How COVID Changed the Virtual World of Music
A world pandemic, a global recession, extreme weather, lockdowns and social isolation—2020 will go down in history as a year of many, many unprecedented tragedies. And for anyone who consumes or produces music, the past year of shuttered venues and cancelled concert calendars add an extra layer of disappointment and grief to the mix.
But while the past 12 months have been a complete dud for the music industry, a wise man somewhere did once say that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”—and we can all agree that despite all the hard losses, live music as we know it is certainly not dead.
To the contrary, we have some pretty good indication that it will come back even stronger, if not from completely different forms and directions than we might expect. Indeed, the downfalls of this past year may have been a blessing in disguise in the way that it’s forced creators to get even more creative with the way they perform and share their work.
It’s no big revelation to say that technology and music have always moved together, hand-in-hand; from the first prehistoric drums made of animal skin and bone, to today’s software synthesizers and sequencers, the art of sound is almost wholly dependent upon its tools. Every decade of human history produces scores of new inventions at an exponential pace. More and more, though, these innovations have left the realm of music-making or even recording itself, and crossed fully into revolutionising the way we share music as it happens live.
We’re not simply talking about DJs live-streaming from their bedrooms either, although the practice of live-streaming itself—once looked down at as a passing gimmick and unworthy of serious investment—has proven to be a profitable mainstay. What other artists have looked at doing from an even more future-proof standpoint is to engage with their fan base at a more intimate, more interactive, and more customisable level, through the worlds of virtual reality, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence. Here’s a sampler of what the future of music brings to us today.
The courtship between tech and artists has been a long game, and it’s now truly reaching a fever pitch. Whole new worlds are literally opening up to these partnerships; worlds where avatars gather in alternate realities, wearing virtual festival outfits, and the set list is chosen based on real-time sentiment analysis of the crowd. Imagine joining your favourite artist onstage, standing next to them, or going backstage, all from home. Imagine adjusting the volume or bass through your headphones as the artist performs so you can hear your favourite verses with extra clarity or oomph.
Tidal has cemented partnerships with Facebook Oculus and the Sensorium Corporation to work towards doing just that, producing VR concerts for the likes of Snoop Dogg, Charli XCX, David Guetta, Armin Van Buuren, and Carl Cox. While the technology is still in early development and comes nowhere near as a substitute for real life, it’s only a short matter of time before they do.
What would a piece about disruptive music be without the mention of Burning Man? Especially given that the past 10 years of Burner history has been plagued by high-earning Tech Bros™ paying their way into the famously non-capitalist desert experience, one could say it was simply a matter of time before the event adopted some habits from Silicon Valley. This year, the community announced “the emergence of a Multiverse” in lieu of a physical event; they even organised “Build Weeks” in the leadup to Burn Week (borrowing terminology not dissimilar to that of a software sprint). The result, though, is an impressive glimpse into the future of community-organised festivals, with virtual sculptures, camps, and performances spread across eight virtual universes, all accessible by a simple mobile or desktop device.
Grand Theft Auto
While most clubs were running dry throughout 2020, Rockstar Games was busy booking some of the biggest names in the DJ game, including the elusive Detroit jockey who goes by the moniker of Moodymann. Spinning an original set of his own tracks as well as techno and house cuts from his hometown, the “live” performance was accessible to players of the most recent update of Grand Theft Auto Online: The Cayo Perico Heist. Players can even dance or get table service in the club's VIP section, and the “club night” was also recorded and streamed by electronic music Bible Resident Advisor, as if it had been an IRL event. Previous Grand Theft Auto alumni also include Palms Trax, Danny Brown, and the Black Madonna, showing us that simple nights out at the virtual club are just as viable as virtual big-ticket festivals.
Block by Blockwest
Grand Theft Auto wasn’t the only gaming platform to capitalise on the live music drought. Minecraft hosted their own twist on South by Southwest by partnering with cloud platform Digital Ocean, and presented a lineup that included Massive Attack and Pussy Riot. Although pre-recorded, close to 140,000 attendees flocked in via Minecraft, Twitch, and Youtube, crashing the opening act in the process. Whether just a COVID-era novelty or a repeatable phenomenon, time will tell; but apparently streaming punk music as 1.8-block-tall pixelated characters can raise US$500,000 for the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), as well as make way for the invention of the world’s first virtual mosh pit.
A musician’s persona has always been equally important as the music they produce, and the online world has given creators unprecedented and increasing control over the image, channels, and mediums in which they present themselves. Forget shows, festivals, or live-streams—one artist that has been significantly pushing the boundaries of digital representation in 2020 (or even in the decade well before that) is none other than the de-facto agent provocateur of today’s dark experimental music world, Arca. Embracing levels of intimacy and interaction that even her famously interactive live shows can’t compete with, the Venezuelan-born artist took to Twitch in May 2020 to launch DIVA_EXPERIMENTAL FM, “an evermorphing psychoconstruct / music, gaming, performance & chat”. Eerie vocals, a lo-fi laptop cam, and an Ableton Live view usually overlap each other while Arca creates impromptu composition on-screen, inviting viewers to join the songwriting process.
Another audio-visual artist who gave us a taste of the power of virtual musical worlds this past year is Zora Jones and partner Sinjin Hawke. Having dedicated the previous half decade to creating an AR avatar named Zubotnik, as well as virtual event space Fractal Fantasy, the Austrian creator couldn’t have chosen a more apt time to put on a virtual concert, aptly titled dreamRooms. Bringing the chaos and euphoria of real-world clubs into the online world during our current age of the second sci-fi zeitgeist, her early-2000s sounds are perfectly reflected in the visuals
The virtual world isn’t just upending organised events or scheduled shows. It’s also extended music’s reach beyond performances as we know it, and is increasingly weaving the work of artists into the organic fabric of our daily lives. The sounds we put on while we work, commute, exercise, and eat are all being revolutionised at lightning speed by the advent of artificial intelligence—and now it’s also creeping into our bedtimes.
Canadian songstress Grimes, known for her sci-fi meets art-pop persona, has (perhaps unsurprisingly) launched a joint project in the fall with Endel Pacific, a technology company that “creates personalised environments to reduce stress, improve sleep, and boost productivity”. The result, called AI Lullaby and labeled as a "limited edition sleep soundscape," features original vocals and music by Grimes that respond in real-time to the listener's location, weather, and natural light levels.
Inspired by her experience as a new mother and her interest in “humane and spiritual technology”, the app helps both newborns and their parents adapt to a healthier sleep cycle. It’s also an experiment that blurs the lines between music being traditionally produced as singles or albums for consumption by a record label, and that of music being produced as soundtracks and modular parts of the digital tools that increasingly pervade our lives.
A question now as we look forward to a return to “normal” life, is: can technology save music, and will music still need saving after all this is over? Even if the answer is “no”, we can all agree that a digital presence will always play an increasingly heavy role in how we experience music.
Cover Credit: Possessed Photography / Unsplash
Writer | Cynthia Chou
Cynthia is a Canadian writer and recent transplant to Berlin. She also likes to paint and sing and eat and drink and stuff while traveling the world.