It’s tempting to say that, for now, there’s more V than R in the sector that some pundits have predicted could revolutionise the music industry.
The last 18 months have seen plenty of announcements and alliances, there’s no shortage of plans and projects, but, so far, there’s been a distinct lack of anything especially… real. It’s come across as a series of demos rather than the beginnings of a business.
All three major labels, however, plus the biggest players in the live business, are convinced that, unlike the last time Virtual Reality was The Next Big Thing, this is no fad. And, of course, other entertainment industries, most notably video games, are equally convinced and committed.
Warner’s ambitions are represented by, amongst other things, a strategic partnership with content creation specialist MelodyVR and the appointment last year of former Sony stalwart Ole Obermann as chief digital officer and EVP, business development.
He says: “I see three potential applications: firstly, archiving the live music experience. Imagine if the first Glastonbury or Woodstock was available as a VR experience?
We can now capture these culturally relevant, historic events in a way that will allow future generations to experience them as if they were there.
“Secondly, access for fans who can’t be at a show. And thirdly, the augmented music experience while you’re at a show. Once headsets become less obtrusive, fans will be able to go to a show and experience things at that show that they can’t do today, things like going backstage, a setlist, different camera angles.”
He highlights VR’s key selling point as something that goes back to The Beatles’ fan club Christmas records and can be seen today through people paying a huge premium to watch Justin Bieber soundcheck: a connection with the artist.
At the same time, he is aware of an inherent drawback/contradiction: “The interesting thing with that sort of access is that scarcity is part of the value; the fact that so few people can get to hang with a certain band, or sneak in the back of the hall for the soundcheck, that’s what makes it exciting.
But, at the same time, if you can create a Virtual Reality experience that gets the fans closer to one of our big artists, there’s no doubt in my mind that that will be great for the relationship that fan has with that music.”
On the live side, Live Nation has announced two major partnerships. The first is with US video service, Hulu, for On Stage, a series of mini (under 10 minutes) films mixing documentary and performance.
The first, featuring Lil’ Wayne, was launched last week. Next up is Major Lazer. More will be announced later in the year.
Its second partnership, with NextVR, is much more of an extension of its bread and butter business. Kevin Chernett, EVP global partnerships and content distribution says: “NextVR have the best live VR technology we’ve seen when it comes to broadcasting shows as they’re happening.
We’ll be producing hundreds of shows with them as part of a multi-year deal. The first one we did was in December, with Thievery Corporation, which went amazingly well, and we have a series of concerts and probably festivals this year.”
All of the concerts will be free to fans, funded by advertising, specifically a sponsorship deal with Citi Bank who will be “integrated into the content”.
Asked about the prospect of fans buying tickets for VR access to live shows, Chernett says: “Technically that’s possible and might not be far away at all.
It’s probably inevitable, especially in the instance where you can take advantage of a one-off, single location concert, but it’s not a priority for us in any way. It would be an artist decision to go down that path.
“Right now, we’re focused on free, we’re focused on getting more users and more fans than trying to make a dollar and we’re definitely not looking at the pay-per-view business right now.”
Ultimately, he says: “What we do is bring our content to a fan, whether that’s live, streaming on YouTube or now through Virtual Reality, it’s just another way to enjoy the great content we’re producing.
We love that people in parts of the world who might never see an artist can now not just see, but experience their show. It’s a great marketing opportunity, that’s the biggest thing for us.”
Sony Music might be in the same corporate family as PlayStation, currently in the vanguard of gaming VR, but of the three majors it has, so far, shown and said the least on the subject.
That’s not to say nothing’s going on. James Bassett, head of digital creative says: “We’ve worked with a partner on a proof of concept and we’re investigating a few artist-specific ideas at the moment. I’d imagine that, by the end of 2017, we will have released a handful of VR projects.
“VR has been the subject of so much chatter for so long, but it’s still very early days. Ultimately, its success will come down to the quality of content. All new technologies need a killer app to attract consumers – and VR’s killer app is yet to come.”
This is not, however, cynicism, just realism. Bassett believes the quality of the current tech means the chances of the sector establishing itself in the long term are “far, far greater” than they were during its first coming in the ‘90s.
“We’ll be keeping a close eye on how the market changes and the technology advances over the next few months,” he says.
At Universal Music, Chris Horton, VP of advanced technology says: “Part of the excitement of VR is it’s like the early days of the web, there’s this feeling of endless opportunity.
Already there’s a spectrum of possible music-related VR/AR projects, starting with live events and visualisers, to spatial audio, music videos, interactive worlds and games.
“The industry is still experimenting and learning about what resonates with fans. I see a lot of opportunity for VR to establish new connections between fans, artists and music – to transport viewers to another world and heighten the emotional experience of your favourite songs.”
The company’s most notable move in the sector was last year’s launch of VRTGO, a dedicated VR app. Monica Hyacinth, UMG’s senior VP of digital marketing innovation, says: “We believe the consumer market is finally ready for a VR platform dedicated to music.
We wanted to democratise VR, so we designed VRTGO in a way that allows anyone to view content, with or without a headset. We’ve used cutting edge technology, including spatial audio, to give artists exciting new ways to connect with their fans like never before.”
One of Universal’s most high-profile early VR plays was a concert by Polydor’s Years & Years, broadcast live to fans using the Samsung Gear VR headset, where fans could select multiple viewpoints and even be on stage with the band.
Horton flags other projects involving Megadeth and VR developer Ceek; and Nokia/Here Be Dragons on OneRepublic’s Kids video, while platforms used include Samsung VR and Oculus Video.
He anticipates a range of pricing models, including pay-per-view, subscription and ad-funded and states: “Clearly, we want to make sure our artists are compensated and we would like to see VR evolve into a revenue-generating product.”
How significant that revenue could become is impossible to say, and depends on a number of factors outside the control of the music business.
But, equally, the biz seems determined to do all it can to keep building momentum, creating content and making sure that, this time around, the VR dream is real.