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The Weeknd & KISS show the future of virtual concerts

From KISS’ and ABBA’s de-aged avatars performing on massive screens in arenas to late rapper Notorious B.I.G.’s virtual reality performance in the metaverse, technology is helping musicians transcend space and time.
Last Updated 13 December 2023, 04:08 IST

By Daniel Pimentel

Festival season has long ended, but that didn’t stop more than 800,000 from snagging passes to see The Weeknd headline yet another show on Sunday. Except neither he nor his fans were physically together. The concert was held virtually, in Epic Games Inc.’s Fortnite, with the singer’s avatar taking the stage, representing the latest in a growing list of virtual concerts.

From KISS’ and ABBA’s de-aged avatars performing on massive screens in arenas to late rapper Notorious B.I.G.’s virtual reality performance in the metaverse, technology is helping musicians transcend space and time.

It hasn’t been music to everyone’s ears, though. A live performance minus a live performer makes some feel as if they are being cheated. And as more discussions (and fears) surface about artificial intelligence’s place in our daily lives, it’s understandable to want to rage against the machines.

Marvin Gaye said it best: “Ain’t nothing like the real thing.” But it might not be so when it comes to concerts. Research shows that our social responses to avatars are comparable to those observed during real-world interactions, even when the avatar is controlled by AI, or its appearance deviates significantly from what we expect.

Fans may buy into the idea that they’ll perceive virtual musicians the same and even welcome the benefits of virtual concerts (no bathroom lines), but how will they think back on the experience? Many of us have a favorite concert moment, so it would be a shame to say goodbye to creating more.

Science suggests that we don’t have to. Moments shared in VR, for example, are stored in our autobiographical memory, the same place as lived experiences. In this way, virtual reality concerts are not just moving images on a screen. To your brain, that virtual stage dive just happened.

Even if you’re not strapping on an immersive headset, watching virtual avatars on a flat screen can stir emotions similar to those elicited in immersive VR.

Despite the perceptual equivalence of virtual and physical concerts, it’s important to know that they won’t replace in-person live events entirely, but virtual concerts provide unique benefits that fans and musicians alike should consider before ruling them out entirely.

For one, they increase accessibility for fans with disabilities, addressing a long-held barrier in the music festival scene in particular. Additionally, if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that public events are fundamentally unsafe for many. Shifting to a virtual venue enables immunocompromised fans to join in on the fun safely.

The welfare benefits don’t stop there. These platforms also empower audiences to set their own boundaries. For the more than 40 per cent of women who have reported sexual harassment at live music events, being able to block users or set interpersonal distances with other avatars by clicking a button means a safer fan experience.

Overall, going virtual means more fans get to share the magic of live music. After all, concerts are central to building social connections among fans, and a connected fan base is generally a more loyal fan base. But digitizing the dance floor also benefits artists in unique ways.

For one, entertainers who create a virtual self-representation for live performances have incredible control over their self-expression on stage. From embodying an animal or towering over fans as a giant, to instant costume changes and physics-defying stage setups, virtual concerts take the best of video gaming technology to render an impactful multi-sensory experience. Not to mention, there is the potential to replay these moments.

It also means that musicians have a new tool for coping with the stress of a traditional tour schedule. Experts note that while artists live for the thrill of live shows, the rigors of touring lead to high rates of exhaustion, depression and burnout. By letting their avatars perform, musicians can take a respite, all while still forging meaningful connections with their fans through virtual spaces.

The avatar revolution in the music industry won’t come without its fair share of glitches, though. Eminem’s recent Fortnite concert, while record-breaking, also crashed Epic Games’ servers, showing that we’re still not ready to meet the demand for virtual concerts.

We’re also going to miss one key component in live music: unpredictability. As researchers note, fans love live shows because each is subtly different, shaped by artist-fan interactions. In many ways, pre-animated performances make artists no more than digital animatronics.

But that’s where the option of live virtual concerts comes in. Companies like Wave have pioneered them since the 2020s, and artists such as Calvin Harris, John Legend and Tinashe have managed to leverage their avatars to engage fans from around the world in a shared virtual space. While bands like Big Sand are showing that this is increasingly feasible even on indie budgets, the truth is that live virtual concerts are still viewed as experimental, but they shouldn’t be.

More than half of millennials and Gen Zers report having an interest in attending a virtual concert. If the industry is going to meet this growing demand, bands need to develop their avatar strategy and meet their fans not where they are but where they will be.

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(Published 13 December 2023, 04:08 IST)

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