In March 2020, when the world came crashing down, for a little while, all I wanted to do was hide under a rock. But Robert’s instincts immediately kicked in, and he was clear that we needed to continue each one of our programs and not miss a beat, to keep people connected and give everyone something to hold on to. We had been planning for years, and investing in infrastructure to livestream broadcast from our live events, so our technology infrastructure was already present. We had invested in high quality cameras, video gear, streaming software, microphones, lighting and more. We also have talented videographers with technical expertise on our core team, so we were in a unique position to pivot our work.
When we first went into quarantine, the scariest time of the whole pandemic in my opinion, the first thing we thought to do was pull out shows from our archives, that we had recorded in our venue “The Room Upstairs,” to give people comfort and to continue the creative connection. I introduced the concert “Masterpiece Theater” style, I like to call it. I sat in a comfortable chair and just spoke to the audience from my heart. I was scared, and I also felt a deep responsibility to strike the right tone, with the severity and seriousness of what was happening, and all the people that were suffering and frightened, I knew that I needed to hold that as I went on camera to beam my face into people’s newsfeeds on Facebook. We edited the video and then uploaded it as a “Premiere,” and that streams as a LIVE video, which creates the excitement of a real-time program, and allows the community to react to the video together in real-time. Watch that very first live program here.
**I really love using that Video Premiere feature. It allows you to create a video and edit it exactly how you want it, yet have the excitement of a live broadcast that the community can watch together.**
The next thing we did was debut our Virtual Open Mic Night, since Open Mic is such a vital part of our creative community. Every Monday pre-pandemic was our regular gathering, and it really has kept our community glued together all these years. That regular opportunity for connection and creative expression is the foundation upon which our scene was built, we wanted to keep that tradition alive. The format we chose was to have artists submit their videos; we recorded introductions, edited the performances together as one long video, and then streamed it as a live premiere. This was great for artists to have a reason to prepare a performance, and for the audience to enjoy, and connect with others in the comments section. We created an intro sequence with a song from one of our favorite songwriters. You can check out the 1st Open Stage Night, Virtual Edition here.
As nice as this was, it took a lot of time to do, and eventually we needed to take a step back. We were creating Virtual Open Stage on Mondays, Live in the Room Upstairs on Friday, and we even started a program called “RiffRaff Happy Hour” to give folks a positive energy boost on Wednesdays during quarantine, but after a few weeks we realized we were asking too much of ourselves. It’s as though we were creating a ton of work for ourselves to distract us from what was happening.
A few times, we hosted Open Mic’s on Zoom, and those provided a different kind of connected exchange, perhaps even more meaningful. Even though the audio and technical side of performing on Zoom has its challenges and lacks the smoothness of a pre-recorded video, this format allows people to have a face-to-face exchange, if only in 1D.
The recommendations I have for Zoom Open Mic are:
- When you promote, make sure to let people know they can share a song, tell a joke or story, dance in their living room, whatever they feel called to share, and they are also welcome to just come to listen. Mention that if there are young people present, they’ll need to be mindful and choose their material accordingly
- Greet everyone as they come in to the virtual space. Create a waiting room, and consider only letting one person in at a time so you can greet everyone as they arrive.
- As people enter the room, let them know that if they’d like to perform, they should write their name in the chat. Take those names and make a list, just like you would do for a regular open mic night, and and post it in the chat. Let people know we'll be going in the order of the list in the chat. Note, people who come in late or after you've posted the list won't be able to see the chats before they arrived, so you might want to post that list periodically and add anyone to it that arrives late and wants to perform.
- Remind people to stay on mute until it’s their turn.
- Instead of having people do full sets, like you would in a live setting, consider going in order of the list, around the “virtual” circle and let people do one piece at a time. This creates a nice balance and breaks up the monotony.
- As a host, call on people when it’s their turn and give positive feedback. Allow others a chance to give positive feedback as well.
Another thing we did in the early days of the pandemic was just a little video check-in from our downtown, letting everyone know we missed them, and giving the businesses a chance to say hello to everyone. This went a long way, and was quite touching for people in those days when we were all totally isolated. We did this periodically on special days like First Fridays to keep everyone feeling connected to the neighborhood.
As the days and months carried on, the time came when our big annual events would begin. The first was our Earth Day Festival in April--a 16 year tradition. We knew we wanted to honor that special occasion and really go all out; that was our first major online festival. We included music performances, live panel discussions, showcases of environmental organizations, craft activities, and more, a virtual version of the actual event. It was a 7 hour broadcast, lasting about as long as the live event would. It was so exciting! It really gave everyone a feeling of togetherness. That program had over 4,000 views.
We ended up making broadcasts for each of our 6 major events in 2020 and 2021. We poured our hearts into creating events that would capture the feeling of each tradition, and would present the same kind of content as the events themselves. These ended up being epic, multi-hour broadcasts, and as much as we hope it kept our audiences and communities that love the events connected, it gave us something to create and sink our creative focus into. The long-form videos made it harder to maintain audiences for the duration, but for us, these broadcasts were more about honoring the traditions and allowing people to experience a full event virtually that somewhat mimicked or echoed the content of the live events. You can watch many of those broadcasts at theriffraff.net/recent-projects, and you can see all of our live events on our Facebook videos page.
At first, we were just streaming our broadcasts on Facebook using the "premiere" feature, but then we realized we could stream to multiple platforms by using an external streaming software like Restream and Scheduler. Where we went with events from this point actually became quite technically complex. We got more elaborate, and incorporated live and pre-recorded elements into the broadcasts along with some higher tech elements. While I can’t really detail the process for you here, if anyone out there is curious to talk with us about how we produced these broadcasts, we’d be happy to share a conversation with you.
What we learned:
- Long-form video captured engagement during the quarantine, when people were captive in front of their screens, but that moment has passed. It’s back to short form content for engagement with people’s short attention spans!
- People love to engage with content that features people and places they know and love!
- We should encourage people to engage in the comments section, since that is where the connection and conversation can occur. Encourage them throughout the program to engage!
- Quick, simple video greetings that show you care can go a long way.
- Streaming to Youtube as well as Facebook allows people to watch on their Smart TV!
- Marking our annual traditions kept them alive. Anytime you cannot do an event for any reason, a video broadcast on the date of that event can keep people connected with that tradition, so they’ll be ready when it comes back!
**CLICK HERE for tips and tricks on creating quality video content; learn about composition, audio, and lighting.**
Please reach out to us if you'd like to ask us anything about the broadcasts and what we've learned. We're happy to share a conversation with you and talk through any challenges you face.