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Live Entertainment Goes Online, but Sometimes More Is Less
A world of entertainment is available for armchair travelers, but video streaming can harm the intimacy of a live show.
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Like any seasoned conference traveler -- or at least any I'd want to spend any time with -- I try to take advantage of the cultural offerings available after the sessions and the networking wind down. London? Great theater. Copenhagen? Always great music, either in town or across the bridge in Malmo. Munich? Great art museums. And, of course, New York City, which is a bounty of all the above.

And so it was during this year's Streaming Media East, which was held in May. Over the course of 4 days, I was able to take in an exhibition of the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera's rarely shown portable murals at the Museum of Modern Art; grab a front-row seat at the intimate Joe's Pub in NoHo for the underrecognized genius of Texas singer Ray Wylie Hubbard (imagine a combination of Townes Van Zandt, William Blake, and Buddha); and catch a show in Williamsburg by The Gaslight Anthem, one of the best young rock bands working today.

So what's any of this got to do with online video? Well, even if I hadn't been able to snag a last-minute ticket at the box office a half-hour before showtime (only chumps use StubHub), I'd have been able to watch the whole thing webcast live on Livestream. When I talked to one of the Livestream techs during the concert, he said they had slightly more than 3,000 viewers; it's now archived at http://new.livestream.com/thegaslightanthem/LivefromNYC, with 18,000-plus views and counting. Not record-breaking numbers by any means, but very respectable for a band whose last album peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

In its own way, the internet -- and online video in particular -- has turned the entire world into a virtual New York City. If you want to see your favorite band, watch your favorite TV show, or view world-famous works of art, you can find virtually anything you want just a few mouse clicks away. Indeed, much of the hype about online video is that it broadens the availability of all manner of content and breaks down barriers to communication, meaning that people all over the world have almost direct access to things they'd previously only been able to read or hear about secondhand. (Or had to travel to see -- The Gaslight Anthem is the band I saw in Sweden in 2010, but I certainly wouldn't have been able to afford to make the trip had it not coincided with other travel.)

But after seeing The Gaslight Anthem put on a particularly energetic show that night, I pondered the question of whether the fact that it was being webcast didn't actually limit what the band was willing to communicate that night. Lead singer Brian Fallon even jokingly compared streaming a gig with being the kind of celebrity who's too cool to show up to an awards show and instead appears via video message, so clearly he was conscious of both the possibilities of webcasting and the fact that it means that a webcast concert isn't the same as a limited-access, in-person-only show.

In fact, many in attendance were hoping the band would use the show to preview material from its upcoming album, Handwritten, which the group had just completed recording and expects to release in July. Instead, we got a fairly standard set list, with the only new additions being the band's just-released single "45" and "Biloxi Parish," a tune the band had premiered live in Australia more than a year ago.

I'm not really complaining; a set list full of surprises doesn't automatically make for a great show, and this was indeed a great show. But I couldn't help but wonder if, had the Williamsburg concert not been webcast, The Gaslight Anthem might have felt more comfortable showing off unreleased material, without fear that it was going to be shared across the world instead of just with 550 of its biggest fans.

This column originally appeared in the June/July 2012 issue of Streaming Media under the title "When More Is Less."