Billed as a “world-first immersive virtual music festival” – and costing $50 for a weekend ticket – Splendour XR feels like the natural culmination of an intensely strange time period defined by clubbing on Zoom and watching pop stars play stadium shows on Fortnite.
Hosted on VR platform Sansar (the company behind online game Second Life), Splendour XR has been billed as a weekend-long virtual recreation of the long-running Australian festival Splendour in The Grass. A wild moonshot of an event, it aims to gather together bored music fans across the globe for a glittering line-up of more than fifty international acts, including festival heavy-hitters The Killers, Khalid, and Charli XCX and live favourites like Phoebe Bridgers, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, and Amyl and the Sniffers.
Navigating the virtual festival site – available in almost every format imaginable – has its perils, however. While those armed with VR headsets breeze around with interactive ease, (they can even mount stage invasions after evading the metaverse’s virtual festival police force) a bog-standard PC is more limiting than wearing a bin-bag as a poncho. Wandering around the virtual food trucks and tipi tents, the festival site feels dodgily retrofitted. Forget dancing in front of the virtual stage, or customising an avatar; it’s impossible to even wander through the festival site on a computer without sluggishly point-and-clicking around.
The performances themselves are similarly patchy. Splendour reportedly gave the artists on their line-up “free reign to be as creative as they want to be” when filming their festival sets, resulting in a line-up which varies so wildly in quality, effort level and creative vision, that it feels like sitting listlessly in front of YouTube — something we’ve all surely done enough of during the pandemic.
Surprisingly, relatively few artists tailor their performances to the virtual setting — notable exceptions include Chvrches, whose fittingly dystopian performance against a dramatic, lightning-inflected green screen stands out as a highlight. Charli XCX also gives it her best shot, giving a typically energetic performance as a tiny, cut-out figure superimposed onto a festival stage. For people armed with virtual reality headsets it looks hyper-realistic – but it’s blurry and wafer-thin when viewed on a normal screen.
Most artists ignore the VR aspect altogether. The Killers provide a pleasingly rollicking set, solidifying their status as an endlessly reliable festival presence, even in the strangest of circumstances. Kaytranada serves up a lovely, sun-soaked DJ set, filmed during a sunny afternoon BBQ. Disappointingly, several artists choose to screen existing performances, and Black Pumas and The Avalanches contribute concert footage from previous tours. Seeing their real-life crowds cheer in front of a bunch of virtual avatars shatters, once and for all, any sense of immersion.
Weirdest of all is Grimes’ set – which sees Splendour attendees quickly ferried off the virtual festival platform, and onto the musician’s own Discord server. Billed as a new musical project called ‘The Grimes Metaverse’, her set turns out to be a tinny, audio-only DJ set with a handful of new Grimes tracks chucked in, and it’s free to tune in for fans already in the Discord. Incidentally, the set turns out to be pretty good — an energetic mix combining clubby remixes of Mozart and ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears with lithe art-pop previews of Grimes’s upcoming space opera — but it’s difficult to enjoy it when the stream wavers in and out, and the live chat quickly floods with outraged (and paying) Splendour attendees.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the weekend’s standout moments have a tendency to make you feel wistful for real-life festivals — like Charli fans spamming the live chat with requests for ‘Taxi’ and the mass exodus which occurs in the crowd for The Killers’ set after ‘Mr Brightside’
As the future of live music remains uncertain, Splendour XR is a reminder that a virtual crowd — devoid of any festival-induced joie de vivre — may be significantly less tolerant of chaos than their real-life counterparts.