I want my Fabchannel

Below is an interview conducted by James Enck with Justin Kniest, founder of Fabchannel, the Amsterdam-based internet broadcasting entity currently featuring live and archived streams of performances at two venues in Amsterdam, Paradiso and Melkweg (“Milky Way”):Below is an interview conducted by James Enck with Justin Kniest, founder of Fabchannel, the Amsterdam-based internet broadcasting entity currently featuring live and archived streams of performances at two venues in Amsterdam, Paradiso and Melkweg (“Milky Way”):

It is often the case, for obvious and perfectly understandable reasons, that the municipal network scenario is portrayed as an adversarial one, characterized by friction between the long term economic development/social agendas of local government and the shorter term, often capital markets-driven, concerns of the telco/cable duopoly. As an aside to the larger issues at work in the municipal networks debate, here is an anecdote from Amsterdam, in which the interests and roles of the players are not so starkly defined, nor mutually antagonistic. It is an interesting case study in how municipal involvement can augment services already in place by traditional service providers to foster the development of unique cultural phenomena, and perhaps business development opportunities, which otherwise might not exist.

I recently interviewed Justin Kniest, founder and managing director of Fabchannel, the Amsterdam-based internet broadcasting entity currently featuring live and archived streams of performances at two venues in Amsterdam, Paradiso and Melkweg (“Milky Way”). While the story of Fabchannel, as a content-driven entity, inevitably involves much which is outside the sphere of municipal networking, there is a very clear interface with the issue, as Justin outlines for us in the interview. How much the municipal involvement in his project is reflective of the values of Dutch society, I leave to those better qualified to debate; however, the model being hammered out in Amsterdam is one which I believe is worthy of emulation/expansion, and it will be fascinating to watch the development of this essentially new media distribution model in future.

Enck: When and how did Fabchannel get started? What was the rationale for it initially?

Justin Kniest: Fabchannel started in 2000. The main reason was the lack of attention that the Paradiso programming got (and still gets) from Dutch radio and television. Together with Paradiso I saw steaming video as an excellent way to promote the concerts directly, without intervention of editors from radio and tv-shows. In the early beginnings it was a mission of just me and a trainee. We did manage to get sponsoring from Dutchview (one of Holland’s biggest video companies) and XS4ALL (one of Holland’s biggest ISP’s [author’s note ‚Äö?Ñ?¨ XS4ALL is one of the retail ISP brands of incumbent telco KPN]). Both these companies saw the potential of the content and the technology and were interested to explore the possibilities together with us.

We started at the end of the internet hype when business plans were two sheets long and broadband was still a promise of the future. But we had a vision I guess of what could be and knew that we had to simply do it to get to know all of the aspects involved. Fabchannel is of course a multi-headed beast involving clearance of rights, producing, directing, editing, broadcasting and promoting. But because we are from the music business we had a pretty good understanding of all the interests involved: record companies, agencies, promoters, venues and (I guess the most important) the wishes of the music lovers.

Enck: I understand that the Paradiso and Melk Weg clubs stage something like 650 events a year. What proportion of these are being streamed and how does that compare with your initial expectations?

Justin Kniest: Due to budget limitations we are not able to accomplish our ultimate goal: recording all of the concerts and putting them online. We believe in narrowcasting and know there is an audience for all the concerts, performances, lectures and festivals in Paradiso and Melkweg. We see them every night walking through the doors. It is safe to say that there are many more who are not able to go to the venues. This idea gets even more valid when you look at it on a global scale. Paradiso is an internationally renowned venue, and the artists playing there have a global appeal. The potential target group worldwide for our content is huge. Fabchannel just follows the programming decisions of the promoters. They are the ones with “the nose” for good music and a second filter is not necessary, we think.

We have seen a big increase in the number of acts that we get cleared (author’s note ‚Äö?Ñ?¨ cleared by record labels) since we started to use our new video studio in Paradiso. Our new studio enables us to record shows at broadcast quality. The video studio we used before consisted of upgraded security cameras. They did a great job at the time, but we found out that (of course) it is important to create a compelling story and attractive pictures. Since early 2005 our “hit rate” for webcasts drastically increased from 30% to almost 75% of all the webcasts we have tried to clear. So the way that Fabchannel is growing is far beyond our initial expectations.

Enck: Is the fact that you’re ahead of your own expectations a reflection of the willingness of the bands to participate, or does it also indicate a greater interest from the record companies? This is probably a difficult question to answer, but how do you think record company attitudes to your project have changed over time? I assume they were suspicious, if not openly hostile at first. Do you find them to be more open to these sorts of alternative marketing channels?

Justin Kniest: Most artists were pro-Fabchannel from the beginning. The record companies had terribly cold feet to do anything with this thing called the internet, though. A lot of them were afraid of what would happen with their material. It took a long time for them to embrace the whole idea of streaming and to see Fabchannel for what it is: a great way to expand the promotional value of a live concert and an opportunity to create new business. Overall the labels are open, but some are more open than others. The independent labels are very cooperative. Some of the majors are still giving initiatives like us a hard time. They are more interested in profit directly from the streams instead of the promotional power webcasting has. They are of course the companies with the big stars that don’t need promoting. We also see a lot of changes in individual label policy. One day we’re hot with a certain label, and the next day we’re not, because of a new digital media manager who imposes a different international prime directive on streaming video.

Enck: Fabchannel has also amassed a pretty impressive archive of performances. Have any of these been taken on board by the labels as product that they can release in DVD format?

Justin Kniest: This is starting to develop since we took our new studio into service in February. We did a DVD for Beth Hart, The Arcade Fire and two Dutch bands. We think this will happen more and more, especially with video downloads coming up. When you can eliminate the expensive distribution of DVDs there is a big market for these products.

Enck: Are you receiving interest from other venue owners, who are either looking to replicate what you have done, or alternatively, to form some sort of federation, with Fabchannel as the aggregator/distributor? Do you see this model being an attractive one for other related types of performance, such as theatre or dance, and are there any examples you can cite?

Justin Kniest: Due to our success we get a lot of attention from venues in Holland and other European countries who want to participate and use our experience to get webcasting going in their venue. It is obvious that webcasting is a great tool for promoting artists as well as the venue itself. From the beginning Fabchannel had the intention to build a pan-European live network with Europe’s equivalents of the Paradiso working together with Fabchannel to bring the best concerts to the viewers on a daily basis.

We see a great opportunity for other types of performances like theatre, dance, stand-up comedy, etc., and are convinced these performance arts will find their way to the net. We are actually talking to the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and the Amsterdam City theatre to help them get their performances online. These organisations are especially interested in our experience with licensing contracts and the distribution technology we use.

Enck: How are you funded?

Justin Kniest: We are currently funded by the Dutch department of Education, Culture and Science and the city of Amsterdam. Next to that we started a joint venture with Dutchview, Paradiso and Melkweg that enabled us to build the video studio. XS4ALL is our network partner that takes care of all our server and bandwidth needs.

Enck: Besides a lot of imagination, courage, hard work and funding, what does one need to create something like Fabchannel? Specifically, what are your production facilities like, and what sort of server capacity and bandwidth do you require? How have these needs evolved over time and how will they change with the advent of HD?

Justin Kniest: There are a number of essential elements you need to create something like Fabchannel:

1. High-quality live audio/video equipment that enables the creation of compelling, broadcast quality video and audio – Because we want to create compelling concert videos we work with a multi-camera live setup containing four remote controlled SDI-cams and one manually controlled SDI-cam. We can upgrade our set with three extra handheld SDI-cams. The remote cams are controlled by two camera operators in our control room. Our directors can switch live between the cams;

2. Hard disk audio/video recording equipment for quick conversion to file-based video – We use three hard disk recorders that convert the SDI signal to DVCAM-standard. Recorder 1 records the switched feed and the other two record separate camerafeeds. That way we can spice up the final edit with shots we missed during the live shoot;

3. Centralized video storage – We use a 10.6 Terabyte SAN network consisting of two Apple XRAIDS and an Apple Xserve. With this large volume we can archive all of our hi-quality master files (DV-CAM). These files can be used for editing and for encoding to different streaming protocols;

4. Editing software and hardware to create better shows after the live shoot – Two Apple G5 PowerMacs are connected to the SAN by fibrechannel. We work with Final Cut Pro to edit the concerts. Using this configuration the two editors can work on the central SAN storage at the same time. They don’t have to copy the huge video files (one hour of DV-CAM material is about 13 GB) to their internal hard disk;

5. Encoding software and hardware for live webcasting and on-demand encoding – For live encoding we use dual-processor Xeon machines and Windows Media Encoder. For on demand encoding we use Apple and Windows based software like Sorenson Squeeze and Compression Master. We never use the live encoded files for on-demand. By re-encoding the source files later we get much better quality (dual-pass encoding, filtering);

6. Broadband connection from the venue to an ISP – This is one of the most important things in live webcasting. At the moment we have a sponsored 4Mb connection (up and down) that we use for live webcasting. Uploading is the main thing here. Without a stable connection between the live encoder and the streaming server you cannot guarantee the level of quality that the audience, artists and record companies want;

7. Streaming servers connected to massive bandwidth for delivering the live and on-demand streams to the audience – Dutch ISP XS4ALL is our connectivity partner and our streaming servers are co-located at their datacenter in Amsterdam. We use three streaming servers that are load-balanced and connected to gigabit Ethernet. XS4ALL itself has an incredible amount of bandwidth available for streaming and have been happy to help creating broadband video streaming solutions like ours. They also have great peering partnerships so that our streams can be seen without buffering in the US and other continents. For Fabchannel this is very important;

8. Robust back-end solution that integrates all the work-flow phases of the production, broadcasting, and promotion process – Because Fabchannel produces several live webcasts a week we need a database/backend solution that enables us to do all of our jobs as efficient as possible. So we created our own php/mysql backend that automates a lot of our work: standard contracts, tape and file archiving, setlist production, contact relations, webcast promotion, video crew booking, etc.;

9. Intuitive website – Last but not least is the website you need to distribute the streams. We worked hard on creating a site that was easy to navigate and attractive to watch. It had to be multi-lingual because of our global audience. We created the site using Flash because of its scalability and design features. The site is fully xml-based.

HD will change a lot at the production side of things. HD needs a lot of bandwidth during production and storage. On the distribution side it will also have a big impact on bandwidth and computer power, but not as much as you would think. Just watch the H.264 HD trailers on Quicktime.com and you will see that HD can be seen on mid-range computers and moderately fast internet connections.

Enck: I guess the financial support of the city has been a significant element of your development. I also understand that the Citynet project is involved in the next stage of improving your connectivity. Can you elaborate on this?

Justin Kniest: Fabchannel worked out a plan to connect eight Amsterdam cultural venues to fiber. That way they will be able to broadcast broadband streams to their online communities and (digital) television themselves. XS4ALL will provide them with 100Mb internet connectivity and we asked the city of Amsterdam to fund the cost of digging the first mile from the cityring to the venues. This project is a necessary next step in creating broadband services like ours.

Enck: If Citynet were not providing the fiber links you describe above, what would your options be, and would you still be pursuing the same strategy?

Justin Kniest: If we weren’t able to use fiber connections, we would not be able to create broadband video services that give the public what they have really wanted for some time now: DVD-quality video streams from interesting cultural venues, live and on-demand. Normal DSL connections are way too expensive and do not give the quality of service that content providers like us need.

Enck: The most difficult to answer. Where do you see Fabchannel in two years – both itself and as a concept/model for others to adopt?

Justin Kniest: In the near future I see Fabchannel working with the record companies and Paradisos of several European countries to create a live video channel that has an appeal to music lovers the whole world over. Europe is famous for its culture, and we should broadcast it for the world to see. Webcasting is a great way to do that. I also see Fabchannel working together on a technical/development level with international companies to create great interactive formats and interfaces for our users. If by doing that we can help others to do the same in their field, I am a happy man.

A note from Muniwireless: check out Snow Patrol’s concert a few months ago at the Paradiso. I was there and Snow Patrol is one of my favorite bands — I watched the archived performance on Fabchannel several days after the concert and was very impressed.

About the interviewer

James Enck is an analyst with Daiwa Securities SMBC Europe in London. His specialty: telecoms. He has an excellent blog called Eurotelcoblog. Add this one to your RSS newsreader.

Comments

  1. Sadly, Justin Kniest has memory problems. The Fabchannel vision did not come from him but from a man named Keith Bakker. Keith did the legwork and Justin and the Paradiso stole the idea fom him.
    Keith is now the managing director of The Smith and Jones centers in Amsterdam. Look at http://www.Fabchannel.nl.
    Justin Kniest is not a genius but a thief.