Splendor XR tried to bring a music festival to the virtual world – here’s what worked – Music Reads
Splendor XR tries to understand the future of music festivals for everyone to see. When it works, it’s pretty convincing.
COVID threatens to tear the music festival business to shreds.
It is an industry heavily dependent on crowding tens of thousands of people into one space. A business founded on delivering cathartic experiences, shared with strangers whose sweaty flesh is pressed against our own.
It’s always been a little gross, but there’s always something beautiful about it.
In a socially remote world, festivals become difficult to justify economically. The low margins get ridiculous when you are only allowed to sell half the number of tickets as before.
Then there are our new anxieties: you can’t blame someone for not wanting to dive into a can of sardines full of weird bodies right now. A music festival is a good enough place for an outbreak.
For festival organizers with enough positivity in their tank, this challenge can be an opportunity. And the pandemic has given these events with creativity and the means a chance to expand their offer.
So we have XR Splendor. An event with a big lineup and the promise of a virtual festival experience to those who want it. The very first event took place this weekend and it left us with a lot to think about.
It’s such a new space that you get the impression that everyone – punters, artists, organizers – is figuring out things as they go.
What does it look like?
Fortunately, you can get out of the “virtual world” quite easily. Without access to a PC or a VR headset, I don’t even have a choice. This means that I cannot “walk” on the festival site, nor interact with other bettors. I cannot stress enough how little this bothers me.
It’s easy to select which scene to watch, and after cycling through the different camera angles, it’s obvious that the default view – a full screen broadcast of the performance – is where you want to sit.
The sets, all pre-recorded exclusively for Splendor XR, each belong to one of two groups.
The first of these are the smooth and beautifully shot live performances filmed in studios or locations around the world.
These are easily the best experiences for a casual music fan. They looked good, sounded even better, and their exclusivity gave them a kind of privacy (albeit detached) that made them feel a little more special than just shooting any other YouTube performance.
The best of them came from Phoebe bridgers – whose band helps deliver sublimely stripped-down interpretations of their best songs from a comfortable rehearsal room – and Little Simz, whose equally impressive group brings a huge vibe to a large empty room that would be shocking if Simz’s music and rhymes weren’t so blamelessly perfect.
Curry Denzel took no prisoners with his fiery set, proving his talent as one of the best live rap performers around. And Kaytranada playing a brilliant DJ by the pool in his lush garden, while his friends drank, roasted and laughed, was enviably cool.
There was no poor performance, but the format worked better for some. As we felt closer to Methyl ethel and Pond than ever before we have felt more distant from Amyl and the sniffers, whose live performances are made especially exciting by singer Amy Taylor barking in your face.
There is a discovery area for those who wish. The thought of someone seeing / hearing the shining Royal ray for the first time because of their inclusion here is encouraging. Personally, I’m happy to have passed Pink sweatshirt $: Splendor XR was my first experience with the American soul-pop singer, and it won’t be my last.
On a larger scale, the CHVRCHES the experience was dizzying but lacked connection. They sounded a little too much amazing, to the point that it became difficult to understand what was live and what was a backing track. Lights and lasers were really something.
The killers‘stadium-indie performed surprisingly well in an empty space, and the chance to see the band up close gave me a new appreciation for their talents and their big, silly, over-the-top indie anthems.
The green screen effect
The other main method of representation is where the most potential is for a virtual festival, but it turned out to be its biggest challenge in its first year.
This is where artists like Dawn, Charli xcx and Herd of horses experimented a lot with form, playing the role of cut-out characters on a green screen, rendered to look like they were performing on the virtual stage that was set up in the virtual world of Splendor.
The problem here was that he looked bad. The full screen view looked like a shoddy turn-of-the-century video game, while the more distant stage views put the artist too far. Rather than adding an extra sense of reality to the debates, these performances seemed even more detached.
But my criticisms are not necessarily shared by all.
Seeing Aurora on the first night, I expected to hear a resounding reaction. She looked brilliant, but the technology was laughable. To me, she and her band looked utterly ridiculous floating on this fake stage.
What I heard instead was silence. No one else seemed to find this as surprisingly half-baked as I did. Some have even raved about it. I had to turn it off.
Later that night, Triple j Mornings host Lucy Smith confirmed that the Aurora set lends itself well to the VR experience. I can only imagine and hope that the same is true of others who have bravely tried this new style.
Naturally, Splendor XR faces a myriad of challenges if it is to become a real alternative to a real event. Perhaps most important is that he has to keep us engaged.
After Millions of Russians‘confusing ensemble (he’s brilliant on record, but his performance feels intentionally turned off) comes to an abrupt end and sooner we have nothing more to watch before Khalid Saturday evening. We flip through the channel and we don’t go back.
I intended to watch Gretta ray, Ziggy ramo, Wafia and King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard during a soccer match on Sunday afternoon. But that did not happen.
Being part of a captive audience is the key to a festival experience. You are much less likely to find your new favorite band if you have the whole world to distract you and keep you from participating in the event. In a world full of distractions, Splendor XR must find a way to beat them all.
With an event like this for the first time, it’s natural to end up with questions. And Splendor XR threw up a lot of it.
Is this virtual festival world a silly gadget, or will it become a valuable point of difference?
Other festivals around the world could (and, hopefully, will) step into this streaming space, delivering not quite live performances that allow us to be a part of the event wherever we live. Does Splendor have a head start in focusing on the experience rather than the content?
With Splendor XR, the festival is working in a space similar to social video game behemoths like Minecraft and Roblox.
What is the appeal for a young audience already familiar and emotionally connected to these brands to switch to a platform more aligned with mosh pits, porta-loos and drug dogs?
Wouldn’t a young music fan prefer watch Charli XCX in the Minecraft world they know and like?
A list of international heavyweights may have been necessary to grab attention and attract ticket buyers. But the idea of so much money going to overseas-based artists – not to mention US-based Sansar who handled the VR aspect – seems a bit rough considering the current state of the Australian music industry.
The fact that at least some of the money comes from the federal government’s RISE fund may further pique Australian creatives who are struggling to make ends meet.
Should the festival have prioritized Australian talent and Australian technology to ensure government funds stay in the country?
Is there a place for this?
Of course, there are criticisms. Things turned out badly. Things didn’t work out as well as they should have. Some aspects were probably overcooked and others undercooked.
But, at its most basic level, Splendor XR was a compelling idea, an enjoyable event, and an experience that deserves to be further developed. Do we need more than that?
At its best, Splendor XR was a lot of fun. Working on a schedule, jumping between stages and seeing special performances, while having a fully stocked bar and a clean bathroom, was a truly compelling way to experience a festival.
For those who don’t like crowds, mud and waiting two hours to get out of the parking lot, it’s enough to make you swear to real festivals forever. For those without the mobility, finances or other means to get to Splendor, this could be a godsend.
You can buy a ticket to relive Splendor XR on their website now.