November 6, 2020

Live Music. Virtual Audience.

By

Mike Wiebe

I am trying to figure out how to perform in this pandemic. Not only I'm I trying to perform basic human behavior that has started slipping away from being isolated for so long, but I also want to be onstage. I am a performer. These past 7 or 8 months is the longest period of time in the last 25 years, in which I have not participated in some sort of live performance. I’ve got a void that requires attention from strangers, and I need to figure out how to fill this chasm, ASAP.

“Live” concerts have changed. I’ve watched several bands stream live shows. Bands that I really like but the lack of noise between songs is deafening. The quiet room mic audio buzz between songs during The Dickies stream, on Facebook Live just felt weird. For all it’s weirdness, it still was nice to see something though.

There was no audience there. It was a well shot performance, and I was happy to see it, but it was lacking in so many ways. The experience was not very different than watching a YouTube video. In fact, it was a bit like watching TV before we could watch whatever we wanted when we wanted. I actually had to log in at a certain time to see the performance. The model being how TV worked before your family had a VCR and someone responsible enough to hit record. You were watching from home at that time or you missed it. I suppose that would be a novelty to someone younger than me, but I don’t see it catching on, and it may not take off at all….Facebook decided they are no longer allowing music to be live streamed starting Oct. 1st (TBD if that holds out though).

Some of these shows have been considered successes. Maybe it’s a music genre thing, maybe it’s an age demographic thing, or maybe it’s just about things going weirder. Fortnite has held in-game concerts that have garnered praise. DJ Marshmello and rapper Travis Scott have both held “concerts” within their game. 10 million concurrent users attended the Marshmello show in some capacity, 12.3 million for Travis Scott. At a given time in the game, you and other players are treated to, (or bothered by depending on your tastes), a show with a giant floating psychedelic thing-a-ma-deal. Lots of colors, and lots of visuals to get lost in. I asked my Fortnite obsessed 10 year old nephew, if he was aware that such an event had occurred in the virtual play-space, where he spends 80% of his waking time, and I was met with a resounding “no duh”. I’m not sure that Travis Scott made a new music fan in the kid. However, he did get some name recognition from a consumer who’s only other celebrity talking points are what’s going on with the members of Paw Patrol.

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Sadly none of the other characters from Uncut Gems show up

Tik Tok has started experimenting with the concert model. A few weekends ago the app premiered an “augmented reality concert” by The Weeknd (why would he use the third letter “e”?). The XR company Wave created a world not dissimilar to the Fortnite experience; with trippy colors, and moving lights, and a Weeknd avatar that moved around and danced. There are a series of fan mini-games throughout the concert, enabling the viewer to vote on what type of blacklight poster/headshop display should be seen during the next song. The show went so well that The Weekend ended up as an investor in the company.

Again, maybe I’m just way out of the demographic, but even if I loved those songs; I have trouble wrapping my head around how this would get close to translating to feeling like a live show with real people present. It’s more like playing Concert: The Video Game. Maybe it’s supposed to be just that and not try to compete with reality. It’s too early to tell if the virtual streaming model will work the same way MTV did and change how music was consumed. Live shows still existed, but the way we were exposed to music changed. Which in turn changed the types of artists that got popular. Maybe the next big thing is the musician who is also the best software developer.

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Just because it isn’t for me, doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. Every generation thinks the one after them is ruining what they created. I’m doing my best not to be the old man that yells at clouds, so I asked around the Fair Worlds office, to get some takes from some people who aren’t me.

Xuny, my co-worker in our Seattle office, is a big fan of the Wave shows. The Wave is the same company that put together the Weeknd Tik Tok experience. Essentially, they put on VR concerts. You sign on, slap on a headset, pick an avatar, and attend a concert with a group of other people at the same time.

Xuny: “I actually did more of these before Covid. I love live concerts, but I used to do the Wave, when I would work late nights, at my previous job. When I used to attend the concerts they were around 7pm, and I would just stay at the office, eat a quick dinner, and hop into the headset. It was a really great way to experience the concert setting without having to leave the office early. Without having to head home to get ready, and back to the venue to look for parking. All of the hassle is gone. So some of it is convenience. The Wave concerts are shorter than most live shows. Then there are also drinks at live shows, and if you are doing a late night with work the next morning, it’s not easy.”

I saw Galantis, a big EDM band. I didn’t watch on my headset.. just on my desktop, so if was a different experience but still cool.

I am an extravert.. I like live concerts for the energy and crowd and the people.. the other reason I like EDM for is the light shows.. and that is something that that EDM in VR can recreate exceptionally . The whole light show experience, looking at an environment that is augmented by pretty lights is something that VR can deliver on and possibly even top a live show. One of the first WAVE shows I saw we are all in the concert area and then all the avatars where transported to a different world.. a ethereal space. So drastic change in a surrounding is something that WAVE will always have over a live experience.” I will also note that I have never been to a club that didn’t have a horrifying bathroom so that may be a positive too.

When you log in and your headset microphone is on and you're in there with 20–50 people that you can interact with, but mostly I’m just enjoying it on my own - that being said I go to concerts on my own irl anyway. I’ve enjoyed watching on my computer screen as well as VR, but it’s always much better in a headset.

I also spoke with Andy Slater. Andy is a multitalented musician and has both performed and experienced in many streaming music levels.

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Andy: The Chicago quarantine concerts, DSS are a non profit studio that do residences and cool performances out of Chicago. They were the first thing that popped up that had any kind of organization for these virtual concerts. Early on they had some heavy hitters like Thurston Moore and Ricardo Lindsey doing weird experimental stuff.

They asked me to curate a concert. They let me do whatever I wanted. So, I did a performance, and I got a group called The Von Trapp Family to do an endearing performance that featured delayed scratching over The Sound Of Music soundtrack. New experimental stuff. They were just so organized in putting all this together. It was great. You’ve got Thurston Moore on his phone and it sounds like shit, but it’s great, because it’s Thurston Moore and who cares. The webcam was sideways halfway through. The idea to make all of this to where it’s not a novelty, it’s just a thing that’s going to be this way for awhile. I think that the audiences have been watching things on their phone for so long, that they are either used to it, or very forgiving when it comes to sound quality. Also, the chat functions are keeping audiences busy too. They can still pay attention to the set, while also engaging with other people. So, it’s not like going to the bar, and having a conversation and then losing your spot in the crowd. It made a few bucks, everybody had fun, and it was a no stress situation.

I did another concert for a group called Shared Air. They are an L.A. based electronic label. It featured groups from L.A. and Berlin, and a diverse audience. Which is great, because it’s hard for me to find an audience outside of the States. I was excited because people from Berlin stumbled onto what I do.

There is a group out of L.A. called Distant Discos. It’s essentially a Zoom room where an audience can watch a D.J. doing a set. My friend Vitigrrl is a Chicago DJ did a set. It was wonderful because you can pop between the windows and see people dance. They did a program where the first hundred people that signed up to get in got a cheap disco ball light display for their rooms so potentially when an audience member is going through all these zoom rooms looking at people dancing the rooms all have a similar party effect. It’s a great way that they are branding themselves and also giving out this permanent physical connection to the virtual thing they are doing.

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An instagram photo of a photo of a computer streaming a show shot on a webcam. We sounded better than this looks

Since the beginning of writing this article I have been able to participate in the magic of performing to webcam. My musical co-conspirator Ian MacDougall and I performed a 45 minute show on StageIt.tv. It has a pretty great model too. It’s a show that is only seen at that moment for people who have gotten tickets. It is not recorded but the crowd could interact with us. The tickets can be priced at however much the artist chooses and StageIt.tv takes a small fee. We decided to do a “pay what you want” as this was our first time and we had no idea how it was going to go. The audience can also tip the performers with real money but it is listed as coins and there is a weird conversion rate (I’m not sure way.)

Ian is tech genius as well as a musician of the duo and he set up amps and microphones through a mixer and ran them through a computer. I honestly never would have figured any of it out on my own so it is to be assumed this would be a stumbling block for many bands that don’t have an Ian. We tweaked our room sound and then connected Peter Clarke on the StageIt site. He helped us soundcheck to get the proper levels he needed to get it to sound right for streaming.

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looking the audience in the eye

It was a little harrowing hoping the internet wouldn’t crash (which it did during soundcheck but was fine during the show). The show went well on our end and gave me some of the endorphins that usually come with getting onstage. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. I went in reminding myself that this was going to be a different feeling and to be comfortable with the uncomfortability of that. The idea that essentially I’m doing a show for HAL from 2001 took a minute but snapped into place after a few minutes. I still need to impress sentient A.I. and get used to the idea that they aren't going to hoot when I end a song. It’s just different. The audience interacting mostly through emojis and little digital coins letting us know we are getting tipped. The silence after saying “how ya’ll doing tonite”. It’s just different.

I keep describing the experience as methadone compared to heroin which I probably shouldn’t do because I haven’t tried either of those. I should probably find a better description. It was like eating Little Ceasar’s pizza as opposed to some wood oven pizza in an a high end Italian joint. Sure, it’s not as good but it’s still pizza.

Taking a step back I’m reframing my take on this. I did enjoy my time as a musical cam-boy and without making a contest out of it there were some real positives about the experience. Xuny and Andy has got my brain spinning in new things that I can try and the benefits that they see. I probably won’t be asked to do a Wave show but the conversation about time saved that Xuny brought up also applies to the performer. I like the stress of doing a live show but I would be lying if I said that setting up my own thing on my own time with a crew of me and one other person wasn’t nice. Talking to Andy about the experimental vibe of what he has participated and seen makes me rethink what I can do. For 25+ years I’ve mostly been performing in the same way. I’m going to take some chances and try some stuff and just see what happens. New things feel weird because they are new and I have to remind myself that.

I’m officially ready to be the backdrop to a Fortnite melee. I also have a lot of apologies I need to make to the cloud I’ve been swearing at. Please forgive me cloud.

I'm sorry that got so heated.