The pandemic is causing labels to hold out with album rollouts for the time concerts are allowed again. This streamlining of revenue models is quite common but doesn’t sit well with fans. But if there’s one thing this pandemic has shown, is the culture industry’s ability to innovate. Other ways of streamlining business models are conjured. Musicians find shelter in digital live streams and gaming environments. Travis Scott and Marshmallow both did a virtual performance during a live event in Fortnite, while Zara Larsson and Lil Nas X did a similar performance in the game Roblox.
The digitization of live music performance hints at the consolidation of the two industries that have a 40-year standing history together. While this convergence isn’t even in its infancy, the emerging industry asks for new standards, technicities and protocols. The development and various instances of virtual performance accelerated during the pandemic. The aforementioned examples are the most pronounced ones, where the artists perform songs as a virtual version of themselves. They’re digitized, allowing for majestic and surreal experiences. Travis Scott performances is a 10-minute show where the user journeys through exhilarating environments. These cases illustrate the power behind the two collaborating capitalist culture industries where big budgets are available. But other cases come in various formats:
- Katy Perry (Augmented Reality where Pokemon extends their brand)
- Post Malone (animated music video marked by the Pokemon brand)
- In-game GTA DJ performances by Moodymann, Palms Trax and Keinemusik.
- GTA x Beatport collaboration with performance by Palms Trax in front of a green screen.
- UK Rock duo Royal Blood virtual concert during the Roblox Bloxy Awards
Established gaming brands and artists coming together during the pandemic is a classic case of how markets emerge through supply and demand: record labels and artists look for environments where they can play their music and sell their merch, while MMO games want to solidify their brand name to their audience. Through this lens, the congregation between gaming and music doesn’t seem all that innovative, but more out of economic interest. Lil Nas X’s Roblox performance was attended 33 million times, while 12.3 million and 10.7 players participated in the performances by Travis Scott and Marshmello respectively. Regardless, there are quite some subversive possibilities that arise and can take both industries and the newly emerging culture an octave higher.
Changes in games
While a philosophical argument can be formed around the blurring borders between reality and the virtual, the more interesting, perhaps most tangible differences beyond business changes are found in the socio-cultural.
In his Rekto Verso article, Roel Vergauwen sums various reasons why digital concerts will coexist next to live concerts: Increased reach and engagements between artists and fans, digital sales market for products such as vinyl, CDs and merch. Additionally, new forms of merch such as cosmetic skins and NFTs become available through this new infrastructure.
In other cases the artist becomes the merchandise. Rockstar’s GTA Online included the aforementioned 3 DJs into its world whom players have to solve a quest for to hear them play in a nightclub in Los Santos. A clear case of affiliate marketing, which is more of a cultural nod to Moodymann, Palms Trax and Keinemusik than it is a simulation of a music event. This affiliate marketing can take on really dull forms, as this collaboration between Rockstar and music platform Beatport illustrates (killer set, though).
New networked publics
The new emerging virtual concert stages in-game environments thus also are non-geographically bound public spaces. Whereas visitors of a concert are tied through their mutual musical interest, these new publics are by default also networked through their shared interest in a specific game. Games serve as a new medium that provides the platform both for artists and fans as networked publics.
Musical meaning emerges from its relationship to other forms of media. While music has always been both a solo and multiplayer experience– think walkmans, vinyl, practicing or listening parties, background music during social events, concerts and so on– digital technologies have heightened its sociality. Spotify UI and UX for example socialize musical experience through features that harmoniously stack like extended chords: sharing, public playlists or friend activity (desktop). So too does the application of the gaming UI and UX socialise the music experience further.
Take Travis Scott’s performance for instance, where sociality comes in multiple ways. Firstly, the individual or the player embodied in the avatar draped in their cosmetic skins attended the virtual event, experiencing the concert in the gaming environment. Additionally, affordances such as dancing increase immersiveness and the simulation of real-life concerts. Emulating mosh pits, people together in video or voice chats sharing their shared experience. Moreover, you can interact with the environment and see what other players are doing.
Secondly, sociality is prevalent when I watch the video on YouTube and see that players are part of the recording of the virtual performance. This is underlined by various remarks from people who attended the event in the video’s comment section. Both in the official videos and in streamer reaction videos, players who attended the performance happily leave comments explaining their experience.
Socialisation will play an important role not only during the adoption phase, but also in terms of business. Sociality, as we know, is highly potent in its commodification.
Looking at this from a different key, virtual performances in their current form underline the perfectionism stimulated by social media. Songs are performed without curse words, perfectly pitched, compressed and mixed, while also being aligned with the visual effects which make for fantasy-like experiences (shapeshifting, teleporting, giant-sized, gravity-defying). To put it in another phrasing, music is subject to the polishing of the virtual.
Similar to the now ubiquitous Spotify track, where a dominant medium shapes the aesthetic, so too could the conjoining of gaming as a medium and music cause a shift. While visuals are always part of a live performance, in a gaming environment this is buffed up to a more surreal and immersive level to maintain the attention span of gamers. Consider the Marshmello concert below, where his virtual version provides a hit after hit, drop after drop DJ set.
In a virtual and online setting, a concert is less about music and more about the experience. You can see this as the next step from people recording performances on their phone while at a live concert. In particular the Fornite performances by Travis Scott and Marshmello were all tunes familiar to the audience– as they were chart-topping hits. This plays an important factor because the music requires less attention, which can be allocated to the overall virtual audio-visual experience, as indicated in this reaction video.
What about the independents?
Alongside the top-down examples above in which big companies and artists (read: record labels) are creating these majestic experiences, there are also bottom-up ventures emerging. Blockchain-based VR world Decentraland has seen a slew of concerts by independent music artists in the past couple of months, ranging from bands to DJs. Atari already partnered with Decentraland and set up a casino in the environment, where–similar to Marshmello– DJ Dillon Francis performed a set as well.
New protocols, standards and technology
The converging characteristic of digital technologies will result in a symbiosis where gaming and the music business become increasingly intertwined. Looking ahead, we would see an industry where companies are working simultaneously on both gaming and music. Professions from both fields would have to converge as well. You can already see this in the University of Arts (HKU) in Utrecht for example. It has overarching courses for Music & Technology and Games & Interaction, within the former’s curriculum there is a bachelor’s in Music Design for Games & Interaction. This surely will foster a future industry without boundaries between music and gaming.