Before kicking off a run of concerts in Denver at Bluebird Theater for Twenty One Pilots’ post-pandemic return to live music, the rock duo made a stop in a videogame platform.
Isla Lohr was among the crowd, despite not being a huge Twenty One Pilots fan, and voted on for the set list based on which stage setting looked the coolest. The 12-year-old, who lives outside Seattle and has attended several virtual concerts, said she prefers them to in-person shows she’s attended with her family. For this concert, she was also a digital doppelgänger, decked out with rainbow hair and rainbow sunglasses.
“I like being an avatar better because you don’t have to deal with crowds or annoying people,” said Isla, who also enjoyed doing other activities online throughout the Twenty One Pilots set. “It’s cooler because you can do a lot more with it because it’s not real life.”
Virtual performances are becoming more common and more sophisticated, with high-profile artists such as Ariana Grande, Easy Life and the Weeknd also among those to take to the digital stage despite the easing of pandemic restrictions. While in-person concerts began to pick up this summer, with ticket sales indicating strong demand from fans, industry executives say virtual gigs can be complementary to the much more lucrative live ones and are gaining traction as a new medium.
“We’ve seen an enormous amount of change in the last year with the digitization of everything, and we don’t think we’re going back into a world in which we’re not more digital,” said Warner Music Group Corp. digital chief Oana Ruxandra.
Virtual concerts started growing in popularity before the pandemic hit and gained further steam once lockdowns and quarantines took hold, giving artists and fans a safe way to connect—via mobile phones, computers, gaming consoles or, for the most immersive experiences, virtual-reality headsets.
“For the first time, the market understood what we do,” said Adam Arrigo, chief executive of WaveXR Inc., whose technology turns artists into avatars that can perform in videogames, on social media and on Wave’s own platform.
Proponents say the appeal is expected to last in part because virtual shows can accommodate far larger audiences than real-world shows—27.7 million people watched at least one of five Travis Scott performances one weekend in Epic Games Inc.’s “Fortnite” in April 2020. Virtual concerts also enable fans, who typically see and chat with each other in the form of avatars, to avoid travel expenses as well as headaches such as having to wait in long lines, or minors having to persuade parents to chaperone them at a show.
Though streamed shows have potential—Midia Research’s Mark Mulligan calls them a new video format that “could be to live music what pay-TV is to sports, creating in the long run a market that is even bigger than the core business”—they have a long way to go. Just 9% of consumers have live-streamed a concert, according to Midia, and the audience skews toward early users and younger males.
Tickets to live-streamed concerts grossed $600 million in 2020, according to Midia, though most shows are free to attend, and artists are exploring other ways of making money including tipping and sponsorships. Some sell special effects such as the ability to make virtual avocados dance on stage. Some offer virtual merchandise, or “verch,” such as band T-shirts or hats that avatars can wear, for a few dollars a pop. The shows may also include exclusive songs, games and other perks.
The Twenty One Pilots concert on Roblox Corp.’s social-entertainment platform included the option for fans to vote on the order in which they could hear the duo perform five songs. Prerecorded 20-minute sets were played at the top of every hour from a Friday night to a Sunday afternoon, with the lineup changing each time based on how the attendees voted. The event was visited more than 13 million times, according to the band.
For a concert at a virtual re-creation of London’s O2 arena housed within “Fortnite” in June, the U.K. band Easy Life played a song not available anywhere else. To hear it, attendees had to navigate their way to a special area within the virtual venue.
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“It was a reward for people who did,” said the group’s 25-year-old bass and sax player, Sam Hewitt. “In a world without physics, why shouldn’t we be as creative as possible?”
Easy Life also added horn instruments to their alternative pop songs for the performance, which attracted 10.8 million attendees, according to the quintet.
Roblox helped Twenty One Pilots create their virtual show while Easy Life hired members of the “Fortnite” creator community to produce their performance and got some assistance from Epic along the way. Venue sponsor O2 as well as members of both bands and their labels also played a part.
Virtual concerts aren’t limited to videogames.
Stageverse, an app that launched in September from venture-backed startup Stage Inc., broadcasts recorded video of live concerts from a virtual venue where attendees interact via avatars. It is currently airing video of rock band Muse’s 2019 concert tour free over the next few weeks at scheduled times on iOS, Android and Oculus Quest devices.
In August 2020, The Weeknd drew three million fans to a show that was featured on TikTok. The R&B singer appeared to viewers as an avatar created by Wave, Mr. Arrigo’s Los Angeles-based startup that has raised more than $65 million in funding from music-industry heavyweights such as Justin Bieber and Scooter Braun.
In the future, tech creators envision many other online entertainment venues will take shape in the “metaverse”—a term that refers to the next evolution of the internet in which infinite users can be together online and create their own virtual spaces.
Wave has been experimenting with different ways to cash in. Alison Wonderland, a DJ, sold tickets for $10 a pop; a Dillon Francis show was free but offered fans the option to spend on virtual effects such as giving the electronic DJ laser beams for eyes; a John Legend show was sponsored by Yamaha and People magazine.
Wave, Epic and Roblox are aiming for artists big and small to be able to independently develop and promote shows on their platforms. “We want to create a sustainable ecosystem where we’re providing tools to the music industry,” said Jon Vlassopulos, head of global music at Roblox.
Nate Nanzer, vice president of partnerships at Epic, expects virtual concerts to one day take place within “Fortnite” as often as weekly.
Last week, Epic announced it will host a series of musical performances in “Fortnite” by artists popular in markets outside the U.S., which started this weekend with Egyptian singer Mohamed Hamaki. Roblox recently launched “Listening Parties,” allowing artists to introduce new music to fans while they play games and chat.
Ms. Ruxandra, of Warner Music, which is an investor in Roblox, said the goal is to move beyond one-off concerts into a blending of physical and digital experiences that foster continuous interaction between artists and their fans.
“Our lives will be physical and digital at the same time and a lot of our experiences will be gamified,” she said.
Write to Anne Steele at Anne.Steele@wsj.com and Sarah E. Needleman at email@example.com
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