VR wants to save the live music business, one avatar at a time

An increasing number of startups are looking to reinvent live music in virtual reality. But not everyone in the music industry believes the technology is ready for it.

Reggie Watts in Altspace VR

Reggie Watts has been doing VR gigs since 2016. Now, many more artists are following in his tracks.

Image: Altspace

One of the first times Reggie Watts performed in VR, he promptly crashed the system.

"We got a bunch of people to sing 'Om' simultaneously, and all te audio input just fried one of the servers," Watts said. That was in 2016, and the comedian and musician, also known as the band leader of "The Late Late Show with James Corden," was playing a couple of shows in Altspace, a then-nascent social VR platform run by a small Bay Area startup.

"It was so much fun," Watts told Protocol. "I had such a good time."

But those early days seem like a distant memory. VR headsets have become a lot more affordable, easier to use and popular; Microsoft acquired Altspace in 2017 and since made it a key part of its social VR strategy; and the pandemic has forced the entire music industry to search for forms of live events. Watts himself returned to Altspace eight times in 2020, and artists such as The Roots, Billie Eilish and Major Lazer all played VR gigs in recent months.

Still, some insiders question whether the industry is ready to wholeheartedly embrace VR.

What it takes to stream a concert in VR

One of the companies at the center of the VR concert world is Supersphere. The Los Angeles-based startup began livestreaming VR content over three years ago, and has since broadcasted more than 150 VR concerts and events with artists including Post Malone, Kid Cudi, Lewis Capaldi and many more. In fact, anyone who has ever tuned in to a concert on Facebook's live VR events platform, Venues, has likely seen a show produced by Supersphere.

The company was founded by CEO Lucas Wilson and executive producer Doug Allenstein, two industry veterans with decades of combined work experience in digital media and live entertainment. That experience has paid off, allowing them to seamlessly add VR video capture to live concerts of major-label artists. "You show up on the morning of the show, you set up, you're ready for sound check," Wilson said. "You do a sound check and then you're ready to go when the show runs. You broadcast, you're done, you load up. It's a one-day operation that you have to fit into their plan. They don't fit into your plan."

Part of Supersphere's proposition to companies like Facebook is that it offers end-to-end deals, which encompass everything from acquiring the rights to producing the actual gig. "They don't want to deal with artists and label management and all that, it's not their core business," Wilson said.

Steve Aoki VR stage For Steve Aoki's recent VR gig, Supersphere built an elaborate virtual stage.Image: Supersphere

The startup's role got even more elevated since March 2020, when the pandemic shut down the entire live events business. With concert venues closed, Supersphere quickly pivoted to produce VR-exclusive events from scratch. "We are now acting almost as a promoter," Wilson explained. "We are reaching out to artists. We are creating the production. We are creating the reason for them to do a show."

To pull this off, Supersphere had to reinvent a lot of bits and pieces. "We hired an epidemiologist to help write production protocols to keep people safe," Wilson said. "We built our broadcast kits based on iPhones and commonly-available technology." The company sent those kits to artists to record from their home studios, and produced VR-exclusive events with stars including Offset and Young Thug. "We ramped that up pretty quickly," Wilson said.

Supersphere's founders fully expect that people may want to take a break from virtual shows once they're able to see artists in person again. However, they don't expect to be out of work anytime soon. "Live shows are going to return with a vengeance," Wilson said. "But the virtual world is not going to go away."

One reason for Wilson's optimism: Even before COVID-19, concerts were only accessible to a small subset of fans. "There's still a huge, huge group of people that can't be at the Billie Eilish show in Madrid," he said. For those fans, VR still represents a viable option to feel transported to a concert without having to physically be there.

VR is still small and dwarfed by gaming

Growing the audience of a live show beyond the walls of a venue: That's an idea that the music industry has been mulling over for years. But with live music generating an estimated $26 billion a year, there was little urgency to innovate — until COVID hit.

The pandemic brought the live events industry worldwide to a halt, leading almost overnight to a shift in attitude, according to AEG Presents Head of Digital Partnerships Marisol Segal: "We went from not even thinking about charging for tickets to a livestream to 'Should we charge for tickets to a livestream on a regular basis when we come back?'"

Live music streaming took off in 2020, with musicians taking to Twitch, YouTube and even Zoom to reach their fans. Platforms like Bandsintown saw listings for paid livestreams grow by more than 20 times, and music industry market research company MIDia estimates that fans paid $600 million last year for ticketed online events.

When the pandemic subsides, live events companies may want to build on those numbers. "I am a believer that there is a hybrid model when we come back to in-person events," Segal said. "There is a segment of people who can't buy a ticket to a show for one reason or another. Maybe they don't live in the city where that tour's ever going to go through. Maybe they can't afford a full-price ticket. Or maybe they're not 21 yet."

In anticipation of a move to such a hybrid model, Segal has been inundated with a flood of pitches from livestreaming startups, hawking anything from social live events to full-blown immersive experiences. "There are 10,000 livestreaming companies that started in the past six months," she joked.

A fair number of these startup pitches focus on VR, a medium that's not new to the events giant. Facebook struck a deal with AEG Presents in 2018 to stream a number of concerts to its users, starting with a Vance Joy gig in May of that year. That experience was a bit of a reality check for the company, Segal recalled, showing how small the early-adopter crowd really was. "Our business is a business of scale. It's not a business of one-offs," she said. "With VR, it's not quite there yet for non-gaming content."

The live VR events space did have its fair share of ups and downs over the years. NextVR, which struck a five-year partnership with concert promoter Live Nation in 2016, shut down operations after it was acquired by Apple in 2020. U.K.-based MelodyVR signaled ambitions to broaden its scope by acquiring music-streaming service Napster last year. And virtual concert startup The Wave XR is shutting down its VR apps at the end of this month.

"The barrier of entrance is just much lower" on livestreaming platforms, said Wave COO Jarred Kennedy during a recent music industry fireside chat. Going forward, the startup is focused on producing shows that are being distributed on YouTube as well as via its own website, where it is adding interactive elements for viewers. "Will we be back in VR one day? Sure, we expect that we will be," Kennedy said. "But right now, we feel really good about being in this interactive video space."

Segal echoed those remarks. "I think that one day, VR might be a thing," she said. "Absolutely." However, at this moment in time, less immersive and more accessible platforms may still have a leg up on VR headsets. Segal specifically pointed to Fortnite and Roblox, two social gaming platforms that hosted concerts with millions of attendees in 2020. "The metaverse gaming stuff is just infinitely bigger," she said. "Gaming is, quite honestly, bigger than all of it."

Game engine environments can make VR more immersive

Thanks to tens of millions of current-generation game consoles and hundreds of millions of phones, gaming isn't just bigger; watching a concert in Fortnite can also be just as immersive as attending a show in VR. Facebook's Venues, which is arguably the biggest live events platform for VR content, regularly streams 180-degree video content that fans watch from a kind of virtual skybox. Thanks to avatars and voice chat, the experience does feel social — but the artists themselves are very much removed from the action, and watching them is a bit more like viewing a live event together with friends on TV than attending it in person.

Social VR platforms like Altspace are a lot more immersive, as they allow artists to appear as avatars and react to their live audience. Watts even donned a motion-tracking suit for some of his shows, which allowed his avatar to have more natural body movements. He also used a headset with passthrough video that allowed him to still play his instruments in VR, and at times he struggled holding both a VR controller and a microphone. "It's a little clunky," he said. "But in general, I just rolled with the awkwardness of it."

Supersphere has taken some steps to merge traditional concerts with these more immersive 3D spaces. The startup has developed a production platform called ArcRunner that allows artists to perform in front of a green screen and then create their stage show from scratch, complete with virtual lights and other effects. "It's a completely different experience of a show," Wilson said.

In November, Major Lazer used ArcRunner to re-create the stage design of its canceled 2020 show for a special performance for Oculus Venues. Two months before that, Steve Aoki relied on ArcRunner for a colorful psychedelic show, complete with a floating DJ booth. In the future, Supersphere wants to use the platform to beam artists into 3D spaces that their audience can explore more freely, including digital versions of famous concert venues. "We've done Lidar and photogrammetry [to scan] spaces, and we can re-create those spaces," Wilson said. "We're also re-creating some spaces that no longer exist, [like] Studio 54."

Redpill VR party Redpill VR's virtual parties don't look like your typical festival.Image: Redpill VR

Los Angeles-based startup Redpill VR is taking things even further. The company has been working on an immersive platform that turns music festivals into magical forests full of glowing orbs and floating bubbles that attendees can explore freely with their avatars. Focused primarily on DJ events, Redpill has also been scanning performers to turn them into high-resolution 3D avatars, which can be controlled with sensors strapped to a DJ's body.

But Redpill VR isn't just about virtual spaces. The company recently turned a 5,500-square-foot space on Sunset Boulevard into a studio capable of hosting events with up to 200 people. The goal of the facility, which was slated to open right before COVID hit, is to trial a unique combination of live, in-person events and VR livestreams. To make the experience worthwhile for both, the company added a 144-square-foot 3D LED wall, capable of showing the same immersive graphics that VR viewers tuning in from afar get to see in their headsets.

"You are performing in the physical world and in the digital world at the same time," said Redpill VR CEO Laurent Scallie. "You can get the best of both worlds."

Scallie, who has been working on a variety of VR technologies for more than two decades, readily admitted that the medium may not be able to compete with traditional livestreaming or gaming platforms just yet. However, he suggested that next-generation headsets and high-resolution content streamed via technologies like 5G could change that in the not-too-distant future. "We're probably a couple years away from the iPhone moment of VR," he said.

At that point, VR could become a key part of how we consume live music, and a way to deal with the ever-increasing costs of festivals and other live events.

"Reality will become luxury," Scallie said, arguing that people may only go out to consume live music two or three times a year. "The rest of the time, it comes to you," he said.

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