How Invoke and 5X Festival mastered the hybrid event

The pair’s brainchild, the digital event platform Incrowd, offers a new way to experience a festival.

“Once upon a time in the summer of 2020, 5X Festival was supposed to happen,” Olivia Bell tells me over Zoom. It’s a tale as old as unpredictable times, and far more nightmare than bedtime story. The pandemic, of course, wiped 2020's entire social calendar. But, that prose-driven opener is how Bell — senior product strategist at Invoke, a local software company developing digital products — led me down the path to learn about one of Metro Vancouver’s great tech link ups.

It’s a partnership I first learned of via Vancouver Tech Journal guest editor, Rumneek Johal. Johal is the former editor in chief of 5X Press, a South Asian youth culture magazine published in Surrey. The publication is run by 5X Festival, a community-building organization whose flagship event is a multi-day, multi-venue festival covering music, visual art, fashion, and culture — the one scheduled for that fateful month in 2020.

To pair the middle and end with the “once upon a time” Bell crafted, I hopped on a Zoom with Tarun Nayar, 5X Fest’s executive director. He is, despite the title, a musician by trade. A member of the group Delhi 2 Dublin, he’s played everywhere from Glastonbury to Burning Man, and estimates the group performed 150 shows a year for over a decade. Near the end of that career, Nayar, approaching 40 years of age, had a firsthand look at the many systemic issues in the music and live events spaces. He decided to get involved at a deeper level, taking the executive director role and working with the Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration Society to rebrand its flagship event. The new iteration is 5X Festival, built with a vision to turn the Punjabi folk celebration into more of a youth culture event: “a Brown, mini Coachella kind of a vibe,” Nayar illustrates.

Everything changed in the spring of 2020. 5X needed to pivot to digital — and in a hurry. Nayar phoned a friend. He found a lifeline in an app his friend was building in India. The software was created for events, and works, essentially, by tapping into the step counter on your phone. Through the technology, attendees were able to move via a virtual map to different locations, unlocking content or prizes as they went. The app developers reimagined it for 5X Festival as moving from stage to stage of the music festival. But, Nayar concedes that it was no easy feat. “I thought the concept was super cool,” he says. “In reality, taking an existing app and modifying it in two months and trying to put out a festival is absolutely insane.”

The insanity created some drawbacks. The step counter guts were still present. Using the app, fans could take a certain amount of steps to reach a performer’s stage. Once there, they were greeted by the show, opportunities to buy merch, or other concert-going hallmarks. It was a great idea to inspire movement. But the movement the app encouraged, it turned out, greatly reduced the sound quality of the virtual performance. A senior product leader like Bell could see the flaw. Through a series of well-mimicked hand gestures, she noted that walking with a phone while trying to listen to music essentially means “a musical performance is happening at your waist while your ears are up here.” It sounded to me like a bizarre enactment of the iconic YouTube comment, “his hair moved to his chin to hear the music better.

Nayar quipps that the app that actually got out the door wasn’t even a beta version – it was more of an MVP. Yet, he says the team learned a lot through the process, and — alongside the lessons — the team knew their concept was solid. The numbers didn’t lie. Their first dabble into virtual in 2020 featured 60 artists. All the performers were paid for their efforts despite the raging pandemic. The door was opened to future explorations in tech and Nayar grew curious about how 5X could make it sustainable. “How do we build stuff where, if we can't do [it in] real life, it's an easy transition to something else that still generates revenue?” he wondered. The team then went to the crown agency The Canada Council for the Arts and received a seed grant for their efforts.

The cash was enough to convince Nayar to reach for another lifeline, again opting to phone a friend. That friend happened to be Invoke co-founder Ryan Holmes. Holmes must’ve liked what he heard, because Nayar was soon meeting with Bell and the director of design at the company, Dominic Wong. Bell recalls buying into the vision early. Nayar articulated the problem as a lack of resiliency in physical events. With in-person concerts, forces of nature like pandemics and inclement weather can figuratively or literally rain on the parade. Fully virtual events deny the social connection that makes them so great. So, the team set out to “broaden the spectrum of usability,” as Bell puts it.

For the early sketches, the team dove into the metaverse. Augmented reality jumped to mind, but that encountered the same positioning issues as before. Wong also recalls considering going with avatars, showing Bell a screenshot of virtual-universe-crafting videogame, Roblox. Neither of these, though, seemed to scratch the itch that 5X had. “One of the easiest ways to extend the experience is to record it and save it,” Bell says. With this in mind, the Invoke team could zero in on the tech. After countless tests and deep consultation with 5X, other musicians, large event creators, and festival goers, Invoke had the concept for their app. They called it Incrowd.

The app puts the festival-goer in the producer’s chair, minus the technical experience and expensive equipment. Incrowd allows the user to flick through different camera angles of the performer or audience. Applications extend beyond music, too. At the recent UBC Holi festival, for example, one Incrowd screen would light up in the color of the festival, prompting viewers to switch to a new angle. “Imagine you're watching something and poof! Red and yellow just explode in your face,” the ever-colourful Bell illustrates. “And then, if you're like, ‘I don't like that,’ you can just go switch to another camera.”

But, at its core, the platform was built by musicians, for musicians – allowing them to skirt the flaws of other platforms. “Most importantly,” Nayar points out, “unlike Instagram, and Facebook, and YouTube, and Twitch, no one is ripping down their stuff in the middle of the stream. They don't have to worry about ownership. They own their content at the end of the stream.”

In discovering what Incrowd would be, Invoke rediscovered itself, too. “What's funny about this is that this is at the core of what Invoke really should be doing,” Wong reflects. Spinouts are in the company’s DNA. Holmes spun out Hootsuite, and not long after, Foodee left through Invoke’s exit doors. Wong also cited the importance placed on making sure something like Incrowd actually could gain traction. All the work before rolling it out meant they knew there would be a market fit. Also in Invoke’s DNA is crafting long term-partnerships, like the one with 5X.

Wong also gushed about that level of humility the group shared, and respect for others’ domain and expertise. Plus, he felt it brought out the best in Bell. “It’s a good match to have someone like Olivia who is very well-rounded in the product and the product-strategy space,” Wong continues. “I've been trying to sort of be the third wheel in this. Help a company get going,” he says: a callback to the days of Hootsuite or Foodee.

For Wong and Bell, they couldn’t have asked for a better partner than Nayar. “It's really cool to work with someone like Tarun,” Bell says. “He's someone who's like, ‘you know what? I'm committed. Let's do it. I've got the connections.’ He's very connected in the music industry but then very open to accepting help on the product side of things — the ideal human to partner with. We were on a call with him once talking about how Incrowd would be divided and how it would grow, blah, blah, blah. Someone from our office was just listening in. Once we hung up, that person was like, ‘is that guy real? He's…perfect.’”

For Nayar, doing things virtually has led him and his team to understand that there are so many ways to connect with 5X’s audience that don't involve real-life events. Plus, he’s sold on the impact good technology can have. “When you're making music,” Nayar says, “you're making music that's authentic to yourself, but also that will have meaning to somebody else. I think it's the same with technology. Build things that have meaning to other people, that somehow helps other people with their lives. We've just learned that the connection to our audience is the gold, the connection to our community is the gold. Anything that can serve that. The music industry, and music festivals, were just so caught in this pattern of doing the same thing year over year. Now we're out of that, [which] really excites me.”

5X and Invoke should be excited about the rollout of Incrowd. The Holi festival at UBC last April served as a testing ground. Incrowd passed with flying colours. It has since been streamed from Burnaby-based music festival Safe and Sound in May. Then came the ultimate deployment, what Incrowd was built specifically for: 5X Festival in June. Most recently, Incrowd was streamed by local label Monstercat for its block party, Compound, earlier this month. Hearing of this success made me think back to how long ago the uncertainty of 2020 felt.

When Bell uttered the phrase “once upon a time” at the onset of our call, I got Outkast stuck in my head. Specifically, “Aquemini.” Andre 3000 opens the second verse of the song with a bang: “Twice upon a time, there was a boy who died. Lived happily ever after, but that's another chapter.” Song lyric website Genius annotates that “Andre gave up drinking and smoking after the first album, dropped his gangster persona, and then revealed that he was feeling better than ever.

That makes me think about how Nayar is feeling better about the music industry, or how Wong is feeling good about Invoke’s mission. Sure, we all may have lost a bit of ourselves over the pandemic. But, if we were lucky, our new selves lived happily ever after. In the case of 5X and Invoke, their new selves now include Incrowd.

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