As video game companies continue to court the music industry, presenting themselves as immersive marketing tools during a largely concertless 2020, Lil Nas X is the latest high-profile act to join the trend: The “Old Town Road” rapper has announced that he will perform a virtual concert on Roblox, one of the most popular kids’ video games on the market. The news comes two days after Lil Nas X teased his new song “Holiday” during Sunday Night Football on NBC, marking his first new music since his 2019 debut EP.
The concert, which will air on Saturday, November 14th at 4 p.m. Eastern time with a pre-show Q&A at 7 p.m. Eastern time the day before, is a collaboration nearly eight months in the making between Roblox, Lil Nas X, and his label, Columbia Records. Roblox met with Sony Music’s corporate team earlier this year looking to develop a major in-game concert; Columbia CEO Ron Perry and senior vice president of experiential marketing and business development Ryan Ruden successfully pitched Lil Nas X, seeing him as the best fit for the game’s younger demographic. Ruden had previously shown interest in the concept by meeting with Roblox in October 2019 as the game was promoting itself as a potential partner to several record labels.
“We’re throwing the biggest virtual concert of 2020, and I hope everybody in the world can come check it out,” Lil Nas X said in a statement. “I feel very lucky to be the first artist to ever do this on Roblox. We had so much fun putting this together for my fans, and I can’t wait for everyone to see it.”
The show reflects significant musical ambitions at Roblox, which has more than 150 million monthly active users, including about half of all Americans under the age of 16, according to the company. Roblox’s user base has slowly been aging up, and its creators are looking to music as a new means of engaging with users and giving them more experiences to keep the game fresh. While Roblox has aired more casual video streams for concerts before, this is the game’s first fully animated virtual concert event. Virtual shows have become a popular means of broadening in-game experiences for games as a whole, with popular games such as Fortnite and Minecraft getting more heavily involved with music as well.
“These music experiences have always been the plan. Ahead of what’s been happening with Covid, music was key going into 2020, and we wanted to find ways to better introduce music to the platform,” Roblox head of music Jon Vlassopulos tells Rolling Stone, citing events like Global Citizen’s One World: Together At Home benefit, which aired on the game this spring. “What we saw right away with those first couple video shows… was that our users enjoyed connecting with the artists and with their friends around music. But what we’re doing with Nas is a true virtual concert: a virtual artist, virtual stage, and virtual audience. This is the first, and we’re planning for more in the future.”
Roblox used motion capturing with Lil Nas X to create a virtual hip-hop cowboy counterpart, and it designed a specially-created, neon-lit old western town in the game as his venue. Roblox will also be selling several digital merchandise items that users can buy with Robux, Roblox’s in-game currency acquired with actual cash; it has created mini-events like a Lil Nas X-themed scavenger hunt to hype up fans before the gig.
Those digital purchases in particular are a promising potential new revenue stream for artists to supplement their current streaming, physical merchandise, and ticket revenue, Vlassopulos says. He declined to give specific details on how the cash from those purchases would be split between Roblox and Columbia.
Experiences like virtual concerts are key to Roblox’s longer-term goal of creating a richer metaverse, which makes for a more fully interactive online world, complete with its own economy and culture for users. “It combines gaming, social media, and entertainment. It’s this fully immersive, vast, diverse universe of experiences,” Vlassopulos says. “We love this notion of human co-experience, and anyone can tell you music’s a big part of that.”
On the music side, gaming has quickly emerged as the trendiest opportunity in the business, both for performances and investment. Superstars including Travis Scott and J Balvin have performed high-profile shows on Fortnite; Balvin, along with the Weeknd and Justin Bieber, recently made up a star-studded investment round for animated concert maker Wave, which also has a partnership in development with Roblox. Rae Sremmurd rapper Swae Lee also recently invested in esports organization XSET.
As the pandemic has accelerated the music business’ timeline for adopting digital platforms like livestreaming and video games, Columbia wants to go further into the gaming space as well.
For the Lil Nas X show in particular, with so many artists taking to Fortnite since the pandemic began, Columbia sees hosting first the Roblox concert as a way to break new ground and help create a distinct moment for one of its biggest superstar acts as they begin to push new music. The label previously invested in a video game streaming studio for artists who may be interested in streaming on Twitch, and Dominic Fike, one of Columbia’s upcoming rappers, played a Fortnite show in October. The label will have more activations on Fortnite in the coming months, Ruden says. Ruden, who’s helping spearhed the label’s gaming push, calls Lil Nas X’s show — easily Columbia’s biggest gaming play to date — a culmination of years of researching and exploring the ecosystem.
“What I realized is that the gaming audience is so savvy, so smart, and it cannot be fooled. Music, like in every sphere, is a universal language and very native to gaming,” Ruden says. “Few people were getting music right in this space. Predating Dom [Fike] and Nas, this investment that we’ve made on the Columbia side has been trying to understand gaming culture and and add value without jamming music into something that didn’t feel authentic.”
Perhaps most promising for Columbia and Lil Nas X, the show is a unique way to market new music in an era where touring isn’t an option. Scott saw great success debuting his single “The Scotts” on Fortnite, helping him to a Number One bow on the RS 100, and several of his tracks and albums resurfaced on the RS 100 and 200 following his show. Lil Nas X’s team is surely hoping for similar results on Roblox.
“Always, but right now especially, we have to find new and innovative ways to reach and find and to create communities around the new music of the artist,” Ruden says.”When we deal with artists at the caliber of Nas, you want to find things that haven’t been done before. Nas touches multiple ages and goes everywhere, but when you can reach 150 million kids in one go, that’s different.”