Putting on a Festival in a Pandemic World: Notes from Pismo

It’s November now and the Pismo Jazz Jubilee has come and gone. The event was a success by all accounts and we are able to pause now and reflect and, most importantly, document. What went right, what went wrong, what were we worried about and what were the actual problems.

When we first started Livestreaming in March, we were fairly confident that the health crisis would be over by October and that we should continue with our planning process until it was obvious that we needed to change course. That tipping point happened in July, when we saw that we would not be able to rent any venues from either the City of Pismo Beach or Arroyo Grande and that the health crisis was getting worse, not better.

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We decided to go virtual; planning for some live acts, but without the benefit of a live audience. We knew there were local bands that would play, since they had been coming to the back yard to Livestream from there, but we didn’t want any air travel. We wouldn’t be able to charge admission and would be relying strictly on on-line donations. Therefore, the budget had to be kept very low.

The first thing we did was to send an e-mail to all of the bands that had been hired for Jubilee at the beginning of the year and ask them to prepare and submit two one-hour videos of their bands playing. We offered them a stipend to help them with the expenses of doing this. We asked them to let us know if they wanted to participate and we gave a deadline for submitting the videos.

We also contacted Noble Productions, who had been helping us with our backyard Livestreams for several months and collaborated on a Statement of Work for them to support the event, which was envisioned as a combination of live acts and videos. Noble offered publicity as well as technical services. After some adjustments, a quote for the agreed-upon work statement was received.

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We started to hear back from the bands. Some agreed to make a video; others could not or would not, due to distance between members or health concerns. Creole Syncopators was the first band to commit to performing live. Hotel reservations had already been made and the Beaumonts were coming anyway.

The idea to have Sonny Leyland as the Master of Ceremonies was presented early- on and immediately adopted. Sonny was contacted and agreed to do the job. This would give the show continuity and a live performer throughout the day. Sonny wanted to assemble a “friends” set, which we knew would be good.

Rhonda, Jeff and Valerie
Rhonda, Jeff and Valerie

A band that we were particularly interested in performing live was Tom Rigney and Flambeau. They had been hired to play in August at a concert series in Arroyo Grande as part of a publicity push for live Jubilee, but this concert got cancelled by the City. We could not get them to play in the backyard either, they were not comfortable traveling at that time. I spoke to Tom about performing live in October, he was interested but not ready to commit. He committed to a video if he could not appear in person.

The Barrelhouse Wailers, who took Flambeau’s place for our August show, was very well received and became the next band that we asked to appear live.

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By now, our show was shaping up. The videos were starting to come in and they looked great. We needed a place to have the event, hoping that by the time we did it, we would be able to have a limited live local audience.

My daughter suggested the St. Anthony Celebration Center in Pismo Beach, formerly the home of Turk’s Place and Lu’s Landing. This was a facility we had not used for several years, replaced by indoor venues in Arroyo Grande, but under the circumstances, seemed ideal for what we were trying to do. It is a large picnic area, with one huge metal canopy, at least 100 aluminum tables, a kitchen, a large parking lot and permanent restrooms. It is tucked away in an industrial area, completely fenced in and on private, not city, property. It can be damp and cold there, but for what we were trying to do, it was ideal. We contacted the owners and negotiated a rental price with them.

Linda and John Shorb
Linda and John Shorb

By now, the event was shaping up, and so were the costs. I put a budget together, and while the total amount was about a quarter of what we normally spend, it was not insignificant. We had to pay the bands that would appear live, rent the facility, pay Noble Productions, pay the stipends for the videos, and pay the costs for renting the stage and the side curtains.

Without being able to sell tickets, we had no way of knowing what our income would be, however, our experience with our backyard Livestream shows made us hopeful. In late August, we had a Board meeting where I laid the budget on the table for the entire event and told the Board that it was possible that we would lose all of the money if it did not go well.

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After some deliberation, we were given the go-ahead to take the chance and proceed, and we were off and running. Linda Shorb had the idea to solicit band sponsorships in advance, which garnered the bulk of the donations. Noble Productions was activated.

We asked a few other local bands to perform live, Riptide Big Band, who had performed at our September Sunday session, Mariachi Autlence, and local banjoist Gary Ryan. I also contacted Dave Ruffner, who is sometimes in our area, to see if he could make a guest appearance.

Cathy on Camera
Cathy on Camera

As we got closer to the event, we started to on the physical aspects. Of primary concern was the internet speed. When you are doing a Livestream show, the upload speed is of utmost importance. Noble Productions did a quick survey of the facility and the installed Wi-Fi and found it severely lacking. A “Hot Spot” would need to be rented. St. Anthony’s was very dirty; it had not been used or cleaned in six months.

We were worried about Facebook. There had been talk that live performances were going to be audited and if copyrights were violated, the streams would be stopped. While many of our bands play original or obscure material, some bands, like Gino and the Lone Gunmen, play well-known popular songs.

We were worried about COVID, protecting our audience (if we had one) and our bands. The bands were also concerned about their own safety.

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We were worried about the City prohibiting us from having the event at all. Since we were not on City property, we did not need an event permit, and we were not going to get a liquor license, but music events in California are still very much discouraged.

Valerie Mercado, of Noble Productions, is on the Pismo Beach Chamber of Commerce. During one of the monthly Chamber of Commerce meetings, we discussed live music and specifically, how the City felt about Livestream events. Pismo Beach is well aware of Jazz Jubilee by the Sea and the amount of good-will it generates for the City. They gave us permission to hold a multi-band Livestream event. We took that at face value and did not ask any further questions.

We started to take a good look at Turk’s. The rental company came and we told them we wanted the biggest stage possible (16’ X 20’), one solid canvas wall behind it, with a black curtain behind the stage, stage lighting, and one partial side wall. That’s all. We did not enclose the area otherwise. We left the parking lot side totally open, in case people wanted to watch from their cars. We planned to put speakers on that side, playing into the parking lot.

We started a list of prospective attendees, including band members, volunteers and the Noble Productions crew. We decided to hire a Security Guard to check everyone in. Anyone who planned to attend needed to call our cell phone number and be put on a list. We did not want anyone showing up unannounced.

In mid-September, Tom Rigney called me and said that they were willing to come and appear live. This was great news, but made our schedule for Saturday pretty ambitious. Four live bands in one eight-hour day, two of them playing two sets each, plus videos. I went to work on it.

Fernie on Lights
Fernie on Lights

Tom’s band was very concerned about our safety precautions, as they had not traveled or played since March. I asked two of our members with large RVs to bring them and park them near the stage, for the express use by the musicians for them to change in, take a break in or use the restrooms. We hired a janitor to be there for the entire weekend to keep the restrooms and other common areas clean. We also promised to put a “do-not-cross” line in front of the stage, so that people would not be tempted to go up and greet the bands. As it turned out, the cameras and sound boards created a natural barricade and we did not have any issues with attendees getting too close to the band members.

Valerie and Simon from Noble Productions rented a hot spot so we could check and see if we would be able to get a good signal from this somewhat remote location. I enlisted a local cover band that had an upcoming gig to do a practice on site so that we could test the Livestream. We had no stage and no curtain, just out in the open playing in front of the backdrop of our motor home. The Livestream went well, demonstrating the capability of the hot spot. Also, we did not seem to have any copyright streaming issues with Facebook. (We were also going to stream simultaneously on YouTube, which does not have the same restrictions). There is also an eight-hour time limit on Facebook streaming, and we were scheduled to go eight hours on Saturday and Sunday. We had to be sure to cut off our broadcast on time; otherwise it would not be recorded for viewing later.

Feeling somewhat confident, we waited until the week of the event to do any further testing. In the meantime, we made signs that said “Jubilee by the Sea Cast and Crew Only” to put on the fence, and another that said “Security Guard Check-In, Please Wear a Mask” at the entrance.

The week of the event, we were at the site every day doing some part of the set up. The picnic tables in the area we wanted to use were moved by PG& E, who are co-located and do this as a volunteer effort whenever we use that facility. Hugh Robinson brokers that. The next day, we all went down there to clean the pavement and most of the remaining tables, which were covered with grime from six months of no use and lots of wind-blown dirt.

On Wednesday, the stage and backdrops were set up and the piano was moved onto the stage.
On Thursday, we arranged for another practice test with the same local band. This time we would be able to monitor the broadcast from inside the office of the facility using their Wi-Fi. This is crucial in determining the quality of the Livestream. The practice went well, we were able to monitor the broadcast with no problem and we did not have any flagging issues. Everything looked good for our event to start on Friday night.

Nancy and Anita with 6 foot stick
Nancy and Anita with 6 foot stick

The Friday night “Sneak Preview” was also a test of sorts. We had hired local favorite MarciJean and the Belmont Kings to go live on our streaming outlets, along with the Gator Nation video. Everything went smoothly. We let MarciJean play a little longer because she was “cooking with gas” (thanks Shonda) and we were not bumping up against any time limit. Then we played the Gator Nation video. We ended later than our schedule said but were not too worried about it.

On Saturday morning, our security guard showed up, replete in full uniform. He stationed himself at the entrance and started checking people in. Almost immediately, a walk-in showed up who did not look like our normal attendee. It turns out there was an encampment adjacent to our venue and that one of the inhabitants was curious. Our security guard did not let him in. There were several visits by the police and the fire department throughout the weekend, but fortunately, they were not the slightest bit interested in us and were more concerned about our erstwhile neighbors. It was good to have someone at the gate to watch out for us.

One technical problem that was thorny to solve was how to play the pre-recorded videos that were being fed into the Livestream between the live performances to the limited audience that was in attendance. If we played them directly from the Livestream, there would be a delay between the action on the stage and the start of the video. Plus the view on the computer that controlled all of the action was not full screen for the videos. We purchased a projector and a 10-foot screen (we wanted one anyway) and downloaded all of the pre-recorded videos onto a separate laptop. Every time a video was played into the Livestream, one of the Noble Productions staff would start playing the same video from her laptop into the projector.

This way, the audience in the venue could see what was playing on the internet. Of course there were many distractions at the event while these videos were playing since we used that time to set up for the next band. But the limited audience enjoyed watching the videos.

The shows on Saturday and Sunday went very well, overall. You can read about the technical aspects in other articles. The transitions between the live shows and the videos were difficult to manage at times, but we got through it. There is certainly room for improvement, but the concept worked as envisioned.

Noble Productions did a great job of pulling everything together and putting out the best product possible under the circumstances. They are available to anyone that wants to contact them. Please visit their website at https://nobleproductionsllc.com/ or e-mail Valerie Mercado directly at [email protected] or call her at (805) 260-4766. You can also contact me at [email protected] or call (805) 937 8402.

We look forward to a more in-person Jubilee next year, but we will not abandon all of our hard-won experience with Livestreaming. We think that that is a tool that we will be using for the foreseeable future. We hope to see more people in person in 2021. Until then…


Tech Report Contributed by Simon and Valerie Mercado

In doing live stream practice sessions at the Cardinal house, we occasionally ran in to tech problems and began contacting Valerie at Noble Productions to help troubleshoot.  Simon Mercado, Valerie’s partner and brother made his way to our house one Sunday afternoon to offer his knowledge and assist with our live stream.

Noble Productions had knowledge of live streaming before but since the pandemic had hit, they had stepped up their game with live streaming knowledge.  Simon being an avid gamer had additional knowledge and expertise with OBS and multi-stream abilities.  Simon continued to assist BSR with their live stream shows offering an upscaled look by providing a professional HD Sony camera and a clean multi-stream utilizing a newly purchased covert gaming laptop that could support the encoding and processing required.

Being hardwired into Wifi was something that allowed us to have the best live stream with no buffering or lag time while outputting the best quality which is easily monitored at your fingertips through OBS and Restream.

The other large part of delivering a great live stream is the audio.  Because Noble was not versed with mixers it was a team effort initially working with the Basin Street Regulars; Rhonda, Jeff and Jim to fine tune audio with their mixer.  In most cases we found ourselves spending a good amount of time trying to dial in the audio for the performers sometimes all the way into the beginning of their performances.  Simon took it up on himself a month before the Jazz Jubilee to purchase a more elaborate mixer through Noble Productions to again raise the bar of the overall live stream performance.

The new mixer also allowed for Noble to record the audio separate from the stream.  It also eliminated us having to run the audio through the 3rd handheld camera. This was good and bad.  Now the team had to acclimate themselves to a new mixer and only had 3 weeks to do so. Fortunately, the practices leading up to the Pismo Jazz Jubilee were a huge help and everyone was able to learn how the mixer integrated with the performance and ultimately the live stream. Knowing that the Jazz Jubilee was going to be held at a somewhat remote location Noble Productions purchased a Netgear Nighthawk hot spot along with a 35 gig sim card to run testing prior to the actual show.

The final set-up for the highly professional live stream provided by Noble Productions consisted of:

  • OBS
  • Restream subscription
  • 2 Professional Sony HD cameras on tri-pods
  • Canon HD Professional Camera
  • Mini switcher that was preprogrammed with pre-recorded videos, Sponsorship slides & Intro and Outro
  • Audio Mixer (16 inputs)
  • 3 capture cards
  • Covert Gaming Laptop connected to a 32″ monitor
  • 3rd laptop that connected directly to projector
  • 2 professional key lights
  • projector and screen to display pre-produced videos
  • Most Important:  Netgear Nighthawk Mobile Hotspot with Antenna which requires purchasing a SIM card or monthly subscription
  • Extra’s: HDMI cables, coupler rolls, extension cords, gaffers tape
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