Lockdown livestreaming: on-air cooking and the perils of a low battery

Paul Hutchinson
Paul Hutchinson performs at Live at NOT the Oval Tavern

When the last copy of Folk London plopped onto our doormat, it already seemed to refer to a long-distant era when we could sing, play, dance and listen together. We’ve been on a steep learning curve since then to try to keep the folk flame burning.

Our very exciting spring season of events in Croydon has perforce taken a swerve of direction, but we’ve been stunned and moved by the generosity of the folk community. We had a ceilidh planned at Stanley Halls, featuring an excellent local Irish band, Homebrood, for the week of St Patrick’s Day, but as March loomed we decided to postpone it until May, when we thought all of “this” would be over.

Quite a lot of people thought we were being overcautious, but as event organisers we didn’t want to be responsible for potentially putting people in danger. We also cancelled our regular ukulele jam and choir rehearsals, as there had been some evidence that singing collectively was a hazardous activity: lots of open mouths in close proximity and deep breathing to suck the “miasma” into the respiratory system.

The horse racing at the Cheltenham Festival went ahead as planned as we shook our heads disapprovingly and hoped we’d be wrong, but we take no pleasure in our hindsight.

We managed to put on two gigs in early March but felt very twitchy about them. We didn’t want to pull the concerts: the artists had booked their Travelodges (other budget accommodation brands are available) on cheap, non-refundable rates; Boris Johnson had advised people not to go to pubs but not forced the pubs to close, so our venue was feeling the financial pinch; life was starting to get a bit miserable and a good night out was what we all needed.

‘Our initial “Let’s do a quick test on Facebook at 7.30pm and then go live at 8.05pm” was almost
a recipe for disaster’

However, without wishing to sound rude, many of our regulars are of a certain age, and we felt obliged to welcome people at the door with: “I know it sounds daft, but please could you go downstairs and wash your hands before going to the bar, and can you make sure you leave the chairs where we’ve put them, further away from each other than usual … and definitely no copping off with anyone tonight, please!”

We took this responsibility to proceed very seriously, trying to do as obsessive a risk assessment as possible without making the whole gig experience a misery-fest.

Putting on concerts takes a lot of time and preparation in any case, but this was a whole new level of caution. For instance, we’d had a 15-minute discussion about how to handle card payments for people who wanted to pay on the door: should we have a roll of clingfilm to hand, to cover the keypad anew for each person, or should we ask people to pay for tickets in separate transactions, thus ensuring they could use the hands-free option? We limped on and managed to put on Billy Mitchell and Bob Fox on 12 March, and then Blue Rose Code on 13 March (a Friday!).

Our next event was supposed to be on 19 March but we already knew it wasn’t going to take place as we’d planned as our booked artist, the ace klezmer clarinettist Michael Winograd, had had to leave his German tour very suddenly and head back to New York before Donald Trump closed the borders.

Disappointed, we also breathed a guilty sigh of relief, as we realised that underneath it all we hadn’t really want to do this gig on the date in question: this was still a few days before Johnson made the pubs close. We’d been staying in ourselves, being ultra-­careful as I have asthma, but had enjoyed a YouTube gig by the Mary Wallopers on St Patrick’s Day.

We had some online chats with Michael, bored and holed up in quarantine at home in Brooklyn, trying to work out whether to cancel completely and refund ticketholders or postpone and set a new date. While chatting we mused on what good quality our trans-Atlantic phone call was and then the penny dropped: if we could use Facebook (other social media platforms are available) to have a chat then it might be good enough to hear a clarinet … or even have a video call … and if it was good enough for that, then maybe streaming his playing on Facebook Live might work, like the YouTube gig we’d watched the previous night.

Poor Michael, cooped up for a fortnight, was so utterly bored that he was keen to give it a go. We suspect he might have agreed to do almost anything to relieve the tedium! That way the gig could still go ahead – but live from his Brooklyn living room, not from the Oval Tavern in south London.

We contacted our ticketholders and suggested they “tuned in” at the appointed time, but did offer them their money back, keenly aware that they’d paid for a full live experience and they weren’t quite going to get what they’d anticipated.

We’d usually have given our visiting artists a soundcheck time with our expert engineer, Quentin Fletcher, but most people almost don’t need it, as they are so used to what they are doing. We didn’t really take into account at first that this was new to us, to Quentin and to Michael, so our initial “Let’s do a quick test on the FB event page at 7.30pm and then go live for real at 8.05pm,” was almost a recipe for disaster.

Luckily for us, Michael had done some experimenting and we winged our first tech check with some really useful input from Quentin – only for Michael to realise midway through a tune when playing live for real that he hadn’t plugged his iPhone in and his battery was getting low. If you watch it back, you’ll see the penny drop in his eyes.

It turned out to be less of a gig and more an “at home” with him, even though we were 3,400 miles away! We asked for voluntary contributions via PayPal, and people were kind, paying roughly what we’d expected to charge on the door, so we were able to give him a decent fee.

We’d learned our lesson and decided to speak with the next artist a few days before to check everything was working. This was with Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, who also did his homework (thank you Cohen!) and decided he wasn’t happy with the sound quality he could get by livestreaming on his phone: you need a fancy phone and good broadband upload speeds to do a gig live, and he very sensibly opted to record the whole thing slightly in advance, on the day of the gig, on a good-quality camera and then to release it at the time his live gig in the pub ought to have been.

It was lovely sound and vision quality, but we worried that we’d lose the magical interactive feeling of doing it live. Cohen very kindly stayed online and watched his own gig (which must have been a peculiar feeling!) and interacted in the typed chat section with his viewers, which was beyond the call of duty, but made the audience feel he was playing for them rather than at them.

Benji Kirkpatrick and the Excess were due to come the following Thursday, but we only managed to get the Benji bit. He absolutely got into the interactive spirit of it, and enjoyed it so much we eventually had to tell him to stop playing! He has obviously seen the potential of livestreaming as he’s got other events lined up, and for that reason he’s decided not to keep his “Live at NOT The Oval Tavern” video up on his page for posterity.

Michael, Cohen and Benji had originally been due to come to our lovely venue, the Oval Tavern in Croydon, to play a “real” gig, and we’d gone online with those purely because we didn’t want to disappoint people.

But by now we’d seen that this was working better than we’d expected: a few older people we knew locally who loved folk music but rarely ventured out after dark were tuning in and some people we knew who lived too far away from Croydon and always sent us envious messages when we announced our programme also joined us.

We’d built up a nice little routine after three online gigs and it seemed a shame to stop when we had some momentum, so we decided to ask a few other people if they fancied doing something in a similar vein. Indeed, we’re still asking: at time of writing I have just been talking to a rather famous bagpipe player about the possibility of doing a date in June.

The shows so far

Michael Winograd: hot klezmer clarinet from New York
Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne: exciting young Midlander playing virtuoso concertina and melodeon
Paul Hutchinson: accordionist with a unique style, famous from Belshazzar’s Feast
Julia Biel featuring Idris Rahman: a mix of Billie Holiday and Amy Winehouse, featuring super-sensual sax
Dan Camalich: energetic Irish tunes from Croydon
fiddler, part of local band Homebrood
Briga: tunes and songs from around the world. Part two is here – we had an outage halfway through. Told you something always goes wrong!

Thus after a bit of gentle arm-twisting, we then had a lovely gig from Paul Hutchinson, who usually comes to us in December with Belshazzar’s Feast. It was nice to hear him playing on his own for a change, and on a warm and not frosty evening. He very kindly donated his fee to help the venue feed nutritious meals to staff at the local hospital, Croydon university hospital.

He had his family as audience, duet partner and indeed wine pourer, and he’d thought hard about his backdrop and lighting, all of which created a lovely warm atmosphere. Thank you, Paul, for being up for a new challenge and for your generosity.

We branched out into a bit of jazz the following week, with the acclaimed singer-songwriter Julia Biel, featuring Idris Rahman, who are both local. If we were hard-nosed impresarios we’d have data about the extent to which anyone who’d got accustomed to tuning in on Thursdays turned up for that despite its not being folk, and equally, how many of her fanbase have subsequently watched some more of our events, but we can’t do everything!

We’d had some big names already and felt it right to celebrate local Croydon talent too, so Homebrood’s energetic fiddle player Dan Camalich entertained us the following week. He’s a great teacher as well, if anyone in south London is looking to learn some tunes.

Then we went international again with the award-winning Canadian Balkan-specialist violinist Briga, who charmingly roped in her family in the kitchen, and went one better than Paul’s wine by including cooking a meal in the show: as she says, the best cooking is done with love and the same goes for music.

By the time you read this we’ll have “hosted” Will Pound, Bob Davidson (the Homebrood accordionist) and Phil Doleman, with Ilana Cravitz and James Delarre booked for June and other big names in the pipeline.

We can’t see lockdown being lifted for the foreseeable future, so we’ll just keep going. We must also thank one of our regular audience members, Lucy, for buying a virtual “season ticket” in advance!

And once this is over, we might still live­stream anyway – it is a great way to see gigs if you (or the artist) cannot get to the venue in person.

So please do join us on Facebook. We are aware that not everyone uses Facebook, and that’s a discussion we’ve been having, but there are drawbacks with other platforms so this seems the best way forward for us at the moment.

Some tips on livestreaming:

• Practise setting up events on your chosen platform, and give clear instructions to your audience how to get to the stream. For example, on Facebook videos pop up in the Discussion tab of each event, not the About tab, and may be difficult to find without guidance. Expect lots of “but where is the stream?” questions otherwise.

• Do a rehearsal in advance – consider making a private “rehearsal room” group in your chosen social media, so keenies who tune in early don’t get to see soundcheck. If you have anyone who’s got good IT or sound skills, put them in the group and let them work with the artist well in advance at a mutually convenient time to get everything right. Check about half an hour before you go live that everyone is happy, though, just as you would for a “real” gig.

• Be prepared to give time to going through the technology with the artists – and don’t assume that younger musicians are technical wizards and that more mature ones will struggle. Have detailed information to give them as a guide, which they can use if they need it. Include screenshots so they can check their screen matches what you think they are doing. Something will probably go wrong anyway, but all you can do is your best. If it does go wrong stay calm, let the artist or your tech support person sort it out and keep your audience happy by explaining that you’re working on fixing the problem.

• Curate the event on behalf of the artist by adding chat comments, answering questions and keeping the audience engaged. It is difficult enough for the artist just performing and they will be grateful for such support.

Don’t expect artists to perform for free: at least provide a PayPal link so people can make voluntary contributions and plug it after each song. You may be surprised how generous people can be.

• Encourage the artist to read the comments between tunes so it feels more interactive. They might even take requests! Use the chat column to thank contributors when you notice a payment pop in. If you don’t ask, you don’t get: as they say in the north-east, “shy bairns get nowt.” If you are lucky and you know the artists personally, you might be able to persuade and encourage, but if the artist seems uncomfortable about the whole thing, do respect that.

• Make the artist co-host of the event, and get them to actively promulgate the event to their fanbase. Maybe get them to record a test video as a trailer.

• Keep the links for the videos – you’d be surprised how many people stumble across them later, watch and still contribute money to the artist even a month or so after the gig.

Live at NOT the Oval Tavern is at facebook.com/TheUkuleleOtherMachines on Thursdays from just after 8pm

This article appeared in Folk London 307, June-July 2020