The rise of the virtual concert

How have online events stacked up to the in-person concert experience?

In-person events have been replaced with live-streamed shows.
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The year 2020 has been the year of cancelled events. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of concerts, festivals, and tours have been cancelled or postponed. With touring being the largest source of income for the world’s most famous artists, it makes sense that fans wouldn’t be the only ones disappointed.

While some artists chose to reschedule performances for 2021, many had to cancel shows and tours altogether. With concerts and festivals being some of the last events that will be permitted once social distancing guidelines ease, it will be a while until music lovers feel comfortable attending these large gatherings. Even once large events are given the go-ahead, there’s going to be competition for a limited number of venues. If artists want to perform for their fans any time in the next year, they may have to curb their expectations.

Instead, to make up for lost shows, some artists have turned to online streaming.

The virtual concert isn’t an entirely new concept, but the pandemic has certainly given it new life. In April, one of the first big online ‘concerts’ took place in the strangest of places: Fortnite.

The popular video game featured a performance from Travis Scott on a new server created just for celebrity performances. The event was praised by critics for utilizing its cartoon platform to create stunning visuals, and its success prompted Fortnite to invest further into the concept of hosting musical artists. By September, the video game had launched a concert series featuring some of the biggest names in the industry. On Sept. 25, Fortnite even had K-pop superstars BTS premiere their new music video on the platform.

It wasn’t long before other performers took to the idea of online concerts. Liam Payne—of One Direction fame—announced the launch of his live concert series back in July. Not knowing what to expect, I bought a $10 ticket out of curiosity. The show was impressive, with live singing, professional lighting and staging, and an emphasis on fan interaction. It was clear that for Payne, this performance was about connecting with his dedicated fanbase—and for that reason, while it was a fun experience for a dedicated fan, it isn’t something I would recommend to the casual listener.

However, streaming works wonders for artists who are looking to make solid connections with their audience during a performance. Payne has stuck with the platform, going on to do two more virtual shows since July.

Billie Eilish also leaned into the benefits of virtual concerts with her show back in October. Rolling Stone called the show “the rare livestream done right,” praising her use of intense visuals and high-quality special effects that would be impossible for a live show. The visuals were breathtaking, placing Eilish in beautifully animated worlds that matched the vibes of her unique sound. The performance proved that online shows don’t have to feel two-dimensional.

Not every artist has shown interest in the unique enhancements that a virtual platform can provide. Niall Horan, another One Direction alum, took a more classic approach to his live-streamed show. Performing in the iconic Royal Albert Hall in early November, Horan’s show was organized in aid of touring crews who have lost work due to the pandemic. Horan and the beautiful venue were the stars of the show, and if you squinted you might have been able to pretend you were sitting in the audience feeling the intimacy of his sound.

Let’s cut to the chase: none of these virtual concert experiences are anything like the real thing. While still enjoyable and interactive in a way that’s unique to the online experience, it’s impossible to mimic the energy of a stadium full of excitement. It’s akin to the difference between a concert and a concert movie; the performance is still great, though you’ll always wish you were there to experience it in-person. For superfans of an artist, it’s still exciting to watch the show live—just not as exciting as it would have been to go to that cancelled concert you bought tickets to in 2019.

That doesn’t mean virtual events are going away once in-person concerts resume—the companies benefitting from this online concert trend seem adamant they stay alive. Fortnite has stated it wants its virtual stage to become a tour stop for the world’s biggest artists. Roblox, another online video game, has also joined in on the fun. This month, they had Lil Nas X premiere his new Christmas song ‘Holiday’ on the platform to massive success.

Bandsintown claims there are thousands of music live-streams produced each month, utilized by everyone from new artists to global stars. New companies are emerging to tap into the live-stream market, backed by huge names like Justin Bieber and Scooter Braun. With such heavy investment, it’s safe to say that live-streamed shows likely aren’t going anywhere soon. However, I doubt they will ever be able to seriously compete with the good, old-fashioned concert.

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