April 25th, 2020 saw American rapper, Travis Scott, take to Fortnite to debut his first-ever online concert. A virtual figure of Scott performed for millions of players on the popular battle royale game, Fortnite, delivering out-of-this-world grandeur and production value. What followed, however, were a series of questions about the future of virtual reality in the live entertainment industry.
In the days leading up to Scott’s Astronomical virtual concert, Epic Games (the developers behind Fortnite) had quite literally been setting up the stage in plain sight of players in the vicinity. Reportedly, players could see the stage being constructed on Sweaty Sands beach, one of Fornite’s battle royale maps. Players also reported seeing a black stage over the water and multiple gold, inflated virtual Travis Scott heads floating around this stage. While waiting for the concert to begin, players indulged in PVP battles, with respawn having been activated for the entirety of the event.
The show started off with a ‘giant, strange, planet-like object’ floating towards the mainstage, boasting visuals that both impressed and awed players. This giant object blew up, after having reached the mainstage, and the concert began. Having dedicated the entire map to Astronomical, a giant-sized Scott begins performing, while teleporting around the map at random times, while still in clear view for all players. With each changing track, the visual theme for the concert changed drastically; from having a cyborg version of Travis Scott to having a giant spaceman version of him (underwater). Players were automatically teleported to these various scenarios, so as to make sure they get the entire intended experience. The Verge even reported roller coasters, psychedelic visuals and players being teleported to outer space.
After having learned from their previous in-game events, Epic Games had dealt with the technicalities a little differently. For one, they had turned off the UI of the game to let the players get a better view of the elaborate visuals, along with limiting the number of emotes. The attendees could not do anything off-brand, like a kitty dance; instead, they were only allowed to head-bang and rage with a fiery microphone stand. In even better news, players did not have to buy or play through levels to own those emotes. Finally, instead of a one-off concert, Epic Games made it a ‘tour’ panning over three days. With 12 million players on the first day and four replays thereafter, 27.7 million unique gamers attended the digital concert 45.8 million times, reported Pitchfork.
Executive producer of Digital Domain, John Canning now asks the question – How much bigger and more elaborate can these virtual/digital experiences get? Live-streaming startup, Wave could have an answer. Using motion-capture technology to transform artists into digital avatars in virtual worlds, Wave had announced a concert series called “One Wave” with artists including John Legend & Lindsey Sterling, among others. Adam Arrigo, CEO of Wave also told Pitchfork how they had already tried a lot of things done in the Travis Scott x Fortnite gig. He adds that they had taken a few steps to further make these virtual shows “a little more f*cked up”. During a Wave concert last year by Dubstep producer, Kill The Noise, attendees had to fight off a demon behind the stage to keep the show going, unlike in Scott’s gig which was essentially a fuss-free watch for the attendees.
CEO Peter Martin of V.A.L.I.S, a virtual reality focused creative agency, talked about the potential of a ‘digital resurrections of posthumous stars’. A Rolling Stones concert from 1972 or a Bob Marley or Marvin Gaye show are some of the concepts that the agency is currently discussing, informed Martin. Adam Rogers, creative producer at Intel Studios, in conversation with Marc Hogan for Pitchfork, talked about a virtual technology called volumetric capture wherein artists would perform in a 10,000 sq-foot dome fitted with hundreds of cameras so viewers could move around within the 3D space in real-time and feel like they are a part of it even though they will not be physically present there. Where the monetary funds will come from poses another question. Artists and their labels have typically relied on brands and platforms to fund their digital experiments, though for virtual concerts to actually catch on, they will have to begin by replacing revenue that the live music industry has lost, and continues to lose, while the world adjusts to its post-pandemic state. Travis Scott’s collaboration with Epic Games had, for it’s time in the spotlight, extended to Fortnite-inspired merchandise like clothing, action figures, and Nerf guns. To further accelerate the rise of virtual shows, creators have shifted focus towards reaching fans on devices they already own. Earlier oriented around pricey VR headsets, Wave is now available across YouTube, Twitch, Facebook, and other digital channels.
However, for artists who don’t have Travis Scott’s budget or status, navigating these new virtual spaces comes with their own creative and financial challenges. “I’m looking for someone to pop up who’s going to work the immersive space and figure out a very glitchy, lo-fi way of doing this,” says Martin from V.A.L.I.S. Studio.
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