How Live Performances Are Making a Comeback in the Digital Age

Richie Clarke

In the age of streaming, live performances of everything from podcasts to magazines are the hottest ticket in town.

On a recent Wednesday evening at Caveat, a new subterranean lounge-cum-edutainment-performance-space on the
Lower East Side of Manhattan, the novelist Georgia Clark was hosting a launch party for her new book, The Bucket List.
But this was not your standard author meet and greet. Clark turned the occasion into a live female storytelling night called Generation Women, at which women ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s took the microphone under a spare spotlight to discuss candid and comedic tales of womanhood. Jezebel reporter Prachi Gupta, visual artist Carol K. Brown, and other women of note told tales focused on the night’s theme of bucket-list do’s and don’ts.

“The experience for everyone involved is so different from writing an essay and putting it online, because you have to be there and not just read about it,” Clark says. “There is something so electric about the fact that it only exists in person.”

Clark is part of a new tier of creative thinkers spanning journalism, podcasts, architecture, literature, politics, and sports who are reformatting their increasingly digitized practices to be digested in real life, or IRL, as the kids say online. This new generation of unorthodox live acts is betting on creating unmissable experiences that will stand out amid the white noise of the Internet.

This October, the architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Pulitzer Prize–winning composer David Lang debuted The Mile Long Opera in New York City, an ambitious outdoor project “about life in our rapidly changing city” that included choral singers spread out along the High Line.

Bucking the trends of home streaming and dwindling cinema attendance (to say nothing of aging classical music audiences), the New York Philharmonic drew overflow crowds in September with a screening of the 2007 film There Will Be Blood, accompanied by a live orchestral performance of its score, composed by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.

Pop-Up Magazine, an ambitious multimedia “live magazine” format consisting of original stories told on a stage, has featured the likes of musician Beck, National Geographic photojournalist David Guttenfelder, and New York Times Magazine staff writer Jenna Wortham.

Despite its ephemeral name, Pop-Up Magazine has legs. The magazine’s first international tour debuted on October 16 at the Telus Center, in Toronto, and it expects to sell an additional 45,000 tickets throughout 2019.

Doug McGray, Pop-Up Magazine’s editor in chief, previously contributed to the New Yorker and This American Life. In many ways the idea for a touring periodical fills a white space in the more conventional get-together economy. “Writers have their readings, photographers and their fans gather at gallery events, filmmakers go to film festivals. I thought it would be interesting to smash all of these worlds and make something new that brought together people who told stories in all types of media,” he says.


Radio personality Helen Little performing at New York’s Caveat cabaret, as part of Generation Women. Olivia Ramirez

“There is something really powerful about the experience of sitting in a dark room with a couple thousand people and experiencing something only you will get to experience,” he adds. “You pay attention in a different way when you know you’re not going to see it on YouTube later.”

The community-building powers of live entertainment have provided lucrative opportunities for radio hosts, journalists, social media personalities, and other creators who otherwise might struggle to monetize their careers in today’s fast-changing digital media environment.

Michael Davies and Roger Bennett, who host Men in Blazers, the sassy British soccer podcast and TV show for (mostly) American fans, embarked on an 11-city tour to promote their book, Encyclopedia Blazertannica: A Suboptimal Guide to Soccer, America’s Sport of the Future Since 1972, earlier this year.

Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, the comedic pair behind the hit podcast 2 Dope Queens, have turned their lo-fi stand-up gigs at the Bell House in Brooklyn into multi-episode HBO specials— the kind of high-profile crossover success that was unimaginable for podcast hosts just two or three years ago.

Then there are the streaming charttoppers—with the rabid fan bases one typically associates with pop stars—who embark on international tours. At a recent sold-out My Favorite Murder event at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles last spring, hordes of Murderinos, the nickname the true-crime program’s devotees give themselves, posed for selfies by the lobby bar. One young woman with maroon hair wore a black T-shirt with the show’s slogan: stay sexy, don’t get murdered. “I feel like they’re my best friends,” she said, referring to the show’s irreverent hosts, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark.

Perhaps paradoxically, the intimacy of religiously listening to your favorite podcast host alone on your headphones creates a deeper connection between fans when they meet in the flesh. Take Pod Tours America, the traveling live podcast by the ex–Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Tommy Vietor, and Dan Pfeiffer of Pod Save America. The show’s hosts sell out auditoriums from Los Angeles to Nashville.

Unsurprisingly, Hollywood is playing catch-up to these new live success stories. Last June, the United Talent Agency launched Ramble, a new platform to help viral digital stars—like the immensely popular comedy duo Rhett and Link, and Hannah Hart (the tipsy chef beloved for her online show, My Drunk Kitchen)— take their streaming acts on the road.

Oren Rosenbaum, an agent at UTA, who helped spearhead Ramble, says live shows “create a unique experience for a group of their fans all at once versus the intimate style of their online content, which is direct to consumer.”

Live entertainment is as old as, well, entertainment. But there is something decidedly modern in the renewed appetite for IRL events, a yearning for community at a time when algorithms dominate our cultural intake and selfies pass for socializing. “Making something together for this moment that will be really special and important, and then it will evaporate— that’s not like anything else right now,” says McGray of Pop-Up Magazine. “It’s really made just for you. And if you missed a show, you actually, really missed it.”