Virtual reality hardware sales are starting to build up a head of steam. Samsung has sold more than 5m Gear VR headsets, while Sony is closing in on 1m PlayStation VR sales, for example.

That’s likely to increase the activity around music and VR, from 360-degree concert videos to VR music games, artist worlds and surround-sound (and vision) music visualisations.

For every evangelist about this, though, there’s a sceptic wondering whether VR will be mainstream; whether music fans will want whizzy VR experiences; and whether business models will emerge to cover the costs of making those experiences.

At the FastForward conference in Amsterdam last week, I moderated a panel session on ‘the future of tech’ which explored the potential of VR (as well as chatbots and smart speakers, which I’ve written up as a separate piece).

The panel included Steven Hancock, COO of British startup MelodyVR – we profiled it last year. Its app is in closed beta, having filmed performances by “527 as of last night” artists for its commercial launch this year.

For now, MelodyVR’s main focus is on recorded performances, accessed on-demand through a headset. However, Hancock explained that the company has also developed technology to stream gigs live in VR.

“In essence, when physical tickets sell out, we can switch to a digital ticket with limitless capacity: so no more four-minute sellouts for Adele’s shows at Wembley, if a million people want to attend that show in real-time, as it’s happening,” he said.

It’s not actually the best seat in the house: it’s actually a completely unobtainable seat in the house: we put you on stage with your favourite artist.”

MelodyVR has also been exploring the potential for interactivity, which will give fans more of a “physical presence” within a concert that they’re watching.

“You can interact with an artist: you can pick up a guitar next to your favourite,” said Hancock. “As the market develops and the technology develops, you’ll see a lot more interactivity.”

What about the VR sceptics within the music world, particularly those who think watching a concert in 360 degrees while sat on your sofa wearing a headset can only be a pale imitation of the live experience?

It will never replace live… We had quite a lot of people saying ‘you’ll kill the live industry’. It’s absolute rubbish. If you can go, you’ll go,” said Hancock, who referenced BSkyB’s deal to televise Premier League football, which in its early days sparked fears that fans would stop going to matches.

“Every single year since, there has been an increase in season-ticket sales, physical attendance and merch sales. There’s no reason why that won’t be the same in music,” he said.

Also on the panel was Emmy Lovell, VP of digital at Warner Music UK, who provided a label’s viewpoint on VR. She noted that there is still a question around which headsets will prove most popular in terms of sales.

“There’s five or six companies out there at the moment, that will probably slim down to two when the public decide who those people are,” said Lovell.

“Apple haven’t released yet. They’ll probably be one of the frontrunners. Google [Daydream] will be another frontrunner because it’s well priced… Oculus is amazing, but it has its flaws: you have to be plugged in to a computer at the moment, and that’s just not practical.”

“I think the next 12 months are going to be really interesting to watch how that hardware plays out. And before we know it, everyone will be using VR.”

Tech panel at FastForward - VR included

Lovell added that Warner Music is watching other industries carefully, to see how they make creative use of VR beyond 360-degree videos. The label also has a partnership in place with MelodyVR.

“The obvious choice is live, but actually when you get into being creative with VR, it’s what can we do to increase that personalised relationship between the artist and fan?” she said. “That’s the area we’re most excited about at the moment, and we’re doing lots of experiments with MelodyVR.”

Sam Flamand-Gloyne, senior product manager at StubHub, talked about his company’s experiments with VR, which focus more on showing fans the view from a venue seat before they buy a ticket.

“It’s already live in lots of the venues in the US, and we’re testing it still. You’re on the ticket page, and then you click on VR,” he said.

Not everybody has a VR headset… but you can also do it directly on your phone… It’s really about helping the customer make the best choice about the ticket and the price of the gig. We’re seeing that people purchase more if they do have that help.”

Talk of purchases led the conversation to virtual reality more generally: will fans pay for it? If so, will they pay per performance / experience, or via subscription models? Or will this be more about advertising and brand sponsorships?

Hancock explained that MelodyVR’s launch model is very similar to Apple’s iTunes Store: fans will be able to pay as little as 99p to watch a single song performance, up to £10 for a whole concert.

“We’ve been fortunate enough to work very closely with Facebook, Oculus, HTC, Google and Sony PlayStation, and today there’s a phenomenal appetite for people to pay for things in VR. If you take the [iPhone] App Store, there’s three million apps on the App Store, but there’s sub-350 for VR currently, so the appetite for content is great,” he said.

“We haven’t touched branding or sponsorship to date,” he continued, suggesting that despite interest from brands, MelodyVR is wary of muddying the waters too early. “There will come a time when people will stop paying for it. I think we’re a long way off that… 24 to 36 months.”

Hancock said MelodyVR’s closed-beta testers appear to be enjoying the ability to roam its full catalogue rather than having to buy a la carte, so the company is mulling models like charging by the hour spent using its app, rather than by the track.

I think people will pay if the content is created and good enough, and there is an appetite from the fans,” said Lovell, explaining why Warner Music is investing and experimenting in VR.

“No one could have predicted Spotify was going to be this big 15 years ago. It didn’t even exist! So who knows what’s going to happen. But I think being a player in the game is what it’s all about, so we’ll ride the tide as much as we can just to try to understand the marketplace as much as anything else.”

When the conversation later came back to the headsets competition, Hancock suggested that smartphone-based VR is what will take the technology mainstream.

“Yes, the Rifts, the HTCs, the PlayStations are incredible, and they’ll play a really important part in the ecosystem. But we all have a VR device in our pocket already, our smartphone, so that is your stepping stone,” he said.

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