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What is the future of virtual concerts on Fortnite and other online games?


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Travis Scott is the latest act to turn an appearance in Fortnite into a landmark event for music, building on what Marshmello achieved within the game last year. Scott’s first concert there drew in 12.3m people and he will have made significant income from sales of digital peripherals. The runaway success may – only in part – be down to the global pandemic and the fact that people stuck at home are looking for distractions, but that would be to underplay just how deftly he and his team built up to this event. We look at what he did right, why Fortnite threw everything it had at promoting Scott’s show and how other acts – from Diplo to Weezer and Boy Pablo to Black Country, New Road – are changing their game. 

Ever since the global pandemic hit and concerts started to get cancelled, musicians have been looking at ways to take their live shows online, with more streamed performances and lockdown festivals than you could count on several crowds’ worth of gloved hands. 

As time has passed, musicians have become aware of two key problems around these online performances, namely: 1) typically not that many people attend; and 2) it’s extremely hard to make any money from them. 

Isolation frustration must have hit the roof, then, when musicians saw the success of Travis Scott’s first Fortnite concert on 23rd April where some 12.3m fans attended, comfortably beating Marshmello’s previous Fortnite record of 10.7m attendees in February 2019. 

Not only was this the first of Scott’s five Astronomical concerts in Fortnite, with total attendance of 27.7m people, Scott also stood a very good chance of making serious money from the event, thanks in a large part to the sale of associated virtual items, while ‘The Scotts’, a new track by 

Travis Scott and Kid Cudi that was debuted on Fortnite, hit 7.45m plays within its first 24 hours on Spotify. Travis Scott is, of course, far from the first artist to stage a concert within a game: as mentioned above, Marshmello beat him to Fortnite, while the likes of American Football (Minecraft) and Soccer Mommy (Club Penguin) have taken their live shows to online games. 

Musicians have also explored different ways to use online games to interact with their fans, from playing them at FIFA (Boy Pablo) to having their own Fortnite island (Weezer). At the start of May, indie band Black Country, New Road – about as far removed from Travis Scott, both stylistically and commercially, as you could possibly get – released their own Sims characters. 

But the success of Scott’s Fortnite takeover stands as a stark reminder – especially for artists struggling to lure in 50 people to a live Instagram stream – of how difficult the crossover between gaming and music can be. 

With all this in mind, Music Ally considers why Travis Scott succeeded so spectacularly in Fortnite while other artists are still struggling with their live streams. 

 

1) Travis Scott had both timing and execution on his side 

There’s no point denying that Travis Scott got lucky with the timing of Astronomical, which came as live shows were cancelled around the world and billions of people in quarantine were looking for new experiences to keep them amused. 

But that should take nothing away from what was a jaw-dropping event, one that media analyst Matthew Ball compared to “a fully designed, immersive experience” rather than a concert. “The stage disappeared right away, with players taken to brand new places, with different special effects (e.g. altered gravity). It was a guided experience/story, like a concert, but far more was possible as it wasn’t ‘real’,” he explained. 

Fortnite has been responsible for impressive events before – both musical (Marshmello’s 2019 gig) and otherwise, such as the game’s famed Season 10 finale, which blew up the virtual world and sent players into a black hole. 

Travis Scott’s gig, however, was another level for entertainment, with underwater scenes, rollercoasters et al, leaving journalists grasping for words to describe what had happened. “Astronomical is a curious mix of an event, art installation, music video and a video game,” Patricia Hernandez wrote on gaming website Polygon, “the beginning of a totally new type of media experience that will likely continue to change as the years go by.” 

 

2) Astronomical had the promise of new music 

For all that Astronomical was far from your standard-issue gig or music industry promotion, it did pull one of the oldest tricks in the music business book: drawing in an audience with the promise of new music. 

Fortnite creator Epic Games went big on the lure of a “brand new track” as it announced Astronomical on 20th April; then on 23rd April, the day before Astronomical kicked off, Scott continued the tease by revealing the cover art of the song on Instagram. The song itself, ‘The Scotts’, was played at the climax of the Astronomical gig, debuting in front of 12.3m people, who then sent it racing up the charts. 

‘The Scotts’ would have done very well without Astronomical and Astronomical would have been massive without ‘The Scotts’; but having a new song as part of the initiative helped to build anticipation for the event among fans and – especially – among old-school media, who probably understood the idea of a song premiere more than that of a Fortnite gig. 

 

3) Fortnite wasn’t just a big platform – it was the right platform 

Fortnite is massive, with 350m registered players (not all of them, of course, active players) in total as of May 2020. That is up from 250m in March 2020. Fortnite added that 3.2bn hours of play happened within the game this April. While Astronomical wasn’t the first gig on Fortnite, it was one of the first – making it new enough to be the kind of novelty that drives headlines. 

But a big platform doesn’t guarantee a big audience, as anyone who has seen a Facebook Live disappear into the ether can confirm. One of the key features of Astronomical’s success was that there is a significant crossover between Travis Scott fans and Fortnite users. 

Mark Mulligan from Midia Research recently claimed that Travis Scott fans are 2.3 times more likely to play Fortnite than general consumers. Scott is also a Fortnite player: in 2018 he famously joined up with Drake and Tyler “Ninja” Blevins to play Fortnite on Twitch, making global headlines. 

Another important point about Fortnite is that the platform is already experimenting with its positioning and role, using more traditional media to help it become something beyond just a “simple” video game. 

In December 2019, for example, Fortnite premiered a scene from Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker at the game’s Risky Reels drive-in theatre. Fortnite has also started running Quibi shows, while the announcement post Astronomical of a Party Royale social mode within Fortnite, that includes a concert venue, alongside virtual restaurants, a football pitch and a nightclub (see box), shows how important expanding into new activities is to Fortnite. 

The reason for this expansion, according to Daniel Kruchkow, CMO of Crush Music (which manages artists including Weezer, Train, Fall Out Boy and Sia), is that games like Fortnite need to keep growing in the face of strong competition. 

“You look at all these games as services: there are several, they all have massive daily audiences and you start to think about what is next for these because everyone wants to keep growing and growing – otherwise you get passed,” he says. “So you see Fortnite doing a Star Wars movie trailer premiere, with JJ Abrams and the Millennium Falcon flying by, it is some really incredible stuff that they have done over the past year way outside the game realm.” (See the full interview with Kruchkow in this issue.) 

What this suggests is that Fortnite, faced with competition from the likes of Warzone and Valorant, might need music as much as music needs Fortnite. 

 

4) Fortnite helped to make Astronomical into a major event 

This mutual need could help to explain why Epic Games went all out on Astronomical, making it into something more than just an online gig. Epic did the usual run of press and social media and Astronomical was also promoted within Fortnite itself. In the days before the gig, people who visited Sweaty Sands, where Astronomical was set to take place, could see the stage being constructed, complete with gold inflatable Travis Scott heads; users could also buy virtual Travis Scott goods and there was a range of Astronomical challenges within Fortnite that allowed players to unlock more free gear. 

Epic was also shrewd enough to make Astronomical into a series of events, which ensured that people around the world in different time zones could attend, while during the gigs Epic limited the emotes that players could use to keep proceedings suitably hip-hop. 

But perhaps the most important thing that Epic did to make a genuine event of Astronomical was to turn off the rest of the game when the gigs were taking place, leaving Fortnite fans with the choice of Travis Scott or doing something else – a significant endorsement. 

 

5) Astronomical appealed to our feelings of community 

For a series of gigs within a game, there wasn’t a great deal that was particularly ‘game-like’ to Astronomical: there were no goals to achieve, no people to kill and no opponents to compete with. Instead, Astronomical was social: the important thing was being there, together, interacting virtually in a way that has become impossible in a time of lockdown and social distancing. Scott, as you might imagine, wasn’t actually performing live at the concerts. But that meant fans were able to watch him watching Astronomical on Instagram Live, furthering the sense of community. 

Sharing is another pillar of community and Fortnite fans were able to share their own videos from the event after Epic Games announced that YouTube would not take down content from Astronomical, a neat touch that brought the event to a massive audience off-game, while encouraging the warm, egotistical glow that comes from sharing. 

 

6) Could other artists do it? 

Which artist wouldn’t want to swap their poorly attended Instagram Live for a 12m-strong audience and huge press attention? 

The good news is that Fortnite’s new Party Royale mode and concert venue – which was welcomed to the world with a Diplo DJ gig at the start of May and that was quickly followed by sets from Steve Aoki, deadmau5 and Dillon Francis – suggests that Fortnite is preparing for more music (see boxout on previous page). The bad news, is that Fortnite concerts are almost certainly going to remain rare events in the near future, while any gigs that do take place will face the law of diminishing returns. 

John Canning, an executive producer of new media at the effects studio Digital Domain, told Pitchfork recently that some of the acts his company is working with see Fortnite concerts as passé because they’ve already been done. 

But we should not be too disheartened. Fortnite is by no means the only game that can host concerts: Minecraft, with its 112m monthly players, has hosted a number of concerts and festivals. Meanwhile, bands including Massive Attack, Idles and Health were, at the time of writing, due to play the Block By Blockwest event in Minecraft on 16th May. 

Mother Artist Management’s Mark Bent, who manages Idles, tells Music Ally of the appeal of the event. “I liked the idea, as it was very different to everything else that was put in front of us,” he says. “Lots of great ideas around the show itself. You could buy exclusive merch from the merch tent in Minecraft and also have a Q&A with the band via discord. All very new things to Idles when everything has been so heavily pushed by live shows up until now.” 

Midia’s research has revealed numerous strong connections between the fanbases of artists and games, including Flohio with Call Of Duty and Ben Howard with FIFA. “Not every game is well suited to hosting virtual, gameplay concerts, but the console ecosystems can support so much more,” Midia’s Mark Mulligan wrote. “Imagine if Flohio, Ben Howard, Koffee or Slowthai were to do put on exclusive performances live streamed to FIFA players via Xbox Live followed by a gaming session to which players would pay for a premium ticket to play against their favourite artists in an eSports type set up. Tickets would be limited, to create scarcity.” 

Then there are the millions of female gamers who arguably get overlooked when gaming and music are discussed and whose gaming tastes often differ from those of men. 

Kruchkow says the music industry is starting to become more aware of the possibilities that games offer. 

“I think that everything that Fortnite has done has been a really big wake-up call,” he says. “There is so much more that can be done and you see it come up more in conversation. So maybe in American football terms we are at the 10-yard line, driving all the way down the field. It’s starting. There has always been a great relationship with the big publishers, generally related to music licensing and sometimes it goes beyond that. There are integrations and things, like you have seen with Marshmello , Weezer and Travis Scott. What I am hoping is that is becoming the new norm and we can get into much bigger, exciting executions like that.”

Music Ally

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