Digital Club Festival Survives Rough Start

Glitches disturb viewing of online music event.

Billing itself as "the largest online music event ever," the Digital Club Festival 2000 offered to take club-hopping to the digital level last weekend (July 22–25).

Computer users who participated were supposed to be able to virtually move from a Blink-182 show in San Diego to a De la Soul concert in Washington, D.C., with just the click of a mouse.

When it worked, music fans peered into the future. When it didn't work, as happened early in the festival, some folks may have scratched their heads and wondered what all the fuss was about.

"We try to present the best experience possible to the user, but we have to recognize that not everybody is capable of maximizing the full online concert experience," said Ted Werth, co-founder and COO of Digital Club Network, the festival producers. "That's an issue of today's technology versus tomorrow's technology. And tomorrow's technology is just going to get better."

The festival featured an admirably diverse lineup of artists with a few surprises, including R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe joining punk poet Patti Smith at Athens, Ga.'s 40 Watt Club and songbird Jewel performing with pals the Rugburns at the Casbah in San Diego.

Throughout the weekend, fans could watch digitally streamed live performances by Throwing Muses, Wu-Tang Clan, Sonic Youth, X, Wilco, Ben Folds Five, Medeski Martin & Wood, Superchunk, Mike Watt, Yo La Tengo, Steve Earle and dozens more at more than 30 U.S. venues.

Opening-Night Jitters

Viewing the shows online required high-speed connections, updated RealPlayers and Flash plug-ins. But even with all systems go, some potential viewers on Saturday, the festival's debut evening, experienced difficulties streaming digital gigs.

Kurt Peterson, the artistic director of the Casbah's Web site in San Diego, said he encountered errors ranging from "requested path not found" to "server has timed out" when he initially tried to view festival streams.

Other users had trouble with RealPlayer, the festival's official player, and saw such messages as "RealPlayer cannot play this file" or were otherwise unable to use the software. There also were expected buffering and congestion problems.

Digital Club Network responded to the festival's buggy beginning. By Monday and Tuesday, streams were more reliable, according to Peterson, who watched Patti Smith's Tuesday performance at 40 Watt. "That was really good," Peterson said. "As the festival progressed, things definitely got better."

Andrew Paynter, artist marketing manager at Digital Club Network, said, "To be honest, I think our whole team did a really good job pulling off the festival. It's not the same as going to something like Glastonbury, [England,] and seeing a huge festival in-person, but it's cool to have this kind of virtual platform."

The Online Concert Gamble

As broadband technology expands, more and more computer users will watch live concert webcasts, Werth predicted. And Digital Club Network has already established itself as a major future destination for streaming concerts by signing exclusive contracts with more than 50 venues for cybercasting and archiving concerts.

Among those venues are some of America's best independent clubs, including the Casbah, the 40 Watt, Hoboken, N.J.'s Maxwell's, New Haven, Conn.'s Toad's Place, Chapel Hill, N.C.'s Cat's Cradle, Washington, D.C.'s 9:30 club, Omaha, Neb.'s Ranch Bowl, Providence, R.I.'s Lupo's, Columbia, Mo.'s Blue Note, Chicago's Metro and several New York City clubs (including Knitting Factory, Brownies and S.O.B.'s).

The Casbah was one of the festival venues fortunate to have a dual-camera setup, which provided an added dimension to its webcasts. A lone camera will remain installed at the club for future Digital Club Network streams. But co-owner Tim Mays isn't certain the digital experience can ever substitute for the real thing.

"Ideally, people [will] get in the habit of watching shows on the Internet, so they say. I don't think it will ever take the place of being at a club though," he said.

But after recovering from early setbacks in the festival, there's an unmistakable sense of satisfaction at Digital Club Network. Werth said there were several million hits on the company's Web site each night of the festival, adding that it will take more research to determine how many individual users visited the festival.

The day after the festival closed, Digital Club Network's senior webcast producer and festival operations manager Ross Kaye sounded exhausted, but proud.

"This was probably one of the most incredible things I've ever been involved in, from a work standpoint," Kaye said. "I believe we are so ahead in terms of the technology that now it's just a matter of the technology catching up to us."