Where is the Virtual Reality Music Revolution That Was Promised?

Note: Originally published by Billboard on August 25, 2017.

Nikki Jahanforouz/Goldenvoice/Microdose VR

The phone rang in my hotel room. It was 3:30AM. “Hello?”

“Drake wants to do more VR.”

Hours prior, the artist had entered virtual reality for the first time. Now, curious and captivated, he was back for more. For the next several hours we would virtually visit a robot-infested urban dystopia, watch whales breach, shoot threes and more — all from a central London hotel suite.

As the sun rose Drake joked, “I guess this was my More Life launch party.” We broke for the new day, making plans to continue orienting the artist and his team to the new medium.

During my time on the frontline of VR, I have met with dozens of artist camps and industry leaders eager to explore the technology. In late 2015, Samsung released its first mobile phone-enabled, Gear VR goggles for less than $100 a pop, bringing immersive 3D experiences within reach of the masses. Investors poured $2.3 billion into VR/AR startups in 2016, according to Digi-Capital, and the music industry has been abuzz with the possibilities. If video had once energized the industry, then what could immersive 3D experiences do? Was VR the new revenue stream that could lift a reanimated music business to new heights? Game engines revved and 360-degree cameras rolled.

So where is all of the revolutionary VR music content? Why is it taking so long to arrive?

While VR adoption as a whole has lagged both hopes and forecasts, music — which boasts 20 of the top 50 Facebook pages and the #1 YouTube channel — has not secured its fair share of the hundreds of millions of dollars of VR content investment to date. What follows are some of the challenges that must be navigated to realize VR music’s highest potential.

Stage Rush

From the outset, a disproportionate amount of time and resources has been directed toward translating the live performance to VR. To be sure, focusing on concerts makes sense because premium seat inventory is scarce, while VR concerts may be monetized through pay-per-view, sponsorship and subscription models. Successes include ON STAGE, where Live Nation and Hulu are employing leading-edge equipment, heavyweight talent, thoughtful narrative and diverse locations to deliver superior content.

But initially, first generation VR cameras struggled with the low light and high dynamic range requirements of live concerts. In many cases, opportunistic, lower-skill creators did not adhere to production best practices. As a result, the quality of the first wave of VR experiences was mediocre or worse. Samsung VR’s early music programming illustrated these challenges. For a wave of early adopters and viewers in the music industry, “VR” became equated with “dark, grainy GoPro footage,” leaving many skeptical of the medium and having a broader chilling effect. Google’s Coachella 2016 VR-light Cardboard promotion was both eye-opening and anticlimactic.

Patrick Melon/Live Nation/Hulu/Lil Wayne

Music Video 2.0

The other application that has dominated discussion is the VR music video. While linear, song-length music videos are easy to promote and a familiar format for the music industry, the format also constrains creative in ways that can stifle a project. For example, an artist’s team is often attached to promoting a specific single with a companion VR experience to a 2D video asset. A top VR studio, meanwhile, may be intrigued by the potential for a different type of project or a different song altogether.

A pack of producers have cut through this thicket to mark some encouraging milestones. Marshmallow Laser Feast’s SquarePusher (Stor Eiglass), Here Be Dragons’ Song for Someone (U2), m ss ng p eces’ Music from Every Angle (Moses Sumney) and Tyler Hurd’s Chocolate (Giraffage) have delivered uniquely enveloping and evocative audio-visual experiences.

In contrast, rigidly transposing the existing music-video playbook onto VR will continue to bog down discussions and delimit exciting outcomes that take us into music’s marrow and the hearts and minds of those who make it.

Google Spotlight Stories/Gorillaz

Creative Chasm

In most cases, artist teams and their traditional creative partners do not currently possess the VR expertise or context to develop creative that will secure project funding from the current sources — primarily platform players like Facebook’s Oculus, Google, Samsung, HTC and Sony. On the other hand, the parties providing capital are neither organized nor keen to drive creative development. It’s not their mission. As a result, many potential projects get stuck at the inspiration stage. Finding resourceful ways to close this gap will be critical to unlocking greater investment.

Broad Experimentation

The current VR music content landscape is dotted with visualizers, virtual venues, game adaptations, documentary shorts and an eclectic medley of interactive musical apps. Although this experimentation appears to have been more haphazard than methodical and has possibly confused the market, it has set the edge for what may prove to be the richest area of innovation for music in the medium: not just ushering fans to the front row of live music or establishing another avenue for music video, but teleporting audiences into radically new, kaleidoscopic, kinetic, music-infused cyberscapes that mashup social, gameplay, composition, mixing and real-time functionality to blow virtually connected minds.

TheWaveVR, Red Pill VR, SoundStage, Harmonix’s Music VR and George Michael Brower’s Playthings have all staked meaningful claims on this frontier.


Value Proposition

Perhaps no challenge has been greater than articulating a compelling value proposition. For artists looking to reach and engage the maximum number of fans, VR’s addressable audience — roughly 8 million mobile and tethered PC headsets — is dwarfed by more mature channels, and quick payoff isn’t a sure thing. Meanwhile artists — sometimes seen as unreliable by other industries — have had a difficult time convincing business partners to get, and stay, on board.

With a host of hurdles to overcome, is it even worth finding the way forward? Will music eventually exert the same transformative, accelerating influence on virtual reality that it has on other emerging platforms like cable TV, the internet, social media and mobile computing?

I believe the answer is an emphatic “yes.” The early returns should embolden. Jaunt VR’s first McCartney music experiences that project the viewer on stage and into the studio with the legend remain among its most popular. Google’s Gorillaz collaboration, Saturnz Barz (Spirit House), propels the fan through a meticulously detailed, vividly hued, intergalactic cartoonscape. The surreal composition, complete with talking pizzas and psychedelic reptilia, is its most watched 360 video ever. Live Nation and Hulu’s ON STAGE featuring Lil Wayne and Major Lazer is by far Hulu’s most viewed VR series to date. TheWaveVR is the top-rated app on the SteamVR platform. THE LAB, a constellation of music and tech-driven installations sponsored by HP at the heart of Goldenvoice’s recent Panorama festival this summer in New York, drew long lines and thrilled thousands throughout the weekend.

What, then, is that way forward?

Nikki Jahanforouz/Goldenvoice/The Ark Dome

To Platforms: Do not be afraid to invest in artists not named Bieber or Beyonce; empower the fascinated and fearless. Set and message longer-term platform and partner goals. Explain project funding criteria. Clarify content objectives — whether those be brand reach or VR enthusiast engagement, production quality or innovation. Reallocate budget from premium experience production to incubation and lower-cost, higher velocity experimentation. Bring accomplished music visual creators into the fold; arm them and other new entrants with the tools, guidance and incentives to grow. Acknowledge that music and those who make it must and will be core, vital elements of XR (virtual, mixed and augmented reality) worlds going forward.

To Music: Keep the faith and double down. Cue off of industries like film and automotive that have taken more robust approaches. Avail yourselves of discovery and growth opportunities like Google’s Tilt Brush Artist in Residence program. Know that investments now in VR will pay dividends as XR platforms using overlapping vision technology, engagement techniques and game engine tools mature and scale. Recognize that while in-headset audiences are relatively small, they include key tastemakers and some of your most important, passionate, potent fans. Be patient but not passive. Next generation, user-friendly VR devices that cut the cord to phones and PCs will be here in a blink. These, along with advances in mobile computing, will continue to drive adoption and sweeten the return.

To All: The opportunity to create great content, stoke fans and serve the artists and audiences of tomorrow is real today. Take the call in the middle of the night, so that we might see the sun rise on the marriage of our most potent medium and powerful language.

Chris McGarry is a media and technology executive who has DJed for Prince, produced the largest sound stage at Burning Man, and served on Google’s Enterprise Partner Advisory Board. Most recently, he worked on music for Oculus.