Porter Robinson’s Secret Sky recreated the most meaningful parts of a physical festival

The virtual reality and browser-based event was an ode to the power of live music

Live gigs and festivals are special social events. They’re places where we find ourselves, make friends and commit meaningful moments to memory – but collectively, we’ve not been able to attend them for some time now due to the impact of the pandemic.

Artists haven’t been able to see or feel the hum of a crowd and concertgoers have had to forego that special physical electricity that surges when the lights go down before the start of a set. We’re all clamouring for these inimitable feelings, and the music industry is reacting by doing everything it can to replicate them with as much authenticity as virtually possible.

Nowhere have I seen this plan executed quite as effectively as it was at Secret Sky this past weekend. This marked the second iteration of Porter Robinson’s virtual festival series, which had to pivot away from its physical presence Second Sky in 2020, and triumphantly returned for 2021.

With proceeds going to the MusiCares Coronavirus Relief fund, Robinson brought together a truly diverse roster of artists for the show, including Swardy, Wave Racer, Rezz and Kero Kero Bonito. The gig took place inside a browser-based auditorium built by creative design wizards Active Theory, with optional virtual reality support developed in partnership with Oculus.

The website teleported fans to a lush field full of robed avatars representing real people. Forgoing usernames, every attendee was simply marked with their physical location. White circles on the floor let players join voice chats and mingle with other groups from around the world. I danced in virtual reality with fans from Italy, ID’d tunes with a fast friend from Colombia and anticipated sets with users from the US and Japan over the course of the day.

Porter Robinson's Secret Sky Festival
Porter Robinson’s Secret Sky Festival. Credit: Jordan Oloman

While it was mainly accessible via browsers on computers and mobile devices, I spent most of my time in virtual reality. When I took my headset off to head to bed at 5 AM, I realised it was the longest I’d ever spent inside VR in one sitting, although it really didn’t feel like it. The flawless integration meant that I could explore the grounds up close, with the novelty of my motion-tracked arms being an icebreaker with the rest of the avatars in my instance.

As well as the main arena which featured a gigantic screen that reacted dynamically with each set, players could visit a number of pocket worlds inside of Secret Sky. You could climb an ancient tree to get a better vantage point on the venue, exposing its fireworks and dynamic particle effects in great detail. Elsewhere, you could dip into ‘Cube World’ for a mind-blowing close-quarters club experience.

Secret Sky was just bursting at the seams with meaning at all times. Players congregated on rocks, jumping and running around to signal their setlist satisfaction. I really felt that sense of presence and community that I’d been missing.

One group I stumbled into was lovingly welcoming a newcomer to the music of Porter Robinson after they revealed they had dropped by curious but unaware of any of the artists. As it turns out, a friend had posted a link to the show in their World Of Warcraft guild chat, and they decided to check it out. Throughout the grounds It was customary to call other users by their locations, so I would constantly hear something along the lines of “Woah look at the United Kingdom, they have arms!” when they noticed my virtual reality dancing.

People were just so happy to be there, and to have this indulgent escape where they could be themselves around like minded people, myself included. A lot of the hallmarks of physical gigs came through wholesale, including the bliss of discovering new music. Superb, varied sets from Manchester-based producer Salute, guitar genius Yvette Young and Japanese pop royalty Sekai No Owari – “I CAME FROM DROPOUT BOULEVARD!”– expanded my musical palate and filled my Spotify with huge new songs.

Being able to rant and rave about how much you “love this song” with other people in proximity is a truly underrated privilege that I won’t be taking for granted when we get back to normality. It was even better being among fans who could point me in the right direction, as I slipped off my headset to make a note of artists to research later.

Away from the crowds, I later used Secret Sky’s private room function to hang out with a close friend who was also in virtual reality. We explored and took pictures in front of the stage, letting our excitement out in jolts as new songs sidelined us. Being able to have someone with you who can excitedly predict the next song from a quiet melody and discuss what song the artist might end on brought so much meaning to the gig. It was definitely the small touches that Secret Sky realised that made the entire experience so special.

As well as the artists I didn’t know, the ones I did like James Ivy and No Rome (please collaborate!) brought so much vision and creativity to their sets. Rome wowed with a gorgeous garage and a killer ‘Spinning’ remix while crouched in front of Ridge Racer visuals. Ivy damn near stole the show with a charged performance in a closed Brooklyn venue, fighting his way through high energy bangers like Sick before digging into his thoughtful hit ‘Staring Contest’, Ivy’s unique voice bringing emotional texture to the performance.

Porter Robinson's Secret Sky Festival
Porter Robinson’s Secret Sky Festival. Credit: Jordan Oloman

But like any good festival, it had to end eventually, though it burned bright right til the end. Robinson’s closing set was brimming with new music, confidence and singular visuals. Robinson delivered beautiful bitcrushed vocals in front of a spinning augmented reality scan of himself playing the piano, before literally leaping into a monumental performance of his hyperactive single Musician that I never wanted to end.

It was a tantalising glimpse into the future of Robinson’s live shows, which will no doubt be moving feats of audiovisual catharsis. I can’t wait until we’re allowed to get together and dance our hearts out to nurture, but raving in my living room has certainly sustained me for the time being.

Secret Sky 2021 is one of the greatest gigs I’ve ever been to, and I experienced it all from the comfort of my own living room, strapped into a Valve Index with friends and strangers in tow. What a beautiful virtual ode to the irreplaceable power of live music.

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