The next frontier of a musical experience may well happen inside a specially designed virtual reality headset. Developers like Oculus, Microsoft, Samsung, and Sony are blurring the distinction between reality and fiction. They are adapting the contents of real world activities, such as going to a concert or watching a music video, and are beginning to generate both immersive and interactive experiences that have integrity for the user, such as enjoying a live performance as if on stage but from the comfort of one’s home.
The players in the Virtual Reality (VR) camp have deep pockets. Facebook bought Oculus, a market leader, for $2 billion in 2014. Microsoft has since partnered with Oculus supplying the Xbox One hardware that will ship with the new headset. The headset became available for pre-order as this publication went to press. VR technology, in fact, is turning the corner, with Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s iconic founder, comparing its possible impact to that of the smartphone. And the smartphone did not turn the video game industry on its head, whereas a VR headset might.
Music related companies are jumping aboard in the belief that that is the future. The most important partnership so far is between Universal Music Group, the leading major in the global music business, and iHeartMedia Radio, the largest owner of radio stations in the United States (formerly known as Clear Channel). This association between iHeartRadio and UMG would merge a business based on advertisements with another one based on revenues generated from recorded music sales and sound recording copyrights. The union is unusual, but both have an interest in common: monetizing better, to their own ends, any fan and artist interaction. In part this is because the expectation is that VR technology will migrate to the iPhone and that fans could experience a virtual concert anywhere just with the VR headset.
VR recording are meant to give a more personal viewing experience, where proximity to the artist is enhanced by 360º views and virtual interactions with the audience. Off stage experiences are a big feature too, and pre and post show access is a good sell. The trick will be to confound the user with elements recorded from the show and others produced by the software when triggered by the headset.
Universal Music Group plans to video-record multiple shows in 2016 to supply VR product, but it has not yet released the list of artists being booked. iHeartMedia has plans to launch it’s first ever VR series at the iHeartRadio Theater on April 3rd, 2016, and a list of UMG artists is likely to be put forth then. iHeart shows include the iHeartRadio Country Music Festival, the iHeartRadio Music Jingle Ball Tour, and the iHeartRadio Music Awards.
Virtual technology use in the music industry has a strong economic imperative. Jingle Ball’s tickets, for instance, go for $300. A cheaper alternative, viewed at home, makes a lot of marketing sense. Indeed, the avowed goal of UMG and iHeartRadio is to make live music more accessible to fans that cannot afford artists like Taylor Swift and Adele. The Oculus VR headset is expected to retail at $599, a price that includes the Xbox One. The system might require a powerful PC in order to properly run it, which, by Oculus’s own estimate, would cost another $1,000. Therefore, the purchase of the system may not be justified for a few concerts. However, if the product is purchased for the variety of other entertainment applications it can offer it will definitely give fans a live music experience at a lower price.
In the meantime, sitting on the sidelines are some well-known companies and new startups.
Samsung may be responsible for the introduction of VR technology into live music. The Coldplay Ghost Stories concert was recorded in 2014 using Samsung’s Gear VR device. According to Phil Harvey, considered to be the fifth man in the group and its creative director, the band’s goal was to use the technology to render an improved concert experience for fans that would supersede, if possible, the actual concert. Harvey seems to have been more than pleased with the results, suggesting that user interactions with actual VR recordings could open up new avenues of expression for artists. The South Korean company has announced new VR product almost in tandem with Oculus, but with less fanfare.
Sony’s consumer version of its PlayStation VR is scheduled to launch in October 2016. Sony is the only one of the three majors (Sony Music, UMG, and Warner Music) to own a consumer electronics division. Sony usually takes its time to engage its software and hardware divisions together; it was the last label to support the iPod and agree to license its full catalog to Apple in 2003. But this is a case where the tortoise might indeed catch up with the hare (UMG), because on the face of it Sony might do a better job of aligning its artists with its new VR technology.
A sign of the times is given by California startup Wevr. Wevr intends to become the YouTube of virtual reality, and in February it raised $25 million to build an online reality content network that will allows users to view videos in VR mode using their proprietary headsets. If successful, Wevr could prove a boon for artists and their labels, for it will offer many of the capabilities of YouTube such as easy search and play and, most importantly, full upload.
By Summer Whittaker
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