The Current

As Frank Zappa is resurrected as a hologram, expert warns wishes of dead artists should be considered

Frank Zappa is the latest in a series of famous artists to have a hologram created in his image, giving people the chance to see a digital version of the performer, live in concert once more. But while some critics say these hologram concerts are an entertaining way to keep music alive, others argue that it's a morbid cash grab that doesn't consider the wishes of the dead.

Long-dead artists could be used to sell products they wouldn't endorse, warns prof

Frank Zappa, seen here performing in 1972, died in 1993. He's the latest in a line of musicians whose likenesses are being toured as holograms. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)
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The son of Frank Zappa says fans have been going "bananafish" for concerts that feature a holographic version of his father — something the musician mused about in his memoir prior to his death.

"Some of the moments that people were, I think, really appreciating are ... the photo-real moments, where it appears like magic that Frank is back on stage, playing his guitar, singing," said Ahmet Zappa, an executive with Eyellusion, the hologram production company behind The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa.

Zappa's hologram has been digitally "painted" from scratch, with Ahmet Zappa himself acting as the model for programmers to capture and reproduce the lip-syncing and facial expressions needed.

The two-year process to get it to the stage for the spring/summer tour through North America and Europe has been emotional, he told The Current's guest host David Common.

"The first time I saw Frank on stage reappearing, I burst into tears," he said.

"It's been so awesome to have this, because I miss my dad so much, and this ... just fills my soul with joy."

More than 25 years after his death, Zappa joins other late artists to be digitally resurrected and taken on tour. Rapper Tupac appeared as a hologram at Coachella in 2012, and since then Michael Jackson and Roy Orbison have received the same treatment, with plans for a similar concert featuring Amy Winehouse later this year.

But while some critics say these hologram concerts are an entertaining way to keep music alive, others argue that it's a morbid cash grab that doesn't consider the wishes of the dead.

Marketplace should not blur memory of music: prof

Hologram concerts have the "potential to make a lot of money," perhaps billions of dollars, said Mark Foley, a professor of music at Wichita State University.

But he cautioned that promoters should be considering the artist's wishes — even though they're dead and can't have their say.

"These images, these performances are part of our collective memory, and I think the public, the fans have a right to have this memory be preserved," he said, adding that commercial interests or the urge to advertise shouldn't muddy those memories.

"What's to stop somebody from putting a T-shirt on that image, and having maybe a potato chip logo on there?" he asked.

"I just hope the marketplace doesn't blur the message of the original performance."

Rapper Snoop Dogg, left, performs with a virtual recreation of late rapper Tupac Shakur at the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. (Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Coachella)

He said that "a strange little line got crossed" with the 2012 hologram of Tupac at Coachella.

"They had to have a voice actor putting words into Tupac's mouth, so that it would fit into the context of the performance," he explained.

"They had Tupac saying: 'What the F is up, Coachella?' — so they had the image of Tupac, in essence endorsing the Coachella brand."

"I still think it was a great use of his [image], but kind of scary, right?"

Novelty diminishes quickly, says music journalist

Music and culture journalist Liisa Ladouceur says the novelty of the hologram musician can fade fast.

Last year, when she attended a concert with a hologram of Roy Orbison, it took "about 10 minutes for the awe to diminish."

"When this projection first appears on stage it's incredibly lifelike, and they do a lot to make the sound perfect," she said.

But within a few minutes, "you're kind of over it ... because nothing else really happens, and a concert is about thinking something interesting might happen at any moment."

"And you know that it's just going to be the same thing for the next 90 minutes."

Ladouceur says the trend is indicative that the music industry is trying to "monetize every opportunity" in the face of declining record sales.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crylser and Howard Goldenthal. 

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