Quarantine or not, does anybody really want to go to a ‘virtual concert’?

You can join the front row of a Lewis Capaldi gig from your living room. But can digital concerts truly replace the Glastonbury experience?

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From their living room to yours, stars including Chris Martin and John Legend are moving online
From their living room to yours, stars including Chris Martin and John Legend are moving online Credit: Instagram

“I was supposed to be with Coldplay today, but we’re stuck in different countries so we can’t play together,” the band’s singer Chris Martin told a live Instagram stream last week from his home. “So I thought what would be nice would be to check in with some of you out there and… see what I could do for you.”

Over the next 30 minutes Martin, who was sitting at a piano in what looked like his music room, took requests from followers and played some of Coldplay’s biggest hits in real time over social media. The show was part of a series of virtual concerts called Together At Home, organised by action group Global Citizen.

French singer Héloïse Letissier, otherwise known as Christine and the Queens, is also putting on daily Instagram performances as part of the same series to help people deal with the isolation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. To date, these include Letissier dancing and singing in the bedroom of her Paris apartment, its furniture cleared to create a makeshift performance space. John Legend, Lizzo and Keith Urban are among other musicians who have performed to fans over social media since the global lockdown took hold. 

The response from fans who watched these shows from the confines of their homes has – perhaps unsurprisingly –been positive. Martin and Letissier are Glastonbury headliners and here they were playing up-close and personal for free. Their shows, along with others by artists including Rufus Wainwright and Bastille, have been watched by hundreds of thousands of people, according to Global Citizen.

“This literally kept me smiling today,” wrote one fan beneath Martin’s performance in a typical comment. “I wonder if her neighbours know what she is doing or think she is absolutely insane,” wrote one fan wrote of Letissier’s show. Picking up on the comment as it scrolled up her screen, the singer replied: “I think my neighbours know I’m insane. I think they’re used to it.” 

In an era when technological smoke and mirrors such as backing tracks and autotuned vocals are the norm at gigs, it takes a certain amount of guts to perform so directly for fans. A streamed concert by singer-songwriter James Blake on Monday night saw the singer play to a camera resting on his keyboard. Intimate anyway, his music took on an even starker directness when viewed and listened to inches from his face.

But to take nothing away from Blake’s performance, there was something slightly disconcerting – and dare I say it, boring – about staring up the barrel of a singer’s nostrils from a fixed camera for over an hour. Perhaps we’re simply not used to this level of intimacy and too used to spectacle. And then there’s the connectivity. These live-streamed gigs are only as good as the participants’ broadband strength. Many fans complained that Letissier’s show kept moving in and out of focus. “Christine and the Poor Wi-fi,” wrote one.

On the one hand, these gigs give weight to the argument that nothing beats being at an actual concert. Viva La Vida on an iPhone doesn’t cut it. I want to feel the bass guitar shudder up through my feet through the floor. I want to sense the crowd around me. I want to get that rush of anticipation in the room as those first chords are stuck.

But on the other hand, needs must. The live music industry is facing its great lost summer. Coronavirus has wreaked havoc. “Being there” is not an option. Musicians have had to cancel forthcoming shows due to lockdowns and travel bans. The world’s two biggest concert promoters, Live Nation and AEG, have temporarily halted all tours globally and festivals like Glastonbury have been cancelled. Venues of all sizes will be forced to close as Britons self-isolate.

The real thing: Glastonbury has been postponed, like every other major festival Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty

The live music industry is worth £22 billion a year globally, and £1.1 billion a year in Britain alone. Much of this revenue will be wiped out, which will hit musicians hard: touring is their biggest source of income. To make things worse, another source of income – streaming – has fallen due to coronavirus, according to Rolling Stone. It seems that with gym trips and commutes forgone, people are streaming less.

Virtual gigs will never make up for the billions of pounds of lost income for artists. But that’s not really the point right now: as a palliative in dark times, virtual concerts seem to be providing comfort. They are the only things keeping live music going.

Take MelodyVR, a London-based company that allows people to watch concerts from the comfort of their sofas via smartphones or a set of VR goggles. The company has seen sales from its app library of pre-recorded gigs leap by a staggering 56 per cent over the last week. “In a world where no events are happening and everyone is back home, we seem to be filling a bit of a gap,” says its founder Anthony Matchett.

Although Matchett stresses that MelodyVR has not sought to capitalise on the crisis, he says the company is talking to record companies, managers and performers about streaming what it’s calling “closed or small-scale performances” live to get round the current spate of mass gathering restrictions. This will bring live music back to fans at a time when they’re starved of it, he says. Big name artists, currently sitting at home twiddling their thumbs, are keen to get involved. “Our phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” he says. An announcement about the performers involved is expected soon. 

MelodyVR’s app already contains a library of hundreds of concerts from performers including Lewis Capaldi, Kiss and Sigrid. Each show was filmed via a series of unobtrusive 360-degree high-definition cameras dotted around the stage and around the venue, giving fans multiple viewpoints. Using head movements with their goggles, the viewer is able to change cameras or swivel to look all the way around them. Sound is relayed via headphones in the usual way and people can pay for individual songs or an entire show (many shows are, or were, initially streamed live). 

MelodyVR launched six years ago and was originally set up to help people who were unable to access a concert as a result of their location – if they lived in another country or city from the gig, for example – or their age, the cost of attendance or limited ticket availability. An entire show by (for instance) Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins, filmed in a 15th-century Italian castle, costs £9.99. Most of the revenue – around 80 per cent in the majority of cases, according to NME – goes directly to rights holders, including labels, songwriters and artists (the company wouldn’t break down exact percentages).

Even before coronavirus hit, demand for virtual gigs had been rising steadily. As of last summer, the app contained over 800 filmed gigs, and the list of A-list musicians involved, from The Who to Khalid to The Streets, suggests that artists were taking the technology seriously. 

Lick your lips: VR technology can now get yoiu up close and personal with Kiss Credit: Getty/Kevin Winter

In researching this piece, I leapt into the virtual world and watched MelodyVR shows by Wiz Khalifa, Stefflon Don, The Streets and Kiss. The technology is impressive; it feels as though you’re standing next to the artist. Multiple angles mean you can whizz around the venue, watching the show from photographer’s pit, the back of the arena or – in The Streets’ case – standing next to Alexa Chung at the side of the stage. At the Kiss show, a camera was attached to Gene Simmons’ riser at the front of the stage so you fly above the crowd with him. On top of all this, there are no blocked views. And with the volume cranked up and the 360-degree vistas, it genuinely feels like you’re there.

The key question here is whether the current change in gig-watching behaviour is permanent or temporary. Will Britons revert to normal concert-going patterns once Covid-19 has slung its unwelcome hook, or will this new virtual trend and the sense of bonhomie it engenders leave big enough a mark to alter the landscape?

There are some music fans who can’t think of anything worse than watching a virtual gig, let alone paying for it. Personally, I’d always want to be at a show. But that’s not to say I can’t see the attraction. As a man in my mid-40s with a toddler, there are advantages to watching a gig from the sofa. It’s convenient. It’s comfortable. There’s no travel involved. And there are no queues for beer or the bathroom. But the difference between the two experiences is the difference between being an observer and a participant. And who wants to be one of life’s observers?

Also, the quality of the virtual content out there remains patchy. As in the real world, some shows are better than others. Cancelled dance music festival Ultra, which was meant to take place in Miami last weekend, held a virtual online version instead, with live DJ sets on online radio channel SiriusXM. But without lasers, a crowd atmosphere and the high production values of a dance set, it was slated at being “just a radio” show. One listener called it a “depressing disaster”. A virtual festival from dance record label Defected, broadcast from London’s Ministry of Sound last Friday, was better received. 

I’d certainly draw the line at a “virtual Glastonbury”, which many people on Twitter are calling for in place of the real thing this June. Suggestions range from the ambitious – such as headliners Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar playing to cameras from their homes and beaming it out to the world – to the eccentric: what if ticketholders pitched their tents in their own back gardens and watched old footage over the internet? 

Such talk must stop immediately. I say this as a long-term attendee. If ever a live music event was about “being there”, about soaking up the atmosphere and getting lost in a physical place, then it’s Glastonbury. One Twitter user called Quarantined Dad put this last option in the way that only a seasoned festival-goer can: “In light of Glastonbury getting cancelled, I will be partaking in a virtual recreation. Just get spangled and watch YouTube videos of my favourite artists whilst talking nonsense to the wife and dog.” Even this lighthearted suggestion sense shivers down my spine. 

Time will tell whether the virtual gig revolution is a sticking plaster or a new social glue. We will only know the lasting impact of this trend once the roiling tide of coronavarus has subsided and an element of normality has returned to life. 

One thing is clear, though. Some fans are getting ahead of themselves about all the music on offer while we're cooped up. One Chris Martin fan, an Instagram user called Osbornexoxo, wrote under the singer’s stream: “Thank God we are quarantined or we would’ve never gotten this!!”

I’m sorry Osbornexoxo but, unless you’re joking, that is virtually the daftest thing I’ve ever heard.