Powering The Next Generation Of Virtual Music Experiences

From Minecraft to the metaverse, digital concerts are emerging from diverse platforms.

The recent in-game Fortnite concert by Travis Scott, tied to a digital only revenue stream for music labels and artists as live concerts and festivals are put on hold for 2020, is turning the music industry’s eye towards the potential of virtual concerts. Let’s look at three of the biggest digital concerts held in 2020 so far, what this means for the music industry, and how we can take it a step further using VR. 

Block by Blockwest

On Saturday May 16th, Minecraft hosted the Block by Blockwest in-game music festival, produced by Philadelphia band Courier Club in partnership with the cloud platform Digital Ocean. Originally set for dates in April, the festival was postponed as servers crashed when attendees flocked online during and after Massive Attack’s opener. 

The Minecraft Music Festival was organized to provide an online festival experience for artists who’s tours were cancelled and for fans who missed out on seeing their favorite artists live. All proceeds from the event went to the CDC Foundation. Throughout the event, over 134K fans watched via live streams. 16K participated in the conversation via Discord, with another 5K attended in the Minecraft servers. By the end of the event, roughly $7600 had been raised. 

Block by Blockwest online tutorial

I attended the event live via its Twitch and YouTube stream. Just after 3pm PST, the concert began. Custom pixelated poster backdrops decorated each of the 3 stages to represent the artist streaming during that session. I couldn’t see distinct artist avatars on stage, however; I hope to see more prominent artist visibility in future events.

To celebrate the festival, there were large pixel blocks of fireworks and heart laser block beams. Each band’s session was a pre-recorded 20 minute session played through the server. Fans had free reign and were even able to coordinate impromptu mosh pits. 

just witnessed a wall of death happen in minecraft— jordan (@JordanUhl) May 16, 2020

Why the music industry cares

The Block by Blockwest music concert was well received by the Minecraft community. With 112 million unique monthly players, far above Fornite’s nearly 80 million unique monthly players, Minecraft’s playerbase is far from niche. While merch sales were not available in-game this time round, Courier Club manager D.J Sutera said they are looking to grow their team and further evolve upcoming events. 

As we look at Fortnite’s concert next, the in-game purchases and record-breaking streams show exactly what this in-game audience means for the music business. 

Travis Scott’s Astronomical Tour in Fortnite

April 23-25, Travis Scott’s Astronomical tour in Fortnite featured multiple showtimes for players around the globe, with each appearance lasting approximately ten minutes. 12 million unique players attended the first concert, with 27.7 million unique players attending in-game over the duration of the five mini-concerts. Players were able to attend via PC/Mac, Xbox, PlayStation, iOS, Android, and Nintendo Switch, making the event widely accessible to fans. 

In the Fortnite concert, players’ avatars experienced a range of land, space, and underwater environments where they could swim, dance, and perform additional non-combative movements. In this instance, the shooter games’ emotive dance moves (available as in-game purchases) could be used to vibe with the music rather than to taunt enemies as is customary. 

The South Korean boy band BTS and Jimmy Fallon Do the Fortnite Dance Challenge. These dance moves quickly became popular beyond the gaming community shortly after Fortnite’s launch in 2017. 

One nice surprise was the destruction of the stage that could be seen under construction at the Sweaty Sands beach in the days leading up to the concert. In the moment of the concert’s opening, the stage blew up to make way for bespoke visual effects, literally breaking the boundaries of standard live music productions. 

The Scottscover art was designed by prominent AR artist Kaws (Brian Donnely).To experience “The Scotts” in AR download the Acute Art app here.

Why the music industry cares

The Astronomical Tour attracted attention in the music industry for three main reasons; the number of attendees who participated, the commerce it developed for in-game purchases, and its promotion of Travis Scott’s new single The Scotts ft. Kid Kudi. Premiered in Fortnite, The Scotts entered the global Spotify chart at #1 with 7.45 millions streams, breaking Billie Eilish’s streaming record for single “No Time to Die” (7.167 million streams).

As we break away from the traditional format of a concert, music events are reaching a wider range of fans who are interested in new types of music experiences. In terms of the potential for artists to realize new streams of revenue, free-to-play game formats for singles and albums is a largely untapped market. Its preexisting fan base is already accustomed to spending money on in-game purchases, upgrades, and merch.

For now, creating a concert like Scott’s requires a serious team of developers. The process can take months to develop, said John Canning, executive producer at Digital Domain, while speaking to Pitchfork. It means that music labels that want to remain competitive will need to begin investing now if they hope to adapt and survive. For example, Sony Music is recruiting a team “dedicated to reimagining music through immersive media” that will leverage Sony Music’s catalog and impressive roster of artists to implement a new category of music experiences using the Unreal Engine.

Lately, we’ve focused on Facebook’s and Apple’s recent acquisitions of VR startups, but are major label acquisitions of immersive technology startups on the horizon?

May Day

Inspired by the success of Fortnite’s concert with DJ Marshmallow last year, the city of Helsinki partnered with VR studio ZOAN’s Burst Live technology platform to power a digital concert in the hopes of reinventing its annual May Day celebration that was cancelled this year. 

Attendees could watch the performance of JVG—the most streamed band in Finland—perform from the iconic Senate Square streamed live. They could also login via Zoan’s Burst Life platform to create an avatar and interact with the artists by dancing, waving, clapping, and performing other actions. 

“The 500 most active avatars were automatically picked to the virtual Senate Square, where the band could see them. The band – performing on a green screen  – had a huge screen in front of them that showed the virtual Senate Square and the avatars, so they could interact and throw in comments like “cool hat Iloinen Tanssija in the front row” or “Put your hands up!,”” said Laura Olin, Chief Operating Officer & Partner at ZOAN, via email correspondence. 

One attendee reported that while the avatars were visible to the artists, the first person POV of the avatars was controlled remotely. Only at certain points were other avatars visible to one another on screen, and gestures were also invisible to viewers, but transmitted to the artists.

To integrate the artists into the 3D model of Helsinki, JVG performed in front of a green screen, with special effects on the virtual stage. This option positioned the artists against a backdrop without risking high-bandwidth 3D live streamed volumetric capture that is still very much in R&D for live events of this scale. 

Olin said the next concert will take place mid-June, with artists to be announced soon with Finish and international partners. “Our grand idea with Burst Live is to create a feeling of being there together for both the artists and audience, and overall this pilot was a great success. We believe that this kind of virtual experience has a huge potential even after the worst COVID-19 times are over,” she said. 

ZOAN decided not to broadcast this event in 360 for attendees in virtual reality, however it is an integration they are planning to add in the future. “We thought that it is important to show that you can create cool content with virtual technologies and reach a wide audience, not only gamers or VR enthusiasts,” said Olin. 

Why the music industry cares

Over 700,000 viewers tuned in to watch the concert stream live while another 150,000 created avatars to become active participants in the festival; a total of 10 million avatar interactions were recorded over the course of the performance. Using Meltwater’s statistics, the advertising value of the event was reported to be € 4.3 million (~ $4.7M USD)

As a multi-medium compatible event, May Day signifies the potential for massive live events to scale to include attendees from all over the world via desktop or virtual reality. After all, why sell just 7,000 tickets to a festival when you can potentially sell 700,000? A week after the gig JVG’s album was back to no. 1 on the Finnish charts.

Leveling up with VR

Minecraft, Fortnite, and May Day were chosen as case studies to demonstrate the current scale, and potential of digital and VR music experiences. Many media outlets described the above as “virtual” and “immersive”, but we are still waiting to see what this means for the first wave of VR concerts synchronized with actual real world performances. 

For music fans and gamers alike, attending a concert in VR is at minimum a $400 ticket for hardware, plus the cost of an event ticket and additional purchases. An experience has to be truly phenomenal to warrant this investment from non-gaming music fans, and those who want to enjoy a special event like Helsinki’s May Day. Companies and virtual event organizers will need to offer far more than basic 360 pre-recorded concerts if they ever hope to convince fans to invest in VR hardware for the express purpose of seeing their favorite artists perform remotely.

So how exactly do we level up?

5G and virtual music concerts

On the technology front, we are quickly arriving at the ability to combine and synchronize real world events and the motions of users within virtual environments. Real-time interactivity requires massive amounts of graphical rendering processes. In a split rendering process, rendering is shared between the VR headset and the edge cloud to augment the latency-sensitive on-device tracking systems. 

As 5G infrastructure becomes more widely available, rendering can be done entirely within the cloud to deliver a high-quality, low-latency experience to users. This will better allow games and 3D spaces to become platforms for full-fledged virtual reality concerts.

Business, not as usual 

With audiences stuck at home, businesses are looking into new digital models, and the music industry is exploring one of its biggest pivots ever as they turn an eye to gaming and virtual platforms.

The music industry is founded on live and social events, making multiplayer and social virtual reality a ripe playground for your next virtual concert experience. In light of what is to come, Fortnite is teasing fans with their “Party Royale” island dedicated to non-combative amusement. Will the next era of gaming be defined by festivals rather than FPS (first-person shooter) games? The virtual world is full of opportunity.

Image Credit: Zoan

About the Scout

Anne McKinnon

Anne McKinnon is an independent XR consultant and writer. She is actively engaged in innovation at the intersection of music, the arts, gaming and tech. Anne is US project lead for the band Miro Shot.

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