Could Virtual Reality Be the Future of Live Music?

Posted by Daniel Rakow

Part 1

As long as the human race walks this earth, we’ll have live music. I know that’s a bold way to start this paper. But now I have your full attention and your mind thinking about the future of live music. I want to ask you to have an open mind while reading this. I’m not here to say that virtual reality will 100 percent be the future of the live music business. However, with the live music business being around for as long as it has, I think its future depends on innovation.

As long as the human race could communicate, there has been music. In turn, where there has been music, there has been live performance of that music. Even before music became a business, live performance was a foundational part of our society. Before I dive into the potential future of live music, it’s important that I briefly cover some history within the live space and a few key events that got us to where we are today.

Over 40,000 years ago, the first instrument (a flute) was made out of animal bones. That is a long time ago. For over 40,000 years our species has had some type of live music performance. Yes, not all of the early performances were like the typical concert we see today, but it was live music. People came to churches for it, venues to see composers for it, and even gathered around fires for it. Since the flute was invented, we’ve seen a lot of major innovations in the live space to get us to where we currently are.

Two major technology advancements were the microphone in the 1870’s and the public address systems in the early 1900’s. With these inventions, concerts began to take place which featured an artist, a band, and a large crowd that came to see that artist play. This experience, which became popular with Jazz artists, would go on to develop into your average concert. In the late 1900’s Woodstock Festival was the most popular of the large scale concerts that were beginning to take place. This festival lasted 4 days and had over 400,000 people in attendance. It was one of the most iconic festivals to date and would end up setting the stage for thousands of festivals to come after. The interesting part about Woodstock was that it was centered around an anti-war movement. In a time period where there was hate surrounding and separating the country, hundreds of thousands of people came together for peace, love, and music.

The last event in live music history that I want to highlight is Pink Floyd’s The Wall tour. Their live visuals and lighting effects took the concert experience to a whole new level. They not only had killer performances, but had the visual effects to back it up. Pink Floyd experimented with their live set up unlike anyone ever had before them. They used an artificial wall splitting the stage in half otherwise known as The Wall, they had helium animal and human shaped balloons floating around the crowd, strobe lights, and other lighting setup to make the entire band look like silhouettes. Pink Floyd created a truly new experience for their fans that drew a large crowd to their performances. This type of experience is one that we see artists using and building on to date. One that recreated the feeling that was felt while listening to that artist’s album for the very first time.

Above, are a few of the big events in the past that have set up the live industry to be what it is today. It’s evident that technology has been the biggest factor in pushing the envelope for live music. However, how much has our technology truly progressed since Pink Floyd’s tour? Yes, the sounds got a lot bigger and the lights got a lot brighter. Yes, there’s now equipment that Pink Floyd would have never dreamed of using. But is it enough of a change to keep the audience’s interest and the touring business at it’s high? Is it enough to keep the live space exciting and new? Before I go into this, I need to talk about the overall live experience of music and what keeps the live industry alive.

Why does one go to a concert? What’s the point if you can just sit at home and listen to the album? Coming from a guy who literally goes to concerts by himself, it’s a little hard for me to wrap my head around why someone would ask this. However, I could see why someone who isn’t as into music as I am could ask. After all, we do live in a world where anyone with a computer or phone can listen to music wherever and whenever they please. I could pull out my iPhone, open up my Spotify or Apple Music account, and immediately have access to every song I could possibly want to listen to. Even if I didn’t pay for subscriptions, Youtube and Soundcloud have free platforms that I could find endless music from my favorite artists.

The crazy part is, this is even the case with live performances. I could go on Youtube and Apple Music and within seconds watch an artist perform live via video. In fact I did this last month. There’s a new artist, Eden, that I recently discovered. When I was finished listening to his debut album for the 4th time, I needed something new. I wanted to see him perform live. Unfortunately, he was not performing anywhere near Syracuse University, which is where I currently live. So, I did what I had to do in these situations. I went onto Youtube and watched an entire live video of his performance from the weekend before. I actually sat there on my computer watching Eden from a fans phone, who was standing in the front row, singing the lyrics along with him. I felt like I was there… Almost. So, back to the question. With all this accessibility of music and convergence of platforms, what drives one to leave their house and actually see a live concert?

It’s similar to sports. Yes, you could sit at home and watch the game… but if you had the opportunity to watch your team in person, wouldn’t you? It’s the experience of the being at the “game”. It’s physically being in arena with your team (or artist) and witnessing that moment live for what it is. Though I could easily sit at home and watch an artist perform on my computer, I’d rather much rather experience the show live. There’s nothing more exciting to a fan than being in the same room as your favorite artist as they play your favorite song that you know every damn word to. There’s something truly special about being in a crowd of thousands of people all singing the same words, all there for one reason. There’s something amazing about thousands of people from different backgrounds and different ethnicities coming together and leaving everything else at the door. Because everyone is witnessing the artist for the same reason: the love of the music.

While fans love watching their artists live performances, there is definitely room for innovation. Without innovation, the consumer will grow bored of the norm. The consumer’s need for change/new product is present in the music industry just like in any other industry. Technology has and will continue to be the biggest driver in pushing the live experience. Introducing… Virtual Reality.

Part 2

Virtual Reality is a growing technology used in many different industries today. Though the technology is fairly new and developing, it hasn’t been rapidly taking off as many expected. A few of the industries that have taken advantage of this technology are gaming, military, sports, education and even music. So I question: Could virtual reality be a future industry of the live music business? Well, it’s already being used in the live space. It is not by any means popular, but it is present. For example, Childish Gambino recently came out with a virtual reality experience for his new song Me And Your Momma. On his app, Pharos, he allows his fans to put on a virtual reality headset and watch a recorded performance of his song as he sang it live. For those who don’t have a headset, they can move their phone around to look at the arena and experience the 360 degree camera.

There are currently two types of virtual reality experiences in live music. First, there is an after the show experience. This is when an artist is recorded performing on a 360 degree video camera. After the show, a fan can go on youtube and watch the concert with their virtual reality headset. Here’s an example of this type of experience: Chainsmokers. From this virtual world you are able to look in all directions that the 360 video can show. The other virtual experience is during the show. This is when a fan could put on the headset at home and watch the concert live. The fan could be viewing the concert from backstage, onstage, or front row, depending on the angle of the camera. This is the virtual reality experience was used by Coachella in 2016. Because of travelling costs, life conflicts, or simple laziness there is a market for people who can’t physically be at Coachella but want to see their favorite artist perform. They have a fear of missing out on the moment, and are afraid to miss something from their favorite artist! This is where virtual reality could come in. Die hard fans will do anything to see their favorite artist. If that means going online, purchasing a virtual reality ticket, and putting on a headset to witness a concert that isn’t in their city, then so be it.

However, I do see a few issues with the virtual reality experience. With the headsets themselves, there has been reports of discomfort and nausea while wearing the set. The user could easily hurt themselves while using the headset by bumping into objects around them. But more importantly, I believe that it’s possible the consumer could quickly become bored of this virtual reality experience. Similar to a trampoline, it could be new experience that’s fun for a while, and then never get used again. This is why I think that the virtual technology needs to be built on to make it more exciting. What else can the virtual reality experience bring you? I believe the future of virtual reality in the live space will be more interactive. Can you meet up with friends who are also experiencing the concert in virtual reality and talk with them through microphones. How about full body experiences? We’ll get more into more possibilities and problems in part 3.

An obvious supertrend from my COM 400 class comes to mind when I think about virtual reality enhancing the live experience: Technological progress. This includes all improvements being made in computers and other technologies that make it easier for humans to achieve their purposes. Technology is definitely improving in the VR space and many people feel and connect with music on an emotional level. Almost to say, their purpose on this world feels more complete with music in it. It’s vital that the live music industry depends on this trend to keep it’s audience growing. That’s virtual reality’s appeal. However, it will need to progress further to keep people interested in the technology. This progress, if executed well, will lead to another supertrend: economic growth. This growth will take place if the music industry figures out how to capitalize on the new technology and emerging market. Let’s take a look at what the future would look like if virtual reality was being used in live music.

Part 3

It’s your average day in 2021… The cars are flying, the local teleporter is off the hook… Alright, I won’t be that extreme. But it is your average day in 2021. 16 year old Eli is sitting at home on a Saturday night excited for what’s about to happen. He decided to stay in because of tonight’s concert: Eden at PNC Banks Arts Center. However, Eli wasn’t able to physically make it to the concert. Not only was it a 3 hour drive, but his parents had a party that night and weren’t able to drive him. He was a little frustrated that he wouldn’t be able to join his camp friends at the concert. After all, it was their favorite artist. But in particular, it was Eli’s favorite artist. Eli had been following Eden ever since his brother, Danny, showed him Eden in 2016. Now he was one of the biggest artists in the world. Since that day he was a die hard fan. He purchased every album and knew every word to every song. For that reason he wouldn’t miss dare to miss this concert.

A couple weeks earlier he bought a ticket to Eden on Ticket Master. But not just an average ticket. It was a virtual reality ticket, just as he done many times with his other favorite artists. He saved up his christmas money to purchase an all-in virtual reality ticket. What his friends didn’t realize was that for his 200 dollar ticket, he was going to be able to view the concert from anywhere in the arena that he wanted… All from his basement.

Eli went down to the basement and opened a door to the closet otherwise known as his virtual reality room. For just $500 he had turned his closet into another world where he could escape from everything. He opened the door to his closet and sat down in his chair. This chair sat inside an 8 by 8 square which was his space to walk around via 360 treadmill, dance, or just sit and observe. He picked up his virtual reality set, Kayla by Sony, and put it over his head. The headset included a visual screen and headphones. Once Eli was fully ready to immerse himself in virtual reality for night’s concert he clicked the begin button. The headset asked him to punch in his ticket number. This number would allow him to be placed at the Eden concert in the exact section of which he purchased. As I mentioned before, Eli had an all-in ticket. This meant he could switch from the front row, middle, lawn, and backstage all at his own will. He would be everywhere at once. Eli punched his number with his hand controls and his virtual reality bubble dropped down over him. This enclosed him in this new world as he entered the concert. He picked to be on the lawn section while the openers were performing. He looked around and got a feel for the environment and fans that were there. In the closet he got on his treadmill device and started walked around the lawn section. He knew his friends would be here. When he finally found them he was able to communicate with them through his microphone. His friends had chosen to put a special earpiece in to talk to Eli. Though they couldn’t see him, they could all talk to each other.

Once Eden came on, he switched his setting to the front row. It was as if he blinked his eyes and was teleported to the front row. He almost felt like he was physically there. The bubble gave Eli the parts of the concert that couldn’t be seen with your eyes but felt with your body. He felt the bass shake his body from the speakers, he felt the crowd cheering and singing through his body, and he heard the ringing in his ears from the speakers. The 360 sound headphones allowed him to turn his head and hear the sound move with him. He saw Eden on stage so close he could almost touch him. Except when he reached his hands out he felt the bubble. Eli cheered, sang, and even danced around all while in his virtual reality closet. He was able to talk to his friends who were on the lawn and tell them what he was seeing from the front row. He would look at the people to his left and to his right and almost felt like he was apart of the moment. Eli had one last trick up his sleeve: Backstage. He picked the last setting he had available and his surroundings steadily changed from front row to stage right. From this angle he watched Eden perform his last few songs. Eli was amazed to see the crowd from the artist’s perspective. He saw the phones up in the air and thousands of eyes staring in amazement. It felt for a second like they were all cheering for him. He looked behind him and got to see the stage manager and the rest of Eden’s team running around backstage doing the behind the scenes work. After the show was over, he watched as Eden walked directly passed him off stage into a back room. Eli got to go into that room and talk to Eden which was included in his ticket package. Through the microphone he told Eden how amazing the concert was. After 5 minutes of getting to virtually talk to his favorite artist the experience was over. He took off his headset and just like that he was back to reality, in his closet.

Now, coming back to 2016, I can see some potential problems within this future technology occurring. Let’s use the situation. For starters, what if he slips while wearing this headset and hits his head on something in the room and gets seriously injured. Could he sue the company? Or is there a waver he needs to sign before he uses the headset that says the company isn’t liable for any injury the customer has while using the headset? Another possible major problem with this technology is the effects on the customer’s mind. Could one get addicted to this fake reality? Could virtual reality be like a drug for someone always trying to escape their life? In Eli’s example, he was at an all time high while talking to Eden. How is he supposed to go from that amazing experience to realizing he is only in a closet. Would he have trouble coming back to reality? How could the virtual reality company make the transformation smooth? Or would Eli be content with entering that world for a limited period of time because of the memories he gained? Accessibility could also be a problem for virtual reality. When everyone has access to this technology will people still want to use it? These are questions that need to be asked by the companies looking into this technology.

It would be very smart for major companies and industry leaders to look into this technology now! Companies bring their rewards customers unique experiences should partner with record companies and virtual reality companies. Imagine American Express teamed up with Oculus Rift and Universal Music Group. UMG can provide the artist’s concert, Oculus can help with the virtual reality experience, and American Express can provide their special card holders with a unique live concert VR experience! Customers would be blown away by this new technology and associate that feeling with the company. It’s still fairly new! It would be a good idea for record label executives to get out in front of this trend before everyone is on it. If they can look into opportunities to get involved with virtual reality experiences by opening up those conversations now, it could be very beneficial to their artists in the future.

To conclude, it is important that record labels look into virtual reality now! Live music isn’t going away anytime soon. While there are potential problems with virtual reality and live music, this is a technology that could fill a major market in the live business. It’s important for artists and record labels to continue being innovative in order to keep the music industry booming. These leaders need to disrupt the live space by keep the fans excited and virtual reality could be their chance.

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