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Low cost Live streaming image Photo by Nicolas LB on Unsplash

Live streaming for the arts: lo-fi and low cost options

Live streaming an event or performance might feel unattainable, but there are low-cost and low-tech options for everyone. Jason Crouch, a freelance digital consultant with expertise in live streaming and a PhD in contemporary arts and technology, shares his tips on how to get started.

Video content is everywhere, and streaming an event is now an option for anyone with a smartphone. This guide will take you through different live streaming platforms, what reach and audience each system might offer, and the differing production values you can expect to achieve.

Whatever has brought you to the idea of using live streaming, and whatever the challenges your event might bring, it’s worth giving it a try. Live streaming represents an excellent opportunity to connect an audience with your work, and the small amount of audience research that has been done so far suggests that watching live streamed theatre generates an enthusiasm to experience a live event rather than replacing it.

Choosing the best option for you
There are many different ways to live stream an event, and no single method is likely to be right every time. It’s wise to develop a series of different tools and workflows to take advantage of what each service can offer. As with any new skills – especially those involving technology – things will likely go wrong, but you’ll learn with every misstep.

Rarely does a live stream go so wrong that the audience gets nothing out of it. Indeed, often the stream will reveal something new about the work, or how the audience can engage with it.

Pretty much all affordable live streaming platforms are integrated, to a greater or lesser extent, with social media platforms. Social media is therefore key to the distribution and targeting of your live output. There is little to be gained from putting out a stream no-one is watching, so it’s important to let your audience know that you’re active and to publicise links with plenty of advance warning.

The basic platforms

  • Facebook has made live content as easy to post as a photo or a text update, and it is deeply embedded within the platform. It’s also great for stats, as it counts engagements very optimistically as users scroll past! If you’d like to count real engagements i.e. someone who has actively watched the content rather than it just flashing by, then you could use the metrics of your choice. I recommend only considering views of 10 seconds and above as ‘engagements’, alongside shares etc. This can be easily tracked in your Facebook account analytics.
  • YouTube has opened up its live streaming platform to any verified user, and offers the widest range of options and stats – as expected from the most mature video platform. To verify your channel visit youtube.com/verify; here you will need to provide YouTube with a telephone number which they will use to either call or text you a verification code. YouTube’s live streaming website interface allows you to mix video and graphics live on your computer, and the live stream output can be embedded into your own website.
  • Periscope (owned by Twitter) is a live streaming platform with audience engagement at its heart and offers a hugely geographically disparate crowd. It operates very much in-the-now, almost demanding audience reaction and interaction through text commentary and emoji feedback.

A table listing the features available in different programmes and softwareA table listing the features available in different programmes and software

Other options
These three services offer a great range of features and between them will be a good fit for most events. There are also alternatives that may be more appropriate for a particular demographic, such as Twitch for gamers, or that are a better fit for an audience you’ve already developed: if you’re using Instagram to tell visual stories, why not use Instagram Live Video to stream to your followers?

Facebook and YouTube offer a variety of privacy options (as you’d expect) which can be used to create a virtual private view, or to age-limit content. What can be particularly useful is to use privacy options to limit the audience when you’re experimenting. Both Facebook and YouTube implement audience reach through the accounts and groupings already present in their systems. So, in the case of Facebook, when you choose to post a Live Video, you’ll see the same drop-down audience lists you’d expect when posting your own pictures or comments, including any custom groups you’ve created, and with an option for the video to be visible only to you. YouTube audiences are split into public, unlisted or private, where unlisted means anyone with the link can view, whilst private limits the audience to logged-in YouTube/Google users of your choosing. Public streams and videos are available to anyone visiting YouTube. Additionally, YouTube has an option to restrict the audience of your stream to adults aged 18 and over, which operates as a kind of private group of all users of YouTube who have declared their age as over 18 on their profile.

Many of these platforms also automatically save a recording of the live stream, which can be a great way to build up an archive of your work, so it’s also worth thinking about production values.

What kit do you need?
You can live stream from a smartphone or tablet using the built-in camera and microphone, and the functionality of the Facebook, YouTube or Periscope apps. In general, this is as easy as clicking on a “Go Live” button, and requires no additional hardware or setup.

Technical limits are those of the device in use, so get close to the action to make sure the image is clear and that your microphone picks up the sound of the event rather than the background noise. External microphones designed for pocket devices, such as the Shure Motiv MV88, can be used to improve the quality and directionality of the sound. For longer events, you might want to use a tripod (or cultivate a shaky-cam aesthetic!).

A laptop, monitor, mixer and video camera set-up for a livestreamLivestreaming an event from Contact Theatre in Manchester

Other things to think about
Streaming requires an upload (sometimes called upstream) bandwidth of between 500Kbps and 4Mbps, which is well within the spec of the 4G phone standard, but too fast for a 3G connection. Be sure to test bandwidth in-situ before streaming. WiFi speeds offered by a venue may seem enough on paper, but once the event is filled with an audience – and their mobile devices – shared WiFi bandwidth may drop below the minimum necessary for a good quality signal.

Similarly, mobile coverage can vary based on time of day, building construction and location, and even weather conditions. If you’re choosing to stream using mobile data, get an all-you-can-eat bundle to avoid a stinging bill. Make sure all your gear is charged and you have charging cables to hand. Recording and streaming is pretty demanding and will suck up battery life.

Capturing the sound and video is only part of the job. Whatever system you’re using, it’s always a good idea to check the status of the stream whilst it’s live by using another device. This gives you a heads up of the sound and video quality your watchers are experiencing, and is also where you can engage with audience feedback through comments, which you might use to help fix technical problems or to fold into the artwork itself. It should be noted that all live streams have a broadcast delay of at least 10-30 seconds, so live monitoring on the platform requires some patience. It’s worth having one person at least monitoring and responding to any live feedback on your chosen platform(s) and a way of feeding that back to the person or people producing the live stream.

Remember your live stream will exist as captured content on that platform after the event, unless you choose to delete or hide the video. So its important to think about things like accessibility, digital rights and permissions. The way you deal with these issues may also be dependent on the platform you’ve chosen. For example, you can easily transcribe and add subtitles to a YouTube video after the event without re-uploading the file, but in the case of Facebook Live, you will need to make your edits and upload a new file. After uploading the new video, the original live stream will still exist as a post in the news feed, and after you’ve made your edits you’ll need to point people to the new version. You should also make sure you consider what permissions you have from artists and rights to show their work after the event (see below regarding digital rights).

Moving up a level
You can step up a gear by using a camcorder and plugging it into a hardware encoder: this is a black box designed to take the audio and video output from a camera and convert or encode it, in real time, to the correct format for the streaming platform you’re using. Camcorders have the advantage of significantly better optics than mobile devices, and are far easier to operate on a tripod to create elegant pan and zoom effects.

This combination can also offer more options to improve the audio quality, an often overlooked aspect of live streaming, by connecting your streaming setup to one or more microphones through a sound desk or the camera’s audio input. Encoders such as Epiphan’s Webcaster or Teradek’s Vidiu can be connected to the Internet through WiFi or a hard wired Ethernet connection, and to a camera through HDMI. Using this approach encourages investment in video and audio capture equipment, and also opens up opportunities to use multiple cameras and graphics sources by adding a vision mixer or switcher.

Hardware switchers, such as the Black Magic ATEM Television Studio, can accommodate multiple HDMI (and broadcast industry standard SDI) connections from cameras and computers, and are able to store a number of still images ready for use. This means switching from different video sources and inserting title cards, logos or estimated start times is a breeze, and the switcher can be used to integrate subtitles and other graphics overlays. These options combine to offer high production values with a relatively low capital cost.

Switching and encoding can also be done with software, either by using commercial products such as Wirecast or one of several free options such as Wirecast Play (YouTube only) or the open source Open Broadcaster Software (OBS). This approach offers many of the advantages of a hardware switcher, but will require a relatively high-specification computer to do the heavy lifting of switching between video sources and encoding the output.

USB webcams are pretty much plug-in and play, whilst HDMI cameras can be added using hardware connectors such as the relatively inexpensive Black Magic Intensity or Ultrastudio range. There are also apps, such as AirBeam and EpocCam, that can convert mobile phones or tablets into remote cameras which can then be inserted into the live stream (with varying degrees of reliability).

Don’t forget the rights!
The rights negotiated for the performers on stage are not automatically conferred for use in live streaming and filming for digital platforms (in fact, most of the time, they are not). If you are considering streaming a live performance or event with artists, musicians, performers, music etc. you need to be speaking early on to the live production team to see what rights have been negotiated already and what extension could be possible for live streaming and putting content on digital platforms, especially as many of these platforms will hold the content in perpetuity unless you take it down.

With so many options, and undoubtedly more to come, there is no single right way to stream your event or artwork. Experiment both to acquire skills and knowledge, and to find new ways to engage with your audience and give them the best experience of your work they can have.


Top tips

  • Choose the right platform for you, based on the type of event, the equipment you’re using and your technical knowledge
  • If you need help to set up the stream, in capturing the performance or in ensuring that the bandwidth is sufficient and working, you can hire in freelance professionals for a day or so to help you on the ground or just advise you: it depends how confident you feel with the process
  • Test everything beforehand, including all devices and software, and the internet connection
  • Have a back-up plan if things go wrong – at least a way to notify and apologise to your audience: monitoring and responding on social media platforms in real time is important
  • Charge all your devices and makes sure you have enough plug points or USB slots to keep them charged
  • Publicise your live stream so that you actually have an audience for all of your hard work and, once you are confident with running the live streams, you can ask relevant partners to promote also

Interested in live streaming? Find out how Artichoke achieved an audience reach of millions through live streaming London 1666, Learn how to take a hit theatrical show and stream it to new audiences with our case study on Complicite's The Encounter, or read about how Theatre Royal Stratford East live-streamed its Christmas show to hospices and hospitals, to allow patients and their families to enjoy a holiday treat they would otherwise have missed.

Jason Crouch holds a PhD from the Institute for Performance Research at Manchester Metropolitan University in the technology, intimacy and performance. He has worked in theatre and the performing arts for over 20 years.