Virtual Reality & The Music Industry

Last September, during Labor Day weekend, I found myself stuck at home and unable to join the annual pilgrimage to Philly to partake in Budweiser’s debaucherous 2-day Made In America music festival. Let’s blame it on the fact that I was deep in the throes of a personal project, and ignore the fact that large swaths of people secretly give me anxiety. It was a beautiful long-weekend too. Savoring the last bits of summer and eighty-degree weather with my friends on Ben Franklin Parkway, cocktails in hand, near my old stomping grounds, would’ve been nothing short of bliss.

To add insult to injury, I’d be missing Rihanna’s headlining performance! The concert was on the heels of the 75-stop world tour for her eighth album, ANTI (hands down the best album of her career, and one of the best albums of 2016—don’t debate me). I saw her crush it at the New York stop earlier in the year, so I was even more depressed about missing the show. Stressed, I miraculously remembered my free Tidal subscription, and that the platform always live-streams the festival! At 9:23pm, two minutes before her performance, I scrambled to pull everything up on my AppleTV right as the beat dropped for her opening song. I LOST IT. And over the next hour and a half had the time of my life in the comfort of my apartment.

Only one thing would’ve improved that in-home experience—watching the concert in 360-degree video via a virtual reality (VR) headset.

The music industry as we know it is collapsing, that’s no secret. The digital age has altered the way people consume music. Social media and online streaming services have democratized marketing and distribution. Consumption is instantaneous, and often free. It is also increasingly immersive. Did you miss How Beyoncé perfected the ‘visual album’ with ‘Lemonade’ or Trey Songz revealing his new dating series is just a marketing ploy for his album #TremaineTheAlbum? Given these trends, the rise of VR technology presents an excellent opportunity for artists seeking to create new experiences for their fans while earning alternative sources of income, especially amid depreciating album sales and paltry streaming royalties.

VR has been around for quite some time, but it predominantly lived in the context of the gaming industry. However, we can thank Facebook’s 2014 $2bn acquisition of Oculus VR, then only a two-year-old company, for breathing new life into the technology. The enormous purchase price caught the eye of many, including leaders outside of the gaming industry. For the first time, they too began investing in and re-imagining the innovative possibilities and applications of VR in diverse, “nontraditional” contexts. A few years later, the music industry is slowly catching on.

As a prelude to ANTI, Rihanna signed a $25m partnership with Samsung to promote its brand and its GALAXY products, sponsor her tour, and “tease” the album to her fans. Together they unveiled a mobile website, a mobile game app, and a series of videos in the months leading up to the album release. Dubbed ANTIdiaRy, the project allowed fans to intimately explore a series of virtual rooms (blending VR and 360-degree video technology) representing various stages of Rihanna’s life to find clues and unlock pieces of her story and ultimately, her new album—right from their Samsung smartphones.

Note: It’s easy to conflate VR and 360-degree video. I’ll spare you a wordy explanation and instead point you to the graphic below that quickly sums up the differences. Industry vets are keen on the distinction, but I think from a consumer’s perspective, the experiences might as well be one and the same—just different points along the same spectrum.

Looking back, Rihanna attempted an incredibly ambitious and innovative approach to energizing fans for her album release through emerging technology. ANTIdiaRy was a testament to the opportunity for artists to provide more dynamic and interactive content to their fan base, while capitalizing on sponsorship income.

Going forward, we could see other revenue opportunities emerge as VR and 360-degree video technology is monetized via pay-per-view, subscription, and ad revenue models. Partnerships with companies leading the VR/360-degree video charge will play a key role in allowing artists to leverage the technology to create immersive experiences, market their projects and further distribute their music and live performances to fans.

Remember Dawn Richard from Making The Band III, who punched Aubrey O’Day in the head, and ruined what was left of Diddy’s beloved girl group Danity Kane? Well, she has been flourishing as an independent artist for some time now, and was among the first to experiment with VR content for her fans. Richard teamed up with VR Playhouse in 2016 to record and release a VR music video for her song “Not Above That,” which had previously reached the top spot on the iTunes electronic chart. Dawn was also the first to live stream on Youtube’s 360 Live platform, teaming up with the company to launch its new product with a 30-minute mini-concert performance.

Media and entertainment companies are following suit in collaborating with artists to bring VR content to the masses. Live Nation has already committed to the space, partnering with Citi and NextVR to produce live VR concerts for the bank’s rewards card members. Live Nation has also partnered with Lil Wayne and Major Lazer to provide fans with an intimate look at their lives and careers via its “On Stage” VR docu-series airing on Hulu’s VR app.

Although ANTIdiaRy gave us a positive look at what a multi-platform VR experience could look like for artists and fans, social media reminds us that the project was actually met with more confusion than acclaim. It’s a prime example of technology outpacing consumer behavior. It made a splash among her superfans for sure, but everyone else either didn’t have a Samsung phone, or just wasn’t ready to appreciate it and fully engage. 360-degree video and VR have a long way to go before mainstream consumers adopt them. For one, affordable headsets and a library of content primarily stand in the way.

Fortunately, a welcome byproduct of trendsetters like Rihanna and Dawn Richard experimenting with the technology is the creation of the robust content pipeline needed to drive its mainstream exposure and adoption. Additionally, the efforts of companies like Google to constantly improve the audiovisual experience, while manufacturing headsets at a more affordable price point, means the barriers between consumers and mass adoption will slowly continue to crumble. It’s only a matter of time before your favorite artist decides to ride the wave too.

We’ve seen Beyoncé reset the bar for musical experiences time and time again not only with her theatrical performances, but also with the release of two visual albums in the last three years. She still somehow fell short of Album of the Year at the Grammy’s both times. Since her best isn’t good enough, it’s clear that her next project has to live in an alternate reality to receive the critical acclaim it will likely deserve. She literally has no other choice. #BeyGreat 2018: The VR Experience? Perhaps. Don’t sleep—I know I won’t!

Anastacia Gordon is a tech investor, writer, and (former) operator born in Jamaica, but raised in NYC. She’s currently an MBA student at Columbia Business School and spends her time consumed by all things music x media x culture x tech. While in school, she has invested alongside incredible people at Kapor Capital, Cross Culture Ventures, Lerer Hippeau, and Comcast Ventures. Prior to that, she was a founding team member at Jopwell (YC S’15). 

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