VR and music: ‘The biggest challenge thus far is the storytelling’ (#SlushMusic)


Musical VR is creatively exciting but commercially nascent: key startups are still in their early days, while there’s no clear path for artists and labels to make decent money (or even a return on their investment) in virtual reality right now.

Should that stop them trying? You’ll be enormously unsurprised to hear that the answer was a firm ‘no’ from a session at the Slush Music conference in Helsinki this morning titled ‘How virtual reality will revolutionise music experience / the music industry’.

The speakers were Jeff Bronikowski, head of innovation and SVP, business development at Warner Music Group; and Dave Haynes, the former SoundCloud and Seedcamp exec who’s now head of business development and partnerships at startup TheWaveVR.

Haynes talked about TheWaveVR first, which creates virtual reality experiences around dance music and a virtual clubbing experience.

“It was the first thing that I’d seen that felt like it was as game-changing as some of the new platforms, the Spotify’s and the Songkicks, back in 2008,” he said. “I was seeing things like Tilt Brush and thinking VR seemed like the next platform for all sorts of creative endeavours… and whenever new technology comes along, music plays a role in getting people into that new technology.”

Haynes said that a lot of early musical VR projects were 360-degree videos, which can be interesting, but arguably aren’t ‘true’ virtual reality, in a properly-immersive sense. Bronikowski agreed, praising a WMG artist’s exploration of 360 videos – Gorillaz – while noting the challenges around bigger VR experiences.

“There’s a challenge with hardware adoption: getting enough of an install base. But maybe the biggest challenge thus far is the storytelling or experience aspect, which hasn’t been iterated enough by enough companies… it’s like the early days of movies, figuring out how to make a compelling story,” said Bronikowski.

Haynes said that augmented reality (AR) is as interesting as virtual reality (VR) for music: TheWaveVR is thinking about how its service might work in an AR environment. But he also talked about the need for VR music experiences to be built for the medium.

“One common misconception is that VR is somehow isolating. What we’ve put the emphasis on is that VR experience being social,” said Haynes. “We can actually put people in the same room, so you feel like you’re at the show with your friends. And then we make the interactions… We used to call them virtual drugs but we didn’t think that was politically correct. We call them social trips now.”

“I almost hope that we do get back to the point where people are paying some full-time attention to entertainment. Maybe some isolation would be good,” added Bronikowski, before asking about business models around music and VR.

“There’s a little bit of a concern that VR at this point doesn’t have the scale to generate significant revenue. And there aren’t that many experiences that most people feel are worth paying for now,” said Bronikowski.

Haynes said it’s important that VR isn’t just a cost for labels: something they spend money to build for marketing purposes. “When is it a substantial revenue stream?” he said. “When you have a user engaged in a platform interacting with friends, there are opportunities for them to enhance that experience.” Someone might buy the social trips in TheWaveVR, or virtual merchandise from an artist or DJ using micro-payments.

“There is a potential opportunity that we want to test at the right time: to charge,” he added. “If Skrillex is there doing the live show, will people pay him £3? £5? £10? £20… But the experience will have to be good enough that people don’t feel let down.”

Haynes suggested that artists might add an extra date on to their tours, performing from their studio. “There’s three or four million people now with high-end headsets,” he said, adding that there are now a growing number of ‘VR Arcades’ in shopping centres and high streets, which can expand this audience.

Where does a label like WMG see the strongest opportunities in VR? “It’s pretty artist-specific. Some have really embraced it like Gorillaz with their 360 video,” said Bronikowski. “The labels are very intrigued, but they are so busy day-to-day promoting their artists at big scale, that it really does take a unique opportunity to get an artist excited and involved. But on the other hand we have artists coming to us all the time going ‘what’s happening in VR?’.”

Will the sound in these experiences be as impressive as the visuals? “360 sound, binaural audio, is a really big topic,” said Haynes. “We’re not doing anything too advanced: if you’re in the middle of the dancefloor, the music’s louder. If you’re at the back talking to friends, the music fades out. We’re not doing anything more complicated with 360-degree sound yet.”

“So many of us in the music business feel that music has sort of been left behind in terms of fidelity,” added Bronikowski. “It’s the opposite of what’s happened in TV… I’m hopeful that it [VR plus hi-res audio technology] will be a renaissance of ‘wow, what I’ve been listening to sounds like crap!’.”

But he came back to the need for better experiences in VR and better storytelling, if it’s to make a notable impact for music. “Many [music] VR experiences that people have had are not something that they would choose to spend their time in as opposed to watching Netflix or playing Call of Duty,” he said.

Haynes closed the session by suggesting that visual artists and music-video creatives may have big roles to play here, including tour visuals being reimagined for virtual use.

Stuart Dredge

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