Virtual vs. IRL: How the Pandemic Continues to Reshape the Ways We Present Music
When COVID-19 sent the world into lockdown in early 2020, in-person live music came to an abrupt halt. Raving, however, did not.
The dance music industry was quick to adapt to the uncertainty of the pandemic: DJs pioneered their own regularly-scheduled virtual music events and companies like Insomniac and Brownies & Lemonade curated livestreamed festivals that brought together numerous artists and garnered views from around the world.
Now that in-person events are in full swing in the United States and trickling back in other parts of the world audiences are eager to connect in person and soak up the special energy that only live music can offer. But it’s hard to completely leave behind the livestream era and the countless digital innovations that came with it.
In today’s concert ecosystem, many event producers are working towards a hybrid model that leaves space for both virtual and in-person experiences. Moving beyond simply livestreaming specific sets from festivals, companies have harnessed the unique strengths of both types of events to move forward into a changed industry and world.
Tomorrowland’s virtual festival is often lauded as one of lockdown’s music industry triumphs. But despite their enviably successful transition to digital, the team behind the event was never pandemic-focused. Rather, they had their sights on the return to in-person from the beginning.
“We always developed virtual events thinking of how we could use them next to a physical festival,” says Debby Wilmsen, Tomorrowland’s press coordinator and spokeswoman. “We developed something that was completely different than just a music livestream so we could use it to complement the real festival.”
The 2020 digital iteration of Tomorrowland pushed the livestream model forward by creating and immersing viewers in a digital world and drawing in over one million attendees in the process. The team even successfully monetized the event, charging €20 per ticket and €12.50 for access to event archives after the festival ended. Tomorrowland plans to continue to supplement their in-person events with virtual counterparts.
“In March, we have our winter festival, so maybe between the winter and summer festivals we can hold a digital event. Or maybe a New Year’s Eve digital version,” says Wilmsen. “It can be something that’s really existing next to the real festivals, but it’s not replacing them.”
Hydeout’s Mark Lim and Wee Teck Chan had a similar idea, even though their event was forced to debut virtually. Originally, the Singapore-based festival was set to have its first iteration in April 2020, but after pandemic-induced cancellations rolled out, the team followed the majority of presenters in pivoting to virtual. They came up with Hydeout: The Prelude, a fully-embodied digital world that invited attendees to create an avatar to explore, in addition providing access to a plethora of music sets by artists like Rita Ora, Don Diablo, and Martin Garrix.
“We originated from a physical show and we intend to bring back the physical show,” says Lim, Hydeout’s project lead. “The way that we actually see this is that it works hand in hand. The virtual offering helps us give the consumers a better insight into what our brand is and what can offer at a physical festival.”
Some companies, like Los Angeles-based Brownies & Lemonade, are using the virtual space to expand their content offerings in a way that isn’t possible in person.
“I felt like the creative limits were definitely pushed beyond what is possible in solely a live space,” says Chad Kenney, Brownies & Lemonade’s creative director. “I think we got to explore a lot of areas of artists creative minds in a depth that we are unable to explore in a physical space.”
During the height of the pandemic, Brownies & Lemonade co-produced popular virtual events like the Digital Mirage series and Porter Robinson’s Secret Sky. And now that they’ve returned to producing the intimate dance music events for which they became famous, their online content has opened doors for them to establish themselves in new ways.
Brownies & Lemonade holds four weekly streams on Twitch, with content ranging from head-to-head producer battles to opportunities for aspiring producers to submit their work to be featured on the streams.
“I do enjoy people coming to see a show to stand there and watch a DJ perform, but it’s so limiting,” Kenney says. “I don’t get a chance to really interact with fans on an eye-to-eye level. I don’t get a chance to hear feedback. Virtually, we have a lot of community-driven programming where artists and members of our community submit the content. It’s much more of an even exchange than I think the live shows are.”
The pandemic forced the music industry to pivot, which — though it presented numerous, sometimes insurmountable difficulties — created space for the industry to move forward in a way it might not have been able to without COVID.
Tomorrowland found that without the regional, age, and accessibility restrictions inherent to a massive festival, they could reach a wider audience.
“What we see is that we can attract a different kind of public for the digital festivals,” says Wilmsen. “It gives opportunities for people who are not able to come to Belgium, people who are not comfortable being in large groups, people who are too young or too old.”
And for Brownies & Lemonade, the pandemic also afforded a great opportunity to grow brand recognition and reach. According to Kenney, the company’s social media following has doubled since the start of the pandemic, and now those numbers are translating directly to ticket sales.
Although the pandemic ravaged the music industry, shuttering indie venues and even keeping giants like Live Nation and AEG on their toes, virtual events are an element of the pandemic that we are not so eager to wave goodbye to.
So perhaps it’s not a matter of virtual or in person, but rather an examination of how these two platforms can work together to resuscitate an industry.