Harnessing crowd energy to reinvent live music
As venues and acts struggle, CastRooms thinks it has a solution
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I’ll always remember the day in 2011 when I wrote one of the first pieces out there about how Turntable.fm was the most exciting social app of that year.
Just two hours after I hit Publish, the US startup locked its app down to American users only. I have no idea if my article, hyping it up from Europe, was part of the reason, but it was amusing timing.
And while Turntable.fm didn’t last for the longterm (it’s still going and recently got a new name, but when was the last time you heard it mentioned?), it successfully showed how the internet could provide new ways of socialising around music.
Today’s startup thinks it’s landed on another, and the founders are remarkably disciplined in making their vision of reinventing live music online a reality. Scroll down to read all about CastRooms.
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CastRooms is reinventing the social thrill of live music
The Covid pandemic lockdowns brought about a rush of live-streamed concerts as we all looked to escape the boredom of being stuck at home. But, like the brief boom in all-remote conferences that happened around the same time, they were a blip… weren’t they?
“When you go to a live event, the thing that makes it special and unique is the fact that you're there with your friends. You're there with other fans who are enjoying the vibe. You're there to show love to the artist, and the artist is showing love back to you. That's really what people are paying for,” says CastRooms CEO and co-founder Mitali Mookerjee.
“But when you watch live music online today, none of that exists. All you've got is a video screen with a chat box, which is a very lonely experience. It's a very one-way experience, and the artist doesn't see the crowd reacting live. You're watching a live stream, maybe with hundreds of other people, but you feel anonymous”
To counter this, CastRooms creates a live on-screen human crowd by collecting together video feeds from viewers' device cameras. The idea is that the energy from the crowd feeds back to other crowd members and to the artists themselves.
Harnessing the crowd energy feedback loop
Let’s face it - artists are likely to put on a better show if they can see the audience reaction in real-time. It’s part of what makes live shows so compelling.
In fact, CastRooms thinks about three different feedback loops in its product. One is the interaction between the audience and the artist, the second is among the crowd itself, and finally there’s the interaction between a user and their friends.
“We know who you've interacted with before, so we surround you with them. And then we also enable you to set up little private voice chats with them” explains co-founder and product lead, Will Myddelton.
“So, just like you could at a venue, you can have a little chat with your mate about what their kids have been doing or what you've been up to at work; these are social occasions.”
CastRooms’ customers are music promoters who put on live events. These could be large nightclubs or bookers for small venues.
“What we are looking for and working with are people who know who is hot to book, know how to mobilise a crowd to turn up, and know how to get that crowd to part with their money so that everyone gets paid,” says Myddelton.
And because CastRoom’s is based around a traditional event ticketing model rather than monetised through advertising at scale, Myddelton argues it’s better for artists and promoters.
“We don't think that live music on the internet should just be dominated by the Taylor Swifts… we think it should be a bit more equitable. You should be able to do your 300-person club and still make money online, which you can't do on YouTube, really.”
To further help promoters, CastRooms offers opt-in data about the crowd to help with future marketing efforts
“So, the promoters for us are people that are willing to put in the hard yards to bring their own audience and in return, we give them money and data that they can use to continue growing their business. It's a different model for how to think about doing live music online,” says Myddelton.
In some ways, the business model is incredibly straightforward, but CastRooms has clearly thought carefully about how to tune its offering to appeal to online gig-goers while also appealing to the business sense of promoters.
Live-streaming music isn’t exactly a thriving space right now, so there’s a certain element of ‘build it and they will come’ here, but Myddelton says there are promising signs. He says early adopters of the product include underrepresented communities who lack the clout to thrive in the mainstream.
So, for example, queer nights that offer ‘pay what you will’ ticketing, are one source of early business for CastRooms. On the other end of the scale are brands with global reach, such as the Ibiza super-clubs or lifestyle brands like Red Bull.
“They would love a way for live streaming to take off so they can get the eyeballs and additional revenue for their brand. So we're a really good fit for them because we offer something genuinely different to the kind of live streaming that has been happening for the last 15 years, that you can build motivated communities around.”
“What we're doing is creating a new market and making live music accessible for everybody,” adds Mookerjee.
The story so far
Mookerjee has a background in online media, including time as a tech journalist, while Myddelton’s product and user experience-focused background included time at the Government Digital Service and the Home Office.
The idea for CastRooms came to Mookerjee during the Covid lockdowns when musicians and promoters–including some of her friends–put on live music streams but couldn’t make much money from them.
She asked Myddelton, who she first met at Manchester’s Electric Chair clubnight years before, to bring his product expertise in to help the idea take shape.
They hired a contractor to build a basic proof of concept that could test their assumptions.
They’ve since hired a small in-house team and built a first proper version of the product. But first, they needed to nail down solutions to some unusual technical challenges.
“There were some usability risks that were fundamental, like we want people to be able to talk naturally over loud, live, repetitive music, and there's an interaction design challenge around that,” explains Myddelton.
“So early prototypes were all about ‘can we make sure that we don't get the horrible echoes, feedback, and delays that people were getting in Zoom parties?’ If you've ever been to a Zoom party, music feedback through everyone's mics is awful. So there was a bunch of stuff we did around that early on.”
One big question was whether anyone would even switch on their camera. The startup solved this one by being assertive.
“We evolved an implicit social contract where to join a CastRooms party, you have to turn your camera on to get in. You literally can't get in if you don't give us permission to use the camera, which is a tough choice but it’s necessary for our product,” explains Myddelton.
A user can switch their camera off once they’re in, but they only get to see the rest of the crowd while they have their own camera on.
CastRooms also examined whether the business model was viable, and how technically feasible it would be to handle so many video streams simultaneously at scale.
Other challenges they explored included whether they were building a compelling experience that people would engage with for a long period. “What we found is that in a two-hour show, the average dwell time is 1 hour 20 minutes with their cameras on,” says Mookerjee.
Go deeper on CastRooms
The profile continues below, with much more on their funding, vision, competition, and challenges:
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