Livestreaming can be almost as interactive as a live show, thanks to a platform created by a Chicago booker looking at life during and after quarantine

Not everyone can be a DJ D-Nice. After a brief week of marathon Instagram livestreams from his Los Angeles-area home, the photographer and DJ reached a livestreaming milestone: more than 100,000 visitors to his “Club Quarantine.” It certainly didn’t hurt that D-Nice (otherwise known as Derrick Jones) has been a stalwart in the musical industry since the ’80s, and regularly performs for celebrities and political figures like Michelle Obama.

For the non-celebrity performer, trying to navigate the digital music world in a COVID-19 world is a lot trickier. While many performers have turned to platforms like Zoom and Instagram Live to share their talents, the competition has become just as, if not more, competitive than it was when in-person performances were still possible.

Enter Kice Akkawi, CEO of Treblemonsters, a music management and curation company based in Chicago. Like many in the local music industry, Akkawi saw his livelihood seemingly disappear overnight with the state’s shelter-in-place order last month. His company manages music programs for hotels, bars, and clubs throughout the city and it had to cancel more than 400 bookings in March and around 800 in April. “It was a lot of people, it was a lot of money, it was a lot of work, rehearsals, the whole thing,” Akkawi said. “The whole thing is at a standstill.”

Kice Akkawi watches the feed and comments while Robbie Gold performs a show over the video conferencing app Zoom, Facebook live, and Instagram live at the Musical Garage rehearsal space in West Town. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)
Kice Akkawi watches the feed and comments while Robbie Gold performs a show over the video conferencing app Zoom, Facebook live, and Instagram live at the Musical Garage rehearsal space in West Town. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune) (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)

His first order of action? Petitioning the state. Akkawi created Chicago Entertainment Relief Information, a website and Facebook group offering resources for people in the music community. He also helped create a petition asking for financial relief for entertainers in Illinois from the state government. Their efforts — along with others from local venues and concert promoters — came to fruition last week when Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a $4 million artist relief fund which would offer one-time, $1500 grants to artists and entertainment industry workers.

“It was really good to feel like we’re not being considered collateral damage, and that we’re going to get something since we can not physically operate,” Akkawi said. But his work is just beginning. Trying to predict the end of the state’s shelter-in-place order and the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic will be difficult. And even after things “quiet down,” life likely won’t return to normal as quickly as many would like.

“Once things go back to normal, a lot of people are going to think twice about going to these large concerts. They’re not going to congregate in larger groups, they’re going to keep distance from people, they’re (going to) be very conscious of being sanitary by washing their hands at venues and stuff like that,” Akkawi began. “Because of that, you’re (going to) have people who’re not going to want to go out on a Friday or Saturday night.”

Inspired by this, Akkawi has created Bring Out the Creative, a website and platform for artists and performers to elevate the livestreaming experience with a virtual reality program that “brings performers as close as possible to the physical experience.”

“Think of this as ‘going live,’ but on steroids,” said Akkawi.

Where most platforms focus on the user experiences of the audience (“It’s monotone, it’s boring, it’s one-way,” he jokes), Akkawi said his platform favors the performer. A few hundred people may watch an artist perform on Instagram Live, but on Bring Out the Creative, the artist will be able to view their audience, too. “They can hear the chatter and feel like they’re (performing) live at a venue,” Akkawi said. “It’s really important that the artist feels like they have an audience, a room full of people. The whole goal is to create this software platform where it has all the features, the bells and whistles, to bring you as close as possible to performing.”

Performers will also get the chance to perform in a new, fully-equipped studio that takes them out of their typical home environments and into a space more like what they’ve used in the past. The studio is cleaned before and after each artist’s performance to encourage safety. With flashing lights, a full sound system set-up and much coveted space, it is likely a step-up from the bedroom set-ups many performers have had to operate from recently. “If you do not adjust to implementing new technology and becoming a virtual performer, you’re (going to) either get lost or (lose relevance).”

Around 20 performers have been booked for April, most of whom previously worked with Akkawi and his team at their regular hotel, bar, and club venues. His team has also partnered with those same venues for promotion. “We still have live music in our venues, but now it’s virtual,” said Akkawi. Most performers don’t have more than a million followers, so getting additional sources of promotion will be key in making the platform a success.

Last week, they piloted their first performance, with DJ Criz R, racking up more than 400 viewers over the course of the set. “His feedback was, ‘I did not think I was going to have this much fun. I did not think it was going to feel that real,’” recalls Akkawi. Upcoming weeks will feature a diverse array of performers across genres, to allow audiences the chance to hear more than just four-on-the-floor beats. And although this is a new venture for Akkawi, it is one he believes will translate to the future. “It’s a step up from your typical live streaming, and a step down from being on-site,” he said. “We are not building this to go away.”

Written By Britt Julious

Published By The Chicago Tribune

Britt Julious is a freelance critic.

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