Record companies, artists, fans and perhaps the entire entertainment business are being readied to experience immersive digital environments that take us beyond the universe. Is this the future or a marketing-led tech fantasy? Ben Gilbert investigates.
For Radiohead, innovation seems as central to their music as amplification. A rabid determination to pioneer and take risks has been apparent since the release of ‘OK Computer’ in 1997. This spirit seems to feed into everything they do – across music, visuals, technology, industry and activism – and frames a contemporary rock group pretty much unlike any other in 2021. For illustration, check out the band’s most recent venture: the “upside-down digital/analogue universe” of the Kid A Mnesia Exhibition.
While the group would perhaps baulk at the connection, this upcoming collaboration with Epic Games can probably be catalogued within the metaverse, a catch-all buzzword that is likely to gather further momentum in popular culture across the coming months. Timed to coincide with the band’s reissues of their ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ albums, this virtual experience will be available to check out on PS5 consoles, PCs and Macs in November.
Featuring contributions from frontman Thom Yorke and visual artist Stanley Donwood, alongside the audio design of producer Nigel Godrich, the trailer suggests a 3D visualisation akin to entering a dystopian netherworld of doom, much like many of the most successful video games of the modern era. While little more is known about the project, there is a tangible sense of excitement, particularly after the 2020 launch of the Radiohead Public Library, which configured a more static and content-based, but no less ambitious, elaboration of their digital presence.
Commenting on the news, Music Ally suggested such tie-ins bode well for the realisation of other, similarly styled environments across the music sector: “It’s a curveball partnership for a company whose flagship Fortnite concerts have been with Marshmello, Travis Scott and Ariana Grande. If Kid A Mnesia Exhibition is a hit, it may encourage a wider range of artists to explore these kinds of projects, whether with companies like Epic Games or independently,” they wrote.
Travis Scott’s Astronomical Fortnite show earned him $20m
Listed in their report are some of the big names already at home in the metaverse – a term coined by writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash and defined as “an immersive digital environment where people interact as avatars. The prefix ‘meta’ means beyond and ‘verse’ refers to the universe” – as both tech companies and artists. For example, Scott and Grande are two of the most high-profile performers with connections to this world.
The US rapper’s Astronomical Fortnite performance in April 2020 earned him approximately $20m, despite lasting less than 10 mins. Meanwhile, last month’s three-day ‘Rift Tour’ on the same gaming platform was described as being “like surfing through Ariana Grande’s personal universe”. Jon Vlassopulos, the global head of music for video game developer Roblox, who hosted Lil Nas X for a similar concert experience in November, agrees that the possibilities here are unmatched.
“Limits are non-existent in the metaverse,” he told The Guardian. “Artists can perform in an infinite venue that they dream up and perform for millions of fans in a single night, instead of having to fly around the world for 18 months on a physical tour,” he explained. No lesser figure than Mark Zuckerberg believes this is set to be the next phase for digital entertainment and, by association, the music business, and has spoken about establishing Facebook as a “metaverse company”.
While striking a more cautious tone, music industry commentator David Turner is among the figures to join the debate. In his most recent Penny Fractions newsletter, Turner wrote: “While this may be a marketing ploy, it’s one the record industry is prepared to strap itself right alongside. Facebook and other tech firms may talk about AR and VR most often, but the widest and most successful implementation of those technologies is seen in video games.”
Roblox partners with Lil Nas X, Zara Larsson and Royal Blood
Mat Ombler, a journalist with a focus on music found in the gaming sphere, feels similarly engaged by these possibilities, which he feels were brilliantly realised by last year’s Scott performance. “Not only did it set the bar high, it showed how profitable collaborations between the video game and music industries can be when they understand each other.
“I think the [Travis] Scott collaboration in particular is responsible for the music industry starting to take video games more seriously.”
– Matt Ombler, journalist
“I think the Scott collaboration in particular is responsible for the music industry starting to take video games more seriously. I’d never seen such a massive turn of heads from the music industry in response to how successful it was. Collaborations such as these are resulting in million-dollar sales of in-game cosmetic items and I’ve noted a huge spike in streams on Spotify for artists in the period shortly after these metaverse performances,” he told Synchtank.
Roblox are another major player here. With approximately 42m daily active users, artists including Zara Larsson, Royal Blood and Why Don’t We have partnered with the platform, alongside brands like Gucci and entertainment franchises such as Stranger Things. Meanwhile, Lil Nas X’s aforementioned show, the first virtual concert on Roblox, saw the star wear a motion-capture suit to debut his new single ‘Holiday’ to an audience of more than 30m in total.
Achieving an exponential progression across the pandemic, when live shows were replaced by virtual events and online concerts reportedly reached 327m streams across 2020, has not been without its hurdles and the sort of legal challenges that seem inevitable when tech and UGC form digital alliances in the social space. In June, the National Music Publishers’ Association issued a lawsuit seeking $200m in damages, accusing the company of copyright infringement by allowing gamers to utilise unlicensed music as part of their experience.
Sony Music and Warner Music keen to invest in the metaverse
But Roblox now has publishing deals with Sony Music Entertainment – who also acquired a minority stake in Epic Games in June – BMG, and Warner Music Group (WMG). Described as “Roblox’s biggest music industry partner”, WMG invested in the platform’s $520m funding round at the start of 2021 and see great potential here. “We exist to champion our artists and their music, to connect them with fans and help them create cultural moments that’ll have a huge impact,” explained their Chief Innovation Officer, Scott Cohen.
“We exist to champion our artists and their music, to connect them with fans and help them create cultural moments that’ll have a huge impact.”
– Scott Cohen, Warner Music Group
“You can’t do that unless you’re reaching people where they are today, and that also means having an informed view of where they’ll be tomorrow. So we’re getting in on the ground early with a whole range of partners, helping them use our artists’ music as they develop their platforms for everyone’s benefit. Each deal is bespoke, but our overall approach is to be a progressive partner for entrepreneurs, while remaining a fierce advocate of the value of music,” he told Synchtank.
Additionally, the company has invested in other metaverse properties, such as Genies – described as “the world’s largest avatar technology company” – and Wave – specialists in “live, interactive and immersive shows” – who have also caught the eye of Ombler. Which platforms does he think are bringing true innovation to the metaverse? “The Wave concerts have impressed me the most as everything they do is live.
“This provides a unique opportunity for fans to directly interact with creators mid-performance, while also enjoying the benefits of a live performance (which, in my opinion, will always be better than something that’s pre-recorded). That said, I’m keeping a close eye on what Roblox is doing. As the Roblox platform allows developers to build their own virtual worlds within games, there’s a lot of potential here for record labels and artists to do virtual meet and greets with fans (alongside the inevitable quests, merch and mini-games),” he said.
Fortnite “doesn’t leave much room for interaction with artists”
Ombler, who anticipates that Microsoft and Sony will soon enter the market in a more impactful way, also praised the size and scale of Fortnite’s contribution, while suggesting “the current format doesn’t leave much room for meaningful interaction with artists”. Perhaps with that in mind, the company have looked to build more engaging fan experiences, for example in their innovative collaboration this summer with The O2 and R&B group Easy Life, which sought to create “the world’s first real life supervenue”, an interactive gaming and gig experience inside Fortnite Creative.
“Where it gets interesting is where you can add layers of digital information to the experience – show more info about the artists on stage, the songs being performed.”
– Scott Cohen, Warner Music Group
“This is a new and exciting way to digest music,” explained frontman Murray Matravers. “It will never replace a live show in the traditional sense, but the limitless possibilities of video games allow for some really interesting outcomes. Music has always played a huge part in video games and this is yet another crossover,” he said. Indeed, Cohen emphasises that these events should resolutely avoid seeking to “crudely jam 20th century experiences into 21st century formats”.
“Where it gets interesting is where you can add layers of digital information to the experience – show more info about the artists on stage, the songs being performed. If it’s done right it can be complementary to the gig – the way a light show is – rather than detrimental to the experience. And we can take it further, we can switch people from their seat to being on stage or take them backstage after the gig. The sort of experiences they couldn’t get by simply buying a ticket and turning up. We’re starting to see innovation in these areas and, as the real life live sector reopens, I think we’ll see more,” he commented.
We can certainly expect increased synergy between these platforms, artists and labels. Monstercat, the Canadian electronic music label, has built strong connections with Twitch and Roblox, where they launched the virtual space, Lost Civilization, in July. “I don’t really know where our world is going to go in the future. There’s a lot of flexibility here to build puzzles and a home for our younger audience, in a medium that they’re used to enjoying on a daily basis,” founder and CEO Mike Darlington told Music Ally.
Rights holders must become more flexible to ensure music is licensed
While it’s clear how much opportunity there is in the metaverse for ancillary revenue beyond royalties – in merchandising, NFTs, digital avatars and wearables – it’s also evident that rights holders need to become more flexible to ensure music is correctly licensed within these environments. A recent MIDiA Research article addressed how “complex” it can be for music industry partners to work alongside platforms like Roblox.
“So far, the music industry and the rights that underpin it have focused on monetising consumption. Music on Roblox is about expression and fandom: users want to create, communicate and connect through music. This will drive future growth for the music industry,” they wrote. Ombler, however, sees rather more acute issues to be resolved between the key players. “The music industry doesn’t understand video games and the video game industry doesn’t understand music.
“The music industry doesn’t understand video games and the video game industry doesn’t understand music.”
– Matt Ombler, journalist
“Thankfully, the two sides are getting better at working together but it’s inevitable that game companies stepping forth into the metaverse will need to hire music rights experts to help them navigate an area of law so complicated that no one can seem to agree on it,” he commented. Cohen agrees, suggesting that both parties are finally emerging from an era when “licensing rules were seen as a brake on innovation”.
He explained: “We got ourselves into a situation where start-ups would ignore licensing altogether while building their platforms and come to rights holders later. That wasn’t good for anyone in the long-term. It meant rights holders lost out on the chance to help shape new platforms and entrepreneurs had the threat of litigation hanging over them. Fortunately, the market is more mature these days and we’re able to collaborate with a wide range of partners under the current rules. I’m sure there could always be improvements, and we’re always happy to listen and engage in dialogue, but it’s super important that businesses recognise the intrinsic value of the music they hope to use to build their audiences and drive their revenues.”