While watching countless Instagram Lives in the midst of quarantine — from Diplo to Martha Stewart — advertising technology executive Evan Wayne noticed a pattern. Between latency issues, lower-than-expected turnout and off-topic or even negative comments, the experience was never entirely seamless for the artist or the fan.
Livestreaming through social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook has “created a social norm within those platforms of trolling in the comments,” notes Wayne, 39. Watching Stewart struggle and seeing just over a thousand people tune into a virtual Diplo set reaffirmed his belief that when it comes to livestreams, artists often have to sacrifice control and quality for ease and access.
Which is exactly why Wayne had launched a brand new, frictionless livestreaming platform called Key at the end of 2019. The Chicago-based company delivers intimate experiences similar to those seen on IG Live and Facebook without requiring users to download anything at all, with one important differentiator: it’s pay-per-stream, with a starting fee of just $2.99.
On Key’s most basic scale, fans can pay up front to watch an artist debut a song live in the studio, or virtually sit in on a songwriting session. But brands can also use Key to make big marketing moves — from owning and selling virtual experiences, like bringing fans backstage or on a tour bus, to sponsoring an artists’ virtual tour.
By requiring fans to pay up front for such access, Key eliminates any potential awkwardness an artist might face having to ask for tips or donations. Plus, talent is paid within 48 hours and can either keep or donate their profits (Key typically pockets 25% with talent receiving 75%, though it’s a situational and still-developing model). After a suggested 45-day holding period, talent owns their content 100%.
In the year leading up to Key’s launch, Wayne (CEO) and his co-founder Stephanie Biegel (CSO), a longtime friend and fellow ad-tech pro, secured investments from around 150 people “from every type of background,” says Wayne. Key’s advisors range from data analysts for Nielsen and ESPN to talent managers to Oprah Winfrey’s longtime CMO, Harriet Seitler. And currently, Key — which has grown internally to an 18-person team — is in talks with Empire Agency, in addition to other entertainment agencies, to secure talent moving forward.
Of course, Wayne and Biegel — who together have 25 plus years of experience in ad technology, working with brands to deliver information on the audience clicking their ads — never planned to launch a livestream company in a pandemic. But to some degree, it fast-tracked Key’s growth — and gave the music industry an immediate use for at-home concerts while the live sector went on hold.
“With COVID, all of a sudden everyone went, ‘I’m a streaming company, come at me,’” says Wayne. “Instagram and Facebook were not built for that. What is shocking to me is how many people jumped in before taking a second to breathe and be like, ‘This is going to go on for a while.’ A lot of these [talent] agencies have built out their coronavirus task force, but the smarter agencies have said to us, ‘We’re not trying to get our artists to jump right now, we want to see how the dust settles.’”
Key is far from the only company entering the now crowded livestreaming space, where a wide range of business models are in play. In May, tech veterans Ray Smith and Ross Mason partnered with Coca-Cola to launch BeApp, an app where users earn points (redeemable for in-app perks and physical merchandise) by watching and sharing free performances from artists like Katy Perry and DJ Khaled. While its initial events were charity-focused, BeApp (an offshoot of festival livestreaming app BeApp TV) is headed toward a sponsorship model, and will soon let artists peddle merch for cash, not points. There’s also Wave, a startup founded in 2016 which has recently enabled artists like Tinashe and John Legend to perform live in virtual worlds as avatar versions of themselves, with in-app purchases and sponsorships as main revenue drivers; Wave just raised $30 million in series B funding from investors including Scooter Braun and Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin.
Meanwhile, other companies are pivoting to livestream performances: Video chat app HouseParty in May nabbed Alicia Keys and DaBaby for a three-day livestream series In The House; live event platform Side Door, where artists could previously book concerts in unconventional venues, is now focused on virtual performances; and Twitch, a gamer-focused platform, is welcoming a surge of new channels from artists like Diplo and Sofi Tukker (though music licensing issues threaten to disrupt that burgeoning business).
In this new market, Key aims to stand out by offering the most intimate livestreams yet, with growing demand from artists and fans. During the pandemic, its first artist livestream was with rising country artist Kalie Shorr, and the platform is looking ahead to exclusives from Chicago rapper Calboy; Orlando rapper and Post Malone collaborator Tyla Yaweh; Houston-based country act Scooter Brown Band; and many more (most of which they’re not yet ready to announce). Calboy in particular will invite four fans — chosen based on raps and songs they submit on social media platforms like Twitter and TikTok — to join him for one-on-one virtual studio sessions that users can pay $3.99 each to watch, with proceeds benefiting his Wild Boyz Scholarship Fund.
Going forward, Key’s head of growth and partnerships, Brian Duckler, says the platform will also set itself apart with a “powerful 360 ecosystem.” Already, that includes features like Key Box, which allows fans to ask an artist a question and name their price for a video response (the artist decides which questions to answer). The transaction costs are never publicized, and video responses are sent directly to the fan without a watermark.
Eventually, Key will also employ dynamic pricing — it’s currently building out a pay-what-you-want function with a toggle up from zero, potentially showing what an artists’ average ticket price is — and geofencing (“I was told by a lot of agencies that they can’t find anyone to do that for them,” says Wayne). The latter would not only let artists cater shows to specific locations (who doesn’t love hearing, “What’s up, New York?!”), but would also allow for more upsell opportunities, from exclusive merchandise drops offered through a Shopify plug-in to VIP experiences. “Let’s be honest,” says Wayne, “the meet-and-greet as we know it is not going to be the same — we’re not hugging it out and taking pictures.” And while other platforms, like Zoom, can offer a similar experience, he adds that Key is taking the technology a step further, with plans to soon roll out higher-quality video and audio with “almost zero latency — all without having to download an app.”
“I’m watching people think about how the world is changed forever — there might not be music until 2021,” adds Biegel, 35. “So people are figuring out how to take something like Key and make it part of their ongoing strategy of how they communicate and engage with their fans.” Part of Key’s power, she says, lies in the fact that it’s “this high-end experience — it’s not about hearts and emojis flying, or being able to see exactly who’s in the room. You see it all the time when people go live on Instagram: three people enter the room and it’s really freaking awkward. When I tell people [those aspects are removed from Key], they almost let out a breath, like, ‘Oh, I can just do what I do.’”
Creating a more comfortable, and revenue-generating, online environment for talent isn’t all that sets Key apart; the platform also grants talent full access to the first-party data it collects. “What we realized thematically was that there was no control given to talent when it came to their data,” says Wayne. “Shouldn’t they know who their fans are?” In addition to the usual age/gender/zip code demographic data artists typically receive, Wayne continues, he and Biegel “wanted to provide [data like]: does Selena Gomez, for example, know that her fans drink Dunkin’ Donuts in the morning versus Starbucks? Do they drive a Ford Focus or a Tesla? Do they brush their teeth with Crest or Colgate? That type of data helps enrich a lot of things, from endorsements to touring sponsorships.”
Wayne jokingly refers to Key’s functions as “glorified plumbing.” “It’s really not about promoting Key ever — it’s for talent to use as a tool,” he says. “We’re not trying to compete or build a new marketplace, like another Instagram. What we did was build something complementary.
If [talent] wants to do something for free, they’ll go back to Instagram or Facebook,” he continues. “But to break through the noise, unless you’re DJ D Nice that has a DJ set with Michelle Obama coming in the room that picks up everywhere, you’re thrown away the next day. We’re not trying to be there every day — we just want you to find those moments.”