If you’re a music fan – and since you’re reading NME it’s more than likely you are – you’ve probably spent this strange, unprecedented summer that has just passed mourning the absence of festivals.
“It’s felt so empty,” sighs Andy Copping, Executive President of UK Touring at global music promotion behemoth Live Nation. “The UK summer is normally full of festivals with something happening almost every weekend from the end of May until the middle of September. This year there has been nothing…”
Festivals that Live Nation promote include Latitude, Reading & Leeds and Wireless – all of which were postponed this summer. The festival that Copping personally books and promotes, Download, scheduled to take place in early June, was one of the first festivals to be canned thanks to the pandemic.
And yet it wouldn’t be true to say that there haven’t been any festivals this year. The ones that have taken place have been, at once, exciting, innovative, emotional and sometimes a total mess. They’ve united music fans from across the planet, forming a web of bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens. Some of the biggest acts on the planet have performed.
You’d be forgiven for them passing you by. Their location? Minecraft. They offer a glimmer of hope to a live music scene that, at the time of writing, still faces an uncertain 2021.
Max Schramp is the marketing lead of the virtual events group, Open Pit. They’ve been hosting virtual festivals since 2018, but this August, with the possibility of physically performed music curtailed, he led Open Pit’s biggest and most ambitious event yet: Lavapalooza. Spread over two days in Minecraft, the virtual festival played host to performers such 100 Gecs, San Holo, Flatbush Zombies and more.
The festival gave you the opportunity to head to the front of the stage and throw yourself about, or even visit an in-game merchandise stall. You could choose a T-shirt of your liking and the link would take you to the band’s own online shop; a much-needed monetary outlet in a time when most bands’ financials are only going one way.
“Virtual festivals give the opportunity for people unable to attend concerts in real life to see some of their favourite artists,” Scramp says. “We originally started them to allow for people internationally to play and attend with no financial, geographical or other barriers beyond owning the game.”
There was a fee charged for Lavapalooza, but proceeds went to The Okra Project, an American grassroots, mutual aid collective that provides support to Black, trans, non-binary and gender-nonconforming people.
Schramp thinks that even when physical festivals resume, virtual festivals such as those organised by Open Pit will continue. “I do think they have staying power,” he says. “We had success with them before the pandemic. But until that is over, it’s all we’ve got!”
Bands – even big bands – are embracing this, or at the very least becoming resigned to the fact.
“Scrambling around in the chaos and turmoil of lockdown,” says Mark Bowen, the guitarist of Mercury Prize-nominated rock band IDLES, “losing all live music, we looked for solutions that would allow interactions with our fans – difficult when we couldn’t be in a room with each other, let alone with them…”
In May, IDLES performed at Block By Blockwest, a virtual festival on Minecraft that also hosted infamous Russian punks Pussy Riot and the fast-rising Sports Team. A cool feature was the opportunity for fans to chat with bands after their sets. “It wasn’t the most polished thing,” continues Bowen, “but it came together quickly and gave people some escapism within this shit show.”
Block By Blockwest – arranged by Philadelphia band Courier Club – attracted 134,000 viewers on its livestream and raised $8,000 for the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention’s COVID Relief Fund.
The benefit of these events extends beyond serving music fans, starved of the opportunity to see music performed, and connect with others like them – usually via Discord. Increasingly, music managers, publicists and record labels are taking the emerging space seriously, realising that opportunities exist within said space that don’t in the physical world. And not just during COVID.
One such person is Dan Kruchkow, who oversees the marketing team at major players Crush Music. “In the gaming space, the big draw to Crush is the massive, highly engaged audience that just doesn’t exist in many other places these days,” he says. “Also, the game companies have been very fun partners to work with. They have the same attitude as a rock band breaking all the rules just because they can.”
“Our act Weezer was the first artist to premiere new music in Fortnite almost two years ago, and several of our artists, from Terrace Martin to Billie Joe Armstrong, have been involved in events from Black Power Live on Twitch to Global Citizen’s ‘One World: Together At Home’. We‘ve been actively interested in video games for a long time and have an employee dedicated to it.”
Truth be told, few of 2020’s virtual festivals have gone without a hitch. Block By Blockwest was scheduled to take place two weeks before it actually did, but the opening set from Massive Attack crashed the festival server due to the sheer volume of attendees. Sometimes the audio of performances dropped out – although the sight of pixellated roadies running frantically around the stage provided fine entertainment when it did.
Then there’s the case of Rave Family Block Festival, Minecraft’s answer to the disastrous fraudulent real-world Fyre Festival. It was shut down by organisers a day in, after fans and performers complained of server issues and the experience not being as advertised. However, organiser Rave Family insists that the festival will take place again. “I’ve never been more proud, hopeful, frustrated or defeated,” organisers said in a statement issued upon postponement. A rescheduled date is still to be confirmed.
Perhaps teething issues with this fledgling medium are to be expected. Tales of early Glastonburys involve flooded portaloos and tour buses entrenched in mud. In fitting with the ethos of Minecraft, where many of the virtual festivals have been hosted, anything can be made if you’ve got the drive and the imagination. This extends to benefits provided by the new medium.
“I’m really interested in the idea of virtual festivals,” says journalist Hollie-Anne Brooks, who has been using a wheelchair since 2018 after complications from meningitis. “Gigs can be pretty tough. A lot of gigs don’t have adequate resources and it’s stressful navigating wheels through a crowd. Many venues only have a couple of wheelchair spaces, so getting tickets can be tough. Virtual festivals offer wheelchair users a chance to experience so much we’ve missed out on.”
Joseph Robinson, who creates under the name SØMETHING, is a digital multimedia artist and producer from Portland, Oregon. They believe the potential benefits of virtual festivals have barely been explored, and they’re working on a platform to take the medium further. “The Minecraft festivals I’ve attended have been breathtaking,” they say.
“The productions people have been able to construct with just a selection of blocks, and maybe a texture pack, have been really fucking cool. It’s given a great platform to a lot of artists who wouldn’t ordinarily get booked and a lot of people who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to curate. And yet the fact remains that Minecraft simply wasn’t designed to host festivals”
“It’s completely bizarre to me that there have already been wildly successful music events hosted in one game where you mine for diamonds and another game where you launch bazookas at people [in April, Travis Scott performed in Fortnite to 12.3million fans] and yet there’s still not a game designed specifically to host live shows,” Robinson continued. “In my mind, there has always been a very obvious need for a designated virtual reality club. It’s never not been a good idea, but this year we’ve been shown exactly why.”
Timothy Waldron, singer of Courier Club and organiser of Block By Blockwest, says future editions of his Minecraft festival will also work towards “further diversify[ing] the genres of the artists performing. “We’d also aim to provide more custom mini-games and unique interactive elements to make the festival as immersive as possible.”
“We’re really interested in the idea of adding in some MMO elements and turning it into a persistent world with a handful of shows on a weekly basis,” Waldron added, “Minecraft was a great platform to start on but to be honest I think the next step is a free stand-alone virtual platform.”
Promoter Andy Copping is still confident physical festivals will return next year. “We are working closely with government and local authorities to make sure we have the right strategies in place and we will,” he says. “Our main aim is to be back up and running next year.”
If they’re not, even if they are, there’s always Minecraft.