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Illustrations by Vrinda Zaveri

From live to live streamed: How the entertainment industry is adapting

Entertainment entrepreneurs made unexpected adjustments to survive the pandemic — and thrive beyond.

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For many in the entertainment industry, the moment the Covid-19 pandemic became real was when the lights went down on Broadway in the middle of March 2020. Productions that attracted thousands of theater-goers every night were shuttered, and soon, other smaller venues and entertainment entrepreneurs realized they were facing a problem that would require them to transform the way they did business.

“The pandemic was abrupt for us like it was for everyone else,” says Joe Barham, founder and CEO of HIFI Labs, a music technology and artist development company. “It presented a bunch of unexpected challenges all at once. We needed to adjust the way we interacted and engaged with all the stakeholders we work with simultaneously.”

The entertainment industry — from film and food festivals to concerts and cultural events — is all about “being there,” live and in person. So when Covid-19 made being anywhere besides home difficult, if not impossible, entertainment entrepreneurs had two choices: adapt or fade away.

Two small business owners, Barham of HIFI Labs and Angeline Gragasin of Happy Family Night Market, both understood that shift happens — and transformation would be crucial for survival. Both had to translate that live-event electricity through screens: For Barham, that meant bringing concerts into people’s living rooms, and for Gragasin, it meant using social media to amplify her mission. But surviving required more than just taking their audiences online. There were other vital, behind-the-scenes pivots the entrepreneurs made to keep everyone entertained. We spoke with them about the unseen ways their businesses had to change in the face of Covid-19.

New connections in new spaces

Barham launched HIFI Labs just before Covid-19 restrictions kicked in. What he’d imagined as a platform where artists could create dynamic concerts and drive real-life fan engagement needed to become a digital-first experience, and quickly. His first step: taking production meetings — where performers and crew finalize their creative direction, run-of-show, and venue quirks — online and remote. “Our initial thought around the pandemic was about the need to adjust the way we interact, engage, and execute programs with all stakeholders we work with,” he says.

It’s a pandemic-driven change that’s been crucial in letting HIFI Labs create dynamic, live-streamed events for hundreds of thousands of viewers. It’s also shown Barham’s team that remotely producing complex events is something they can do, and do well — some valuable expertise for the post-pandemic entertainment world.

For Gragasin, founder of the pan-Asian art and culture festival Happy Family Night Market, knowing that she couldn’t host a large, complex in-person festival let her double down on growing a digital community. “I shifted my focus to social media engagement and digital programming — two areas that I had neglected prior to the pandemic, but finally had the time to develop,” she says.

Gragasin began a number of successful, socially driven initiatives, like a digital cookbook and a monthly radio show, curated by members on everything from film to spirituality. Those creative outlets gave Gragasin’s community a way to engage with each other when they couldn’t gather for her annual event, and they’ll amplify the festival when it’s allowed to return post-Covid.

Keeping the bills straight

The pandemic hit the entertainment business hard. The industry stands to lose $160 billion in growth before things go back to a semblance of normal, with everything from music to movies to live performances taking financial hits. Some green shoots of recovery are showing, though, and recent legislation has created vital support for entrepreneurs throughout the industry.

The revenue hits that many business owners in the entertainment industry are feeling have put managing things like payroll, invoicing, and taxes firmly in focus. Barham and his team interact with multiple stakeholders and partners at once, so keeping track of expenses remotely across those relationships can be arduous. That’s why one of his first adjustments was integrating QuickBooks into HIFI Labs’s operations.

QuickBooks and all their cloud-based products define the backbone of our accounting process at HIFI Labs,” Barhman says. He set up a process with QuickBooks that he says has been essential in tracking all the cross-collaborative efforts for every client, partner, and event. By streamlining how they invoice and pay partners, QuickBooks has helped the company adapt to the digital-first entertainment world.

Gragasin has used her unexpected extra time to prepare for Happy Family Night Market’s next festival, and to focus on balancing her books. “I learned the hard way how not to manage my books during festival season,” she says. “For a small business owner like me, investing in technology solutions like QuickBooks means investing in a future in which the stress of bookkeeping has been eliminated — so I can focus on other priorities, like directly serving my community.”

From quick fixes to lasting change

Entertainment entrepreneurs know the industry will go back to “normal,” hopefully sooner rather than later. But addressing current realities while eying the post-pandemic world is critical to adapting business. For Barham, that means crafting digital experiences that could be grafted onto physical ones when venues open and artists go back on tour. He points to HIFI Labs’ work on developing fan communities, artist collaborations, and music discovery avenues — all in a digital-led environment. It’s not how he imagined his business would look a few months after launch, but it’s kept his audience entertained.

Gragasin, for her part, made a key change to Happy Family Night Market that allowed her to connect better with her community while aligning her organization with her personal values. “I’ve committed to eventually transitioning the company…to a multi-stakeholder cooperative enterprise, owned and managed by the community,” she says. She credits that decision to her background as an artist: Gragasin wanted to create a sustainable future for her organization that mirrored her artistic mission and principles. “I’ve come to embrace the business as an extension of my artistic practice,” she says. “And as a result, I’ve become more empowered to ask bigger questions and take greater risks as a creative entrepreneur.”

Solutions that address our current realities are important, but they’re temporary fixes: The pandemic will permanently change how we view entertainment. New approaches that work now, as well as a year from now, are key to helping small business owners forge ahead. The entertainment industry is staying afloat thanks to the people working behind the scenes to bring audiences and fans unforgettable experiences. The pandemic hasn’t changed that, and tools like QuickBooks have become vital, unseen players that can give small business owners a way to navigate a rapidly transforming landscape. The show must go on, after all, even if it’s from home.

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