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Phish: 4 Nights in 4K

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Nugs.net works with Akamai to deliver subscription, download, and live audio and video not just for Phish but for all its customers, including Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, and Pearl Jam. “The only thing we don’t use them for is the CDs,” says Serling, referring to the physical disc versions of concerts that a surprising number of fans still want. “And if we could pay Akamai to do that, we would.”

You Enjoy Myself

Nugs.net works with dozens of bands these days, but Serling started the site as a way of sharing digital versions of the shows he and his network of tapers had recorded. “20 years ago I was here seeing Phish on Halloween, but taping it,” he says. “By 2000, Nugs.net got so popular that the band’s lawyer called me and said, ‘We need to shut you down or go into business.’ Because we were doing three million downloads a month in free MP3s.”

Phish went on hiatus not long after, and when they came back on New Year’s Eve of 2002, “that’s when Nugs.net became a business out of what I was doing just for fun,” Serling says. But Serling’s streaming bona fides go back even further, to 2000 when he was CTO of CinemaNow, which was the first streaming movie service to sign deals with the major film studios.

Nugs.net started as a download business but has since branched out to provide live audio and video streaming, and regularly pursues innovative approaches. With LivePhish, for instance, ticketholders can scan their ticket stubs with the app and unlock a free download of the show they just saw. For most of the artists working with Nugs.net, Serling says it’s not primarily profit-driven, but rather a way to super-serve their fans. “Bruce doesn’t need the money, but one of the reasons he wanted to work with us was because he saw what fans were doing on YouTube and said, ‘We can do this better’.”

Akamai’s Broadcast Operations Control Center is designed for high-profile live events that require proactive monitoring and live support. Phish used the BOCC for the first time for its 4K Halloween webcast.

Springsteen hasn’t moved beyond audio downloads, but like most artists who work with Nugs .net, he gives fans the option to download in a wide range of audio quality, from MP3 all the way up to better-than-CD quality lossless files. LivePhish offers the same range of audio quality, both for per-show downloads and in the LivePhish+ subscription service. Nugs.net offers a wider subscription that’s $12.99 a month for MP3 quality and $24.99 a month for better-than-CD quality, Serling says. “We see a 21% opt-in rate when people sign up, going for the $24.99 a month service, which is crazy,” he says. “High-resolution files are for audiophiles with the right gear, who can really appreciate it.”

Water in the Sky

Given Phish fans’ obsession with quality, it’s no surprise that the band eventually wanted to start streaming shows in 4K. In early 2018, Nugs.net approached Phish’s management about the possibility of streaming 4K for the band’s annual festival, Curveball, scheduled for Watkins Glen, NY, in August.

“Around the same time, we decided to upgrade our nightly video production to 4K end to end, so it made sense to experiment with a 4K webcast,” says Red Light Management’s Colton. Everything was in place for the outdoor event—campers had even begun arriving and setting up their tents— when the band had to cancel Curveball because a week of rain and flooding had resulted in a contaminated water supply. The band, fans, and crew were gutted, but the planning paid off in the long run.

In addition to working with Phish, Nugs.net offers live streams and downloads from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, and Dead and Company.

“All the preparation on the production and technical delivery side we had done for the festival paid off for Halloween in Las Vegas,” Serling says. “The biggest difference was indoor versus outdoor, but other than that, the testing we had done with Akamai prior to the festival was helpful ... when we into Vegas to try it live for the first time.”

Blaze On

Viewers in general are embracing 4K, and Akamai’s chief architect of media cloud engineering Will Law says that he thinks 4K adoption will follow the same growth curve that HD has.

“Rewind to NAB 4 years ago, when everyone was showing off their new 1080p encoder,” he says. “That pattern is just repeating itself, and I believe the trajectory will continue to 8K. We’ll look back on 4K as the comfort zone.” He says he thinks 4 to 5 years is a reasonable time frame in which to expect 4K to become ubiquitous at the top end of many bitrate stacks.

For a CDN like Akamai, the move to 4K doesn’t represent as much of a change as it does for other segments of the streaming workflow. “We don’t have to change anything in our delivery structure to accommodate it,” he says. “The planning is no different than for 720p or 1080p in the past. Features which complicated encoding, such as HDR and HFR, are opaque when passing through a CDN. Segments holding 4K content look identical to HD segments, albeit at a higher bitrate.”

The biggest challenges come in terms of codec choices and how those impact the overall bitrate. “If you’re using AVC [H.264] at 4K resolution you can easily use bitrates of up to 20Mbps or higher,” Law says. “Switching to a more efficient codec lowers throughput pressure but introduces new complexity of content management. Can all the devices that I’m targeting play back HEVC, or is it a mixture, and so I have to generate both formats? If you’re doing on-prem encoding, your egress can double because you have to output representations using both AVC and HEVC.”

Tomorrow’s Song

The 4 nights in Vegas went off without a hitch, and while Phish won’t share exactly how many fans watched the webcast, Serling said that on the first night, 14% opted for the 4K stream. That’s not far off from the 21% of LivePhish+ subscribers who opt for the high-resolution audio. Phish hasn’t announced any plans for future 4K, but with the first one under its collective belt, the band and its partners are clearly in a great position to do it more frequently.

[This article appears in the April/May 2019 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "Phish: 4 Nights in 4K."]

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