as I anticipated. To be honest, most of the set up time was taken moving lights and cameras around trying to consider the best angles for each view. Did the public want to see my face as much as they wanted to see me wiggle some buttons and knobs on screen? Or were my dance moves as equally important? I tried my utmost to work out a balance.
Lights, Camera, but what about the Action?
And yes, the performance worked out very smoothly. Using Bandcamp Live made the entire process extremely easy. Ticket sales were steady and almost doubled on the day of the performance itself, which was a lovely surprise. As you will have read, I invested a fair amount of money in the production so that was reassuring. You can even add guests to your list, and they won’t have to negotiate with a big burly bouncer at the door! The public can ‘enter’ the gig 30 minutes before showtime and there’s even a merch ‘table’ set up so you can choose to sell some of your music to the audience as they wait. My friend Ben acted as a moderator and welcomed the audience into the chat, which would play alongside the performance. You could choose to ignore the chat of course and just enjoy the music too, by simply clicking on a button. And it meant by the end of the performance he’d collected together comments and questions which I happily spent another 30 minutes answering direct to camera.
The show itself went well and the feedback was extremely positive, and went far beyond the span of the music itself. There were numerous comments about the high quality of sound and video, and the stereo aspect of the performance proved to be a very popular talking point. Up until this moment, I had absolutely no idea if the audio was even in mono, as it is on some other streaming sites. The image also didn’t suffer from the same level of terrible compression and downgrading as happens on those platforms too. Viewers can watch the performance back again 24 hours after broadcast, which also works well for those in time zones far removed from your own, and Bandcamp gave me the loveliest surprise too when they sent me a link to download the broadcast in high quality video afterwards. That’s so handy!
In conclusion, I love you Bandcamp
There really is the sense that Bandcamp puts artists first. I was given complete control over the content and presentation of my live stream and the reward was both emotional and financial on some level. With no real idea at present of when live performances will become a viable source of income again, such solutions as this offer an invaluable resource for fan engagement and help maintain a sense of community which is certainly very strong within all manner of musical scenes. And with Brexit currently causing issues for UK musicians to travel to perform in the EU, (read all about the challenges here), it’s a viable solution too for the time-being. Here I was rather a guinea pig in some sense, as I barely know of anyone else who has used this facility as yet on Bandcamp Live, but it’s such now that I intend to repeat this on a quarterly basis now. The Scanner Sunday’s shall indeed continue.
Any questions, please just ask away. I will try my best to answer them.