Late last month, the iconic 122-year-old London music venue Koko re-opened following a three-year closure and a seven-year period of meticulous strategic gestation to birth an ambitious (£70m/$88m) transmedia reimagining. It’s a project that’s likely to set a new benchmark in showcasing live music and music culture, as well as redefining the rules of engagement between artists and their fans.
Embodying our post-pandemic, reality-blurring times, it leaps headlong into both the renewed lust for live performance and hedonistic IRL bonding but also a fan-scape of digitized desirability. Here, virtual interactions, livestreaming (notably, Apple’s
Apple Music Live free concert streaming service launched with Harry Styles this month, including pre-order and interview links), crypto curiosity, XR ingenuity (hello, ABBAtars) and on-demand spin-off content capable of sating remote appetites have become pop cultural catnip.
Aside a main stage, restored fly tower performance space, penthouse recording studios, bar, café for showcasing new talent, members club & restaurants (spanning four floors), cocktail bar (in the semi-sacred ambience of the historic building’s crowning dome), and a cluster of smaller rooms for intimate shows, there will also be a radio and podcast station, multiple livestreaming points, a platform hosting correlating content, and plenty of ‘merchtainment’ – inventive riffs on the long-standing practice of selling artists’ merch including an on-site concept store with phygital capabilities.
Not forgetting an NFT exhibition space (not music-related) in collaboration with global crypto-currency platform Luno supporting visual artists similarly toying with creative perimeters.
The Driving Forces
Helmed by London-based media entrepreneur Olly Bengough, founder of the Mint Entertainment Group (Bengough’s early noughties collaboration with British EDM duo Groove Armada elasticated the UK’s Lovebox Music Festival from a cozy monthly club night to a festival of 50,000+ people every weekend) the transformation is a particularly ballsy feat considering that just five years ago London’s live music scene had dwindled to anemic proportions; by 2016 the city had witnessed a loss of 40% of its music venues prompting the department store Selfridges to temporarily transform its flagship’s 3,500 sq. ft ‘Ultralounge’ events space into a live music venue.
A comeback conceived to explore and redefine the creative-commercial axis for a host of music and music-adjacent industries in flux – fueled by live audiences of approximately 45,000 per month – here’s what to expect from Koko:
Retooling an Iconic Legacy
Koko (formerly the Camden Palace and The Music Machine among other monikers) has never been a regular club. Revelling in legend, both hallowed and nefarious, in the early 1900’s the Grade II architecturally listed building hosted Charlie Chaplin; in the 70s it was a hang-out for punk lodestars including The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Jam; while in the 80s Madonna performed her first UK gig there (during the same decade it was infamously reputed to be the last place that AC/DC’s Bon Scott was seen drinking at before his death from alcohol poisoning). Prince, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse and Dave all performed there too, alongside a galaxy of rising and/or more niche stars.
It’s been a theatre, a club, broadcasting house (for the BBC), a disco mecca. It’s also been a beacon for new wave, rave, acid house and grime. Regardless of incarnation it’s always been steeped in the zeitgeist, which is the foundation on which Bengough, who refers to himself as Koko’s custodian, is building his experimental, Web 3-era entertainment empire:
“We have to ensure we retain the soul and artistic legacy of the place, but it’s a new chapter and a new business model. We want to innovate and pioneer, to answer questions and be part of the conversation regarding where the world is going but this isn’t like a tech start-up, we have to acknowledge the past and pay homage to the depth of history in terms of art, culture, architecture, geography, location. We have craftspeople and gilders on the one hand and on the other broadcasting trailblazers and tech specialists like NFT creators to generate and distribute content.”
Livestreaming Seven Ways: 360° Storytelling
Embracing the thirst for livestreaming (in 2021, despite Covid lockdowns easing, approximately $3.76bn globally was spent in live streaming apps, up 57% on 2020), it’s a key feature of the new Koko, built into seven rooms – the main stage, fly tower, shop, café, stage kitchen, speakeasy style jazz bar & blues bar and penthouse studio.
It makes sense considering how the live music scene is already getting it’s metaverse on – consider Epic Games first virtual concert way back in 2019, with masked EDM DJ and producer Marshmello, followed by the ultra-hyped record-obliterating Travis Scott in Fortnite in 2020, then Lil Nas X in Roblox and even Justin Beiber on Wave last year.
But the intention here says Bengough is to move on from a grand sole focus on the main event (show/stage) to a multi-tiered experience that’s either chronological, i.e., pre, during and post show (“everyone loves the risk attached to a big event, but they also love the backstory”); straddling public and private experiences; or even a variety of performances.
Bengough describes that latter as, “almost like doing a multi-stage video, all one night. Or something with which to create cross-pollinated editorial content – a different energy for different kinds of content.”
Debut Livestream’s Crypto Sweeteners
The first livestream for Koko Studio (following an initial live broadcast of Arcade Fire’s opening night show on Amazon
-owned video streaming platform Twitch) came via progressive British rapper Knucks, aka Ashley Nwachukwu, with a show last week in partnership with Luno including a Bitcoin
On entry, fans who’d furnished Luno with an Instagram follow pre-show received a plastic wristband, two of which lit up mid-show as Knucks announced the giveaway. Each of the winners received a third of a bitcoin currently worth £23k ($29k). Beyond cashing in the coin, the winners have the option to return to Koko for some cryptocurrency tutoring in-situ, plus the opportunity to use a portion of the prize to invest in a fund alongside the man himself, offering a longer-term vision of fan engagement.
The majority of Knucks’ considerable and ultra-dedicated fan base (there wasn’t a single person in the first 30 rows who couldn’t lip synch to the entire set list) was largely oblivious to the innovation going down – the power of alternative finance not exactly front of mind during the still-buzzing throes of post-lockdown live entertainment – but when the dust settles there may be more curiosity.
There is certainly work to be done; according to Gen Z research network Imagen Insights, only 30% of its community “are excited about cryptocurrency and their investments in it” due to concerns about its volatile nature. Gen Z are, after all, a famously cautious group. Beckoning the unconvinced, audience members who didn’t win were given an exclusive t-shirt with a QR code loaded with a fraction of a bitcoin (£10) from Luno.
Tiered Content, Micro Payments & Virtual Tipping
With the possibility of so much fresh creative content emerging does he envisage a model where Koko will charge for some of it, perhaps tiering for different levels of fan engagement? “Potentially, which I don’t think is a cynical position. It’s all about finding the positive exchange, what the audience deems to be valuable and then allowing them to entertain themselves. We’ve always gone for creativity first, responding with a commercial model afterwards.”
The discourse surrounding tiered brand experiences is certainly heating up. Last year saw the appropriation of US platform Only Fans – the subscription site with a famously saucy rep. US fashion brand Rebecca Minkoff was an early adopter, but so far few have followed suit. The nascent world of NFTs and the metaverse, unencumbered by an existing legacy beyond gaming are more valuable to watch.
For instance, AnamXR, which designs metaverse experiences, is currently working on a ‘token-gating’ project with an award-winning music collective that means anyone who owns the groups NFT will be identified on entering their platform and ushered into a separate virtual listening room, away from non-crypto plebs.
Fans & Fractional Ownership
Metaverse aside, Bengough cites Patreon and Amazon-owned live video game streaming service Twitch (where users can toggle between streams from four separate perspectives within the same window) as inspiration, revealing that Koko may also explore the possibility of micro payments like virtual tipping. “Super fans want ways to contribute, to feel like they can be part of the moment with their favorite artist. There could even be, for new albums for instance, some form of fractional ownership. So long as everyone feels good about the situation it’s no different to selling merchandise.”
In-House Creative: Concept Albums (Free) for All
Conceived as a factory of the Warholian variety, in order to corral the new creative possibilities Koko will home an in-house creative production team (art directors, videographers, filmmakers, audio specialists) that will support/level up the playing field for both megastar artists and also younger, independent artists. The aim is to democratize the capacity for experimentation – unlocking the door to world-class creative production regardless of access to world-class budgets – aligned to Koko’s spirit of embracing the avant-garde and early-stage artists alongside industry juggernauts.
It’ll most certainly cater to the now more mainstream premise of the visual concept album, a la Beyoncé back in 2013. The philosophy is supported by key hires including Koko’s head of audio content, ex-Apple Music content operations specialist Meera Patel and the renowned film & events producer and Institut Français alumni Julien Plante heading up its artistic programming. “I envisage it as being a case of ‘my album has dropped, now so will my content. People now want to see artists cross lanes. The more lanes you’re in the more fascinating you are.”
The Digital Platform
For now, the crux of the digital platform will come via a partnership with broadcast behemoth Youtube (which debuted with the performance from the aforementioned Knucks) but residing within the main, soon-to-be-launched Koko app. Phase two will see Koko build its own proprietary space. The interface is billed as being magazine style, initially pushing the 50-60 monthly shows before expanding into the aforementioned variations of content (live streams as they happen, recorded shows) as well as potentially longer format content like documentaries and shopping.
The Concept Store
Last but by no means least the space will also house a concept store, in possibly the only place in the venue consciously stripped back to serve as a blank canvas (zero nods to Koko’s historic essence). Artists will take-over the space to coincide with their performances, at liberty to do as they please, whether that’s using the streaming capabilities to sell merch in the style of popular US livestreaming app NTWRK (“QVC meets Comic-Con for Gen Z”), retailing items that simply influenced their oeuvre or pretty much anything else. First up was the English EDM/drum n bass duo Chase & Status, followed by DJ Honey Dijon, and Knucks.
Bengough suggests that the concept store, and indeed so many areas of Koko, could serve as incubator space, particularly for record labels toying with the best way to get a grip on an industry moving at the lightning speed of internet culture. It’s not unfeasible to think that Koko might launch its own, digital-first record label itself: “All these spaces provide a home for experimentation, to harness the raw energy, to create alongside and beyond the main stage performances.”