Splendor XR: Virtual Music Festival Was A Weird, Empty Reminder Of What We Have Lost | Festivals


The primary function of a music festival is escape; music is often secondary. So what do we do with a virtual festival experience like last weekend’s Splendor XR?

Funded by $ 1.5 million in funding from the Australian government Rise and hosted on the Sansar virtual reality platform, the two-day online iteration of Splendor in the Grass promised “a first global online experience”: “A virtual world where music, art and culture reign supreme. . Where lockdowns and social distancing do not exist. Where hypnotized crowds dance in the forest to the freshest rhythms.

In other words, the festival – which costs $ 50 for a two-day ticket, $ 30 for a day – would be a higher virtual concert experience than popular streaming festivals like Isol-Aid, and less predetermined than the ones. Big budget shows offered by Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa.

It’s a noble goal, but immediately drowned out by dissonance: Splendor XR was clearly intended as an alternative to the drudgery of pandemic life, but the internet is sadly the exact site of the anxiety many are trying to break free of right now. . Unlike Splendor in the Grass, where his phone can die or lose reception, during Splendor XR I can access my inbox or Instagram down to the second (try as I might not) – and after months spent indoors, a weekend on the internet looks like no escape at all. It’s a perverse blessing to festival organizers that due to lockdowns in parts of Australia, a large chunk of Splendor XR’s key audience would have spent this weekend online anyway.

Upon entering the virtual world, I am asked to choose from a set of pre-made avatars. Many wear Nike – a forced interaction of the brand which, on the contrary, is very true to the spirit of most music festivals. When I’m finally ‘inside’ I’m surprised at how little real functionality there is. Based on festival marketing, I assumed that I would be able to ‘walk’ the festival site to each stage and to different booths, much like the Minecraft festivals around the world last year that featured artists like 100 gecs and Charli XCX. Alas, no: it turns out that the ability to walk between stages is limited to those with VR sets and gaming PCs; the rest of us just have to click.

“The ability to walk between stages is limited to those with VR sets and gaming PCs; the rest of us just have to click. Photography: Shaad d’Souza

As soon as I enter the festival site, I am offered different “camera angles”, each showing me a different tent – ticket office, merchandise, bar, etc. – each sending me to a point of sale where I can spend money. If I want drinks, I can click the bar to a third-party website and order alcoholic drinks delivered to me. If I want merchandise, I can go to another third party site. If I want a pair of Nike Huaraches, the Nike tent will direct me to the Nike website to find out more. And if I want to see how much fun everyone is having, I can check out the social media wall, which shows me blurry Instagram photos of attendees wearing festival outfits while sitting at their computers. More bizarrely, there is a police stand without any interactivity. (Fortunately, unlike the real Splendor in the Grass, they aren’t able to illegally search teens here.)

These areas are weirdly static, a handful of virtual avatars moving around every now and then like I’m watching a looping gif. In the chat to the right of my festival screen, I can communicate with my fellow participants. Many, it seems, have technical difficulties – lag despite using a gaming PC, jammed sound on an iPad, VR turning off.

“Eerily static”: the site of the Splendor XR festival. Photography: Shaad d’Souza

When I click on one of the few scenes available for viewing, the stream defaults to the pre-recorded live set of the band playing. I am then offered the opportunity to watch the stream as if it came from the crowd, which superimposes a sort of frame above the stream, adding fake lights and fake crowd members.

Client Liaison’s easily digestible ’80s pop pastiche was pretty much made for festivals, but looking with the fake crowd, all I can think of is what this experience lacks. It might be nice for those watching with friends, but it seems like an unlikely prospect with so many Australians locked in. Likewise, a set from the arrogant and wonderful punk band from the Sunshine Coast, The Chats, mostly elicits a sort of gleeful curiosity, rather than the frenzied rush that I imagine one of their live shows could. My attention drifts to the edges of the stage: Was this filmed at the Croxton Bandroom? Is that avatar dancing right in front of me a problem? Is it the washing machine beep?

The customer liaison plays the amphitheater.
“All I can think of is what this experience lacks”: Customer Liaison plays the amphitheater. Photography: Splendor XR

When it comes time to headline the first night, an age-old enigma of the festival emerges: Denzel Curry and Phoebe Bridgers play around the same time. (I first wonder why a utopian virtual festival would have clashes, before realizing that – of course – on-demand viewing of missed sets is an extra $ 20.)

My instinct is to watch Curry, a Florida rapper who puts on a frenetic and frenetic live show – but with just Curry and a DJ, his low production set is weirdly disconnected.

I’m leaving it for Bridgers, but her set is one of the many, many livestreams she’s made from her acclaimed album Punisher, and there’s not much to differentiate it from the rest. When the main camera feed fails to show video for the first few minutes, it’s not worth the wait.

I wander – or rather click – to Tipi Forest, to watch an anonymous DJ play anonymous EDM. I would need lots and lots of friends to take advantage of it.

PhoebeBridgers, a still from the Splendor XR Festival which took place online in July 2021
There’s not much that sets the pre-recorded Phoebe Bridgers set apart from many that have been released elsewhere over the past year. Photography: Splendor XR

On my second day at Splendor XR, I decide to have fun outside of the prerecorded sets carousel. The programming beyond the main stages is reminiscent of the kind of pre-recorded video content I can watch on YouTube to pass the time: I catch a conversation between Grace Tame and Tarang Chawla at the Forum, before hitting the Global Village, where I see a head-to-toe leather guy lip-syncing with Queen while juggling. Ultimately, however, you can only spend a short time in one of the foreign areas of the festival just looking through a laptop screen.

A photo of Splendor XR.
The teepee forest. Photography: Splendor XR

I head to the amphitheater to watch the Jungle Giants and see frontman Sam Hales start to clap as if leading an audience, although he’s clearly alone with his group. It’s admirable that these sets were recorded with the intention of capturing a true live set experience, but again, it’s overwhelmed by a deep sense of strangeness – like when Hot Dub Time Machine goes through vintage hits by heart. such as The Chain and Take On Me while asking the “crowd” to sing “louder”.

The set for the Avalanches, filmed during one of their recent Enmore Theater shows, at least includes crowd shots, making the whole thing smell like a concert film as opposed to the visceral emptiness of some of the other sets. . Theirs is perhaps the most musically impressive as well, an erudite and impeccably structured DJ set showcasing songs from their stunning 2020 album We Will Always Love You. One of the highlights of my weekend was hearing them mix We Go On with Queen’s I Want To Break Free, an inspired moment that, in an ordinary festival, you’d imagine people would talk about for months on end. With no one to share it with, however, the moment seems fleeting. Like anything I might see online on any given day, it makes me smile and then glide.

The Avalanches delivered the most musically impressive set. Photography: Splendor XR

Another highlight is the British underground electronic group Charli XCX. Her live show is particularly adaptable: during a festival, she will play a set with her hits (I Love It, Boom Clap, a Spice Girls cover, etc.) and during a close-up show, she will perform the songs that made her an underground star (Vroom Vroom, Femmebot, Backseat). She’s performing the old Splendor XR set – but her die-hard fans, clearly having bought day passes just to see her, start flooding the cat asking for her lesser-known songs.

Charli’s performance appears to be optimized for VR, and without a headset it’s dull and repetitive, with the pop star dancing back and forth on a small patch of screen, lacking the artistic glow of some previous sets. Charli, without a crowd, comes out a little disinterested, while those who look on seem perplexed and disappointed; it all sounds like something neither of us wanted to be a part of but everyone is a part of anyway.

A screenshot of Shaad d'Souza's experience on Charli's XCX set.
A screenshot of Shaad d’Souza’s experience on Charli’s XCX set. Photography: Shaad d’Souza

Where the failure of Charli’s ensemble seemed to lie in a misinterpretation of what Splendor XR really is, Grimes and his team identified it: a branding opportunity. Halfway through Charli’s set, news arrives that viewers will have to travel to the popular Discord messaging network to watch Grimes play. She has a partnership with Discord and stars in their new ad campaign, which makes this forced migration a particularly infuriating move: aside from getting her presumably high Splendor XR headlining fees (funded by a grant!), Grimes gets a slew of new users signing up to its Discord server – and, presumably, gets their data as well. Any user who bought a Splendor XR ticket just to see Grimes is then effectively stolen – they could have just waited for the announcement that all of Grimes were moving to the free platform and signed up. Adding insult to injury, the set Grimes ended up releasing on Discord was an audio-only DJ set – enjoyable to some, no doubt, but a far cry from Splendor XR’s promise.

The moment represented the larger failure of the festival: far from offering an escape from Covid and containment, Splendor XR mostly revealed how much we have lost.

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