Will extended reality kill live music shows – or make them even better?

Clovis McEvoy
March 20, 2023
“We are setting out to empower artists to expand their reach” — James Lee, Strategy and Operations Manager, AmazeVR

Live performance is a $10bn industry that attracts 30 million concertgoers every year. Is the metaverse going to kill it? Clovis McEvoy talks with some of the best builders in extended reality about making concerts accessible, giving power back to artists, and creating opportunities limited only by imagination.

The power to reshape perception, fool the senses, and remake reality — this is the shining promise of the long-foretold virtual revolution. Yet, over the last year, the hype surrounding metaverse technologies has almost turned to ridicule as awkward avatars, virtual harassment, and the prospect of un-skippable ads beaming directly into your eyeballs has dimmed enthusiasm.

However, much of the tech world’s disappointment with XR — the bundle of augmented and virtual reality hardware that makes up extended reality (and ultimately, a metaverse) — stems not from a failure of the medium, but from a failure of collective imagination. The expansion of the metaverse has been stymied to date because the vision driving much of its development is quintessentially boring. Buying real estate in digital suburbs? Snore. Virtual office meetings? Snooze. If you want to see real innovation, you need to look to the arts.

Whether it’s mind-bending music performances, experiential installations, or entire artistic worlds, the metaverse is offering creators new mediums for expression, new career paths, and new audiences.

Companies like AmazeVR are seizing this opportunity with both hands. Founded in 2015, they turned heads last year with a boundary-pushing virtual concert tour which combined live-action footage of critically acclaimed rapper Megan Thee Stallion with interactive virtual environments.

Last year, Megan Thee Stallion performed a groundbreaking concert in the metaverse, or rather “Hottieverse”, with AmazeVR.

James Lee, AmazeVR’s Strategy and Operations Manager, says this distinctive approach lets fans experience a level of intimacy that would have previously been reserved for the most exclusive VIP ticket holders. “Our proprietary technology puts a premium on the realistic rendering of the artist, rather than an avatar approach,” he says. “We want our concertgoers to feel like they’ve truly seen their favourite artists up close and personal — an experience out of reach for most consumers.”

While Megan Thee Stallion was captured in ultra-realistic 8K resolution, the stage design team were liberated to conceptualise the concert space in decidedly unrealistic ways. “The premise of VR is to stretch the limits of reality,” James says. “Once we realised our design need not be rooted in reality, and that we were limited only to our imaginations, our VR concert venues began to take the form of interactive, often fantastical, virtual spaces.” 

“Our design need not be rooted in reality.” 

James Lee, Strategy and Operations Manager, AmazeVR

The result is a multi-sensory spectacle, with each song in Megan Thee Stallion’s setlist getting its own unique virtual venue, replete with lighting, FX, stagecraft, and gamified interactions that would be impossible in the real world.

Not only is VR opening up new artistic frontiers for live music, it may also help to address a pressing concern facing the industry — the onerous cost of physical touring. In 2022, a number of high-profile artists and groups were forced to cancel their planned tours due to financial barriers. James believes this is an area where VR may offer new ways for musicians and fans to connect.

Behind the scenes of filming an AmazeVR concert, featuring hip-hop duo Ceraadi.

“Traditional concert tours have many limitations and can be quite prohibitive for many artists,” he says, noting the high upfront costs artists and their teams are forced to commit to. “Furthermore, they are time consuming, with rehearsals, travel, the concerts themselves, and tour schedules that can last for the better part of a year or more.”

Meanwhile, live music fans are increasingly faced with exorbitant prices, ticket scarcity, or exclusion simply because they do not live in a city where artists are likely to tour. “Concerts aren’t accessible for a large proportion of the world,” James points out. “We are setting out to empower artists to expand their reach and become more accessible to their fans around the globe.”

As the price of VR wearables continue to fall, AmazeVR is looking ahead to a future where virtual music experiences are a foundational part of the music industry. “Just as an artists’ album release might involve a deliberate rollout of teasers, singles, music videos, and tours,” James says. “We envision that VR concerts will become part and parcel of artists’ release strategies.”

One of the company’s next projects is a VR concert with aespa, a K-pop girl group who recently partnered with web3 marketplace The Dematerialised to release a metaverse fashion collection. The first K-pop act to sign to Warner Music, aespa made their global VR concert premiere with AmazeVR at this month’s SXSW. This “trailblazing new category of entertainment,” as James puts it, forms the basis of a distinct artistic medium, though he goes out of his way, as a musician himself, to make clear that the company is not looking to supplant the traditional live music experience.

“We have a deep appreciation for concerts and understand that they are havens of catharsis and euphoria — we’re not looking to replace the existing norm,” he explains. “Rather, we envision that our platform will complement the industry as it exists today, if not become an indispensable part of it.”

As the ubiquity of virtual and augmented reality music increases, artists will need access to high-powered toolkits with which to build their own experiences. Those sorts of toolkits are already here. Alex Kane, CEO and founder of Volta XR, tells me “real art comes when people aren’t only doing it for the profit motive. It comes when they’re doing it because they’re genuinely interested in making something new, novel, and expressive. That just isn’t going to happen until the tools are accessible — and so that’s what we’re building.”

“We are setting out to empower artists to expand their reach.”

James Lee, Strategy and Operations Manager, AmazeVR

An audio-visual Swiss army knife, Volta’s strength comes from its easy-to-use array of visual effects that sync instantly to music and adapt to both 2D screens and XR devices, empowering independent artists to add a touch of spectacle to their performances — be it on Twitch or in a concert hall. 

Founded in 2019 and attracting early investments from EDM luminaries like deadmau5 and Richie Hawtin, the company’s free-to-use software has rapidly gained prominence with bedroom producers and stadium fillers alike.

“It’s an opportunity for people to make a meaningful income from streaming.”

— Alex Kane, CEO and founder, Volta XR

In addition to making their tools free, Volta is also getting ready to roll out a pioneering set of features that will give fans a new way to interact with live music and provide artists with an additional revenue stream. “People will be able to interact with an artist’s live stream and have an effect on the content in real time,” says Alex. “Type the word ‘boom’ into the chat and there will be a big psychedelic explosion, or artists can even give fans full direct control over the visual effects that accompany the performance.”

Crucially for artists, Alex says performers will be able to embed e-commerce tools into their shows. “If people want to make it rain disco balls, maybe that costs $1, or, if people want to trigger a ripple around the whole screen, perhaps that costs $2. You as an artist can choose what it costs and will immediately get paid as audiences interact with your performance.

Volta XR’s free-to-use software has rapidly gained prominence with bedroom producers and stadium fillers alike.

“It’s an opportunity for people to actually make a meaningful income from streaming performances,” Alex continues. “Right now, things are still very stratified and the people making $70,000 a year streaming to Twitch are few and far between. We want to bring that barrier to entry down.”

As the world waits on the long-rumoured release of next gen XR devices from industry titans like Apple and Samsung, Alex says VoltaXR is currently focusing on “live streaming and hybrid live events.” The company’s ultimate goal, however, is to become the “de facto paintbrush” for digital realities.

“People will be able to have an effect on the content in real time.”

— Alex Kane, CEO and founder, Volta XR

“Our ambition is to be the biggest user-generated mixed reality content tool in the world,” Alex says. “People are starting to use the tools right now and they are helping define what makes a good 3D mixed reality experience, and what makes good artist-fan interactions.”

By empowering artists to reach global audiences in new ways, and by democratising the creative tools of the metaverse, tools like AmazeVR and VoltaXR are helping to jumpstart a new artform, one that merges music, colour, shape, space, and interactivity. “It’s a synaesthetic relationship between what the artist is doing and what the audience is experiencing,” Alex says. “You can imagine the ‘drop’ coming in a song, but instead of using a keyboard, the musician can physically grab the bass, stretch it, twist it, throw it and all of that is reflected in what the audience sees.”

As creative communities grow and iterate around the hardware and software of the metaverse, we may yet reach a place where experience itself can be played as an instrument. “It’s applied existentialism,” says Alex. “You can build a world, and you can decide all the things that go into it. For me, that was the ‘aha!’ moment the realisation that, here, I really am only limited by my imagination.”

K-pop girl group aespa made their global VR concert premiere with AmazeVR at this month’s SXSW.
K-pop girl group aespa made their global VR concert premiere with AmazeVR at this month’s SXSW.
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Clovis McEvoy
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Clovis is a New Zealand born writer, journalist, and educator working at the meeting point between music and technological innovation. He is also an active composer and sound artist, and his virtual reality and live-electronic works have been shown in over fifteen countries around the world.