WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 07: (L-R) V, SUGA, Jin, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, and Jungkook of BTS … [+]
After BTS was forced to cancel their global Map of the Soul tour earlier in 2020 due to the coronavirus outbreak, it looked like fans might not get to see their favorite K-pop group perform for months, or maybe even years. Thankfully, that didn’t end up being the case, as the band and their team found an inventive and innovative company to work with to make a completely interactive online show a reality.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mike Schabel, the man behind Kiswe, the firm that built the technology that powered BTS’s Bang Bang Con: The Live just a few weeks ago. He was open about the difficulties that came with staging a live event that hundreds of thousands paid to take part in, as well as how gratifying it was to get it all right and to see how much fun the septet’s fans were having during the event.
Hugh McIntyre: Tell me in your own words what your company is and what you do?
Mike Schabel: The genesis of Kiswe has been focused on how we actually start creating interactive content, delivered to an interactive audience. I want to contrast that very specifically. By the way, the audience is an at home audience, and we sort of lovingly refer to them as ghosts, with respect to the media creators, because I want to contrast that with what today’s market is, as media creators, entertainers, networks, the sports leagues, whatever, use the TV as their medium. They generate a lot of linear, one way, passive content for that audience. And because those workflows work so well, they tend to put it on every screen.
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So now you have this at home audience that wants to be engaged. They’d love to attend the event if it was nearby. They want to contribute. They want to stand up and be heard. They want to be seen. They want to participate. And yet, all they have is made-for-TV content being sent to them. And our point of view is that, wouldn’t it be cool if we could actually start making live, but also interactive content, where the audience can interact with the content and with each other, and in fact, with the focal point of the content, like the artist?
We enable that. We give them a platform, so we can actually go and do that in a high quality way. That’s always been our goal and we’ve been at it for a bit, and I think the music industry is spectacular, because for every fan that gets to go and attend a concert, there are so many more that don’t, but would love to. You want it to be something that’s a little bit better than just watching a concert replay at 2:00 AM on TV, right? It’s got to be something where I, as an audience member, get to participate and somebody cares that I participate.
So, technically, it’s kind of hard to do all of that. What we have focused on is how to make that super easy for all of our content creator partners.
McIntyre: Now, would it be fair to say this recent BTS event was your biggest success yet?
Schabel: Sure, marked by the fact that the concert was just awarded by the Guinness Book of World Records. I think it’s probably true for just about anybody, at least in the digital music space. There’s a lot of massive challenges that go with it. I think a lot of what the industry focuses on is, “Can we authenticate a bunch of people? Can we deliver a video to those people that doesn’t fail?” And by and large today, we still see evidence of that challenging a lot of companies.
We count our blessings and knock on a lot of wood. We came up with an architecture that allows us to bring in a lot of people all over the world and authenticate them. It’s really hard right before a concert starts, because everybody shows up in the 30 seconds before the start time. Not like a real concert where you get in and listen to the opening act and the second opening act and the third opening act. No, everybody shows up in the 30 seconds before the event, and you have to admit all of them.
You have to deliver. For us, it wasn’t just one high quality video. It was seven high quality videos, synchronized. And then you have to deal with all the interactions. I like to remind people that when we had 750,000 devices, they actually interacted with the experience 125 million times, in different things that they could push during that concert.
So you’ve got to be able to go in and not just serve them a video, but now you’ve got to listen to them 125 million times. When you put all of that together, that was big, I think, for us, but it was big for anybody. And it was really exciting. So paid, authenticated tickets, customer service, high quality video, deeply social, interactive experience, and then to capture all those interactions and bring that back to BTS so that the band can actually see it live and interact with the audience live…that made it special.
McIntyre: Did their company reach out or did you proactively reach out to them? How did this come to be?
Schabel: We have a team in Korea, and we’ve been at this for a while. We were introduced to Big Hit Entertainment through one of our strategic partners. And really, it was a kind of a long relationship-building experience, because Big Hit, of course, was using WaveXR, right? So they had a well-entrenched streaming platform that’s well-known across Asia. I think there’s a lot of elements that go into this one, not the least of which is technology, but also the relationship building and the trust in the team to have a joint vision in what we’re going to go after.
And I think if I draw a parallel between our two companies, or a link, Big Hit is extraordinary, with respect to their deep understanding of how important it is to engage the fan as part of the equation. It’s not just to invest in the artist and make good music. It is to invest in an event and in the main experience. And that’s what we’re doing with the streaming perspective. We had highly aligned views of what goodness looks like. Of course, we had to prove the technology, but then there’s a lot of trust. I mean, you had to really develop huge relationships over time, in order to know that we’re going to be there in order to support one of the biggest bands in the world.
McIntyre: With something this big and so many people watching, what was the biggest challenge, either during the actual event or in the weeks leading up to it?
Schabel: I mean, for me personally, it’s sleep deprivation, because when concerts start in Korea at a normal time there, to a global audience, nobody sleeps.
Joking aside, I think there’s two elements that are really interesting here. One, it’s a new medium, right? So what we find is that there is no shortage of ideas that people get really excited about trying to implement on this new medium, and we’re just getting started. The rate of change for which you need to think through the creative ideas that people want to go do and implement, it is not trivial. It’s always easier to sort of say, “I have a roadmap. It’s six months out, let’s go build, build, build, build, build,” and then we’re done.
And what you find is that in the entertainment industry, sometimes things happen to change the day before, and that’s always a challenge. Added to that is that there is no testing tool out there that allows you to prepare for a concert like this, or for that type of volume. So we not only had to build the capability to do this, but then we had to build test systems that were extremely robust, in order to simulate what the world would look like during the concert, and test and test and test and test. And I would say that was probably as hard, if not harder, than actually building the experience in the first place.
McIntyre: Now, how long, from start to finish, did this take?
Schabel: A little bit of history. So in December, we partnered with them and did a concert in Osaka, geo-fenced inside of Japan. That was really about locking down the technical bits, to feel like we were good to go. That was pre-COVID. The plan was that we were going to replicate and scale up the experience while they were on tour. Then COVID hit and the tour was canceled, so everything changed dramatically.
We were continuously replanning, replanning, replanning, because they thought they would be able to hold the tour at different locations. And then it was just getting all shut down permanently. So by the time it was recognized what we were going to do, we had about six weeks to put it all together.
McIntyre: Wow. That’s a lot in six weeks.
Schabel: Yeah. And we’re at the point now where we can pretty much do these every day. The platform is ready to go, with different ticketing agencies and the like. So we’ve been doing a number of these in the past with smaller groups, continuing to learn about best models for fan engagement, but we have more coming up that are really exciting. I can’t share those as yet, but there’s a lot more coming up that are going to be big known names.
McIntyre: What was the greatest takeaway from this experience? Or what was the best thing that your company learned, having executed this successfully?
Schabel: The deep insight is going to sound like one of these moments where you’re like, “Well, duh.” The at home audience does not like to just sit down and be fed video. The at home audience wants to participate in a way that they’re part of the collective shouting, cheering, clapping, light stick activity. They want to participate. We intuitively knew this. Our company has been around for a while, so we’ve seen examples, many, many examples of that. But I think the key point here is that we saw that once the audience at home observed that BTS was seeing their interactions, was seeing the contributions that everybody was making, then they popped off. Their contributions went out the roof. It was like their collective cheering just went up an order of magnitude.
That’s because they want to be heard. You know, a lot of people are going to cheer just for the purpose of cheering, cause they want to say, “I love this. I’m happy,” because that’s kind of what you do. Once they knew that the band saw it, maybe on the off chance, the 0.0000… I mean, pick your number of zeroes, 1% chance that BTS might see my chat, then it just totally transformed the audience experience, and then they went nuts.
Then also, when they saw that the band was not watching, because they were in the middle of the scene, it cooled down a little bit. So really, what it tells you is the audience absolutely wants to participate, so that they’re seen and heard. That’s not easy to do.
There’s a lot of really cool tech out there that companies are developing, which allow me to push buttons while I’m viewing an experience, so I get more data, I get more information. But when they can be seen, it’s dramatic. I think the other thing that we saw was that, maybe a little bit surprising, they really do want to control their own viewing experience. They don’t want just a linear feed. The linear feed is always good. It’s well programmed, but they like optionality. So they’ll bounce around if you give them an opportunity to do so.
They like to be with their friends in chats and they like to have the experience personalized. We had a little thing in there, which was kind of cool, that allowed us to send personal messages on the screen out to individuals, and people were just floored.
By the way, the ARMY is tough… Boy, they have high expectations, and as well they should. To get a positive response from the ARMY was really validating for us, that we were on the right path with what BTS wanted to bring to their loyal audience.
McIntyre: This went so well. I’m sure your phone is ringing off the hook. What’s coming up for the rest of the year for your company?
Schabel: More. That’s all I can publicly say at this point. And there’ll be more to share shortly, but as of yet, I can’t really disclose anything. I’ll let the artists disclose it themselves.