The New Reality for Concerts in COVID: Virtual Reality? - Rolling Stone
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The New Reality for Concerts in COVID: Virtual Reality?

Virtual-reality shows and animated concertgoing may be the natural evolution of iPhone livestreams. “The value proposition of our platform has never been clearer,” says one VR concert exec


John Legend was the latest to take to a mixed reality livestream as the platform grows more popular amid the COVID-era

Jean-Michel Jarre thought livestreamed concerts were missing something. So he added virtual drugs.

The French electronic music pioneer and former CISAC president has been one of the biggest champions of virtual-reality concerts — a concept that’s seeing a noticeable bump as coronavirus continues to stall the comeback of live music. Now that regular iPhone-camera livestreams are mainstream, many artists are looking for ways to go beyond the living room concerts that defined the first few months of quarantine, and higher-tech shows (whether headset-bound virtual-reality experiences or more casual video-game-like shows) appear particularly attractive.

Jarre’s concert on June 21st, which drew hundreds of thousands of views across both VR and non-VR streaming options like YouTube, allowed the fans who were using headsets to interact with one another through virtual avatars. The event featured classic fixtures of an electronic show: crazy beats, dazzling lights — and “pills” that made the screen change colors, taking concertgoers on a digital drug trip.

“When cinema first came, people thought it was a magic trick, like a circus,” Jarre tells Rolling Stone. “They didn’t think it could be art, and people didn’t understand it. I think VR is seeing the same phenomenon now.” Jarre’s show is one of the latest above-and-beyond concerts to air since the pandemic began.

The broader industry push for these higher tech shows — which offer viewers more interaction and immersion than the more typical passive livestreaming options — follow Travis Scott’s high-profile “Astronomical” livestream on Fortnite in April, which brought in 27 million viewers and helped catapult Scott’s single “The Scotts” to a Number One debut, which drew the envy of the entire record industry.

Wave, one of the more popular gamified virtual platforms, has partnered with artists like Lindsey Stirling, Tinashe, and most recently John Legend for shows akin to the Fortnite set. Legend’s show marked the first time Wave took on corporate sponsors for a stream, with People Magazine, Yamaha and Ad Council all sponsoring the gig; drawing nearly half a million people tuning in across YouTube and Twitter, it’s Wave’s most popular concert to date.

In June, Wave announced a $30 million funding round featuring Scooter Braun and Alex Rodriguez as investors, and the company previously established a partnership with Warner Music Group and Roc Nation to get more talent on its bill. Like most other livestreamers, Wave maintains that its place isn’t to replace concerts, but to give a new experience entirely. While Wave has seen surges in viewers and interest from potential partners since the pandemic started, founder and CEO Adam Arrigo says things had been trending upwards since before the pandemic, as the funding round started eight months ago.

There are more and more people reaching out because the value proposition of our platform has never been clearer,” Arrigo says. “One of the challenges of building something new is that not only do you have no one to copy, but that you’re always pitching the concept to get others to understand what its true value is. But after that funding round in the press, everyone got it all of a sudden. With concert cancellations plus big shows happening on Fortnite, our value proposition has been increasingly clarified.” Wave started as a “pure” virtual-reality company intent on getting users into physical headsets like Facebook’s Oculus devices, but over the years, has built up success in gamified animated concerts that don’t require VR equipment. Users who download the Wave app on Steam can make their own avatars to  interact with one another during concerts.

“We previously thought about our audience in two groups: gamers and music fans. In the past four years since we started the company, you’ve seen those audiences start to overlap a lot more” — Adam Arrigo, founder and CEO of Wave

The company’s next step is building monetization into its streams. Along with more sponsorships, Wave will soon develop ticketed events, in-app purchases, other virtual merchandise. “We previously thought about our audience in two groups: Gamers and music fans. In the past four years since we started the company, with the rise of these giant lifestyle games, you’ve seen those audiences start to overlap a lot more,” Arrigo says.

He adds: “It’s important we consider artists like John Legend because he’s not an artist you would think of specifically applying to gamers, our core demographic. However, the John Legend experience on YouTube had gamified elements to it. It’s about connecting artists to fans and we’re using gaming technology to do it, but you don’t need to be a Fortnite player to experience a Wave show.”

Some VR companies, like France-based VrRoom — which created Jarre’s show to air on platform VRChat — are focusing more on the avatar-driven concert space too. CEO Louis Cacciuttolo says the company is currently working on a virtual opera performance, and electronic music festivals across Europe have inquired about using the platform.

On the other end of the spectrum, MelodyVR brings real-world visuals rather than animation to viewers through 360-degree cameras. Before the pandemic hit, MelodyVR had been airing VR versions of artists’ live shows. MelodyVR has had 10 times as many concerts through the pandemic compared to the same time frame a year ago, along with a 1000% increase in app downloads since the pandemic began, CEO Anthony Matchett says. Melody has made its concerts free through the pandemic, but Matchett said the company will likely bring back a paywall as the pandemic continues. It opened isolated performance spaces in Los Angeles and London to give artists a way to stream high-production shows.

“We wanted to let artists have full-production shows on stage so it’s not just another show from someone’s couch,” Matchett says. “That stuff had a place when this all started, but we’ve all seen enough of those now to know it’s a little bit played out. As with all the content we make, it’s important right now to give something premium.” The company’s “Live From LA” series has also featured Legend, along with Jojo and Cyprus Hill, and it partnered with Wireless Festival for a virtual festival featuring artists such as 24KGoldn and Saweetie.

The tech still has considerable room to grow. A more heavily VR experience can still be clumsy and glitchy, and VR headsets themselves still aren’t very widely adopted. Wave has softened its focus toward VR partly because the company doesn’t think VR will hit mainstream popularity for a few years. Until then, Wave sees its gamified concerts as a good consumer entry point that could transition when VR gains more traction. And While MelodyVR’s tentpole viewing option is designed for watching with a headset, it knows VR is far from mainstream.

Livestreaming has benefited from not just having a larger audience at home, but from a major influx of artists looking to connect with their fans. Even post-lockdown, “touring is going to be changed for a number of years, as will consumer perception of going to these shows,” Matchett says. “Often it takes a catalyst kind of event. Sometimes, the things that are in plain sight — people don’t really see until they’re forced to engage with them.”


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