ILLUSTRATION BY LIAM BRAZIER
The video for Childish Gambino’s “Me and Your Mama,” filmed in the desert in Joshua Tree, California, uses virtual reality so well it almost makes you dizzy: As singer-rapper Donald Glover dances in DayGlo stripes and a tribal grass skirt, viewers can float around the stage, zooming in on screaming fans or a 3-D animated alien robot. “This is a way of being there without being there,” Glover told Australia’s Triple J radio.
Coachella kicks off the 2018 festival season this month in Indio, not far from where Glover filmed that video, and the concert business is booming; last year, the top 100 worldwide tours clocked a cool $5.65 billion in gross revenue, according to Pollstar. Now, the industry is experimenting with virtual reality to see if it can drive even more growth. Coldplay beamed its show at Chicago’s Soldier Field last August to fans at home via VR goggles, and Imagine Dragons, Paul McCartney, and others have also broadcast parts of shows this way. The suits are getting in on it as well, as the world’s biggest promoter (Live Nation) and record label (Universal) have partnered with VR companies.
The big question, of course, is whether VR can truly deliver the experience of being at a concert. “We’re still in super-early days,” says Rob Ruffler, a VR expert and former vice president for the short-lived Viacom NEXT, which developed a VR game called “The Melody of Dust.”
“You can get the experience of being in the audience or on the stage, but it’s questionable how compelling that experience is, especially for repeat viewing.”
That’s in part because much of the technology remains a work in progress. When Hemispheres tried to access behind-the-scenes Third Eye Blind and Slash clips on NextVR’s Live Nation page, we discovered that Samsung Gear’s $130 VR goggles were incompatible with an iPhone. An on-site Samsung rep at Best Buy steered us instead toward a $70 Zeiss VR One Plus, but it turned out not to work with almost any online content.
Even when you can get the devices to work, the search for content remains frustrating. Coldplay is the biggest act to post a full concert, but the band took down its on-demand Chicago broadcast after just a month. For now, it appears that musicians are more likely to use the technology for bonus content than to record performances. Earlier this year, Elton John gave Google Cardboard headsets to journalists for a press conference recapping his career. In the video, ’70s Elton wears a sparkly Dodgers uniform, swings a bat, and leaps on top of his grand piano. If you want to catch Sir Elton’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, though, you won’t be able to slip on the goggles, stay on your couch, and say, “Oh how it feels so real, lying here, with no one near.” You’ll have to brave the crowd with everyone else.