Sofa Sets Uncovered: Creating a Virtual Music Festival

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INFLUENCER: Wunderman Thompson SVP global marketing director Gareth Jones takes us behind the scenes of their lockdown livestream
Sofa Sets Uncovered: Creating a Virtual Music Festival

When you’re on mute, no one can hear you scream. This was the first lesson we learned attempting to organise a virtual music festival, in just five days, from home, during a global pandemic.

The idea behind our Sofa Sets initiative was to combine the art of music with the power of data to help slow the spread of Covid-19. We’d invite a line-up of breakthrough artists to play a series of exclusive sets that we’d livestream straight from their sofas to yours. 

But it wouldn’t stop there. We’d also use real-time data to highlight the importance of social distancing and empower people with the information needed to help reduce the spread of coronavirus.

With the location data of everyone watching, we’d create an up-to-the-minute visualisation map illustrating the number of hospital stays prevented, ventilators freed up and ultimately lives saved, as musicians performed for fans from the safety of their homes.

As with all good ideas, we had everything we needed - a plan and not enough time to execute it. But as it turns out, the constraints imposed on us by Covid-19 actually helped shape, refine and improve our Sofa Sets concept.

For instance, thanks to the nationwide lockdown, our musicians would have to use whatever equipment they happened to have with them to perform their set. No lighting rigs, multi-camera set ups or mixing desks; just a laptop, a phone and a mic if they were lucky. We would also have to use a simple and familiar streaming platform so each artist could manage their set without expert help.

This made decision-making much easier than normal. We’d use YouTube. Everyone knows how to use YouTube. Real-time Covid-19 data from John Hopkins University would be pulled in and we’d build a simple interface to bring it all together for viewers. We’d give each artist a time slot for their performance, tell fans about those time slots, sit back and hope for the best.

The upshot of these limitation was that Sofa Sets ended up being a much more agile and responsive platform than it would have been otherwise. It also enabled performances that were more intimate and spontaneous than under normal circumstances.

In short, the Covid-19 constraints meant we were forced to act like a start-up. Sofa Sets was unconsciously brought to life using the minimum viable product (MVP) approach popular amongst Silicon Valley companies seeking to provide maximum value by delivering minimal functionality.

In spite of this, things of course did not go perfectly.

Thanks to a blizzard in Norway, our opening act could not get online at all. Our second artist accidentally fell foul of YouTube’s copyright algorithm and our penultimate performer’s laptop was crippled by a mysterious software update.

Glitches like this would be tough to deal with from a fully kitted out war room in the agency, but with everyone working remotely via Microsoft Teams, disaster management proved a lot more challenging.

On the whole though, Sofa Sets has proved a success. So far, more than 17,000 viewers tuned in to the livestream. This helped reduce the number of hospital stays by 5,295, which in turn freed up 1,748 ventilators and ultimately helped save a projected 316 lives. 

A small but important drop in the ocean.

As well as demonstrating the impact of creativity, data and technology on even the most profound problems, Sofa Sets also served as a reminder of some other timely truths.

Firstly, adversity really does drive innovation. In the current circumstances, the rule book is all but useless. This provides an opportunity for those willing to roll with the punches, adapt in the face of constant uncertainty and to put themselves on the line for good ideas that make a difference.

With this, it follows that mistakes are inevitable. We’re all now just a WiFi signal bar away from disaster so have to accept that things will go wrong, a lot. In the new paradigm failing fast is just the beginning. At least for now, it’s more a case of fail fast, recover faster, adapt and move on. You also need partners who can do the same – in this case Salesforce, Glassnote Records and Premier Music Group. Collaboration, communication and flexibility are core skills.

Lastly, and most importantly, authenticity is now more crucial than ever. For a split second in time, we are all connected by a common, albeit catastrophic, experience. This can and will lead to some remarkable moments but only for those with intentions that go beyond self-interest.  

For us, Sofa Sets was an attempt to do just this; to use our skills, however humbly, to make an impact, however small, on the spread of coronavirus. Thankfully, the risk seemed to pay off and we’re proud to have made even tiniest of differences – even if we did have to mute the odd video call along the way to scream out loud.


Gareth Jones is SVP global marketing director at Wunderman Thompson

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Wunderman Thompson New York, 1 month ago