Analysis: after a pandemic of online festivals and shows, people are back at live events, but does this mean an end for virtual gigs?

For many people, watching digital performances live streamed to our screens in the comfort of our homes became the norm during lockdown. From concerts, theatre performances and workshops to film festivals, opera singing and book readings, digital events provided audiences with a cultural connection during an extraordinary time. For festivals, 'going digital' was a means of staying connected with audiences during the pandemic and became a vital way of supporting artists, venues, and workers in the arts and cultural sectors.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena in April 2020, Cúirt International Festival of Literature director Sasha de Bul and writer Kevin Barry on the festival going digital

Many festivals, such as the Carlow Arts Festival, used the opportunity to be creative and experiment with technology, often allowing artists and venues to reshape their media. Audiences were treated to innovative programming including virtual and augmented reality, 3D cinema, audio-visual performances, and immersive theatre. However, as festivals now return to streets, parks and venues, will digital production and programming continue to be relevant for festival makers?

The Arts Council of Ireland defines digital events as activities that are digitally transmitted, including web broadcasts or any online transmission or audio. In addition, a distinction can be made between work that is specifically made as digital art, for example, using virtual reality technology, and work that is intended for in-person audiences but then digitised e.g. through livestreaming / broadcasting to extend audience reach and the life of the performance/exhibition.

The production and programming of digital events is not new and there has been a steady increase in the use of digital technology over the last decade. New York's Metropolitan Opera had an on-demand streaming service as early as 2012. However, Covid accelerated the digitisation of culture, and pushed digital events centre stage.

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From RTÉ Lyric FM's Culture File, could Zoom-hosted trad singing events have some advantages over their in-real-life equivalents?

Festivals’ experiences of adopting digital technologies have shown the potential they offer for facilitating access to arts and culture. During the pandemic, festivals that engaged in activities like livestreaming, broadcasting, and podcasting found that online events greatly extended their audience reach. Digital programming provides opportunities for people to participate and enjoy festival offerings that sometimes cannot be accessed in person.

Digital events can reduce geographic inequalities, and lessen the costs associated with attending a festival. Digital delivery of a festival also provides something of a ‘safe space’ for those who lack the confidence to engage with arts and culture. It also allows for the use of accessibility features such as closed captioning, Irish Sign Language (ISL) interpretation and audio descriptions, making content accessible to those with hearing or visual impairments.

What happens now after the pandemic?

All indications point to an overwhelming desire among festivals organisers to return to staging live in-person events. Early in the 2022 festival season, research carried out by the FADE project found that esome festival organisations were uncertain as to how audiences would react as in-person events returned.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland in March 2021, Karen Walshe from the St. Patrick's Festival's on their virtual programme of events

But it seems that the easing of restrictions has released a strong pent-up demand. Many festivals this summer have been attracting unprecedented audiences. Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, which took place in Mullingar this year, attracted an estimated 500,000, while just over 6,000 people flocked to the small village of Feakle in Northeast Clare for its 35th traditional music festival.

Notwithstanding the obvious appetite for live in-person events on the part of both makers and audiences this summer, it seems very unlikely that the digital learning gained over the last two years will be abandoned as 'going digital' has opened up a realm of new possibilities and opportunities.

The increase in digitisation is changing audience reach and providing new opportunities for audience engagement. People have developed a taste for consuming culture at a time and place that suits them. Whether watching a theatre performance on the train to work or participating in a question-and-answer session at a book reading, people are becoming use to engaging in culture on their terms.

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From ROE Visual, John Gerrard's Flare (Oceania) at London's Pace Gallery

Indeed, while there was a huge emphasis on in-person events this year, digital events were not uncommon. Culture Ireland's SEODA and Dingle’s Cuan Summer Festival, were fully digital events. Several festivals like the West Cork Literary Festival, Dublin International Film Festival, St Patricks Festival and Bealtaine Festival offered both in-person and digital events. Galway International Arts Festival audiences, for example, were able to enjoy John Gerrard's Flare (Oceania) 2022, which was live streamed on YouTube for the entirety of the festival.

It is very much early days for festivals and digital engagement and there is still much to learn. Research from the Arts Council shows that creating both digital and in-person content comes at significant costs in production, staffing, upskilling and infrastructure. Festivals and artists also face challenges with copyright laws, and with monetising digital content. However, notwithstanding the central importance of in-person sociability and the live experience to festivals, there is little doubt that the future of festival making will see a great deal of new and exciting engagement with digital technologies.

The FADE project is funded by the Irish Research Council


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ