Balcony TV is a popular online video series that features bands performing on, yes, balconies all around the world. But the first episode, shot in Dublin six years ago, had very little to do with music: it’s a half-dozen friends squished onto a tiny balcony overlooking Dame St., dancing to Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” blaring from a nearby stereo until the song is turned down for a big announcement. A jaunty proclamation—“This is the launch of Balcony TV!”—is followed by the pop of a cork, cheers, and a champagne toast.
“It was a kind of tongue-and-cheek launch of a television channel,” says show creator Stephen O’Regan. “Our idea was to film a new little video piece from our balcony each day, in the name of art. I figured I’d be shooting the street traffic going by, or people walking down the block.”
To fill subsequent episodes, O’Regan began inviting musician friends too come perform. “Suddenly, we started getting contacted from bands all over the country who wanted to come up and play on our balcony. And so I just figured, if it’s going to become a music website, let it become a music website.”
Six years later, Balcony TV is an international music franchise. Their videos have been watched more than 30 million times and are produced in over forty cities on six continents. From Seoul to Edmonton, each syndicate follows the same blueprint: An independent musician or band performing a song (often acoustically) in a single take. Every one of them on a balcony.
“Its quite a charming thing to be able to just click into Balcony TV-St Petersburg and see the artists on the ground in St Petersburg.” Says O’Regan, “I don’t think there’s any other facility for you to actually click into cities and see local talent, because most shows that would come from there probably have a [foreign] name that you probably wouldn’t be able to search for.”
There are a slew of other music websites that offer similar stripped-down performances from bands in strange locations. The Takeaway Shows in Paris features an episode with Arcade Fire performing “Neon Bible” in an elevator. And then there’s The Black Cab Sessions in London, which has artists perform songs (uncomfortably) while jammed in the back of a London taxi. Both of these websites started around the same time as Balcony TV—over the years, literally dozens of copycat sites have followed.
“It takes away all the tricks and the pre-recorded tracks that a lot of artists use today, and it just strips it down to the artist and it focuses on the crafts of songwriting, musicianship, and really kind of exploits that,” explains Jeff Kerestes, who plays guitar in the harmony-driven trio Apollo Run. During a recent appearance on Balcony TV-Brooklyn they recorded a few songs from their new album Here Be Dragons, Vol. 3. The band wasn’t compensated for their performance—aside from a few free beers—but Kerestes says the global reach of Balcony TV provides a unique promotional tool. “I think Balcony TV is a great way to build a musical community all over the world. We have fans in Europe that can’t otherwise see our show. So they can jump onto Balcony TV and see us performing live.”
Until recently, the project was a labor of love for O’Regan, who did most of the work in his spare time for very little money. But last summer, he received $750,000 in venture-capital funding to expand his brand. He now works (with a small team) out of Dogpatch Labs in New York City, constantly redesigning the website and forging partnerships with already established online music sites like VEVO. “I don’t want to give away all the secrets to the world via TIME,” says a confident O’Regan, “but if we do it right, we are in a position to become an ultimate broadcasting platform for music.”
It’s still unclear how Balcony TV will fit into the ever-evolving music industry. Despite a surge in music consumption online, most digital music platforms still struggle to sustain themselves. Streaming sites like Spotify and Pandora are expanding their catalogs and listenership, but continue to lose money due to the costs of music royalties.
O’Regan is aware of the challenges he faces, but prefers to stay optimistic about the future of his place in the music business. “I think the rock and roll spirit is back, the punk rock ideals are back—the days of CBGBs and the early days of Rolling Stone, of Hot Press magazine, MTV Unplugged. I think there are people who are coming in and saying ‘alright how do we change it up again, how do we reinvent it?’ And I think there’s a space to actually do something great with music again.”