Is Virtual Reality About to Transform the Way We Experience Live Music?
I stood in a small room with a headset and felt like I was on stage with Fall Out Boy. Kind of.
Lead image via Public Domain Pictures
A couple of days ago, in between eating instant porridge at my desk and looking back on the previous week’s horoscopes to see if they were accurate, a colleague tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I wanted to spend the afternoon wearing a virtual reality headset and watching artists like Rag'n'Bone Man and Jess Glynne perform their hits through a screen for journalism. I obviously agreed—getting out of the office for the afternoon gives me the same bleak thrill as when I was at primary school and got asked to take out the recycling—which is how I found myself shuffling into VEVO’s north London offices, sticking my head into a plastic machine and going to a “gig” that I might not have left my swivel chair for had it been “real.”
The world of VR is a contentious and interesting subject. Those that are totally against it are usually the same kind of people who think social media is turning teens into narcissists and avocados are to blame for “generation rent.” And then on the other end are the transhumanists among us who don’t see any problem in staying inside all day, plugged in until we turn into boneless slugs, incubating our bodies like fleshy plants until they reach 250 years old. I personally sit somewhere in between, although veer towards the latter tbh. I like to consider myself a proponent of new technology, and feel excited about a future (or present?) in which everyone can experience the farthest reaches of what the world has to offer. But I also sometimes feel drawn towards the romance of “realness,” and think the transience and pain of human existence is what make the brief spells of sweetness on planet earth twice as sweet.
But anyway: VR gigs! What of them? The VEVO offices actually look very much like the VICE offices, apart from they have free snacks, so after stuffing some mini popcorn packets into my dungarees, I charged upstairs to where the virtual live shows would take place. Once I got there, I was passed a headset and hand controller which allowed me to flick through a performance database—kind of like Netflix for gigs—full of shows from Fall Out Boy, Sigrid, Bring Me the Horizon, Rag‘n’Bone Man, Jess Glynne, KISS (???) and Rudimental among many others. I obviously chose to watch Fall Out Boy because I’m an overgrown emo, so after some adjustments to make the headset fit my tiny pea head, I suddenly found myself “on stage,” in front of a screaming arena crowd, while Pete Wentz stood beside me swinging his holographic arms up and down a guitar neck to the sound of “Dance, Dance.” If I had been 13 years old, this whole scenario would have made me lose my shit.
According to a press release, this new venture has been launched by a company called MelodyVR, and is the world’s “only virtual reality platform licensed by the music industry.” They’ve secured deals with Universal, Warner, Sony, and Roc Nation, with agreements to film in certain venues, and have starting selling “virtual tickets” to shows in the United Kingdom and United States. In other words, this is a win, win, win situation for music industry capitalism. MelodyVR cover the relatively minor cost of filming, the artists get more money and exposure and the venues sell more tickets. And then there are the audience, who can watch shows—either live or pre-recorded, arenas or private—in the comfort of their own homes, from any part of the world, as long as they have a VR headset (initially on Oculus Go and Samsung GearVR) and a subscription to the MelodyVR app. So far, so simple.
But, like, are VR gigs really about to transform the way we experience live music? Or are they just another fad that sounds cool in practice but wears thin after one summer, like Pokemon Go or that invite-only social network Ello that everyone freaked out about for two months in 2014. Because though it was fun to see Fall Out Boy live from different angles—like an untouchable ghost who was visiting from the afterlife—the novelty wore off after a few goes. And I also couldn’t help but think that the real thing, with all its sweating and screaming and strangers, is infinitely better than being plugged into a machine in your cousin Paul’s living room watching The Vamps—because presumably you can only watch artists on majors right now—in mutual silence and isolation. And while the experience was immersive, it wasn’t that immersive. I could still sense someone to my right videoing me flailing my arms around for their Insta stories. My eyes felt like I was there, but my body didn’t.
That said, these are only the initial seeds, and it could turn into something bigger. I must have used a relatively standard headset, for example, but presumably once better headsets come out (like the imminent Occulus Go, or virtual reality with touch sensations) the experience will improve for those who can afford it, or generations who will live into the future. It’s also worth noting, here, that as someone who can go to gigs, and do so all the time, this obviously isn’t going to be that revelatory for me. But what about those who aren’t able-bodied? Or those who aren’t able to leave the house for whatever reason, whether because of family commitments or mental distress? For those people, MelodyVR has the potential to open up a whole world of possibility. It might seem like a fun way to pass an afternoon to me, but for other music fans, this could be the start of experiencing life in a completely different way.
As with any new technological venture, there are also the creative and artistic opportunities that come alongside it. After watching Fall Out Boy, I was told that freaky internet sensation Poppy, who we’ve written about for Noisey, took part in a virtual reality “meet and greet” at the end of last year. She was able to see her fans, as avatars, and they were able to see and hear her as if she was in the room with them. “For a lot of artists, who don’t like meet and greets, this could be a way to navigate that,” I was told cheerily and earnestly by PR, who explained how MelodyVR will be getting into the business of meet and greets too. While this might sound extremely dystopian (you will feel like you’re having a human interaction, but you won’t be?? Haha!) I must admit it also seems quite fun—or at least creatively innovative. Who knows the fucked up VR worlds artists could fabricate for us to crawl inside? If they’re doing live VR gigs and meet and greets, what about music videos too? The list goes on.
I’m not going to pretend I left this experience feeling like my consciousness had been shattered into tiny pieces and I was now scrambling to pick them off the floor. It was just like going to a really good simulator at an arcade centre. What I was left with, though, is a glimpse into the possibilities that could open up as a result of MelodyVR. For future generations, what I experienced for one afternoon in someone’s office for the first time, is probably just going to become a way of life. Which is pretty cool, I guess?
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.