Virtual reality gigs are coming – but do we want them?

You may no longer need to venture out to a show

Virtual Reality technology has taken some interesting leaps in music over the last three years. With the introduction of the Oculus Rift/Go, PSVR, the HTC headset and Google cardboard, the VR experience has moved on from simply finding yourself in a 360 U2, Muse or Gorillaz video to now being on the brink of actually allowing fans to pay for and be immersed in a live concert through a VR headset. Augmented Reality (AR) is also evolving with the introduction of a new app called PEEX which allows fans to listen to live gigs through five different channels – vocals, guitar, bass, keyboard and drums – by altering and mixing the sound levels of each channel throughout a live performance.

For anyone who experienced the World Cup through the BBC’s VR app over the summer, it was the next best thing to actually being in Russia. Not only could you watch the likes of Messi and Harry Kane smashing goals in from the top of the stadium, you could also see fans cheering below and managers striding angrily up and down the touchline in real time.

Now, similar plans are afoot to live stream concerts across the world to fans directly through venues such as The O2, Alexandra Palace and the NEC in Birmingham in the UK through an app called Melody VR, in the coming months.

Not only will it be live streamed but fans will be able to view the gig from the crowd, stand next to the likes of Serge from Kasabian or at the side of the stage in real time for 10 to 15 percent of the original ticket price. “This technology has the power to make people feel as if they are actually present at a live gig, that they may never be able to actually physically get to. If you can’t be there, this is the next best thing. You also get to be onstage with the band which is a really amazing experience,” founder Anthony Matchett explains to NME. “The way the technology works is we give the fan the ability to choose different locations. They can be on the stage, side of stage, jumping around in the crowd or on the balcony.”

He added: “When we first tested this technology, we had people in research groups who might be big fans of Niall Horan, for example. We put these fans in a headset and one of them just fainted because she thought she was right next to him. That level of engagement where people really feel like they are present is amazing and that’s what really drives us.”

The Melody VR app currently allows fans to watch hundreds of recorded gigs around the world for free or at a set price, including Years & Years’ recent show at the Roundhouse, Kasabian’s performance at The O2 alongside concerts by Royal Blood, The Who and KISS. “It’s never meant to replace the live experience but pretty much all the artists we work with are selling out their shows in five minutes,” Matchett argues. “We’d like to give people another option that isn’t buying a ticket for five times the price. If someone can’t get to a gig, they can’t get to the show or they just really love an artist that they want to see what it’s like to be in their recording studio while they are writing the album, we think VR is an amazing way to view that and that’s what we provide.”

Plans are also in place to allow fans to get closer to the artist through VR technology. “We’re doing all sorts of different content, not just concerts but a lot of original content and interactive content. That could be a VR meet and greet with an artist, it could be a journey through their world or the album in a real or imaginary location,” Matchett explains.

Artists such as Tom Grennan recently took part in a similar experience with Sony Playstation VR, where viewers could watch the singer perform an intimate two song set in front of them from Metropolis Studios in London. “Performing in a VR surrounding was a weird but definitely really cool experience,” he explained to NME. “I think VR is going to be massive which is a bit scary as it makes me question whether people will always go to gigs in the future. If they miss out on live tickets then they still have the chance to be a part of that gig and fully immerse themselves in it wherever they may be.”

Rumours have also been circulating that a lot of record companies are also working on archive footage and old tapes to bring concerts by artists gone by such as The Beatles and Nirvana to life in VR.

“We are involved in stuff like that,” Matchett confirmed. “The problem with that though, is unless we created the content, you can’t really go back and recreate that concert. But what you can do is get a load of unreleased music, video and imagery and put that inside a virtual world. You can go back and experience what it would be like to be in one of their most famous videos for example. So you can take archive footage and put it in a VR world but it will always look like older footage and that’s fine if you package it in the right way and make it really cool.”

Along with VR, AR is also advancing and the new PEEX technology has seen artists such as Elton John sign up for an augmented reality audio concert experience where fans feel like they are plugged into the mixing desk through an rX device, which is a wearable device connected to a set of headphones which allows you to alter different sound levels. “Our revolutionary new technology in a wearable device gives you the highest possible quality sound anywhere in the gig, so it sounds like you’re plugged directly into front of house. You can also mix your live music experience in real-time, so if you want to turn up the guitar or turn down the bass, you can,” PEEX CEO David Johnson explained.

But Matchett believes AR could go further in the coming years. “With VR we’re taking you to the event and putting you on the stage but with AR in the future, we’re potentially bringing the artist into your home to perform with you in front of your mates on your coffee table which is really cool, but it is a little way off getting into people’s homes just yet.” he said. “After VR, AR could arguably become a bigger industry.”

Despite that, the introduction of live VR gigs has been met with scepticism by some artists, fans and promoters who argue that it could have wider implications for the music industry.

“In the long term, there’s no end to the possibilities to what VR and AI could let us perceive and experience, and this could mean a number of things for music,” Declan McKenna told NME. “What I hope is that it opens up a window of opportunity for a whole wave of new and exciting ways to experience music and visuals, but what is worrying is the possibility of destroying real live music.”

He added: “If we really can use VR to perceive the energy and the feel of a live gig, we could create live music experiences without the musicians, the crew, and the venue staff. This may be catastrophic for many peoples’ jobs, and I’d like to think we’d draw the line somewhere, but humans rarely do.”

Chloe Ward, UK director of Independent Venue Week, which promotes small venues across the country, also argues that VR can’t compete with reality and fans may be reluctant to part with their hard earned cash.

“As with any new concept, I think people are going to be hesitant to pay for tickets for VR without experiencing it first for free. While I think it could possibly be popular with fans of bigger artists, I am not sure it is going to take off in a huge way as you cannot replace the live music experience,” she explained.

“No amount of technology can replace the atmosphere and shared anticipation with fellow gig goers and that is what live music is all about, bringing people together. There is nothing better in this world than watching music being performed live, surrounded by friends and people with a shared enthusiasm for the same artist.”

Many fans agree that live VR gigs can never compete with being at a real show. “Live VR gigs are a good idea and I’d love to see the likes of U2 and Muse get involved with it, but there’s nothing better than being at a live concert,” said gig-goer Paul Radcliffe. “Nothing compares to the physical sound you experience in front of you and seeing the artists for real.”

In the meantime, Melody VR are planning to roll out a new programme which will allow fans to sign up to the app and receive a headset for future live concerts or festivals. “It’s going to make the whole thing more accessible for music fans,” Matchett added. “It means fans won’t have to spend £200 quid on a headset. They’ll just get content on Melody and receive a device in the post. This is the next step in helping to widen Melody VR out to music fans.”