How Video Games and VR Could Change Festivals Forever
This year’s Lightning in a Bottle looked less like a music festival than like a planet from Star Wars: A lens-flare effect evoked multiple moons splayed above a cluster of Jenga-esque platforms, some hovering and others rearing out of the surface of a purplish, starlit lake. Dizzyingly tall waterfalls streamed off of leafy towers while the headliner, TOKiMONSTA, played a joyful set from a plot of wildflowers in what could only be described as the mothership in the midst of it all.
While parts of the May 2020 event betrayed the two-week sprint in which the California festival went from terrestrial to virtual — Kaytranada‘s set fell victim to unfortunate technical hiccups — it was nevertheless an impressive display of the creative ways in which the music industry has adapted to our challenging new reality. A few months earlier, as the COVID pandemic unfolded in early 2020, live music fans entered an ostensibly infinite drought of in-person events. Since then, the teams behind summer festivals like LIB, Tomorrowland, and Glastonbury have turned on a dime, building a new wave of live-streamed virtual events that are poised to change the music industry well after traditional shows resume.
Live streaming is nothing new. Musicians have been doing it since the early ’90s, when The Rolling Stones tried, unsuccessfully, to become the first band to broadcast a performance online. So, naturally, it was a logical first step as spring festivals decided how to pivot. On platforms like YouTube and Twitch, the latter a favorite among gamers, socially-distanced viewers could tune into sets broadcast from around the world with the click of a button. By April, free, natively online festivals like Digital Mirage cropped up, and began streaming DJs from their homes, surrounded by personalia like philodendrons and French bulldogs. Such sets fostered a sense of intimacy with DJs whose stage personas are often carefully crafted, but the novelty of these basic live-streamed festivals soon wore off. Instead, event organizers looked to the world of video games for inspiration.
Since 2018, the virtual event production company Open Pit has been hosting rock bands and electronic artists in Minecraft, an online game that’s well suited to creative endeavors because of its unstructured nature. Partygoers access the event through a dedicated server; once inside, they can buy merch or simply hang out, switching channels via a virtual coat check. Free, interactive events like Coachella, Mine Gala, Nether Meant, and Fire Festival (a jab at the infamous Fyre Festival) have drawn thousands of attendees. Meanwhile, Fortnite, another free, online game, has delved into near psychedelic, physics-defying concerts starring artists like Travis Scott. In February of 2019, an astonishing 10.7 million people attended a Marshmello show within Fortnite. Party Royale, the game’s official concert function, debuted in May 2020 with back-to-back sets from Dillon Francis, Steve Aoki, and deadmau5. Still, Minecraft’s Rave Family Block Fest takes the cake for sheer scale: For $10, fans will be able to see nearly 1,000 artists on more than 65 stages from July 9-13. Smaller festivals, such as tech-house label Dirtybird‘s annual Campout, plan to host stages within the huge event.
Although it’s easier for DJs to participate in these types of events — “There’s a reason you don’t see many live bands,” says Chris Macmeikan, DJ and musical director for Glastonbury’s Shangri-La area — instrumentalists are getting in on the action, too. Multi-person performance acts like Beats Antique have played both Rave Family Block Fest and DGTL LIB (Lightning in a Bottle’s digital event) by filming from the performers’ respective homes then stitching the pieces together into pre-recorded video sets. It’s been a steep learning curve as artists and festivals learn what works and what doesn’t.
The team behind Lightning in a Bottle, the Do LaB, collaborated with its longtime production partner, Vita Motus, to create and execute the virtual elements of DGTL LIB. Accessible via Twitch, the single-stream schedule ultimately included a mix of traditionally filmed live painting and classes — think acro yoga and learning about mezcal — as well as basic streamed sets. In addition, however, Vita Motus used a video game framework called Unreal Engine to render select headlining sets, including TOKiMONSTA, CloZee, and Shiba Shan, within otherworldly stages. While not fully explorable, the virtual components were compatible with VR devices. Viewers without such equipment still got glimpses of classic LIB stages as the stream swooped through the virtual festival grounds like a drone.
“Our goal was to transport people, make them feel like they were really there, as much as possible,” says Heather Shaw, the founder, and CEO of Vita Motus. “The landscape features and iconic structures evokes nostalgia for the LIB audience, and it was important for us to capture the special moments we know exist there.”
According to Shaw, if the content is mostly curated and the stages are already designed — which her firm does in computer-aided design software, which is also used for conventional events — the virtual event can be executed more quickly than its traditional counterpart since you don’t have to physically fabricate and erect structures. DGTL LIB was Vita Motus’s first foray into the digital festival experience, and Shaw saw it as an opportunity to tackle something completely new: the lake stage, a longtime dream. The lack of physical constraints in the virtual world inspired Shaw not only to go big this year but also to be more ambitious with future designs.
“We hope to make the lake stage a reality,” says Shaw. “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
Festivals in Europe are likewise jumping on the VR train. After seeing success with weekly live streams organized in early 2020, the extravagant Belgian EDM festival Tomorrowland also decided to debut a virtual festival that goes beyond a basic stream.
“Tomorrowland 2020 is not a traditional live-stream event with DJs in a studio or at their homes and viewers in a chat box,” says Debby Wilmsen, a spokesperson for Tomorrowland. “It is a totally unique form of visual entertainment.”
On July 25 and 26, Tomorrowland Around the World will feature more than 60 artists, including big names like Afrojack, Amelie Lens, Armin van Buuren, David Guetta, Martin Garrix, Steve Aoki, and Tiësto. The musicians, who range in genre from trance and techno to hardstyle and house, will be filmed in green-screen studios beforehand, then rendered in various channels. Using a phone or computer, viewers can navigate through a map that includes five of the festival’s epic real-life stages — like the massive themed main stage and the pod-like Core — plus three new stages created specifically for the online event.
Like LIB, Tomorrowland will offer webinars, workshops and games, capped off with the type of pyrotechnics Tomorrowland is known for. Whereas many comparable virtual festivals are free or donation-based, however, Tomorrowland requires tickets (€12.50 for one day or €20 for the weekend), which buy attendees access to both the festival and a platform that replays performances for one week after the event.
“The digital festival is a huge investment, as it takes a lot of time and effort to create everything in 3D, to film all the artists, to get all the artists in the studio,” explains Wilmsen. “This price point allows us to deliver a spectacular experience, which will also benefit our Tomorrowland Foundation,” an organization that supports young people in developing countries or regions in crisis.
For Lost Horizon, a fully interactive virtual festival from the team behind Glastonbury’s beloved Shangri-La, accessibility is a major upside to virtual festivals. Such events have opened the door to potential attendees who may have financial limitations, as well as physical or mental considerations.
“You can be right in the middle of the dance floor, even if you’re in a wheelchair or if you suffer from anxiety,” says Lost Horizon producer Robin Collings. Their event, which took place over the July 4th weekend, was free, but attendees had the option of donating to Amnesty International and The Big Issue, a charity for people dealing with insecure housing.
Users on mobile devices could view various vantage points within the virtual world, including all four stages. And PC and VR users were able to move around inside the space using computer-generated avatars, exploring roughly 200 artworks and literally speaking with other festival-goers as if standing next to one another in real life. Going fully online has also opened the lineup to artists scattered around the world.
“It’s been great for us because suddenly people don’t necessarily need to travel,” says Collings. “Just because Peggy Gou is in Korea doesn’t mean she can’t be part of this thing.”
In total, upwards of 50 musicians played in Lost Horizon, including Fatboy Slim, Jamie Jones, Noisia, and Seth Troxler. And the event hosted more than 100 visual artists, curated in part by graphic designer Malcolm Garrett.
“We wanted to make this a real celebration of everything we’ve ever done and everyone we’ve ever worked with,” says creative director Kaye Dunnings. “We’ve been going through the archives and finding existing artworks that we’ve had in the field and placing them, and then doing a whole other commission out to other designers to make new work for it. It’s been magic.”
That’s not to say it was straightforward. Using the American VR platform Sansar, the Lost Horizon team put in several weeks of 18-hour days to create something that ordinarily would have taken a year or two to realize. With sets and layouts from previous years of Shangri-La already laid out in CAD software, the team collaborated with partners in different time zones to translate the eccentricities of Shangri-La into an entirely new medium.
“We’re super familiar with the design constraints and the financial constraints and the costs and the time it takes to build a great big stage set,” says Collings. “If you’re building a big stage structure, you need 150 tons of ballast. Those are things we do every day — that’s our bread and butter.” The aspects that are less obvious, of course, are the particulars of virtual reality: the rendering time for different textures, the required processing power, the process of creating virtual scaffolding for a structure. And then there is the mental gap — the silly realization that you don’t need scaffolding at all.
But will it last beyond the corona crisis?
Many creatives in the music industry agree that what’s happening now will affect the live-event industry permanently. The technologies being popularized right now, such as VR, will likely be used to augment traditional events rather than taking the place of anything. “You can’t ever replace that loud, noisy, sweaty sort of energy,” says Collings.
Simulating that sensation is not the point. The gift of these pandemic-era festivals is the new infrastructure that now exists, and the sense of unbridled possibility that’s been unleashed as events snowball into wilder and more ambitious endeavors. It’s an attitude that will last long after we see each other in person, threading through gaps in the crowd as we head, hand in hand, toward the light.