The Inevitable Rise of the Visual DJ
We are going back in time a bit before we jump headlong into predicting the future. (Marshmello and Fortnite make an appearance, but first we’re going back to a time when Marshmello himself was a toddler. Welp, me.) In the 90s, I was a high school Pearl Jam fanatic. I may have had a poster of Eddie Vedder on my bedroom ceiling. My parents bought me tickets to see the band at then-Boston Garden as my high school graduation present. I don’t recall who went with me — but indelible in my memory is the way this Pearl Jam concert opened. In darkness amongst fan cheers, the band backlit by blue light, with my then-favorite song, “Release.” This understated opener, combined with the intensity of the visual experience, made me cry. In the right light and setting, music can be more than a song.
I don’t know the name of the lighting designer nor the art director of Pearl Jam’s VS tour. However, for any large-scale show, visuals are critical to the live experience. Daft Punk’s famous Alive 2007 pyramid, the op-art tunnels of REZZ and Excision’s projection maps showcase visual-forward shows. Outside of the visual art community though, the wizards and sorceresses behind the visuals are not yet household names. The emotional powerhouse of a live show is feeling moments of electricity with other people. That’s why live virtual concerts at scale are coming fast (Marshmello Fortnite reference 2)!
It’s fun to look back at the expensive/niche hardware democratized by digital: high-end cameras (your phone), music production software (Ableton), DJ decks (Pioneer DDJ). The output for these became digital too, as music went from discs to its “file state” starting with MP3s and now nested within YouTube or streaming services. It’s not easy to democratize the output for concert stages, VFX, lighting and lasers. There is simply no “digital” way of experiencing a full laser show on a 2D screen or in your living room. Light and lasers are volumetric. Giant video projections require both hardware and space. These real-life limitations are unlikely to change soon.
But in Virtual Reality and in games like Dreams, room-scale space is democratized for creators. When you put on a VR headset for the first time — and for purposes of this piece, I’m referring to high-end immersive devices like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift — the first thing you notice is 1) the feeling of “presence,” or that you’re standing in a real space 2) if done well, the feeling of a safe vastness. The best VR and video games break through the boundaries of what is possible in our physical world. This gives an entirely fresh definition to the “stage.” A massive floating stone mask with lasers from a third eye? No problem. Three-mile wide platform in the middle of an empty desert with floating speakers? Easy. Marshmello fans in Fortnite taking zero-gravity jumps? Yes!
In TheWaveVR’s Imogen Heap show, our quietest, most intimate concert experience, the power of moving from a blizzard of rainbow butterflies for the uptempo “Let Go” to a dark rainstorm with vocal-based god rays during emotional powerhouse “Hide and Seek” is seduction and alchemy by way of music plus visuals.
It can be supremely relaxing to put on a headset and surrender to the immersive nature of these shows. TheWaveVR had thousands of people attend Imogen’s show — and by all accounts in the comments, many heard her music for the first time and fell in love with it. Immersive visuals have the power to bring new fans into a deeply engaging music experience.
One revelation I’ve had from working at TheWaveVR is that gaming + music will surface a legion of new virtual/visual stars. Every week our incredible creator community is making epic, live, virtual concerts from scratch.
It’s no surprise Wave succeeds in live visuals. Our Creative Director, Strangeloop, is legendary for his direction on sets for Flying Lotus, Skrillex, and Erykah Badu. Our in-house content team includes two VJs and musicians — 3D Artist Daniel Sierra and Technical Art Director Nick Shelton. We focus on empowering musicians and visual creators to make ever more innovative live events.
Wave’s app download includes a powerful, user-generated content tool, Wavemaker. Wavemaker empowers our creators to deploy the full potential of live visuals. It’s like making an animated diorama — when you are placing objects in 3D space your scene is static. And then your mixer brings everything to life. TheWaveVR community can enhance their scenes with special effects like tunnels, lasers and more, and then control these with the mixer during their party. Mixing visuals live is surprisingly simple, exhilarating and elicits a childlike joy. Even I can do it. If I can do it, YOU can do it! And for sure, your kids can and WILL do it.
One year ago we launched our Resident DJ program to feature Wave’s most passionate content creators. These Resident DJs are advanced visual artists with creative prowess who are already developing their own fandoms. They all DJ; their visuals though, are the hallmark of their shows. They make custom stages and art using 3D creation tools like Google Tiltbrush, and then upload them into Google’s 3D art library to use in our Wavemaker. Our creators bring a variety of styles:
Above top to bottom: DJ Too Old, Too Cold; DJ Dettweiler; Splorgman; Petroleum Blownapart, Lavender.
Live virtual concerts happen almost every night in TheWaveVR. This weekend, we’re celebrating the anniversary of our Resident DJ program with Groundswell 2 — our second annual creator festival — featuring virtual performances from 5 pm to midnight PT on Saturday and Sunday.
The creative possibilities of music plus a real-time gaming platform expand beyond virtual concerts in VR. If it’s not obvious by the references, we’re still glowing about the now-ubiquitous-in-press Marshmello in Fortnite concert. It is the shining example of a positive community event at scale — a live, interactive, virtual show that united kids (and adults!) around the world.
REZZ released a new single in December and used a collaboration with 3D artist Steve Teeps plus TheWaveVR to make her music video. On March 21st DJs W&W previewed their live Wave show with the video for their single “The Light,” using a real-time capture made in TheWaveVR — to over 1.3M views and climbing.
This is the beginning of the rise of the star VJ. Not the “video DJ” as in MTV days, but the “visual DJ” of immersive music experiences viewable in VR or across 2D screens anywhere.
In the same way Instagram empowered millions to become photographers with preset filters, gaming platforms are paving the way for visual creators to experiment in spatial and real-time art. Music releases of the future will be interpreted in 3D worlds by visual creators/VJs with rabid fanbases. These are the future Spike Jonze-es. Music discovery and cross-pollination will happen because people are fans of these artist-performers.
The best immersive music VJs will have a tremendous impact on music culture.
Thoughts, questions and feedback welcome from my fellow industry friends and/or music fans!