Rebecca Castellani

By Rebecca Castellani

The times they are a-changing, but even before COVID-19, the music industry was on the precipice of revolution.

When the rise of streaming razed the album-centric business model, it forced a complete infrastructural remodel. Instead of touring to support album sales, musicians started producing albums to support tours—Ariana Grande released two in the six months before her 2019 Sweetener Tour. Merch sales and fan experiences became more significant. Taylor Swift concerts come complete with interactive, light-up bracelets. One Direction’s Niall Horan charged some poor girl $658 for a meet-and-greet.

But with tours indefinitely on hold and the future of large-scale gatherings uncertain, the music industry must once more reinvent itself if it is to survive.

A Brief History of AR in Music

“The concept of virtual concerts is at least 15 years old,” explains music-tech journalist Cherie Hue to Music Business Worldwide, “and was first popularized by Second Life, a world-building platform that many artists and labels leveraged in the early 2000s to build their own concert venues and connect with fans in avatar form.” Despite this long association, the music industry has historically used augmented reality (AR) as an auxiliary tool for one-off occasions—think the hologram of Tupac closing Coachella, Marshmello’s Fortnite concert, or Maroon 5 promoting their single “Girls Like You” via an AR karaoke experience on SnapChat. The ever-innovative U2 pioneered an AR-optimized concert with their Experience + Innocence Tour in 2018, but the elements remained decorative and minimally interactive; in a review of the concert titled “Augmented Reality May Not Be Useful, But U2 Is Changing Concert Experiences With It,” Don’t Panic Labs prophetically declared AR a “solution-in-search-of-a-problem.” Even Live Nation, the grand overlord of entertainment, has failed to use its “initial suite of AR products” to do much more than promote the 2020 Hyundai Sonata. But that’s all about to change.

Augmenting the New Reality of the Music Industry

The prolonged reality of social distancing has labels, promoters, venues, and home-bound artists alike looking to virtual reality as a viable alternative to live experiences. Tech platforms are answering the call.

For the past two years, MelodyVR has quietly worked with over 850 musicians to amass a virtual library of live shows. “As well as being able to watch from a position in the audience, users can view the concerts as if they were backstage, behind the sound booth, or even on stage with the band,” reports CNN Business Evolved. “This year, MelodyVR plans to begin offering live streaming via a paid-for virtual ticket....” Entertainment technology company Wave has created a platform for interactive concerts using “cutting-edge broadcast technology that transforms artists into digital avatars in real-time, casting them onto a virtual stage built with stunning visuals and customized interactions that fit each artist’s unique style.” While Facebook’s multi-player platform Oculus Venues gives viewers the option to watch virtual concerts and “meet other fans in the crowd, or watch in solo mode from a box seat high above.”

One major problem with AR—the expense and obscurity of headsets—was addressed by none other than Google with the launch of Cardboard, simple fold-out viewers capable of turning any smartphone into an AR-optimized device.

More Than Just Performance

Beyond the virtual concert space, technology companies are providing unique opportunities to connect fans and artists from the safety of home. GigRev offers musicians direct-to-fan marketing with the option to create premium (paid) content through a subscription model, whereas FanFlex puts the fans in charge by enabling them to purchase holds on hypothetical tickets and influence a band’s routing. On the merchandise side, Fanaply has joined the growing ranks of blockchain companies using non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to sell “digital collectibles for the world’s biggest music fans.” Unable to rely on revenue from tours, musicians now depend on these emerging technologies to make money.

Crisis Creates Change—Mobile in Music

As life goes back to normal, don’t expect the music industry to slow its adoption of technology. The demand for contactless transactions has never been higher and self-enrollment technology like radio-frequency identification (RFID) bracelets and facial recognition services (Blink Identity) are poised to rebuild the ticket industry. Peex, Splashmob, and Marble AR believe the future of live entertainment is a completely customized experience from personal sound mixing to unique mobile experiences curated by artists in real-time. With the current crisis encouraging such nimble innovation, it is the right time to join music’s virtual revolution.

Rebecca Castellani is a freelance writer, marketing consultant, and content creator based in Connecticut.