With bungled music NFT startups and sketchy virtual concerts, music and the metaverse may have gotten on the wrong foot. But the metaverse may be destined to envelop everything — and it's important for musicians to envision themselves there.
MAR 2, 2022 - 10:44 AM
Almost immediately after Mark Zuckerberg changed Facebook's parent company name to Meta, the metaverse and the music industry got off on the wrong foot.
Despite broad acceptance via reams of media coverage and billions in corporate acquisitions, this nascent digital landscape — a patchwork of blockchain, VR, AR and AI, among other things, creating something of an alternate reality — looks like anathema to some who hold music sacred. Artists eviscerated (and derailed) the startup HitPiece for scraping Spotify's database for NFT fodder; fans ripped Foo Fighters' big Super Bowl Sunday metaverse debut as a Kafkaesque nightmare.
So the metaverse is a fleeting gimmick, right? Doomed to fail? Not so fast, experts say. The awesome amount of money invested in this concept — plus the staggering amount of time American adults already spend consuming digital media — makes it the most realistic evolutionary step for the internet, if not a flat-out inevitability. If so, how we consume music is reaching a pivot point — and a Twitter pile-on or three might not do much to derail the march of history.
"I'm drinking the Kool-Aid as much as you possibly could be," Inder Phull, the co-founder of music, blockchain and gaming company Pixelynx, rosily tells GRAMMY.com. "I'm a believer in this technology to transform the creative economy. This will change the relationship between artists and fans — and we'll put more power and control back into both parts of the ecosystem."
Phull paints a much different picture of this hypothetical realm — one where the metaverse is constructive, not destructive. Ultimately, as other insiders tell GRAMMY.com, the metaverse might be analogous to the internet itself, which makes it shortsighted to judge it by its early stages. Consider the days of AOL free trial discs, then think about how we can race around the world on Instagram before we get out of bed. If the metaverse isn't quite seamless yet, give it time.
But even with the metaverse largely under construction and in the realm of speculation, a closer look at three major components suggests dazzling new ways we could create, cherish and share music in this brave new world.
Redefining Music NFTs
When you think of music and NFTs, what comes to mind? Some have a negative impression, which is understandable. The gags about cartoon apes and JPEGs for the rich have come fast and hard — and so have genuine concerns about their environmental impact.
The Recording Academy has addressed that issue in its partnership with OneOf, a green NFT marketplace built for music and backed by 28-time GRAMMY winner Quincy Jones, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Recording Academy's scholarship fund.
Beyond the Academy, many in this domain are looking to engender new forms of self-expression and storytelling — and what they currently have on the docket might surprise you.
To understand how, it's worth considering that NFTs aren't just expensive images. Rather, they're more analogous to certifications of authenticity. So, just as music is boundless, a music NFT can actually encompass many kinds of virtual experiences which are unfettered by the physical laws of a real-world experience.
"I can go out into the city and start collecting music NFTs that aren't just music NFTs in the traditional sense," Phull says. "They are as immersive as they possibly could be, because we're using AR."
That's where Phull and Pixelynx come in. In May, the company will launch a mobile app in partnership with Niantic (the company behind the augmented-reality game Pokémon Go) that facilitates the monetization of musical creations in the metaverse, and offers digital rewards for attending physical concerts. (The companies are developing a second project — a desktop application, which Phull describes as "a virtual-world platform for the music industry.")
AmazeVR Co-Founder Ernest Lee concedes that NFTs are in "a bit of a bubble" at present. Regardless, he believes they have tremendous potential for emotional and sentimental value — and can act as your favorite signed poster or well-worn concert T-shirt.
"Let's say, for concerts, buying merch, and having ways to commemorate the fact that you were there — to build FOMO with your friends," Lee says. "Ten years from now, when our identities will be on a spectrum from the digital to virtual worlds, having this NFT merch will be a way to commemorate music experiences in the metaverse."
But what of the concerts themselves? That's where VR and AR come in.
Making VR And AR Musical
Right now, "metaverse" is the king of all tech buzzwords, Lee says. But that's just how new paradigms begin.
"The metaverse is a bit reminiscent of where VR was maybe seven years ago, in that it's extremely hyped up," he notes. "People are throwing it around without fully understanding what it takes to build this metaverse." For the metaverse to coalesce, Lee continues, its individual components — VR, AR, blockchain and AI — need to independently succeed.
Lee can speak to the former two as they relate to music. And while AmazeVR is currently working with GRAMMY-winning rap dynamo Megan Thee Stallion for an immersive headset performance, he believes that all artists — massive or miniscule — should have the tools to operate in an AR and VR playground.
"The ultimate future that we believe in is for every single artist to have their own VR concert on Amaze," he declares. To this end, AmazeVR is working with AMC Theaters to transform their auditoriums into virtual-reality concert venues, where the audience will be equipped with headsets.
Concurrently, they're developing an immersive at-home metaverse service, meant to connect music fans around the world via 3D avatars. (Which would be a relief after living through the pre-vaccine era of Zoom concerts with people confined to tiny squares.)
"Having the artists perform in front of you, making eye contact with you, having this shared experience with shared moments," Lee says, "is what we're going for." But can't we do that already in a stadium, theater or club? With a third component — AI — in the mix, the metaverse is shaping up to be unbound by the laws of physical reality.
A New Form Of Musical Intelligence
At present, metaverse concerts largely consist of real-life, big-ticket acts in gaming platforms. Ariana Grande, Travis Scott and Marshmello have performed on Fortnite; Lil Nas X and Royal Blood have rocked Roblox; and Minecraft threw Block By Blockfest, where fans traversed various servers to see acts like IDLES, Nothing Nowhere and Pussy Riot.
But what about musicians who want to appear as their younger selves — or weren't real in the first place? Welcome to AI in the music metaverse.
First, we need to talk about de-aging, which is already all over film and television. Mark Hamill, Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher were de-aged in Star Wars productions, while Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci transformed into younger men in The Irishman. Apply that technology to your favorite artist in their seventies or eighties.
ABBA has embraced the metaverse, planning a concert this spring that uses AI to de-age them — making it look like they're performing in the '70s. (The name? "ABBAtars.")
While this will happen in meatspace — at a custom-built arena in London — it points to wild possibilities of how technology can make time and the aging process elastic.
"We can speculate that the next step could potentially go even further by recreating something of their personalities and behavior," author, futurist and business advisor Bernard Marr wrote of the ABBA concert.
"It isn't a huge leap to imagine they could use language processing and voice recognition to respond to song requests from the audience," he continued. "And, perhaps one day, even hold a conversation."
This also holds for artists straight out of our imaginations. In 2021, the startup Authentic Artists unleashed DJ nights featuring fantastical creatures, like the reptilian DJ Dragoon, a cyborg-cyclopean female DJ and a tiny bunny who makes trap beats.
"Our mandate is to imagine a new frontier in music," Authentic Artists founder and CEO Chris McGarry told Protocol. "We are not trying to create a digital facsimile of what already exists."
The metaverse is even using AI to gaze toward the heavens. In 2022, pastor and entrepreneur Marquis Boone and his company Marquis Boone Enterprises announced they had successfully created J.C., the first virtual, AI gospel artist.
"I really just started thinking this is where the world is going," Boone told Christianity Today. He cited the evangelical community's slowness to embrace new technological frontiers: "I'm pretty sure that the gospel/Christian genre is going to be behind," he added.
Thousands of years after David composed his Psalms on a harp, can a digital creation worship through song? Metaverse developers are asking themselves that bizarre question — and many others.
The Metaverse Meets Reality
As we hurtle into this new domain, potential quandaries bubble forth. Gaming addiction is already a very real thing — will we become so absorbed in our avatars that we neglect our physical selves? Will the metaverse become so seamless that we forget we're in it — like when we idly scroll through Instagram in line at the supermarket?
"We want the technology to be so good that it disappears, so the fan doesn't think about the technology," Lee says. "They only think about this shared memory and moment with the artist."
If Lee's vision of metaverse access for all musicians comes to fruition, the possibilities are truly startling. Imagine enjoying any musical event, past or present, happening anywhere — the Beatles on the rooftop, Pink Floyd at Pompeii, Ella Fitzgerald in Berlin, a prehistoric drum circle, a performance by Beethoven.
"You go to a show and see a bunch of people appearing from around the world," Jonathan Vlassopulos, the Global Head of Music at Roblox, tells GRAMMY.com. "People in the live show are seeing people. Two worlds combining."
One can knock it the metaverse all they want, but all signs point to our imminent arrival there. And before artists dismiss it completely, it might behoove them to first envision themselves there — in a world within our world.