In the line for the concert snaking around a residential block in south London, it seemed like I was the only person without blue hair. We were queuing for a “live” concert by Japanese hologram popstar Hatsune Miku, who has a loyal following among J-pop fans the world over. I was curious to see how a virtual musician, appearing as a computer-generated image projected onto a glass screen, would translate to the live experience of a concert hall with a real, breathing audience.
As the curtain rose on the visual of the turquoise-haired Miku, I saw she was flanked by a real band of musicians, tasked with playing along with her pre-recorded vocals. Their presence enhanced the feeling of a live, human experience, as did the surrounding crowd of screaming fans, many dressed in elaborate cosplay. Every audience member clutched a glow stick which changed colours at the press of a button. Though we were not told, the fans knew that each song had its own colour scheme and they should switch their glow sticks accordingly, from teal to hot pink to slime green. Among this crowd of enthusiasts I felt like a novice, always clumsily changing my glow stick a beat behind the rest.
Though it was a simple idea, these glow sticks worked hard to ground us in a concert which might otherwise have felt weightless and inauthentic, as if we were simply watching a prerecorded video. We were bonded by shared action, responding to the show. Though I knew Miku would continue dancing and singing even if the room was empty, it somehow felt like our participation was necessary to keep the show afloat. The crowd was an essential part of this concert experience, blurring the lines between the virtual and physical worlds.
After the pandemic struck all live music was called off for the best part of a year, even those featuring COVID-resistant virtual popstars. This triggered a steady flow of livestreams and virtual concert experiences of varying quality levels. Some of the most successful were not interactive at all—Dua Lipa and BTS both performed ticketed live stream concerts to real life audiences in their hundreds of thousands, and fans were happy to sit back on their sofas and simply watch.
Yet in the growing trend of virtual concerts, where musicians are rendered as avatars in a digital, video game-like space, interactivity is crucial. Watching a computer-generated singer can be off-putting to technophobes, and lacks the vital quality of human spontaneity even for seasoned gamers. To compensate for this loss, digital event producers need to provide an extra feature that casts audiences as more than observers in the digital world. This secret ingredient is interactivity, one of the most essential components in generating immersion; something passive media such as film, TV and books cannot offer.
‘Twitch gives musicians interactive features which makes audiences feel part of an online community—no longer a nameless viewer but a superfan whose presence and support really matters’
As live concerts return at the tail-end of the pandemic and music fans—desperate for human contact and analogue cultural experiences—flock back to venues, virtual concerts will have to push further with their interactivity in order to remain relevant.
Platforms such as Twitch already give musicians a suite of interactive functions to keep audiences engaged enough to watch their streams for hours on end. These include options to give donations, talk in chat boxes, or send emotes and images that flash across the screen. Artists often run Q&A sessions, quizzes and production tutorials which make audiences feel part of an online community—they are no longer a nameless viewer but a superfan whose presence and support really matters.
Virtual concerts, which use digital avatar versions of musicians, have only begun exploring the foothills of interactivity. In Wave shows featuring The Weeknd and Lindsey Stirling, viewers could vote on graphics for the videos or have their messages appear on-screen to every fan at home. Over on the island of Fortnite, attendees could run around Travis Scott’s concert space and even jump on his shoes—a small concession to interactivity, but a meaningful one nonetheless. The huge viewership of YouTube reaction videos to Scott’s concert proves how much value players add simply by choosing what to look at and commenting on what they see.
Many early adopters of virtual concerts are used to a high degree of interactivity from video games and VR technology. When they are in a digital world but cannot interact meaningfully, it feels like an impoverished experience. On PlayStation 5 sci-fi shooter Returnal, everything in the game responds to your presence—your controller vibrates softly as the rain falls, tendrils of alien plants swoon after you as you navigate the forests, and every gunshot sends out an arc of light that trails after you. Players feel deeply immersed because they are the epicentre of the virtual world. At every turn, the importance of their presence is underlined.
‘The promise of a virtual concert is that an artist will take us by the digital hand and lead us into a fantastical world of their creative vision—and we are not there yet.’
Yet those same gamers have noticed that interactivity in virtual concerts leaves much to be desired. In the future they will want to communicate with artists one-on-one, to whisper to the stranger next to them in the crowd without having to use a chat box, even to jump onstage and dance with their favourite stars, perhaps singing a few lines into their microphone for all the world to hear. The promise of a virtual music experience is that an artist will take us by the digital hand and lead us into a fantastical interactive world of their creative vision—and we are not there yet.
Part of the reason for this is that this technology is time-consuming to build, particularly when it’s only used for a one-off event. This is why Fortnite has gaps of a year or more between its major virtual concerts, filling in the empty schedule with smaller, less ambitious shows from the likes of J Balvin and Dominic Fike. Yet the investment of time and resources will make a good return for the company that finally cracks the code, which is able to welcome music fans to become not just audience members but active participants—vital storytellers and collaborators in the infinite virtual world.
Image credit: Hatsune Miku, Crypton Future Media / Returnal, PlayStation and Housemarque Games