Music, movies and theatre via the stream

At the time of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s first streamed theatre production, Richard II, in November 2013, there was little to indicate whether demand would actually exist. The plan was ambitions – not only was the play being transmitted to 100 cinemas in the UK and abroad, but also to schools around the country.

“We’re relishing the chance to bring Shakespeare to thousands of UK schoolchildren in a new and engaging way,” the RSC said at the time.

As things turned out, nobody needed to worry. More than 100,000 people turned out to see the broadcast in cinemas as well as 31,000 students from 400 schools, making it the largest audience for a single performance of a Shakespeare play.

With National Theatre Live, the Royal Opera House and others also becoming purveyors of the finest quality digital content to our silver screens, the model is quickly being accepted as the norm, rather than the exception. Some two thirds of UK cinemas now participate in NT Live, for example.

Live-streamed theatre is just one in a series of examples of how the cloud is transforming the ways in which we create and consume entertainment

But organisations such as theatres and production companies could not become digital broadcasters without the abundance of massively scalable, globally accessible server, storage and networking resources – also known as cloud computing.

Live-streamed theatre is just one in a series of examples of how the cloud is transforming the ways in which we create and consume entertainment. In a transformation that has taken less than a decade, Netflix and Amazon, YouTube, Spotify and Pandora have trumped media companies, distributors and retailers, leaving corporate carnage in their wake for retailers such as Woolworths, Blockbuster and HMV, as well as driving an increasingly consolidated pool of music and entertainment industry players.

How quickly we forget. While trips to Blockbuster used to be a staple part of the Saturday evening routine, they are now as distant as the dot in the middle of the TV screen. The final nail in the coffin of physical media, beyond vinyl-loving aficionados, that is, has been the gradual arrival of fibre broadband in the UK, aided and abetted by the current rollout of 4G mobile.

Number of Netflix subscribers

Put together, such developments mean the barrier to entry for cloud-based digital media delivery is as low as it has ever been.

The lowering hurdle means a burgeoning number of wannabe big-shot service providers, such as Ustream or Limelight in live media streaming, Beats or Tidal for music streaming and Twitch for streaming computer games. Such services are already, perhaps inevitably, being integrated into the portfolios of larger providers. Twitch was bought by Amazon last year, and both YouTube and Microsoft Azure have announced the launch of media-streaming capabilities.

With the inevitable conclusion that streaming is a feature, not a product, what’s next in store? Live streaming of music has still to make a major impression, unsurprising given the complexities of broadcasting a live show, relative to the paltry amount of time a musical artist has to set up and take down a gig. These issues currently knock on to equally prohibitive costs, but as venues gain in-house capabilities, this will change.

And meanwhile the reach and accessibility of media will continue to grow. Delivery platforms are extending into our cars through initiatives such as GENIVI, for example. By the same token, an artist should be able to set up a performance from the pub, the park or indeed the kitchen. And, perhaps, even make money out of it.

Ah, money. That horrible word “monetisation” remains a challenge for many artists, exacerbated by the sometimes draconian terms being asserted over their current and past material as the new media kids, such as Spotify and Google, play fast and loose with what should be their most important asset. For art’s sake, we can hope these issues are temporary symptoms of a changing market.

There is plenty the wider industry can take from what is happening in the world of entertainment, not least, of course, that it is easier than ever to deliver digital content to customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. Organisations such as BrightTALK offer the corporate equivalent of Ustream, meaning any organisation can deliver live webinars, and nothing is stopping businesses creating a YouTube channel or iTunes podcast feed.

Indeed, as such capabilities embed themselves into mainstream culture, organisations without them become the exception rather than the rule. A common mantra is how business models are moving from products to services, requiring closer engagement with end-customers. Cloud-based media platforms may not deliver a one-to-one direct experience by themselves, but they certainly make such interactions easier to scale.

Proportion of users who subscribe to streaming services by age group

At the same time as recognising how the cloud is lowering barriers and creating new opportunities for delivery of digital content, it’s important to note that it can only achieve these goals by being highly resilient and well architected. Contrary to common belief, the cloud is not infinitely scalable, but relies on smart use of appropriate processing and storage resources.

As early masters of content-delivery networks, Akamai have long known that part of the trick is moving digital content to as close as possible to where it is needed, avoiding bottlenecks. Meanwhile Netflix is renowned for its army of so-called chaos monkeys or autonomous software modules which deliberately attempt to sabotage the service, in doing so testing (and proving) its resilience. Corporate adopters take note.

The bottom line is that while it has never been easier for both artists and corporations to build and engage with audiences, given such a resource-sapping plethora of options, it is vital to start with a plan. Whether you see digital media delivery as an end in itself or as a catalyst for the core business, do it right and the rewards could be great.

Love or hate the changes that are happening to media delivery by all means, but ignore them at your peril.