Entering 2020, no one could have imagined the real-time metamorphosis which would occur on the digital frontier over the next 14 months. Those who had been heralding an “immersive revolution” likely saw their pioneering foresight rewarded to some degree, as both businesses and consumers were thrust into spontaneous adoption of unfamiliar trends.
In the realm of live music experience, a few content platforms shrewdly pivoted to meet demands, while, as the year progressed, power players and decision makers were forced to take seriously this previously ignored (and therefore largely non-existent) landscape.
Now, as we embark on the furtherance of that journey into 2021, we are at least afforded a small bit of perspective, gained from the meaningful virtual music experiences which did occur. Furthermore, there is enough user-adoption data to speak for itself, and the table appears set for virtual concerts to occupy at least some portion of the total market take, even once the world resembles its former self.
Just what percentage of the market they will occupy is the looming question. And what impending breakthroughs can we expect in the coming year? While not a definitive case-study, the below reflects a reasonably comprehensive snapshot of the current and near-future virtual concert ecosystem.
At the onset of stay-at-home orders, the internet played host to an onslaught of typical artist livestreams, most of which were not monetized, and many of which felt like nothing more than webcam rehearsals. Removing for a moment the semantics surrounding the term “virtual” as an apt delineator for what a typical livestreamed performance represents, a few artists managed to manufacture splashy online concert experiences which felt more immersive and nudged the medium slightly forward.
To wit, major pop acts like Dua Lipa and Gorillaz, along with indie-cult darlings Glass Animals, and even 72-year-old event-music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre all put forth meaningful livestream contributions last year in terms of attendance/revenue, spectacle, and just plain entertainment value.
Reports seem to indicate that these shows stacked-up with real-world event parameters, garnering significant participation from the artists’ respective fan-base(s), and boasting recoupment which vastly exceeds their production budgets. This is especially noteworthy, as it not only signifies that there’s viable business to be done during lockdown, but that a good percentage of any artist’s tribe is willing—even may prefer at present—to plop down dollars to watch the show from home.
What made these shows special, in particular—aside from obvious factors of them being established artists with huge fan-bases and major label production and marketing budgets—is that they were really the first to employ real-world staging and lighting techniques in a typical livestream format. This, in hindsight, serves as a no-brainer since the tech surrounding live concerts is arguably the highest form of live entertainment, and certainly what commands a premium price-point.
Given the healthy financials and public reaction to this format, it is safe to expect a tidal wave of copycats throughout 2021, which also runs the risk of consumer fatigue, just not any time soon. Furthermore, online enterprises like LiveNow and Veeps have emerged to assist with the streaming and ticketing components, quietly building the requisite user-base to eventually go mainstream.
There are also live-action VR video stalwarts like CEEK and MelodyVR (aka Napster?) still in the mix. While revolutionary in their conceit, neither service holds even a 4-star rating on any app store, with users objecting to both content resolution and streaming fidelity (some “concerts” are just a flat 2D stream with a graphic backplate). For companies which were founded several years ago, it registers as a collective fumble to not have further capitalized on these unprecedented market circumstances.
The next media sector to cause shockwaves across both the music and entertainment industries were established gaming platforms. Following up on their wildly popular pre-COVID concert with Marshmello, Epic Games’ Fortnite single-handedly redefined the conversation of virtual music events with their Travis Scott experience, and then later with another offering from LatinX superstar J Balvin. Not to be outdone, the user-generated online worlds of Roblox—with their Lil Nas X merch-moving extravaganza—along with the sandbox-style institution, Minecraft—where pop-up performances and virtual festivals regularly occur inside—each managed to cause a significant real-world stir.
It stands to reason, mind you, that these enterprises would be among the first to join the immersive concert party since they are so well-capitalized, and essentially just exploiting an existing captive audience. What will be particularly interesting to see, going forward, is if these events continue to serve as glorified marketing schemes, or rather, if they represent a substantial head start for each company on creation of their own metaverse.
Perhaps the most unquantifiable realm in the war to capture sequestered users’ attention, is that of platform-based Social VR. There are a multitude of consumer options, with users generally corralled into one or the other based on what their headset manufacturer promotes, or by word-of-mouth invitation.
Whatever the case, the landscape seems to have whittled down to a handful of real players: Venues (part of the Facebook/Oculus ecosystem, whose offerings have included shows from Steve Aoki, Jayden Smith and Major Lazer); AltspaceVR (regarded as the “original” social VR platform, now owned by Microsoft and becoming a favourite of entry-level developers to host virtual conferences and nightclubs); Sansar (a VR offshoot of the online Second Life platform, where well-known DJ dance parties and virtual EDM festivals are becoming commonplace); Wave (a pioneering VR music app-turned-social platform, whose virtual concert featuring The Weeknd reimagined social engagement); and, VRChat (an MMO-style social platform known for its whimsical avatar options and adult-centric environment).
Not without foibles, this market segment alone could warrant a breakout dissertation on the merits and prospects of each platform. Suffice to say, there is a lot of action inside these neo-virtual social clubs. With artists (and their management) getting hip to the opportunity to engage fans—often for competitive performance fees—along with users beginning to host their own gatherings where they can dance as avatars while interacting with old and new friends, alike, it’s safe to say we are just beginning to see the crossover potential of these worlds, not to mention the market ramifications.
Similar to established gaming platforms, certain established music festivals managed to execute a transmigration to the virtual realm in stunningly successful fashion. In fact, aside from premium livestreams (which are currently outliers to their format), the case can be made that this is the most successful type of virtual event to attract (or convert) erstwhile in-person attendees.
Of particular note, the hugely popular real-world music festival, Tomorrowland, was the first of its calibre to roll out a bespoke virtual version of itself. In what may retrospectively prove to have been a true “golden spike” moment, the event organizers profess to have sold over 1 million tickets. It was such a success, they did it again for New Year’s Eve, and are already teasing a year-round digital venue to host future shows. Not only does this revolutionize the virtual concert medium, but it sets the table for expansion and omnipresence for all major festivals, going forward. After all, no in-person festival could ever rival such attendance numbers.
Along those lines, one cannot speak about the at-large virtual concert landscape without making mention of the 2020 edition of Burning Man. Being traditionally scheduled later in the year, its directors had the luxury to outsource the festival’s transposition to a virtual realm to members of their loyal community. What resulted was a vast interconnected framework of different virtual venues (largely led by the creation of a central VR hub called BRCvr) which, in the end, seemingly all managed to coalesce. Truly, what was created was the world’s largest working metaverse. This is not to say there aren’t a slew of kinks to still work out (see: framework and hardware incompatibility, server performance issues, etc.). But it’s certainly one of the boldest steps yet to defining what a new normal could look like. Best of all, the project is still living online and can be visited and utilized throughout the year.
The unifying factor of all these platform-based venues and experiences is game engine technology. Whether using Unity or Unreal, or even some standalone in-house creation, the graphic eye-candy and user agency afforded by this technology are unparalleled. There are still purist concerns that performers inside game engine-derived shows are largely computer-generated avatars of the real-life figures. And, of course, if one has to download an app or file container in order to access the platform, it will be difficult to wrestle market share away from bigger players without a commensurate marketing budget.
Still, the pros seem to outweigh the cons here, particularly relating to the potential for interactive concert experiences, and especially so long as we are to remain socially-distanced.
While there are still myriad obstacles to overcome (e.g. connectivity issues, avatar uniformity, music licensing), it cannot be argued at the start of 2021 that the flood gates are bursting with growth and expansion potential, which traditionally means major investment is not far behind.
Couple that with the extreme advancements being made in the arenas of virtual production, volumetric and light field capture, and even a rekindling of motion capture technology for VR, we can only surmise that the near future of this budding mass medium is as exciting (and potentially profitable) as any media vertical. The announcement last month at (virtual) CES by Sony of their cross-platform immersive music experience from Madison Beer which utilized their long-gestating AXA capture stage is one example.
Honourable mention should also be offered to Redpill VR and Sensorium. They have been operating in stealth for several years, but have consistently managed to garner creative partnerships and fresh capital infusions, whilst waiting for the surrounding tech and potential market to mature. But, until we can see what they’re actually offering, it’s hard to assert that they will drive the market; rather, their success would be a by-product of a market that is finally catching up to their innovations.
Finally, it should be noted that the most promising arena of all the above to host virtual concerts may actually be that of WebXR. Given the fact that this “platform” can already host high-quality 2D, 360 and volumetric video, along with the more obvious fact that it’s the only 3D arena mentioned here which doesn’t require downloading an app-container to access (i.e. anyone with access to a webpage can experience it), this latent state seems anomalous. After all, companies like Facebook and Amazon hold heavy positions in its future, whether on the developer side or engineering side. Perhaps the only thing standing in the way of a proper coming-out party for WebXR is the existence of a seminal event with a noteworthy artist.
All told, the future for immersive concert experiences is wildly promising. Astute creatives and executives are getting smarter about this landscape every day, and audiences are adapting rapidly to whatever is on offer—not “en masse”, but they never do (lest we forget VR c. 2015-19).
And although a person could already fill their 2021 calendar with as much virtual activity as the real-world experience it would be replacing, the average quality of the experience still has far to rise.
We can remain hopeful that in the shadow of the greatest global challenge to take shape during any of our lifetimes, new rituals will emerge…spurred by fans and music lovers seeking to connect, artists and creators pushing to evolve, corporate backers willing to invest, and engineers ready to break the mold.
Along with everything else in 2021, the future wellbeing of the music industry may depend on it.