Mandolin, a Livestream Success Story, Wants to Be a Mandatory App for In-Person Fans Now, Too

At last week’s Pollstar Live conference in Beverly Hills, one sentiment was very clear, whenever the subject arose of livestreaming as a new medium: No one expects that revolution to end just because quarantine finally has. And so you would have expected Mandolin to be doing a victory lap, after the company was named best streaming platform at last Wednesday’s Pollstar Awards. Mandolin didn’t even launch until June 1, 2020, months into the pandemic, yet made enough strides to be named best-in-class among a list of nominees that also included such well-regarded platforms as Veeps, LiveXLive and Nugs.net.

Yet Mandolin isn’t resting on any laurels under the assumption that music fans have made a major or permanent shift toward resting on couches. This week, the company is announcing a new initiative, Live+, aimed at a future where fans are back in person at clubs, auditoriums and festivals … but still, Mandolin hopes, on their smartphones. (And not because they’re holding them up to record the entire show and block everybody’s view.)

Mandolin isn’t abandoning the livestreaming on which the company made its name. But the goal of Live+ will be in part to provide in-person concert attendees with a plethora of digital choices before, during and after a show, from ticket sales to meet-and-greet or after-party add-ons to the show, to ordering food and merch online without waiting in line, to getting access at home to replays of shows that are filmed live.

“As venues adopt the Mandolin platform,” founder-CEO Mary Kay Huse tells Variety, “I would love it if we could see upwards of 50% of in-person attendees experiencing something digitally while in the venue, as early as before the end of the year. It’s just creating a compelling content that makes them want to do it.”

Mandolin is already bringing some festivals on board for the Live+ mobile app experience, having used it for last week’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and being on track to employ it at Lil Wayne’s Uproar Hip-Hop Festival at L.A. Memorial Coliseum in August.

Prior to cofounding Mandolin, the Indianapolis-based Huse was the EVP and COO of Salesforce Marketing Cloud, responsible for helping drive the success of a billion-dollar business unit. Compared to those numbers, what Mandolin is working with right now is smaller potatoes, but the figures still reflect significant investor interest in the market. On Tuesday, Mandolin was scheduled to close in on $12 million in additional funding.

“It brings our total fundraising in year one to $19 million,” Huse says. “We started with two (million) and raised five in our seed round. And it’s very much focused on our ability to continue to invest in innovation in the platform. … It’s continuing to invest in our client-facing teams to partner with venues and artists management teams to like really have a comprehensive solution to make these shows successful, versus just providing a platform. So we’ll be investing both in kind of the front office for a client-facing side of the business, and then continuing to invest in product and engineering.”

Of Mandolin’s progress since last July, she says, “In year one we focused almost exclusively on livestreaming. And the pandemic created this forcing function for people to adopt it and try it. And this market creation, from an artist and venue perspective and from a fan demand perspective, has been great. I think we accomplished in one year what would have taken five or 10 years from an adoption and knowledge perspective for the market. But we always had a vision for how we would go beyond livestreaming, even though that was very much the main focus for the past year. As everyone very quickly went back to spending all their time booking tours, we’re excited about that.

“What this past year has done, I think, is really usher in the new era of a digital fan. And that digital fan doesn’t necessarily have to be synonymous with staying at home; the digital fan can be in the venue as well. Our whole Live+ strategy is really oriented around: how do we leverage digital to amplify every in-person experience? And I specifically say ‘experience’ over ‘concert,’ because one of the other big things we learned is that fans demand — and artists and venues can make money from — lots of experiences surrounding a show.And oftentimes many of those experiences, by definition, when they’re artist-fan interaction, Q&A or one-on-one meet-and-greet, by definition are more unique in their content. So we believe there’ll be more of these ancillary experiences than just trying to attach a livestream to every show on your tour. That’s not going to make sense. But being able to attach lots of pre-show, post-show, during-show unique experiences leveraging digital could be something you do for every show that a venue puts on, or every show on an artist’s tour.”

She’s still bullish on the thing that brought them to the dance, too, though.

“I still think there’ll be virtual-only livestreams as well,” says Huse. “I was just at lunch today with a partner agency and we were talking about how they want to kick off every tour with a virtual-only livestream promoting the tour. And we’re doing a lot of album-release livestreams that are virtual-only, too, to promote the album. I think there’s still going to be some first-show, iconic-venue, last-show, special-guest show appearances — some deliberate stops on the tour that are livestreamed, and reaching people that the tour never stops in their cities. And there’s still a large amount of adoption of at-home to be done.”

But for the in-person shows she’s looking at bringing into the mobile platform hybrid world now, “the pre- and post-show (offerings) could be tailgating at an amphitheater show or at a bar before the show and being able to be on your phone and watch the soundtrack, as well as do a one-on-one meet-and-greet or join a VIP Q&A. And even like after the show,” if it’s one that was filmed, “if you loved that show, you want to watch it again, so you can buy the video replay for five bucks or something. Or you want to share it with a friend: ‘This was such an amazing show, you’ve got to watch it.’ Or if you drank too much, or if you missed your favorite song while you’re in the bathroom,” she laughs, “you had the replay.”

Mandolin, perhaps true to its name, has already made a lot of inroads with certain genres that have fervent live followings, like Americana and the jam-band scene. “What was exciting about Telluride is that probably 50% of the artists have done something on Mandolin already,” she says. Mandolin had a series out of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, webcasting shows to thousands — with unique merch add-ons — when that storied hall was just beginning to allow handfuls of patrons back in at a time. But the association with Lil Wayne’s upcoming festival reflects a desire for the platform to be genre-agnostic. “Organic”-style artists have done well, from Chris Thile and a Nickel Creek reunion to a series with the Decemberists, and artists from Lake Street Dive to Grace Potter. But “we had an EDM show last month, and we’re continuing to diversify and expand — and also frankly to learn the playbooks that are needed and what the nuances are for that genre.”

Mandolin did the annual Tibet House benefit in February at Carnegie Hall, resulting in “the most money they’ve ever raised. They’ve done that event 30 years in a row. Without the pandemic, would it have ever gone hybrid or virtual? Probably five or seven years from now, but they were forced to do it completely virtually, and it went so well. The day after, they were ready to start planning February 2022 with us as 100% hybrid. Like we want to get back to Carnegie hall and we want to keep doing what we just went and just did. I think that’s a great microcosm of some people that might have been really slow adopters completely leapfrogging into something that honestly wouldn’t have been without the pandemic.”

Looking toward the hybrid experiences of the future, Huse says, “We did a survey of over 4,000 fans, and they weren’t necessarily Mandolin fans. 94% of them were ready to go back to in-person experiences, and 91% of those still wanted to continue to experience something digitally. I know multiple people who were never big concertgoers in person, for their own personal preference reasons, and now would prefer to see things at home. So there’s going to be that preference among some of the app viewers as well.

“I’ve used the sports analogy. There are people who want to be at the game. And some people really appreciate the experience of sitting on the couch and having access to additional content, to proper seats, or just to their own refrigerator, and I think that will exist as well. But a big part of what we’re about is data that will let artists and artist managers know who their super fans are and what they want out of live now.”

 

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