Wildest streams! Inside the fan-powered broadcasts of Taylor Swift’s Eras tour

Estimated read time 11 min read

When Taylor Swift released The Eras Tour movie last October, it quickly became the highest-grossing concert film of all time. Fans danced in the aisles of screenings. Critics praised Brett Turnbull’s cinematography. When I went to see the actual Eras tour in Edinburgh two weeks ago, I was charmed to see dozens of people watching the film while on the train on their way to, you know, actually see the concert in real life.

The film is a phenomenon in its own right: a slick and bombastic ticket to an event you may have missed out on, or one you might just want to relive in perpetuity. But may I suggest that you’ve never really seen the Eras tour on screen until you’ve participated in one of the unofficial fan livestreams that operate every single night of the tour? Here, the shaky camera footage, taken from phones held up around the stadiums, makes The Blair Witch Project look like Blade Runner. A phone pointed stage-wards from the gods can’t hope to capture the scope of the stadium sound, and so a distant, blown-out Swift often has to compete with joyful caterwauling from your DIY documentarian.

I tune in to one such feed on 13 June, as Swift plays Liverpool on the 100th show of the Eras tour (an occasion that has fans convinced a big announcement is coming). By 7.15pm, 21,000 people are online, watching fans milling about in the standing area of the arena before proceedings begin. In the bottom corner, another screen shows a US fan, Kevin, who facilitates these streams by bouncing between the feeds of fans who have told him they’re happy to film. His walls are covered in Swift posters and he appears to be drinking out of a giant Eras Tour film popcorn bucket. The overflowing live chat, running in a third screen, is full of Swift-specific emoji: chief among them is the power-pose from the Reputation portion of the set, showing Swift in the one-legged catsuit that has become infamous among fans for its growing threadbare patches.

These are the sorts of details that become magnified when you can watch every night of the tour. Bigger announcements, such as the much speculated about announcement of the remaining two re-recordings, Reputation and Swift’s self-titled debut, are far fewer between.

Swift performing in Edinburgh, 7 June 2024.View image in fullscreen

Outfits are a big source of speculation in the chat because many of the fans here are also playing a fantasy football-style guessing game called Mastermind, which is part of Swift Alert, an app that sends out notifications to fans around the world as she moves through the different parts of the show. I sign up and log my guesses about which outfits she’ll wear and instruments she’ll play.

By the time it’s one minute before the show starts – with 50,000 viewers now tuned in – I feel a totally unexpected sense of heightened anticipation and delight. The shaky footage and screaming look exactly like the wobbly videos I have of my friends in Edinburgh – a reminder that tens of thousands of people every night are having their own euphoric experience. The set’s second song, Lover, is drowned out by an exuberant camerawoman. “Sophie does sing a bit but we’ll let her sing as she’s doing a big service for us in terms of this view,” says Kevin (who sadly, I can’t reach to speak to).

I learned about the live streams and the app from US fan Melissa Rogers, 36, whom I met last year at the Eras tour in Los Angeles. A Swiftie since her 2006 debut, Rogers has been to the tour six times, has a seventh ticket confirmed and hopes to travel to London in August for her eighth. “It’s way more than just a show,” she says, citing the friendships she has made and the bracelets she’s traded. “It’s definitely impacted my life in a lot of ways.” In addition to the real-life concerts she has tuned in to almost every livestream, often keeping it on in the background at work. Despite knowing the set so well she could surely perform it herself, she says it’s the predictions about potential announcements that keep it exciting. “And the chat function is one of my favourite parts,” she adds. “It’s almost like being with everyone who’s at the concert and getting to see their thoughts. It’s so pure and genuine.”

While Rogers has also watched the tour movie “seven or eight times” – and it was partially filmed at the show where we met – the streams “have a lot more character to them”, she says. “I love when the livestreamers are screaming and singing because that’s what it’s supposed to be. I think it’s adorable. I’ve heard people crying in the streams. I just feel very connected in a way that you don’t get from the film.” Plus, she adds, filmers often capture the endearing mistakes within an otherwise a precision-run performance that have led to fans coining the “Errors tour” meme.

“We’ve seen people get proposed to live on stream,” says Kyle Mumma, a software engineer based in North Carolina who developed the Swift Alert app. “There are people singing with – not to be disrespectful – not the best voice in the world, but they’re having the time of their lives and they don’t care. And they shouldn’t care what anybody online thinks.”

Screenshots from the Mastermind app.View image in fullscreen

Mumma and his wife saw the opening night of the tour in Glendale last March, and quickly realised there was demand from fans around the world to know when Swift started the “surprise songs” part of the set, towards the end. He commissioned a developer and they launched when Swift played Mexico City in September. “Twenty five or 30 people signed up for alerts – and most were family and friends of mine, not anybody who really cared.”

But when the tour reached Buenos Aires in November, they had a sudden surge of 100,000 downloads. Swift Alerts briefly sat between Disney+ and Roku on the Apple Store charts. (Mumma cherishes his screenshot of the chart.) A couple of weeks ago, the app exceeded half a million users. It’s free to use and play, though fans can donate to the costs of running the app, which Mumma does with his wife and a friend. “The majority of the money goes to our support developer,” he says. “Another large chunk goes to the prizes that we give away to Mastermind winners. And then we pay ourselves a very, very small amount to make up for some of the time we spend on it.”

Each night of the tour, one of them is watching live and manually sending out alerts about the different transitions in the show. “That’s the part I’m not sure anybody appreciates,” he chuckles. “When I first started this, I tried to automate it, I had a spreadsheet. But we found that the Champagne Problems cheers” – in which fans try to outdo each other with a nightly ovation – “throw off the entire timing. And what we can’t afford is the thousands of people depending on this alert missing the surprise songs. So we’re always watching and pushing out alerts, answering the Mastermind questions, and managing our social media.”

The Swift enterprise is no stranger to pursuing copyright infringement, from fan-made Etsy items to a US theme park playing her music without a licence. Yet the livestreams and Swift Alerts have been allowed to continue. “Obviously, if they read this, we appreciate it,” Mumma says with a nervous laugh. “We thought there was a chance they would not be thrilled about it.” His theory on why they’ve been left alone is that at peak moments, like the surprise set, they are sending 100,000 people to various live streams. “I think hopefully we’re helping the ecosystem. That’s the goal of what we’re doing – to give more people a way to have fun around the show. I tell people all the time: if I was trying to make this my job, we would be collecting user data and selling ads and charging a subscription fee. That’s not what we were ever in it for.”

Swift has even acknowledged the livestreams during shows, says Rogers, whose encyclopaedic knowledge I defer to. “I think that Taylor recognises the demand for the show, that people want to see her and that this is a really special thing for them,” she says. “And she’s already sold all the tickets, she’s gotten the money that she was going to get from ticket sales. If I had to guess, I think she’s just excited that people who couldn’t make it are able to see it and be part of the community and interact with other Swifties.”

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Over on the live stream, one girl puts down her camera, yelling, “I have to take my shoes off!” Two girls who take over the stream thank Kevin “so much for what you do”. Another later frets: “My friendship bracelets are very tight.” Kevin changes outfits for each section of the show, and pretends to drink from a bottle of champagne during Champagne Problems. Dozens of people type out the meme of the lyrics to Ready For It? sounding like “the duck is vegan”. Sitting at home with a beer, I feel charmed – if conflicted – as the news breaks that Swift has just released six UK-exclusive digital variants of The Tortured Poets Department in an apparent – and ultimately successful – attempt to remain at No 1 and keep Charli XCX’s album Brat in second position. Amid spreading discontent about Swift’s business practices and political mutism in a pivotal election year, the livestream highlights how much of the goodness of this enterprise comes from the sweet, sincere generosity of fans.

Swift performing in Liverpool, 13 June 2024.View image in fullscreen

The moment finally arrives when Swift acknowledges the 100th show, and fans in the livestream comments are braced for the potential announcement of Reputation (Taylor’s Version). It doesn’t come.

“I think a lot of people are like: how are you gonna celebrate the 100th show?” she tells the crowd. “The celebration of the 100th show to me means this is the very first time I’ve ever acknowledged to myself that this tour has to end in December.”

The chat is split between fans who had been hoping for a new leg in 2025, aghast that they may never see the tour, and those chastising them for expecting too much. “We don’t need to GET anything, guys,” types one named Ali. “Look what she’s given us already. I’m crying lol … This tour (and her music overall) has saved me in some really hard times.” Kevin reminds the assembled – now 81,711-strong, significantly more than the 55,000 people inside Anfield stadium – to “savour the shows more ’cause we know there’s only a finite amount left.”

Once the tour is over, says Rogers, “I will probably move on from this a little but, but I think I’m always gonna go back to it. It’ll always be very special to me.” Mumma says he and his small team have talked about whether they can evolve the app into something else, though it sounds as though they’ll be taking a very well deserved rest. For both of them, it’s the memory of the community that formed around these streams that will endure. “With previous tours, the technology meant this wasn’t even possible,” says Rogers. “So you have this whole new facet of the Swiftie community, and get to connect with people from all over the world. I think it’s so generous and amazing that people stream for the benefit of others.”

Mumma, meanwhile, receives messages about the streams helping people through divorces and deaths. “We’re literally getting messages from people in countries that are war-torn saying, ‘This is the thing bringing me joy in my day-to-day life.’ That’s unbelievably powerful for anybody to do, but for someone to do it through music and a tour is really incredible. We’re just a small piece of it, where we can provide a little game with a scoreboard.”

Source: theguardian.com

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