How to create engaging and accessible online events

As part of my ongoing work with Drake Music I have worked with small team delivering Emergent: A Music Legacy, their Artistic Development programme for early-career Disabled musicians, funded by Help Musicians UK.

Now in its third year, Emergent has gone from strength to strength. The previous years have delivered some great new music and the results have been showcased in big live events at the ICA and the Barbican.

This year, thanks to Coronavirus, things turned out differently.

The 2019/20 commissions were in partnership with Sound and Music and the brief was to create a new piece of music, then to collaborate with an artist/film-maker on moving image to accompany it. The commissions were awarded to Remi Fox-Novak (Nottingham), Robbie Ashworth (London) and The Dyr Sister (Hull).

The lockdown meant that our plans for a small industry screening event to launch them had to change. The team who usually lead the Emergent programme (Daryl Beeton and Miryam Solomon) were on leave or furloughed, so my role expanded to include project managing the finalisation of the commissions and visuals, and the curation and promotion of a virtual launch event.

Here I’m going to share a look behind the scenes at how an event like this is put together and some tips on creating inclusive digital events.

About Emergent: Digital

In conversation with Miryam (pre-furlough!) and the awesome team at Sound and Music, I put together an outline of digital events which would allow us to connect with different audiences and to explore the commissions in new ways.

The outline was in four parts, covering listening, sharing, discussion and live performance.

I began with the idea of the Listening Party, a virtual version of our Industry Screening event where each of the three commissions would be shown in Zoom and followed up by a Q&A with the artists. I also wanted to include a wider audience than Zoom could accommodate, so we livestreamed the discussion to Facebook. I also scheduled YouTube and Facebook premieres of the commissions later in the day, allowing this new music to reach out into the world in as many ways as possible. This was accompanied by Social Sharing of lots of different content related to each artist, interviews, videos and - of course - the all-important Bandcamp links to buy their music.

The discussion was a Music Industry Round Table focusing on Access and Representation in the Industry. I wanted to include a diverse panel of speakers to bring in viewpoints from different genres, parts of the country, specialisms, venue sizes etc. We signed up a fantastic panel to be part of the event which included artist Dike Okoh (a previous commission winner) and speakers from Roundhouse London, Sage Gateshead, Sound and Music and Attitude is Everything.

The performance element took the shape of a Lockdown Livestream by one of the Emergent artists – Remi Fox-Novak - via Facebook live on Drake Music’s profile. This was a great way to round off the day with a banging live set and loads of fun in the chat.

Experimenting, learning and putting access at the heart

So how to go about this day of digital activity?

Virtual events are not entirely new to Drake Music, as the team have been running webinars for the music education sector for a number of years, but a whole day of events and the inclusion of live music was a new challenge.

I was grateful to work with the team at Sound and Music who helped look after the ‘backstage’ area of Zoom and supported us to stream directly to Facebook. Also, luckily for me, the Artists in Residence at Drake Music recently held a Listening Party and were kind enough to share both their approach and also Gareth Cutter as host.

Early on in Lockdown, I worked with DM’s Douglas Noble and John Kelly on a music education conversation event via Zoom. We discussed the new digital cultures and norms being established in this unusual time, and how we wanted to bring something different, inviting, inclusive and accessible to the table. We created a new way to approach Zoom events and this was incredibly helpful in putting this day together. I have also been writing campaigning articles and creating helpful guides around Digital Accessibility for DM since the COVID crisis hit, and wanted to test and model inclusive approaches to this event.

These then informed a lot of the approach to Emergent: Digital, where I put access, artists and audiences at the heart of each event and decision.

So, what does that mean in practice?

To be honest, a lot of things... it's big principles turned into lots of smaller decisions, each one informed by the Social Model of Disability which says - in short - that people are disabled by the attitudes and environment around them, so if you change those then you remove disabling barriers.

Tips for Accessible and Fun digital events

I’m going to share a few insights into how I programmed and produced these events with access, representation, fun and inclusivity in mind:

  1. It’s not that different to a real-world event – Everything you would think about for that, you need to think about for this, both practical considerations and emotional experiences. So, IRL I would think about how people get to a venue, make sure that the space is accessible and that I’ve been clear about how to get there. For a digital event this meant giving clear info about the platform and how to get into the event, then ensuring that we made that space accessible with things like; a ‘What to expect’ document sent out in advance, captions, a steady pace, relaxed approach, audio described intros etc.

  2. Think about the audience – I know from personal experience that Zoom fatigue is a very real thing. Plus, not everyone is a digital expert and different people will be interested in different types of content. So I split it up into manageable chunks, aimed at different audiences and I used a variety of platforms to try and meet people where they are.

  3. Think about who isn’t at the table (or in the zoom) – This is something we say a lot at Drake Music, where we regularly see exclusions taking place across the arts, music and education sectors. I wanted to ensure that Disabled voices were integral to each element of the day, from the Q&A hosted by and featuring Disabled artists, to the Roundtable where Disabled people and allies were the speakers and the audience was given space to discuss and ask questions. I wanted to create a space of equality in the Roundtable, where the audience input was as important as the panel and where people could share experiences, connect and feel seen and heard.

  4. Support the people involved – Our approach was to be upfront and honest with our audiences that a lot of this is new to us and we are trying things and learning. I wanted the various people – speakers, hosts, artists – involved in the event to feel supported and safe during it, so that they knew if something went wrong that was just part of the experience and it wouldn’t be a problem. I emailed and spoke with all the people involved beforehand, doing trial runs and checking in about any extra support or access requirements that I could arrange. Everyone involved ran with our open and inclusive approach and did a great job.

  5. Have fun – This can be a bit forgotten in the digital realm, where things can feel more like meetings than events, where we can all get a bit self-conscious or feel the pressure of being tied to a screen. I tried to keep the day fun and to communicate the joy of sharing these incredible new creations by exciting early-career artists. The Lockdown Livestream with Remi was the perfect way to achieve this, with arty party music loud in my headphones as I joined in the chat in the comments where people were cracking jokes and appreciating the tunes.

In short...

The final event was fantastic.

The artists were funny and thought-provoking in their Q&A and the commissions looked and sounded amazing, with the visuals created by Bruce Asbestos, Blue Beany and Rebel Films accentuating the music in interesting and innovative ways. Accessibility ran through every element of the day, from the pre-promotion to the live sections, each was a welcoming, inclusive and supportive space to celebrate the joy of new music at a challenging time.

The Roundtable was a sell-out event and reached a lot of people via Facebook live. The panel were open, informative and dedicated to better access and representation and the comments, questions and chat from the audience were challenging, stimulating and exciting to be part of. The commission videos were premiered and viewed by over 1300 people and the live performance was awesome, bringing a real feel of celebration to the day.

It was a pleasure and privilege to curate this event, to support and share Remi, Robbie & The Dyr Sister’s work, to collaborate with colleagues across the industry and to hold a space for a really vital conversation.

Sine this early-Lockdown experience I have continued to work with Drake Music to produce and support an exciting digital programme of conversations, live gigs, keynote presentations and more. I'm looking forward to seeing where it takes us next.

Hear and view the commissions and visuals here

Find the Digital Accessibility resources on the Drake Music site

Need help with an event?

If you would like to talk to us about curating an accessible digital event, get in touch. We are also available to provide advice and consultancy on improving the accessibility of your existing events and programmes. Email me on becky@shipshapemarketing.co.uk for an informal chat.

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