Virtual worlds and beating hearts

First published 18th April 2021

Around 25 years ago, on an overcast day in a small town in England, Oasis made rock and roll history. They played Knebworth, drawing a crowd of 250,000 over two nights. Never before had so many people come together in one place to watch a band play.

Fast-forward to today and those numbers begin to look quaint. In April 2020 Hip Hop star Travis Scott played a gig to 12 million people. 12 million?! Yes, a virtual gig hosted on the gaming platform Fornite. Since then others artists have followed suit: John Legend, The Weekend, Tinashe.

Now on the face of it a virtual gig may not sound that appealing. Isn’t the whole point to hear the music through an industrial-scale sound system? To feel the energy of crowd and see the band with your own eyes? Its hard to see how clunky avatars could compete.

But new technologies rarely compete head-on. When they win they usually do so by picking the ball up and moving onto a completely different pitch. While virtual gigs may never rival live ones for straight-up raw physicality, they do promise a revolution in accessibility.

Consider time. A gig today is a whole evening out. That’s partly the point but it also rules a lot of people out. Imagine making dinner, putting the kids to bed, then dropping in at 8pm for a live gig. No coat room queues, no schlepping across town. Its a feature of your evening now, not your whole evening, and it might be a brief one at that — John Legend’s gig only lasted 17 minutes.

Likewise with location. The big cities will no longer have a monopoly on big performances, people can dial in from anywhere. Put these two things together and you have a transformative setup for socialising with friends and family. My Gran lives a three hour train ride away from me, which makes trips to the concert hall an infrequent occurrence. Soon enough we’ll be able to dial into a classical performance in a virtual space (Sydney Opera house anyone?) any night of the week.

Finally there’s the cost. Gigs today are not cheap. To select at random: Queen are bringing their Rhapsody tour to London in 2022, with tickets starting at £45. That’s a meaningful sum in the U.K., and an astronomical one in much of the developing world.

Travis Scott’s gig didn’t suffer this constraint. Entry was entirely free, with attendees having the option to buy digital goods, the virtual-world equivalent of a band t-shirt. Before you write this off as ‘stuff that isn’t real’, consider that Travis is thought to have made $20m from the sale of this merchandise. A lot of people do think its worth something.

The economics are just different at internet scale. If you have 10m people attend your gig, you only need 0.1% of them to spend $20 on a ‘skin’ (translation: band t-shirt) and you’ve made $0.5m. You don’t need a ticket fee anymore. This is the model that leading gaming companies have used for a while now (including Fortnite creator Epic Games, valuation: $28.7bn). Its free to play, with revenue coming from in-game purchases, about 80% of which are made by just 0.5% of the players.

Taken together this amounts to a collapse in the frictions associated with attending live gigs. And so the question comes, how long until we have a 100m attendee gig? This doesn’t seem at all beyond the reach of a Taylor Swift, a Beyonce, a Coldplay. And then, then — how long until its one billion person gig?

The main constraint in all this is VR hardware, and that will take time of course. At £300 the Oculus headset is not cheap, but with every year this will come down, and before you know it a second-hand one will set you back little more than that Queen ticket. In exchange for free tickets to see any band in a virtual world, for free? Not bad at all. It wasn’t that long ago that smart phones were luxury items, now 3.8bn people have one.

Indeed music concerts could act as something of a gateway drug for mass-market participation in virtual worlds. Despite the gaming industry exploding over the past decade, it’s still generally seen as an alternative lifestyle choice, something that teenage boys do

Music is different. Music is a cornerstone of popular culture the world over, touching the lives of countless people every day. Nothing comes close to the emotional reach that music has (perhaps only football could contend). The Oasis gig at Knebworth was over-subscribed ten times over, more than 4% of the U.K. population applied for tickets.

There is a universality to music that makes a billion people attending a gig feel like it might just happen one day. It could happen. It could. Just think about what that would be like for a moment: imagine filing in, as it were, with a few buddies, your avatar dressed to impress, taking your place at a landmark event in human history,

A 2017 study found that when a crowd watch a show their heartbeats begin to synchronise; researchers knew this happened with romantic couples but were surprised to learn it could happen en-mass. So think of it: a billion human beings, from every corner of the planet, all watching and listening together, tapping a collective finger, immersed in the same moment, and underneath it all, their billion hearts all beginning to beat to the same rhythm. Now that would be quite something, wouldn’t it?

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Data scientist, product junkie, one-time founder. London-based. @tgh44