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Can live music survive virtual reality?

While festivals and live music have brutally suffered during the pandemic, we have seen more and more gigs go online. A safer, cheaper, easier, ready-made alternative to going out. But such virtual gigs are in effect just videos, one step on from watching television. The real question is can they make the jump to the next evolution, ie, virtual reality (VR)?

In 2018 the game Fortnight had DJ Marshmallow take the stage in a virtual location during the game. Gamers tuned in, showed up with their customized avatars, and danced on the virtual floor. Even when not in virtual reality on YouTube, this gig attracted over 10.7 million people worldwide. For some of us who love and adore live music the thought of it being replaced by VR is rather worrying.

One major impetus for VR is likely to be financial. For example, Glastonbury takes £4 million to stage. Many people would assume the costs are about paying artists so why would VR be cheaper? One article in the Metro answered this by showing that the headliners are not paid (an estimated £700,000) as much as many people think, because of all the peripheral costs. The article goes on to suggest, “that a one-day hire of tour buses could cost £7,000, trucking and drivers to be £6,000, while the band’s crew could rack up a bill of £11,000.”

On top of this comes costs, such as, power, policing, marketing and making sure health and safety requirements are in place. Finally, these costs fail to take into account the environmental impact of festivals. Every time Glastonbury runs it causes havoc for local people because of the amount of traffic it generates. In an NME article one local said

“We deal with a lot of s**t being local to the festival – traffic being the number one issue, practically making the whole of the region gridlocked, as well as noise and pollution…..”

As many people have commented there have also been other persistent environmental problems such as; waste from toilets, use of plastics, and camping gear / clothing being dumped.

Consequently, a VR event could be safer, more environmentally friendly and considerably cheaper. For example, where one ticket for Glastonbury costs £265 for those participating via VR a much lower price could be offered, higher margins made and with less of an impact on the environment.

Already, companies such as Melody VR are looking into VR gigs. They work with several artists to do this. How their gig works, is that a participant can sign up and join on computer. They have a 360-degree view of the stage and via their VR headset can get up and close to their favourite artists even being on stage with them. The technology is still in its music infancy yet it is easy to see where such developments might lead.

However, will VR gigs replace live music and can they really stimulate the same feeling as a festival? The gorgeous smell of warm food wafting from the food stores. At night when the headliners have finished, and you’re not ready to go to bed and you decide to head to a small acoustic stage. The lights, the band you’ve never heard before, which you suddenly catch an unexpected snippet of, the stars at night, the summer air on your cheeks, even the smell of chemical toilets all offer experiences that are hard to replicate. Like the ultimate quest of artificial intelligence, how do you introduce the unexpected, the instinctive, the ninety degree turn that the human brain constantly delivers but that computer software finds so hard to replicate.

Perhaps we should not be looking for VR to replace or replicate an event but to compliment it or provide a lesser but still valuable alternative. Staging the live event but then enabling people to join via VR allows you to sell more tickets and potentially reduces costs to those who physically attend. After all few would turn down a Glastonbury ticket particularly if priced lower and it was accessible to them, as against a simulated computer-based experience. As the founder of Melody VR Anthony Matchett said to NME

“This technology has the power to make people feel as if they are actually present at a live gig, that they may never be able to actually physically get to...”

but he then looks to accept its limitations when he adds,

“If you can’t be there, this is the next best thing.”



See also

Remember Music Festivals

We look back with Andy Rea, co-founder and organiser of 2000 Trees Festival, about what it takes to set up and run an award winning event.

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