Hip-hop artist TheHxliday is 19 years old and determined to have true creative control of his visuals as he makes his way up the music business. He’s looking to a cell-phone company to achieve that.
The Baltimore native, real name Noah Malik Lee, signed a deal with Motown Records last year and released his first major-label EP last week. To commemorate the occasion, he performed in a 20-minute “virtual world” hosted by Verizon on Friday (May 14th), appearing on fans’ screens from an unreal landscape. Virtual effects swam around him — but TheHxliday didn’t pop up as an avatar inside a game, the way Travis Scott did with his Astroworld concert inside Fortnite, and the show wasn’t meant to reproduce a concert the way Billie Eilish staged her full-length quarantine show. Instead, Lee got to design kaleidoscopic 360-degree surroundings and leap in real-time from a desert at nighttime to lush forestry just to spotlight the album drop. One moon turned into three moons, which then bounced around like helium-filled beach balls; as daylight poured in, bats in the sky became butterflies.
“I’ve never done anything like this and it really opened my mind to what I could do next. I brought fans into my world both musically and visually,” TheHxliday tells Rolling Stone, adding that he wanted the project to be a “balance of good and bad energy.”
The performance is the result of a new partnership between Verizon, Capitol Records, and Motown. (Verizon also partnered with the Unity gaming engine for 3D designing in January, and previously debuted the concept of 5G concerts with a Chainsmokers show in 2019.) It was recorded at Verizon’s Los Angeles 5G Labs, which opened doors in a preliminary manner in 2018, starting with research and development; while the space — a massive compound with designated areas devoted to equipping athletes, gamers, and musicians with developing, immersive tech — has hosted gaming streams before, this was its first concert. Producers filmed in 4K video on a camera connected to Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband network, which the company, in press materials, says can create a “visually lossless” experience that “eliminates the side effects of image compression that’s visible to the naked eye.” There was no postproduction, either: All the visuals were rendered in real time.
As the live music industry dusts off the curtains from the year of pandemic, artists — and labels and promoters — are increasingly hungry to explore opportunities outside of traditional concerts. TheHxliday’s show wasn’t the first so-called “immersive livestream”: Eilish’s show, for example, saw the tech companies Moment Factory and XR Studios come together to build a virtual playground.
But it’s 5G that could take the whole game to the next level.
Last year, the world saw visually dazzling livestreams from some of the biggest stars, but therein lies an issue — they were already stars. For the world of entertainment, the emerging tech of 5G can offer accessibility to these types of features, at scale.
A brief primer for those who don’t follow telecom news: 5G stands for the “fifth generation” of wireless tech. The first, brick-sized mobile phones of the Nineties used 1G; consumers were introduced to SMS and voicemail with 2G; experts advanced things like web browsing, image sharing, and GPS tracking with 3G; and 4G is what most smartphones run on today. The greatest benefit of 5G is that it can allow users access to a whole lot of data very quickly, and with high quality and minimal glitching.
In theory, 5G could eliminate the need for services like WeTransfer, if global businesses are able to share huge bouts of information seamlessly, or perfect the self-driving car, if automobile makers harness the ultrafast signals. While industries all over experiment with 5G’s applications and uncover kinks, Verizon — alongside its telecommunications competitors T-Mobile and AT&T — is paying special attention to arts and entertainment.
Christian Guirnalda, director of Verizon’s 5G Labs, says the Hxliday show was the tip of the iceberg: Two other artists artists under the Capitol and Motown umbrellas will air performances in the space, and his team is open to partnerships with other labels as well.
Verizon is also working with venues to bling out in-person concerts with virtual tech. “We’ve got 60 different stadiums and venues that have 5G in them right now,” says Guirnalda, who shares that his team is “doing something for the Grammy’s right now” but can’t elaborate yet.
“When we get back, it’s going to power a bunch of the things folks are already thinking about,” he adds. “I can’t prognosticate when you’ll see a pair of AR [augmented reality] glasses on everybody, but you can walk down the streets right now and get gigabits a second. 5G is coming. When we’re all getting back to normal, there will be new things that start to have this hybrid of ‘what we were doing before Covid, what we were doing during Covid, and what we’re going to do after.'” For the artist, that means 5G-powered tools to meticulously design their own vision; for fans and venues, that means streaming technology that can whip up dizzying scenery on a stage, as well as pocket supercomputers that can showcase those effects in their full might.
Guirnalda points to an “awesome immersive concert” that Verizon recently put on with the Black Pumas at Los Angeles’ Wiltern as part of a new deal with Live Nation. “There was a 360 portal and you could go step on stage with them, and you could pick your camera angles,” he says. He believes livestreams will remain relevant when in-person shows are back: There will always be fans who can’t make it to the show, whether because it’s sold out or because they’re too young or too far to get into the venue. In theory, 5G can also go beyond providing good-quality at-home concerts and also allow in-person attendees to see AR effects on the stage in front of them, with smart glasses.
“You went from a concert with a lighter to a concert with a LTE device, and now you’re buying NFTs… We think [evolution] is inevitable.”
From organizers’ standpoint, 5G speeds could also easily add to the pre-show experience — pinging fans about short lines, helping them find seats, and letting them order drinks and merch in advance, for example. Before you even leave for the venue, maybe a hologram of the artist meets you in your living room. And at the show’s end, bidding might start on an exclusive NFT that’s announced on stage. “You went from a concert with a lighter to a concert with a LTE device, and now you’re buying NFTs,” Guirnalda says. “This is just the evolution that’s going to happen. We think it’s inevitable because we’re investing in the network to support all of that.”
If you think this all sounds ridiculous, you might want to remember that, not long ago, creating a website was terribly complex and expensive; the average teenager can do that now, in an hour, with pocket change. Soon enough, creatives of all levels will have access to AR production and web tools. With the speed at which phone carriers like Verizon are bringing 5G to major cities, it seems to only be a matter of time before creative opportunities are “democratized,” as Guirnalda calls it.
“It’s not just Mandalorian shoots at these giant sound stages that are using the next generation of technology, and it’s not just the one-off, big concerts that take so much money to come to life,” says Guirnalda. “Our goal isn’t to become the de-facto, go-to place for all virtual production. I think we are the sandbox experimentation — for everybody to come together and figure out what’s the next set of enablers. And while we’re doing that, we might as well have a little fun along the way and start to show that it’s possible to have what Moment Factory is doing right now become something more. I’m not as creative as the people at Moment Factory, the artists or their teams, but we can help them unblock their thinking with what’s possible, because we’ve got the tech and we’ve got 5G.”
Incorporating rising artists like TheHxliday into the experimentation process expedites the path to mass adoption of the whole project of 5G. “You have to push the technology envelope, but you have to start with culture first,” says Guirnalda.