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Concerts & Technology: The Future Is Now
During Matchbox Twenty's A Brief History Of Everything tour this year, fans who couldn't physically get to a concert could still enjoy the show: The GRAMMY-nominated band made use of state-of-the-art 360-degree cameras to present a fully immersive, fan-controlled virtual reality experience of their Oct. 4 performance in Denver. Additionally, fans purchasing VIP tickets could employ cutting-edge technology to get even closer to the band by entering a virtual space as a hologram to sing alongside a hologram of frontman Rob Thomas.
VR is just one example of the wide range of technologies — from apps and RFID bracelets to augmented reality and holographic projection — that is having a profound impact on the way audiences experience live music. To forward-thinking artists like Thomas, the future for concerts and technology is now.
"I think we're at the moment where this stuff is really here," says Thomas. "There's skepticism, but I also remember when people were skeptical about whether the internet would take off. When Matchbox Twenty started, we connected with fans through bumper stickers and cassette tapes. Twenty years later, we're in virtual reality, which is pretty amazing. But with every jump forward in technology, it's still about connecting with fans."
In the near future, it's likely virtual reality concerts will shift from newsworthy to commonplace, but technology is also opening up some brave new possibilities for live shows themselves.
Metal fans looking ahead at this winter's concert schedule may be surprised to learn that Ronnie James Dio, who died in 2010, will be back on the road for a series of European shows starting in November. Attendees at the shows will indeed be hearing the estimable voice of Dio, but what they will see onstage will be members of his longtime band fronted by a hologram.
"Ronnie was always an innovator in music so why not an innovator in technology?" asks Wendy Dio, the singer's longtime manager. "There are plenty of fans of Ronnie's that would love to see him back up on the stage, and there a lot of people that never had a chance to see him — this is the only way that's possible now. I'm hoping I have Ronnie's blessing because I think this is the wave of the future and I think as more people experience it, they'll accept it.”
Eyellusion is the Los Angeles-based hologram company recreating Dio for the stage, and the company has also teamed with Frank Zappa's estate to produce a new show centered on the iconoclastic artist. While the idea of bringing back deceased artists in virtual form has sparked debate, Eyellusion CEO Jeff Pezzuti points out that the technology can do much more.
"Hologram technology might be the main part of a show, or just part of a live show, or a way of capturing something for posterity that's never been possible before," Pezzuti explains. "And the digital assets we create can move across platforms into all sorts of uses. We know a hologram is not the real thing, but it's close enough now to have you walk out of a show saying, 'Holy s***!' We want to create those 'holy s***' moments."
The Zappa concerts are planned for late 2018 and will include a variety of holographic elements sharing the stage with musicians who toured and recorded with Zappa.
"My father was a futurist and a visualist who wanted to do this kind of thing in his lifetime," says son Ahmet Zappa, a co-trustee of the Zappa estate and an executive with Eyellusion. "'Hologram' describes the way in which Frank can come back, but that's a limited way of thinking. Really, what we're doing is using technology to unleash a whole new way of witnessing the bizarre world of Frank Zappa. It won't be just watching a hologram play guitar. If the band's performing Frank's song "Stink-Foot," maybe it's sung by an 800-pound snakeskin platform boot. That's a different approach than what you'd expect for Dio, but it fits Frank."
Some might be tempted to write off such new technology as a novelty rather than a game-changer. But, according to Matchbox Twenty manager Nick Lippman, that depends on how the technology is used.
"It's only a gimmick if you don't know what you're doing with it," explains Lippman. "If you just step into the technology without a clear intention of what you're doing as an artist, it's not going to feel authentic. Artists shouldn't fit themselves to new technology — the technology has to actually serve the artist and the artist's fans."
Many industry insiders are embracing new technology as a boon to the concert business. Kevin Chernett, executive vice president of global partnerships & content distribution at Live Nation, oversees live streaming and virtual reality projects for the entertainment company, which this summer live-streamed Coldplay's massive A Head Full Of Dreams concert in virtual reality.
"People are having their first VR experiences now and are surprised to find that the VR evokes the same emotions and thrills and energy that you'd feel when you're actually at a show — people stand up for the encore just like they would at the arena," says Chernett. "But we don't see any indication that people prefer their living room to the actual experience of a concert — all the technology actually helps to promote the live experience."
At those live experiences, concertgoers may not even be aware of the degree to which cutting-edge technology shapes what they're hearing and seeing.
"There have been quantum leaps forward in terms of the sound and lighting technology that's present in modern-day concerts compared to what it was a decade ago," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert trade publication Pollstar. "From the visual and audio perspective, we're producing a much higher-quality event all around and the technology is top notch — though it still takes talent onstage to make it all work."
Roger Waters' current Us +Them tour features lighting controlled by infrared sensors, real-time video editing of giant screen images and stage technology so new it's considered to be a prototype. Waters collaborated closely with artistic director Sean Evans to create a high-tech spectacle that would be powerful but still serve to showcase the music.
"We didn't want the tail to wag the dog," says Evans. "'Oh, here's some cool technology, let's find a way to use it.' On a tech level, there are all these great crazy new toys, but on a creative level you still have to figure out how to use it all in a compelling way."
One effect in Waters' show — a laser-light representation of the prism from the album cover of Pink Floyd's 1973 album, Dark Side Of The Moon — was designed with a very specific purpose in mind.
"That image has been all over Instagram," says Evans. "And that was the idea — we wanted to make something iconic that people were going to put all over social media. It's a weird way to think about a show, but that's the environment now."
Technology is also extending the concert experience and upgrading audience amenities.
Apps such as Pavemint help concertgoers find parking before the show while others help order food that can be delivered during the show. RFID bracelets enable festival attendees to go cashless, and USB bracelets let fans leave a venue with a download of the show they just witnessed. Live Nation recently launched a Facebook Messenger bot that lets the social experience of the concert begin during the ticket-buying process.
"I don't look at this kind of technology as a demographic thing — it's a psychographic thing," says Lisa Licht, chief marketing officer at Live Nation. "It's for people who really love concerts and are spending so much time on social media. Concerts have always been both a personal and a social experience, and now we're finding ways to bring those experiences together."
Over the next few years, today's extraordinary technology is likely to become ordinary, as financial barriers to entry drop, ease-of-use increases, and artists, fans and the industry embrace new tech-friendly horizons.
Thomas is looking forward to some added benefits of the virtual concert world.
"Fans want to jump onstage with us in VR, but I'm more excited to be out in the crowd watching us play — that's a point of view I've never really had before. And if we get to the point where I could just play the live show and then send my hologram to the after-party to do the mingling, that would be awesome."
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis, Elvis: My Best Man, and Running With The Champ: My Forty-Year Friendship With Muhammad Ali.)