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What happens to Verzuz and Instagram once the pandemic is over?

The music industry mulls how to take the best parts of online performances back to future live events

When 1.8 million people came together in November to watch the Verzuz battle between Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy live on Instagram, it was a new high for a social media music renaissance driven by lockdowns and quarantines.

But as vaccines for the coronavirus start to become available, executives in the music industry and at Instagram are starting to plan how to meld the platform and its huge audience with the hoped-for return of live concerts later this year.

“This year has been a roller-coaster ride for everyone,” said Perry Bashkoff, head of music partnerships at Instagram, which along with supporting events such as Verzuz, helps artists and record labels connect to Instagram’s 1 billion active users.

Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy set the Verzuz record for Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s battle series with 9.1 million total viewers across Instagram and Apple Music. The unlikely pairing was broadcast to the world-at-home live from the Magic City strip club in Atlanta.

Perry Bashkoff is head of music partnerships at Instagram, which along with supporting events such as Verzuz, helps artists and record labels connect to Instagram’s 1 billion active users.

Instagram

While the pandemic continues to rage, public health officials are cautiously optimistic that if enough people take the vaccine, normal life could return by the close of 2021. At that point, it’s unlikely music fans will want to stay at home glued to their phones or TVs and scrolling through their Instagram feeds. What will happen to events such as Verzuz and the online experience on Instagram once the audience is no longer captive?

Looking back, “When things like Verzuz started to really take flight, we were contending with many different factors, and it really came down to figuring out the most effective way to keep bringing these communities together on Instagram,” Bashkoff said.

And come together, they did. Almost immediately after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, celebrities and musicians took to Instagram to entertain and engage fans. Rallying around the hashtag #togetherathome, artists such as John Legend took to Instagram Live and took song requests from fans, and Elton John hosted a star-studded coronavirus relief concert on YouTube with artists performing live from their homes. Music fans eagerly ate up these live performances.

“Live was already a product that existed, obviously, but we saw renewed and evolved interest in how it was being used,” said Bashkoff.

The first event that really opened the eyes of the music industry to the new possibilities and paved the way for events such as Verzuz was D-Nice’s Club Quarantine in the spring of 2020. Hungry for the live DJ experience, hundreds of thousands of viewers joined D-Nice’s Instagram Live to experience a mix of everything from hip-hop to classic reggae hits.

Equally fascinating was who was watching. Regular music fans were joined in the chat by former first lady Michelle Obama, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, singer Kelly Rowland and countless others. Fans were excited to be part of the conversation, rather than passive viewers. (That tendency toward passiveness in adapting to new technology in the early 2000s was responsible for shrinking revenue and album sales before streaming, and companies such as Spotify and TIDAL swooped in to save the business.)

“Nothing will ever really replace the anticipation and excitement of going to a club or bar or concert venue in person. Hybrid options are a likely, possible opportunity.” — Perry Bashkoff, head of music partnerships at Instagram

Music fans loved the togetherness and ability to participate in the conversation with Club Quarantine. What started as a small gathering of 200 people watching D-Nice spin records ballooned to 100,000 music fans and celebrities alike listening to the former Boogie Down Productions member spin an eclectic mix of hits. Was it likely Obama would respond to the average music fan? No, but the possibility was there, and the experience became more than just listening to the music.

With Verzuz, the growth was exponential. The first battle between producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz was seen by 22,000 viewers on Instagram Live in March 2020. Now, some of the most prominent artists in hip-hop and R&B battle each other in front of no fewer than 500,000 viewers and often many more. Amid their second season, they recently announced that due to rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, the event would return to a format in which artists participated from separate locations, which was the case with Ashanti and Keyshia Cole on Jan. 21.

The move wasn’t entirely a bad thing. Despite the flash of the joint presentations that included sponsorship from the likes of Ciroc, many fans said they hungered for the early, rawer days of artists battling over their home Wi-Fi connections. Those early Verzuz battles were unpredictable, funny and nostalgic.

But others see the benefits of the brand growing with sponsorships and more robust presentations as a precursor to what Verzuz could become post-pandemic.

“In the beginning, we were facing cutoff issues over the two-hour mark,” said DJ Premier, who participated with RZA in one of the earliest Verzuz. “With sponsorship, the value of the whole production made it even better. I wish RZA and I had that when we did it. But it was still new and the kinks had to be worked out.”

The next logical step is in-person battle/concert events where sponsors remain. Instagram might create a “pay-for-play” model in which those unable to attend in person can still have the Verzuz experience by paying a fee for live online access. For instance, a future Verzuz event could combine the “traditional” Instagram Live aspect, offline-only experiences, and portions of the event that would be broadcast on Instagram Live only to fans who pay for full access.

“When the pandemic is over, the approach and logic to using any social media platform have to be tweaked,” said Adrian Swish, manager of Warner Records recording artist RMR and founder of independent digital music distribution startup Digital Currensy. “An outdoor streaming version of Verzuz would do well in replacing the online business model. The right combination of artists with the addition of augmented and virtual reality to enhance the experience of the live performance from your favorite artist has the potential to fill arenas and stadiums once things get back to normal.”

The reference to augmented and virtual reality is very much in the spirit of what made Verzuz so engaging in the first place. Fans weren’t just sitting in their seats watching a concert. They were engaging on multiple screens and social networks and texting their friends. They were involved in the event. Augmented reality and virtual reality could more strongly engage fans in a live concert experience by allowing them to vote for songs, convert voting for winners into games and even have their comments show on a screen onstage as the battle happens.

Much like streaming has extended the life of catalog music through channels such as TikTok, so can events such as Verzuz in a live concert atmosphere. While there is always the anticipation that builds for fans leading up to a concert, Verzuz collaborating with Instagram to take these events offline presents opportunities to build excitement, drive streams and build merchandise sales pre- and post-event. It could be similar to how the UFC showcases preliminary fights on free TV as it teases the pay-per-view main event. Instagram could employ a similar model with Verzuz, where offline events have pre-show DJs or opening acts that people can access for free on Instagram Live with a paid model for the full event. It drives additional revenue for everyone involved, retains the excitement and unpredictability of the Verzuz events and presumably would drive growth for Instagram.

Rapper Gucci Mane attends the official Verzuz after party at Compound on Nov. 20, 2020 in Atlanta.

Prince Williams/Wireimage

“Nothing will ever really replace the anticipation and excitement of going to a club or bar or concert venue in person,” said Bashkoff. “Hybrid options are a likely, possible opportunity.” Those hybrid options and the opportunity Bashkoff speaks of are when Instagram works with the offline concert and entertainment venues to keep its user base engaged. Whether they’re at home, a concert or a bar, more engaged users mean more opportunity to sell ads and generate revenue.

Artists have long used social media to create engagement, drive streams and excite fan bases. Still, even they are surprised at how engaged fans were in events such as Verzuz.

“I knew that RZA and I have huge fan bases, but it definitely reached beyond my expectations,” said DJ Premier.

This may be the most significant learning for the music industry coming out of this pandemic. Yes, the industry can still sell out concerts, drive streams and push merchandise and bundles on fans. Still, the pandemic-driven, Instagram-fueled music renaissance has shown that fans hunger not only for something different but also to be significantly closer to the artists. They want to participate rather than being a passive viewer.

Being able to broadcast a Verzuz concert to fans worldwide and monetize it is a game-changer for the music industry. So would be allowing fans not in attendance to help shape the set list. For fans physically in attendance, they could potentially request to be in the artists’ live video, much like they do today on Instagram. Imagine being in the crowd and being able to interact with the artists while they’re battling live onstage.

The pandemic has allowed the music business to have a reset of sorts. New brands such as Verzuz and the explosion in tools such as Instagram Live will remain once live concerts are back. It’s yet another crossroads for the music industry, much like the transition from physical music sales to digital and streaming.

And unlike streaming, where the music industry missed its opportunity to own the next phase of the business, the industry now has a chance to learn from events such as Verzuz and Club Quarantine. The record labels could take the lead in creating a multichannel, combined online and offline experience with Instagram that makes fans a part of the event and puts them closer to artists. They can do this by bringing what fans love about the online experiences that Instagram has empowered during the pandemic, namely unpredictability, such as the celebrity drop-ins of D-Nice’s Club Quarantine, and the heavy fan interaction that was the Verzuz concert series, and creating new concert experiences that whether at home or live, fans will want to be a part of.

Adam Aziz is a writer and publicist living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @brokencool.