Is the Metaverse the Future of Live Music?
By Dave MacIntyre
Festivals like Le Phoque OFF and Taverne Tour are embracing virtual platforms, which may be here to stay
The organizers of Quebec City's Le Phoque OFF spent seven months planning the 2022 edition of their festival — only to have their plans go up flames when, hours after announcing the first wave of artists on December 17, Premier François Legault tightened COVID restrictions in the province, resulting in the closure of all Quebec venues.
Amidst all the chaos of having to build a new festival concept from scratch, it took only about five minutes for them to settle on a new plan: the metaverse.
"We didn't know if we were going to be able to do something like a hybrid version, with in-person shows and virtual events," says Patrick Labbé, co-founder and general manager of Le Phoque OFF. "But the closer we were to New Year's Eve, the worse it was getting.
"For the festival's eighth edition, running February 21 to 25, they ultimately built an immersive 3D environment, where attendees can watch performances virtually each night.
Those wishing to attend don't even need to be in Quebec City, as the online festival is accessible from anywhere in the world — allowing the lineup, filled with up-and-coming Quebec artists from across the genre spectrum such as Malika Tirolien, l i l a, Les Lunatiques and Dan-Georges McKenzie, to reach audiences they otherwise couldn't. No fancy VR goggles are necessary, either; all you need is a pair of headphones and a recent computer with a webcam to get the most out of the experience.
So what exactly is the metaverse? It's a fairly broad term — and a definite buzzword at the moment, despite having first been coined in 1992 by author Neal Stephenson in his novel Snow Crash. Metaverse environments typically involve virtual or augmented reality 3D universes that can be accessed either via VR headsets or on your smartphone or computer. These worlds can also be found in video games like Roblox and Fortnite, and can act as marketplaces for goods such as NFTs. Essentially, you exist as a virtual avatar within the metaverse, as if it's a whole other parallel world.
Companies like Facebook and Microsoft have been quick to tap into its potential, with Mark Zuckerberg rebranding the parent company of Facebook and its subsidiaries — including Instagram and WhatsApp — as Meta back in October.
With all of this in mind, and as dystopian as this may sound, it stands to reason that digital metaverse events like concerts and festivals could become a whole new source of revenue for musicians — particularly given the subpar payouts of streaming services like Spotify, as well as the continued impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on live music.
For the team at Le Phoque OFF, who didn't know if restrictions would loosen by February and didn't want to constantly postpone the dates, a fully virtual festival was the perfect solution. Le Phoque OFF had already been talking since December 2020 with Brooklyn-based VR company NOWHERE about collaborating on a future project.
Undeterred by the inability to host in-person shows that weren't masked and seated, Labbé and the Le Phoque OFF team decided to try and "keep the magic alive" for fans and artists in a whole new way.
"I had this project in mind of having videos of ourselves moving in 3D environments that would look like our city, and that would let you meet real people. But I didn't know specifically what it was," Labbé adds. "[NOWHERE] weren't ready at that moment, but they had something … We felt it was a good technology to explore, because the magic was there.
"How accurately can a metaverse-based live music event like Le Phoque OFF replicate the real-world concert experience? Quite well, it turns out. For example, the music gets louder and quieter depending on your proximity to the stage. Even real-world concert problems like trying to meet up with friends, talking over the music, or hearing the music while others are talking can be factors in such an environment.
While watching through your computer screen as if you're in a Zoom conference, your face is visible in the form of a nonagon-shaped avatar, moving around the universes like a pod in space. Commands on your keyboard are used to travel between multiple worlds with different artists performing in each — not unlike walking between different stages in a real-world festival. Easter eggs can also be found in various parts of the metaverse.
It's also a highly interactive experience, allowing you to meet up with friends and make new ones in the metaverse, just like you would at a real-world festival or concert. The NOWHERE environment even allows attendees to connect with new friends on social media by clicking on that person's avatar. Attendees may even rub virtual shoulders with the festival's artists while in the metaverse.
Different rooms are also created to fit the vibe of whichever artist is playing. "There's a world where you're flying in the clouds, and the band playing is very trippy," Labbé says. "I try to picture a world with an artist, and which one is the best match — like wine and food!
"Though some rooms are designed for partying and socializing during the festival, others are built specifically for those who just want to listen to the music with audience chatter being muted. Even if it's not quite the real thing, it's a groundbreaking alternative to a traditional music festival.
Le Phoque OFF isn't the only Quebec-based festival to use immersive digital environments to their advantage this year: Montreal label and booking agency Mothland did exactly this in early February for the Taverne Tour festival. In it, attendees could jump from venue to venue to watch shows in a 2D, vintage Game Boy-style rendering of Montreal's Plateau-Mile End neighbourhood and its renowned music venues, designed to look as much as possible like the real thing — even if it isn't a viable long-term replacement.
"We tried to not necessarily do the highest number of shows, but a few that were of a high quality," says Marilyne Lacombe, Mothland's co-founder, label manager and festival programmer. "I think people really enjoyed going from bar to bar in this virtual environment. It was definitely more immersive than watching a stream.
"Initially, Taverne Tour was supposed to have an in-person festival featuring Of Montreal's first show in seven years in the city they named their band after. When the Quebec government's restrictions were announced in mid-December, the festival's organizers decided to do something unique with the funding they'd received, rather than handing it back to the government. This led to Mothland partnering with Aire Ouverte, the virtual online platform that designed the online environment for the 2022 Taverne Tour.
"We had two choices: cancel everything, or try to make something happen within the parameters we had," says Lacombe. "With [Aire Ouverte], we could just create all the bars and venues [in Montreal] on a map, and keep a social dimension to it … If we'd just done a stream, that would've been a bit boring. We decided to partner with Aire Ouverte, create all the bars we had in our network of venues, and try to make something happen as much as we could.
"The team at Le Phoque OFF have applied their virtual approach to more than just the music — for industry figures hoping to attend the festival, there's also a daytime "Pro experience" held within the metaverse. Normally held each year in-person, this component will offer nearly 30 events, including panel discussions, conferences, training sessions, workshops, and various networking opportunities for artists and industry members. Pro pass holders will also get to view some of the shows on-demand.
NOWHERE, the company collaborating with Le Phoque OFF to design the metaverse environment, has also worked on concerts for Metric, Nine Inch Nails, and Phantogram, as well as events for Red Bull Music Academy and SXSW.
"All of our environments are built with the action involved — social, exciting, irreverent, playful, fun spaces to watch music within," says NOWHERE's CEO and co-founder, Jon Morris, who took Exclaim! on a tour through the metaverse environment. "That allows people to be able to pull away from the music, hang out with each other, and connect in these environments." Based on the results and reactions from previous events hosted in NOWHERE, Morris considers the conversation around these virtual concert environments to have shifted from "Will this continue?" to "How will it expand?"
"The beauty of it is when you're in these worlds, and all of a sudden you meet someone and they're in Hong Kong, and it's breakfast time there," he says. "It's 11:00 at night and you're just chilling — they're drinking coffee, and you're having a beer. You're having this experience that really brings the world together in a new way.
"The virtual reality environment allows for those attending the concerts to connect with others over their common love for live music, in a time where such connections remain hard to come by. Secondly, thanks to Mark Zuckerberg and his irrepressible urge to data-mine the world's population, the concept of metaverses has gained traction in the tech world. Video games have also begun taking advantage of this technology, with artists like Ariana Grande, Travis Scott and Marshmello having performed on Fortnite. In other words, Grimes's claim that live music may eventually become obsolete may not be as far-fetched as one might think.
With all of this in mind, what could both Le Phoque OFF and the Taverne Tour's digital universe experiments mean for the future of live music in Canada, particularly while the pandemic still hasn't blown over yet? And how much staying power could metaverse concerts have even after in-person shows have fully resumed? For Labbé, he doesn't know exactly what form that could take, but the possibilities are endless.
"What if you were living in the head of an artist, and you just live in their world? Each month they could just pop out and do another show in a world that fits what they're creating," he says. "To connect artists to fans and live in an artist's world … it's the best opportunity for an artist to express themselves. You can create anything — there's no limit."
There is no limit
"To connect artists to fans and live in an artist's world … it's the best opportunity for an artist to express themselves. You can create anything — there's no limit."