On Saturday, February 2nd, a made-up DJ played to more than 10 million made-up characters in a made-up world. And the real-life music industry gasped in unison.
The fictional DJ has a name: Marshmello. No one truly knows his identity, thanks to his white bucket helmet with an unambiguous painted smile and crisscross eyes — although increasingly voluminous online scuttlebutt suggests the man under the plastic cranium is Chris Comstock, a 26-year-old producer hailing from Philadelphia.
The point, though, is that Marshmello could be anyone. He’s an entirely fictional creation, a blank canvas onto which young music fans can paint whichever personality they wish him to be. This makes ‘mello the perfect foil for attention-hungry pop stars wishing to feature on his hit singles (a list that so far includes Khalid, Selena Gomez, Bastille and Anne Marie). And it’s also what made him such a powerful implant into the online video-game phenomenon Fortnite, where he played two virtual “live” sets, each 12 hours apart, on that fateful day in February.
The numbers attached to the DJ’s in-game appearance are staggering. Epic Games, makers of Fortnite, have now confirmed that the event attracted a record peak concurrent user count (ie. the number of people all playing/watching at one time) of 10.7 million. The total number of in-game attendees across the whole day remains unconfirmed, but well-placed industry sources tell Rolling Stone that it was “significantly bigger” than 10 million.
To put that into perspective: 10.7 million people is bigger than the total population of New York City — all watching a concert simultaneously. Other solid industry sources we’ve spoken to expect that around 80 percent of those watching did not consider themselves fans of the artist, or even know who he was, before the concert.
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Another startling comparison: The biggest ever real-life concert is thought to be Jean-Michel Jarre’s 1997 appearance at the State University of Moscow, which celebrated the city’s 850th anniversary. That free show drew an estimated 3.5 million attendees — approximately one-third the size of the audience who “showed up” to dance along to Marshmello’s performance in Fortnite.
Unsurprisingly, ‘mello’s subsequent social media numbers reflect a masterstroke in global music marketing. Between February 1st and 7th, Marshmello’s weekly YouTube views grew by more than 100 million; his Instagram follower count grew by a million within four days. On Twitter during the day of the concert, he was mentioned over 50,000 times.
Los Angeles-based Moe Shalizi is Marshmello’s manager and, in characterization terms, at least, his co-creator. “We were really nervous when the show happened, ’cause we were just praying it would go successfully, especially with the voice [of Marshmello] talking into the game for everybody to hear,” Shalizi says. “But in the end, it was amazing. [Mello] was in this room, geared up head-to-toe with a body-motion suit and everything, with maybe 30 or 40 people [surrounding him as technical support staff]. It was a crazy thing to be a part of.”
Shalizi, who recently left artist management group Red Light to go independent with the Shalizi Group, credits Epic Games for being “completely ahead of the curve.” Epic and Team Marshmello worked on developing the concert for six months, he says. “I think what Epic are doing is going to be revolutionary for music,” adds Shalizi, perhaps suggesting that we won’t have heard the last of on-the-rise talents appearing in Fortnite.
Last November, Fortnite’s total registered player count topped 200 million people, up from 125 million in June. Says Shalizi, “People have done [comparable in-game music ‘moments’] before, but no one’s ever done it on that kind of a scale, on that level, with the interaction that we saw from the fans.”
Someone who knows all about previous such in-game experiments is Sammy Andrews, the founder of London-based music marketing agency Deviate Digital. While an employee with Simon Fuller’s 19 Entertainment in the mid-noughties, Andrews experimented with early avatar-based concerts in the then-trendy “virtual world” title Second Life — a few years before Duran Duran famously launched their own branded Second Life ‘universe’ in the summer of 2011.
Says Andrews, “The idea of an in-game concert is nothing new. We and others heavily explored it years ago, but there simply wasn’t a way of reaching a meaningful mass of people, plus the tech wasn’t there to meet the ambition we had.”
With the Marshmello concert, Fortnite players had to halt their usual in-game activities (i.e., shooting one another) to attend. In order to watch the DJ’s antics, they had to travel to an in-game location, Pleasant Park, where virtual trucks had been spotted “unloading” a digital stage in the days preceding the show.
Players could buy in-game Marshmello “skins” (i.e., clothing) for the equivalent of around $15 before and after the shows. And back in real life, they could purchase Fortnite X Marshmello merch, with a hooded sweatshirt costing $55. If just one percent of the cited 10 million players purchased these hoodies, by the way, it would have generated more than five million dollars.
Adds Andrews, “This idea has had its tires kicked plenty over the last 20 years, but what’s new here is the sheer level of integration, and the scale of exposure and engagement to a far larger and more receptive audience.”
Tim Ingham is the founder and publisher of Music Business Worldwide, which has serviced the global industry with news, analysis and jobs since 2015. He writes a weekly column for “Rolling Stone.”