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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. At a time when social distancing prevents gatherings in real life, the advances in digital communications can help us get together in virtual theatres and share experiences and stories. 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 certainly worth giving it a try. Live streaming is an excellent opportunity to connect to 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. Each different platform and combination of equipment reveals a particular way your audience experiences and interacts with the performance you’re making. This might be the difference between an intimate direct to camera address, the use of a head-mounted GoPro for a POV shot, or by streaming an audio-only experience to an audience with their eyes firmly shut.

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. Right now, there are an increasing number of online resources showcasing where this work can be found, and this is a great time to reach out and ask to be added to one of the live-stream calendars.

These channels are also vital to let your audience know of any technical problems mid-stream, and can be used to invite audience participation during, pre- and post-show.

Platforms, or where can I stream?

There are an ever-increasing number of live video platforms from the behemoths like YouTube and Facebook to more specialised or localised products such as China's BiliBili and gamer focused Twitch.tv. I'd encourage you to experiment with any platform you think might be a good fit with the type of work you make. It’s only by learning through doing that you’ll figure out which tools work and how each one changes the audience experience.

For the sake of brevity, I’m going to split the various platforms into three categories of Broadcast, Mobile and Webinar. There is some cross-over between these categories, but they should help you think about what to experiment with first.

Broadcast streaming platforms such as Facebook Live and YouTube have comprehensive feature sets and are available on the widest variety of devices. They also, as expected have considerable social media integration.

  • Facebook has made live content as easy to post as a photo or a text update, and it is deeply embedded within the platform. Facebook counts engagements very optimistically as users scroll past and if you’d rather count a more realistic measure of engagement  i.e. someone who has actively watched the content rather than it just flashing by, then you should look at tweaking their settings. 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. You can verify your channel by visiting 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.

Mobile streaming services such as Periscope and Instagram Live operate direct from your smartphone or tablet, offer great in-app engagement opportunities but in terms of flexibility they are largely limited to the hardware built into your device.

  • 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.
  • Instagram Live alerts your Instagram followers to any new Live activity, and, like Periscope, lets you see watcher stats and reactions during your broadcast. Insta features like face filters are available, and there’s even an option to add guests.
  • YouTube (mobile). There is of course a ubiquitous YouTube mobile app, however you will find yourself unable to stream from mobile unless you have more than 1,000 subscribers to your channel, which is also the baseline subscriber number you’ll need before you can monetise your stream.

Webinar software is often used in learning environments, either for broadcasting a one-to-many stream to an invited audience, or operating like a multi-user video chat for workshops and more interactive settings. Video conferencing software makers unsurprisingly dominate the sector, with one of the most popular platforms being Zoom. The advantages to artists and audiences include elegant options to manage user numbers, create interactivity, and streamline payment. Unlike the broadcast and mobile platforms I’ve mentioned above, to get the best out of webinar platforms you’ll need to subscribe to the service.

  • Zoom is probably best known as a maker of video conferencing software, although once you’re equipped with their webinar plugin you can broadcast to multiple simultaneous users. Requires installation of the mobile or desktop app to watch. Information about pricing and features is found here.
  • CrowdCast is designed to connect groups of participants both large and small and includes numerous interactivity tools. Its easy to use, and even has a “green room” feature that lets you check everything looks good before you go live. More information about pricing can be found here.

A scene from Theatre Uncut - Bubble - Broadcast live on FacebookA scene from Theatre Uncut 's production of Bubble - Broadcast live on Facebook

Other options

These different types of service offer a great range of features and between them you'll be able to find one that will be a good fit for most events. There are also alternatives that may be more appropriate for a particular audience or demographic, Eg. Twitch is a platform built for gamers, yet it’s increasingly common to see stand up comedians using it to broadcast to their fans.

Privacy and security

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.

What can be particularly useful is to use privacy options to limit the audience when you’re experimenting. Try using an unlisted or private stream to test its quality yourself before going live to an audience.

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

Technical considerations
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. If you’re using a computer to stream, see if you can't arrange a hard wired ethernet connection, direct to the router.

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 must make sure you consider what permissions you have from artists and rights to show their work after the event (see below regarding digital rights). This is particularly important for music rights. Unlike the PRS collection used for events and theatre shows there is no unified method of securing rights to play commercial music as part of your livestream, and even if such rights are secured they are likely to be expensive. Use your own compositions, or investigate the many royalty free or inexpensive sources of music available around the Internet.

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.

These types of options, where you glue together your various tech items into a makeshift TV studio, work well with some platforms but are (almost) impossible to use with others. Streaming via a computer or encoder to YouTube, Facebook live and even Crowdcast is relatively easy, but very tricky to do with (say) Instagram Live. If you’re wedded to a platform, check out what’s possible on that particular platform before buying into more equipment.

Using a camera and encoder can also offer more options to improve the audio quality, an often overlooked aspect of live streaming. You can do this 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 using HDMI. 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 HD, 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.

A new member of the Black Magic ATEM family is the ATEM mini, an inexpensive switching device that also incorporates a USB interface that allows you to stream directly into your computer, operating essentially as a superhero webcam. As its price point indicates it is not as feature filled as its more expensive stablemates, but the direct to computer interface is (almost) worth the price of entry alone.

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. With the ATEM mini’s USB interface you can get the best of both worlds here by using the switcher as the source for the stream, this offloads a bunch of the heavy lifting to the switcher, leaving the laptop to deal with the logistics of the stream.

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).

OBS has a plugin which allows you to add wireless or tethered smartphones into the mix, and the Studio and Pro version of Wirecast even have a guest mode,
Rendezvous, which lets you add multiple remote streams to the broadcast.

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.

Find out more - read our digital rights toolkit.

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

  • Experiment, experiment, experiment. Only by learning through doing will you discover the best tools for the work you want to share.
  • Initially, choose the right platform for you, based on the type of event, the equipment you’re using and your own 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

Livestreaming feature summaryLivestreaming platforms - summary of features

Nesta Blog, 2014 “What impact does live broadcasting have on theatre attendance?”
URL: https://www.nesta.org.uk/blog/what-impact-does-live-broadcasting-have-th...
  Age restriction requires users to be logged into their platform accounts
  Note that YouTube currently limit livestreaming from their App to those whose channels have an audience of over 100 subscribers

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.