During the pandemic more and more artists resorted to on line performances, yet was this really the start of a trend or just a temporary stopgap? For many, on line viewing is no substitute to being there. But that is simple video reproduction. What happens when you throw virtual reality (VR) into the mix? Can it make the jump into a much more participative and realistic experience, and if so what are the implications for live performance?
First, running an event doesn't comes cheap and involves a high degree of risk for the promoter. Although it is hard to come by accurate costings, in 2015 it was estimated that the Burning Man festival in the USA cost £28 million to stage. At todays prices that would be in excess of £36 million. At least in the Nevada dessert you are unlikely to face cancellation costs through the vagaries of the weather.
It might be thought that costs are high due to the artists but as Glastonbury illustrates (where artists often appear for a fraction of their normal charges), it is still hard to make money. On a turnover of £40 million the festival, after donations to charity, still needs to sell out to break even. In addition to the costs of artists and their crews there are huge costs associated with; staging, providing power, policing and stewarding, marketing, ticketing and making sure health, safety and access requirements are in place.
There are also secondary environmental costs from; travel to predominantly rural locations, waste from toilets, use of plastics, and abandoned camping gear and clothing. 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…..”
Alternatively, a VR event can avoid some of these problems and issues. Whereas a ticket to Glastonbury costs in excess of £340 for the whole weekend, a VR ticketed event could offer lower prices, deliver higher margins through having a larger audience and lower costs whilst at the same time making less of an impact on the environment. Little surprise that even back in 2016 Citi Bank predicted that the VR industry would be worth £692 billion dollars by 2035.
Yet can can a VR music experience replicate being there? . At night, when the headliners have finished, and you’re not ready to go to bed, on a whim deciding to head to a small acoustic stage where you hear a band you’ve never heard off before.
There's the sensory experiences of the the stars at night, the summer air on your cheeks, the feeling of camaraderie and even the smell of the chemical toilets are all hard to replicate.
So, maybe the role of VR is not to replace live events but instead to offer a parallel experience for those who cannot be there either through time, distance or cost.
Little surprise therefore that some promoters are embracing VR as a significant way to increase potential profits and reduce costs. Music promoter Live Nation is already pioneering VR events using the latest in lens technology. In 2020 MelodyVR’s Wireless Connect virtual festival with Live Nation was viewed by 132,000 people. Artists such as the Foo Fighters, 2 Chainz, Megan Thee Stallion, and Billie Eilish have either performed live in VR or launched a VR experience. Recently Coachella launched the Coachellaverse, as a digital experience.
In effect there are two stages to VR implementation:
Enhanced experiences where you have the opportunity to see the event from different angles via multiple cameras such as feeling as if you are in the mosh pit, front of house or back stage.
Augmented experience where you not only have enhancement but additional characteristics are added which may not be achievable via simple attendance. For example, meeting up with friends using VR, adding different technological effects and treatments or even check out how you look in the event t-shirt via the VR merch stall. As Kevin Chernett, Executive Vice President at Live Nation commented.
“VR has the ability to deepen the fans relationship with the artist while providing access to fans around the world to experience the energy of live when they can’t physically be there.”
Yet not everybody is convinced. In 2021, Wave who began life as a virtual reality music startup, with an app hosting VR raves, is now looking to change direction away from VR. CEO Adam Arrigo stated. “Artists need audiences to thrive, and we realized VR just wasn’t there yet". Equally 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.
However, never underrate the power of technological innovation. After all who would have thought that a video tool producing thirteen second clips of people dancing in their bedrooms would just a few years later deliver a music medium where in 2021, 430 songs surpassed 1 billion video views on TikTok. Or that you could go and see Abba as they were 40 years ago via the the clever use of electronic holograms.