Sorry, music community: virtual concerts have proven to be no substitute for the real thing. In lieu of festivals and gigs, though — pandemic or no pandemic — these creatives are dreaming up fascinating new avenues to experience music together.
MORGAN ENOS GRAMMYS JAN 6, 2022
David Bowie may have always been moving forward, but he wasn't averse to marking time with an extravagant party. Back in 1997, he celebrated his 50th birthday party at (where else?) Madison Square Garden, joined by everyone from Foo Fighters to Billy Corgan to Lou Reed.
Sadly, he never got to celebrate his 75th, as he passed away at 69 in 2016. But how would he have rang in the occasion? His stakeholders recently contemplated that very question.
"If David were here, he would do something to mark the 75th — therefore, we should anyway," executive and entrepreneur Lawrence Peryer tells GRAMMY.com. "Some new way to engage with David, but also to reach the new generation of fans."
Given the breath of his discography — and how his fanbase precipitously expands like the boundaries of the cosmos — newly minted acolytes may not know where to begin.
That's why Peryer spearheaded two pop-ups on Heddon St. in London and Wooster St. in the late legend's neighborhood of Soho, Manhattan. Branded as "Bowie 75," the spaces (which opened in Oct. 2021 and will run through late Jan. 2022) are a blend of a retail store, fine art gallery, and Sony 360 Reality Audio space, with Bowie's various personas — Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke — peering at visitors from all directions.
For Bowie disciples and neophytes alike, these spaces offer a tangible, tactile alternative to what Peryer calls "pointing and clicking at home and having a T-shirt dropped off at your door." And he's not the only musical titan to receive such a treatment. Whether it be a splashy pop-up or something even more enveloping, Bob Marley, the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground and Leonard Cohen have similarly planted a flag in meatspace.
But what do these spaces signify in the long run? Can only artists of Bowie's caliber pull this off profitably? Do immersive spaces play a secondary role in the musical ecosystem? And is this the future of how bands interact with fans outside of concerts and festivals?
Here’s how those questions might be answered within the various domains of immersive experiences.
First, to address the question of profitability: the "Bowie 75" spaces are openly retail shops at their core, selling T-shirts, boxed sets and other memorabilia.
"David was a very technicolor artist. He was a pop artist, he wasn't just a fine artist," Peryer says. "So it's okay to have a commercial element or to have excitement and hype."
That said, "We've been very clear with everyone that they are stores, but we didn't want them to simply be stores," he adds. "We wanted to do something that honored the spirit of David creatively, technologically, and also to appeal to a younger audience who wanted them to have experiential elements."
Like the Bowie pop-ups, the Rolling Stones' tongue-and-lips-filled "RS No. 9 Carnaby Street" in Soho, London — a permanent retail store rather than a pop-up — isn't a tacky way to bank on an artist's face, but a sleek, trendy boutique. And like "Bowie 75," its architects are less concerned with the immediate bottom line than its ripple effects in the subject's legacy.
"In a traditional retail store you're planning these things on a very long lead timeline, so we're doing the same thing here," Mat Vlasic, the CEO of Bravado — Universal Music Group's merchandise and brand management company — told (opens in a new tab)Rolling Stone(opens in a new tab) in 2020, adding that the flexibility of said timeline allows for enhanced creative freedom.
There are also Queen and Jack White(opens in a new tab) stores in London, and other household names, from Ed Sheeran to Kanye West, from the Strokes to Kendrick Lamar, have promoted their wares with pop-ups. But for whatever reason, erecting a permanent, artist-specific, brick-and-mortar store hasn't translated stateside.
"In America, they tend to be more event-based pop-ups. It might be a long weekend or something around an album release," Peryer says. "So, I just don't see the long-term investment in retail happening here as much."
Immersive Exhibits & Performances
Aside from pop-up shops, there's another celebration of a musical icon on the way for fans across the pond. In Feb. 2022, the Bob Marley "One Love" experience will launch at the Satchi Gallery in London. Rather than simply guide visitors through a list of his accomplishments, the exhibit offers unconventional immersions into his hobbies, passions and personality.
"As you exit the music room, you enter the One Love Forest," says Terrapin Station CEO Jonathan Shank, clicking through a 3D mockup. "It's inspired by a Jamaican rainforest and the rural Jamaican landscape, and honestly celebrates a lot of Bob's lifestyle and his roots." Elsewhere, the "A Beautiful Life" room contains foosball tables, soccer goalposts and a pinball machine, celebrating Marley's extramusical pastimes.
This nonlinear approach reflects that of tangible tributes in the States. "A Crack in Everything," a 2019 exhibit dedicated to Leonard Cohen at the Jewish Museum in New York, featured swinging microphones and a ghostly, piped-in choir of online participants, as well as “Depression Chamber,” an installation where the viewer lays in a bed in a darkened room while eerie images manifest on the ceiling.
"One Love" Exhibit
A rendering of the "One Love" exhibit in London.
Pre-pandemic Bowie and Velvet Underground exhibits — the former at Brooklyn Museum, the latter in downtown Manhattan — similarly left the visitor awash in iconography, era-specific signifiers, and most importantly, classic songs. Immersive music events don't have to be tied to legendary artists, though.
One Night Records, a London venue that bills itself as "a nightly festival of live music in an underground maze" and "part gig, part festival, part musical adventure," was able to successfully throw "immersive promenade shows" during the thick of COVID-19 by entertaining groups of 40 in 40-minute slots, rather than 300 people at once.
"I think the thing with immersive spaces is this idea of audience agency, that they get to curate their own evening," the venue’s producer, Phoebe Stringer, says. "They can go and see what they want. They can go and be where they want. And it gives them just so much more autonomy as an audience member."
One Night Records
Musicians perform a staged funeral for the "death" of live music during a One Night Records event. Photo: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images
When it comes to One Night Records, the choices are manifold — participants can enjoy a traditional brass band in The River Railroad, vibe out at the Jazz Bar, or travel through time and space to Jump City, a wartime juke-joint with Rosie the Riveter looming overhead.
Granted, a sense of self-curation applies to the majority of VR events throughout London. But Edel McGrath, the Venue Director for One Night Records, believes there's one relatively untapped market.
"It feels like, no one's really touched on the music side of it, and no one's touched it the way we have," she asserts. "I feel like we can only kind of get bigger and better in that aspect."
Overall, "I think what makes this whole new form of entertainment fun," Shank says, "is that you're not coming here to see ticket stubs and platinum records. You're going to see those things, but you're coming here for the experience of what it feels like … You want the audience to feel like they're in it at all times until they leave."
And in the realm of virtual reality, a gaggle of visionaries are trying to take that feeling into another dimension.
Crossing Into VR
Aside from the plethora of holographic concerts by deceased musicians — Frank Zappa, Roy Orbison, Tupac Shakur — virtual reality companies are actively staking claims in the music space.
Ernest Lee, the co-CEO of AmazeVR, a company at the nexus of VR and music, admits that the technology can be a tough sell — but if it's executed carefully, it can "bring artists closer to fans than ever before."
"One of the worst things for VR is bad VR, and that gives people an impression of what they think VR is," he suggests. "But a common refrain that we hear when people see our VR concerts is that they never expect anything like this."
AmazeVR both collaborates with theaters — transforming them into virtual reality spaces where the audience is outfitted with headsets, viewing their neighbors as avatars — and converts their experience to 2D for mobile use.
What do they have on the docket right now? An immersive concert in partnership with Roc Nation, featuring three-time GRAMMY winner Megan Thee Stallion.
"The early footage has been coming out — it's going to be pretty incredible," Lee glows. "It's Meg herself, able to extend a personal invitation to fans that come into her music and join her on this journey." In this case, fans get a virtual, one-on-one concert by Meg, and AmazeVR says they have other A-list artists on the way.
Production costs are heavy for AmazeVR right now, Lee admits. But as with the pop-up creators, they're seeing the forest for the trees: Every production is another brick in the foundation of their virtual database that can add up to dividends down the line.
"Everything we make, we add it to our own library. And also we start automating things as much as possible as well," Lee says. "The lead time is quite long, but as we can drive that lead time way down and the costs way down, then we can make this available for all artists."
While AmazeVR does offer at-home purchases, "Right now, it's only financially viable for A-listers," he admits. "But once the VR industry and the metaverse continue to grow and develop and reach mass adoption, there could be a mean audience there."
A performance by Miro Shot. Photo courtesy of Roman Rappak.
Smaller Bands Getting Involved
While posh retail outposts, museum exhibits and VR extravaganzas are generally walled off to smaller bands at this time, that doesn't mean the creativity stops beyond superstars.
Back in 2015, Jamie xx of the XX and his label Young Turks turned a small Shoreditch boutique into a rainbow-hued record store. When rock band the Used had to cancel an in-person pop-up due to COVID-19, they made a 3D, interactive one. And between shows in NYC, the Baltimore hardcore band Turnstile celebrated the release of their 2021 breakout album GLOW ON with a pop-up in the Lower East Side, selling skate decks and limited-edition vinyl.
But where these pop-ups were mainly offshoots of bands' album cycles, Roman Rappak took the immersive route much, much further. His band, Miro Shot, is something of a hybrid between a band and a tech startup.
"I put out a couple of records with a previous band, and we toured, and did all the things you're supposed to do as a band," Rappak says. "But it got to a point where I realized we were in the model of what bands were in the '50s and '60s, and at the same time, all this exciting stuff is happening in tech."
Looking to start a band that was "a love letter to technology," Rappak and his bandmates toured around Europe, playing cinemas and warehouses where the audience wore VR headsets.
"At a certain point, we can synchronize the headsets with the music so our audience would suddenly be in the middle of a chorus, flying over a lake or through some sort of spatial landscape," he adds. "It went from being this kind of weird art-punk project to venture capitalists in Silicon Valley saying, 'We'd like to invest in this startup.'"
There was only one problem: Miro Shot was a band, not a startup. Still, they were open to the idea of bleeding their concept from one domain into another — and wound up inviting game designers, filmmakers and coders into their band.
"Somehow, we've had better luck doing that than we would've done with my previous band," he says, "where we were trying to get on these Spotify playlists where 40,000 tracks are uploaded [per day]." And while nobody in Miro Shot "bought a Tesla" upon signing a deal with the record label Believe, it's inarguable that their immersive angle was the ticket to more success.
Because the fact of the matter is, in 2022, album sales are down while the metaverse is exploding. "There are 2.8 billion gamers in the world who are suddenly starting to go to concerts," Rappak reports. "There's about to be this massive convergence between all these things."
A performance by Miro Shot. Photo courtesy of Roman Rappak.
A New Form Of Rapport
Despite a deluge of virtual concerts and festivals since early 2020, all of the above creators agree that the point of musical experiences is the rapport — feeling waves of reactive emotion comb through dozens, hundreds or thousands of consciousnesses at once.
And that's exactly what these immersive spaces are tapping into, whether it be a pop-up or something much weirder and wilder.
"All these [artists] are the fabric of what we think of as music — whether it's the Smiths or the Cure or Wu-Tang or the Stones, or whoever it is — were because of these visceral moments where people were packed together and there wasn't that much space," Rappak says.
He compares the intimate experiences (replicable by VR) to stadium experiences, where the audience is far denser, yet the act has to make up for the distance with pyrotechnics and lights.
"I want to go into a world where I'm face-to-face with six other fans of this band, and I want to go to an afterparty where it's just the 10 of us," he adds. "It's about, 'I'm there and I count' — that I'm relevant within this space."
Indeed, after almost two years of relative isolation, the core reason we all enjoy music — to find new ways to engage with and relate to each other as human beings — is loud and clear.
"Fans like to do things. They go to events, they wait backstage, they wait near the stage door, they get together and argue and debate," Peryer says. "Of course, you can do all those things online. But I think the nature of fandom is to go out and experience the art and interact with it."
And whether together physically or in the metaverse, at a boutique or a stadium, the frontiers of how we can immerse ourselves in music together seem mostly untapped. That is, as long as promoters, venue owners, and tech developers keep their imaginations about them.