Are digital events now a thing of the past?

Analysis: After a pandemic of online festivals and shows, people are back to live events, but does that mean the end of virtual concerts?

For many people, watching digital performances streamed live on our screens from the comfort of our homes has become the norm during lockdown. From concerts, theater performances and workshops to film festivals, opera singing and book readings, digital events have offered audiences a cultural connection for an extraordinary time. For festivals, “going digital” was a way to stay connected with audiences during the pandemic and has become a critical way to support artists, venues and workers in the arts and culture sectors.

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

Many festivals, such as the Carlow Arts Festival, have taken the opportunity to get 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, audiovisual 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 digitally transmitted activities, including webcasts or any online transmission or audio. Also, 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 an in-person audience but then digitized, for example via livestream/broadcast to extend audience reach and duration of performance/exhibition.

Digital event production and programming is nothing new and there has been a steady increase in the use of digital technology over the past decade. The Metropolitan Opera in New York had an on-demand streaming service as early as 2012. However, Covid has accelerated the digitization of culture and brought digital events to center stage.

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According to RTÉ Lyric FM’s Culture File, could Zoom-hosted trad singing events have some advantages over their real-life equivalents?

Experiences of adoption of digital technologies by festivals have shown the potential they offer to facilitate access to arts and culture. During the pandemic, festivals that have engaged in activities such as live streaming, broadcasting and podcasting have found online events to significantly expand their audience. Digital programming gives people the opportunity to participate and take advantage of festival offerings that are sometimes not possible to access in person.

Digital events can reduce geographic inequalities and reduce the costs associated with attending a festival. Broadcasting a festival digitally also provides a sort of “safe space” for those who lack the confidence to engage in arts and culture. It also enables the use of accessibility features such as closed captioning, Irish Sign Language (ISL) interpretation and audio descriptions, making content accessible to those who are hearing or visually impaired.

What happens now after the pandemic?

All indications point to an overwhelming desire among festival organizers to return to hosting live in-person events. At the start of the 2022 festival season, research by the FADE project found that some festival organizations were uncertain about audience reaction to the return of in-person events.

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland in March 2021, Karen Walshe from the St Patrick’s Day Festival on their virtual events program

But it appears the easing of restrictions has unleashed strong pent-up demand. Many festivals this summer attracted unprecedented audiences. Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, held in Mullingar this year, attracted around 500,000 people, while just over 6,000 people flocked to the small village of Feakle in North East Clare for its 35th festival of traditional music.

Despite the obvious appetite for live events from creators and audiences alike this summer, it seems highly unlikely that the digital learning acquired over the past two years will be let go, as the ‘digital shift’ has opened a realm of new possibilities and opportunities.

Increasing digitization is changing audience reach and providing new opportunities for audience engagement. People have developed a taste for consuming culture when and where it suits them. Whether it’s watching a play on the train to work or participating in a question-and-answer session while reading a book, people are making a habit of engaging in culture as they please.

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

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

Festivals and digital engagement are still in their infancy and there is still a lot to learn. Canada Council research shows that creating digital and in-person content entails significant costs in terms of production, staff, development and infrastructure. Festivals and artists also face challenges related to copyright laws and the monetization of digital content. However, despite the central importance of in-person sociability and the live experience to festivals, there is no doubt that the future of festival building will see many new and exciting engagements 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


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