Coronavirus has completely dismantled the live concert experience as we know it, and musicians have been scrambling to adapt in its absence. Ever since the realities of quarantine began to set in back in mid-March, the entire live industry—artists, concert promoters, venues, and publications that cover live music—have been pivoting to livestreaming events in order to provide entertainment for fans from safely behind their screens. If you’re a music listener, you’ve likely seen your favorite artists perform an Instagram Live set, DJ a Zoom party, or even crank out an hour-long tribute to Nirvana on YouTube.
Traditional livestreams on Twitch or YouTube can be enjoyable to watch, but they’re not an experience that’s comparable to a live concert. That’s where videogames come into play. Artists such as Travis Scott, Charli XCX, and Soccer Mommy are partaking in virtual concerts inside games like Fortnite, Minecraft, and Club Penguin, and these events are surprisingly effective at replicating the communal energy and excitement of a real-life show—a sensation that’s lost in, say, an Instagram stream where you can’t interact with other viewers. Concerts, as we knew them, aren’t returning in the foreseeable future, and basic livestreaming sets are beginning to lose their luster several months now into quarantine, but videogames are proving themselves as the next best medium for people who want to feel the joys of live music without having to congregate in person.
Minecraft, the sandbox videogame that boasts over 480 million players worldwide, has so far been the premier destination for not just individual artist performances, but entire music festivals. Technically, these fests have been happening intermittently since 2018, which is when a DIY collective of Minecraft fest builders called Open Pit began hosting shows in the game.
Essentially, how it works is that a crew like Open Pit builds a venue and a mini world inside a specific Minecraft server, and then fans join the server at a set date and time--just as they would arrive at a real-life concert--and hang out in the game as artists stream audio of their sets on the app Discord. The performances aren’t live, but the artists are still able to control their characters on a custom stage and put on a digital show for hundreds (or thousands) of “Blockhead” onlookers. Fans who don’t own Minecraft can also take part in the fest by streaming someone else playing the game on Twitch or YouTube and using the live chat to interact with fellow showgoers in real-time.
Since quarantine began, Open Pit has already put on three well-attended Minecraft festivals that have catered to a diverse array of genres, featuring artists such as Charli XCX, American Football, Cashmere Cat, and Rina Sawayama. However, other Minecraft builders are starting to get in on the action. A rock-oriented festival called Block By Blockwest went down in mid-May that featured Nothing, Nowhere, Grandson, and IDLES, and later this year (hopefully), the biggest Minecraft festival yet is set to take place: a five-day event called Rave Family Block Fest. Now that hugely popular musicians are catching on to the unique escapism and shockingly lifelike camaraderie of Minecraft music festivals, they’ll surely become a regular and highly-attended concert substitute in the coming months.
However, Minecraft isn’t the only videogame that artists are performing in. Back in April, the rapper Travis Scott hosted an event in the massively popular game Fortnite, which he dubbed Astronomical as a reference to his 2018 hit record, Astroworld. The performance was less than ten minutes long, but it drew over 12 million attendees—utterly dwarfing the tens of thousands who’ve tuned in to Minecraft fests thus far. Unlike the Minecraft shows, which aim to replicate the free-flowing experience of roaming a real-life music festival, Astronomical was a cross between a music video and an actual videogame mission. Players entered the map at a set time and witnessed a gigantic Scott beam out of a spaceship and romp around the world while his music played in the background. Geniously, he took the opportunity to debut a brand new song called “The Scotts”, which features rapper Kid Cudi, and turned this already-unique experience into an innovative promotional campaign.
Both Minecraft and Fortnite are two of the most popular games in the world right now, but some artists are even revisiting games that millennials are nostalgic for and turning them into intimate digital concerts. The rising indie band Soccer Mommy broke through the livestreaming noise of early April by announcing a concert in Club Penguin Rewritten, an iteration of the popular children’s MMO that many millennials grew up playing. Songwriter Sophie Allison and her bandmates created Club Penguin characters for themselves and hopped on an 8-bit stage to perform as players assembled in the crowd. However, so many people attended the show that the entire server crashed and the concert actually had to be postponed for a week, proving how much of a demand there is for videogame music sets. Things went according to plan on the second attempt, as the band “played” through their entire new album, "Color Theory", over the course of an hour.
The show was such a quirky hit that Soccer Mommy released a series of music videos a month later that were billed as an “8-bit Music Video Tour”. They were all for her song “crawling in my skin”, and each one was a different “stop” on a videogame-ized replica of a city she was supposed to be playing in on tour right now. It wasn’t an interactive game like her Club Penguin show, but it once again signified that music and videogames are forming a symbiotic bond during this era of hyper-digitization.
Beyond providing a novel platform for sharing music, videogames are able to manifest the shared experience of concerts, which is the main distinction between watching a live performance on your computer and actually being there in a crowd. The popularity of these events underscores the demand for these sorts of things, representing a wholesome reminder that even as we're all separated, we still have the desire--and the ability--to come together in the name of great songs.
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