'I literally felt like I was going to cry': How virtual music festivals are keeping fans connected
Most attendees of video game concerts 'are fans of music and not gamers'
At this weekend's Lavapalooza music festival, bands such as 100 Gecs, Aaron Cartier and TNGHT will be blasting out tunes for six hours a night.
Behind the scenes, festival organizer Max Schramp already knows how he'll be spending his time.
"Trying to make sure all the artists get to the stage, which is highly complicated."
That's because for Lavapalooza, the stage and performers are all virtual.
The music festival takes place in the shared gaming space called Minecraft, where players use colourful blocks to create everything from simple structures to rock 'n' roll amphitheatres.
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Log on and you'll see colourful Lego-like shapes soaring overhead. Navigating your Minecraft character, you can visit T-shirt vendors or even jump into the virtual mosh pit.
Schramp first got the idea of making a Minecraft music concert in 2018, when the Hamilton architecture student was celebrating his birthday. As a DJ, he and his friends decided to create an event where players could drop in and listen to tunes.
He figured 40 guests would show up. Then, as he was cutting his birthday cake in real life, his computer started crashing because so many people were trying to join. In the end, 400 players dropped by and Schramp knew he was on to something.
Since then, Schramp and his team at Open Pit have started taking Minecraft music concerts to the next level. At the end of April, they launched Square Garden. The hyperpop duo 100 Gecs enlisted U.K. star Charli XCX to join them in a virtual festival filled with giant mushrooms, rainbow flowers and secret treasures for fans to discover.
Attendees 'are fans of music and not gamers'
But the fans logging on aren't just video game players — not according to a survey Schramp did of attendees.
"The majority of the people who are attending our events are fans of music and not gamers," he said. "Lots of people will just buy Minecraft specifically for these events and then never use it again."
At a time when live venues are shuttered and cross-country tours impossible due to COVID-19, virtual music events are gaining a growing audience. In April, rapper Travis Scott joined forces with the popular game Fortnite for an experience that hinted at the virtual concert's true potential.
While Fortnite players showed off their pre-programmed dance moves, a massive version of the rap star towered above, surrounded by shimmering Tron-like effects. More than 12 million people tuned in to watch the nine-minute show.
Dan Kruchkow, Chief Marketing Officer at Crush Music, told CBC News in an email that the success of Travis Scott's event suggests video games are becoming platforms for all types of media, not only gaming.
Kruchkow said he doesn't believe virtual music festivals will create enough revenue to replace concerts during the pandemic. But he said interactive performances are rapidly becoming a standard part of artists' careers.
"The super fans eat it up because they're excited in a time when there's not a whole lot else to consume."
Digital performances 'feel like concerts'
For music writer and film producer Sam Sutherland, attending Square Garden gave him back what he'd been missing. It's more than just watching some artist streaming online, he said. "They really do feel like concerts"
Part of that feeling comes from the ability to interact with fans chatting on discord servers or watching the show on the Twitch streaming site. But Sutherland said it's also the care the creators take, making environments that match the musicians.
In the middle of the pandemic, when he was under lockdown and feeling lonely, the Minecraft music festival became a powerful experience.
"I literally felt like I was going to cry" he said.
Sutherland said he remembers seeing a virtual clementine tree under a giant rat, which tied in the latest single from Charli XCX.
"Seeing that and being able to understand that even when you were this isolated, you had this opportunity to connect to this profoundly with people who shared your particular sort of specific interest, it's an incredible experience."
The other aspect that excites Sutherland is how virtual concerts are breaking down barriers that prevent most music fans from attending in real life.
"There's no ramps, there's no door price.You can donate to a worthy cause if you want to, but it's really democratized audience opportunities to engage with a live music community."
Keeping connected during a pandemic
Reaching fans is what attracted the Philadelphia band Courier Club to create its own music festival in Minecraft: Block by Blockwest (a play on the music festival South by Southwest). When the pandemic cancelled a major tour, the band decided to create the concert experience online
As interest in the project grew and more bands signed on, elements kept being added, including virtual coffee shops, art galleries and even special hearts and music effects that artists could trigger while the music played.
What's important to lead vocalist Timothy Waldron is staying connected to fans.
"Once those communities start to fade away, that's the whole entire ecosystem." he said.
In the end BXBW reached 134,000 viewers on the livestream and raised $50,000 for the CDC Foundation's Emergency Response Fund.
Whether it's Minecraft or Fortnite, band members are already spitballing ideas for their next online event. As music writer Sam Sutherland said, virtual concerts are here to stay.
"The interest is there, the enthusiasm is there — and no matter where we end up in six months, a year, or two years, this is a permanent fixture of live music."