14 February 2017

With VR technology on the rise, what will it have in store for the music industry?

Virtual Reality (VR) has come a long way since its motion sickness-inducing inception. Now, high end machines like the HTC Vive, alongside cheaper systems such as Google’s Glass have made the virtual realm more accessible than ever.

Video games, film & TV, and even marketing have all seen VR shake-up their sectors; will the music industry be next? Some think so, with technology magazine Wired going as far as to say VR might be “music’s salvation.” What does this mean?

How successful have VR music videos been so far?

Aside from giving us Daft Punk’s great Tron Legacy soundtrack, VR and music have had very little to do with each other, traditionally. But that was before VR got good. 2016 was “the year of VR” according to multiple sources. This was based on two factors: a huge improvement in the quality of the technology, and a vast increase in the accessibility of the technology to consumers.

As VR became more popular and widely-used, musicians and labels decided it was worth experimenting. One of the first musical VR endeavours of this era was a short 360 video for The Weeknd’s 2015 hit ‘The Hills’.

The video had the user follow The Weeknd through a burning city as the song played in the background, using a combination of CGI and video filmed on a GoPro (as a GoPro advert at the end of the clip makes it very clear). The video racked up over two million views, which sounds impressive, but considering the non-VR version of the ‘The Hills’ video has over one billion views, it seems less so.

The next year, Run The Jewels released a VR 360 music video for their track ‘Crown’. Unlike The Weeknd’s more realist approach, ‘Crown’ is an avant garde, abstract experience, with multiple versions of Killer Mike and El-P surrounding the viewer, performing the song against a constantly shifting black & white backdrop.

This video came as a part of a virtual reality platform launched by the duo called VRTJ, which gave viewers a branded VR headset, and which is set to provide more VR content going forward. Though Run The Jewels’ ‘Crown’ failed to rack up as many views as The Weeknd’s original ‘The Hills’ video (maybe this is an unfair yardstick since most videos don’t get one billion views), this investment in VR shows that some musicians are confident it will be the future of the industry – or at least an avenue worth seriously exploring.

But perhaps music videos are not the best way to do this. Maybe virtual reality is most useful for replicating the live experience.

How is VR changing live music?

In 2013, Paul McCartney started working with a VR production studio named Jaunt on a fully immersive live concert experience. This would be more than just a 360 video. Jaunt had teamed up with a tech company called Source Sound, who boasted a brand new way of presenting music in a 3D space called “spatial audio”.

The head of Source Sound told Wired that this technology allows music to “stay where it is” while a viewer moves her head from side to side. With spatial audio perfected, a 360 video of a live concert could be enhanced more than ever before, making the experience more realistic than it ever had been.

Live Nation clearly saw the potential in this prospect. They announced a deal with NextVR to live stream concerts from around the world in high quality VR. This means concerts from the likes of Beyonce and Rihanna could now be beamed directly to the headsets of millions of fans worldwide.

It’s not just mainstream music either. Late last year Boiler Room announced what it called “the world’s first VR music venue”, which aims to takes fans to “raves halfway across the world”.

Nothing will ever replace the real life live music experience, but for those who miss out on a concert, a realistic and engaging VR recording will be the next best thing. This is especially true as VR experiences can capture a moment in time. Imagine if legendary gigs from the early days of Chicago House had been captured in VR for future fans to experience forever.

VR has huge potential to play a big part in the music industry moving forward, but it is unlikely to alter it beyond recognition. Fans will always want to see their favourite artists live and in the flesh, and no amount of spatial sound technology will change that.

Image by Nan Palmero from San Antonio, TX, USA – Woman Using a Samsung VR Headset at SXSW, CC BY 2.0, Link

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