ABBA Invite Us Into Their Future Metaverse
The ageing band could be about to define a radically new musical experience; between the real and the virtual. The metaverse is coming.
ABBA Announce Voyage
I have never considered myself to be an ABBA fan. I would probably blame that on my dad who has successfully drilled those songs into my eardrums enough times via speakers or via his own vocal chords to have turned me off to the whole idea of ever enjoying the prospect of listening to Waterloo.
However, last week ABBA announced that they would once again be taking to the stage, much to the joy of the many, many fans out there who had long given up on the idea of ever seeing them get back together. I don’t know the politics of why this was unlikely to happen, and I’m not here to speculate on the history of this historic force of music.
Why am I writing about ABBA then? The stage show has been made by George Lucas' special effects company. A team of ‘around 500 to 1000 artists from around the world’ are using motion capture and other techniques to generate a virtual, age-defying avatar for each of the four band members. These have been dubbed as ‘Abbatars’ by the fans who have very quickly taken to the concept the band are pushing.
When I heard how they were designing their long-awaited comeback, I have to say I very quickly warmed to the idea of hearing those songs once more, because I am fascinated by this revolutionary experience, that they are constructing a whole arena to contain, in London.
In a letter to fans, the group wrote: "We simply call it 'Voyage' and we're truly sailing in uncharted waters. With the help of our younger selves, we travel into the future. It's not easy to explain but then it hasn't been done before. … So, again, thanks for waiting! We hope to see you in the ABBA Arena and yes - see - because we have infused a good deal of our souls into those avatars. It's not an exaggeration to say that we're back."
What a wonderful introduction to a completely innovative experiment in music and storytelling.
VR and MUSIC
It has been clear for a while that there are vast opportunities to merge virtual reality and game environments with music and performances. It’s also clear that the industry is experimenting with these mediums and somewhat embracing the creative potential that this merger could evolve to allow. What wasn’t clear was that some of the first to experience a mind-bending, genre-defining virtual avatar music show wouldn’t be the geeks or the nerds, or even the techno heads or left field electronic fans; it would in fact be the legions of fans of a band from the 70’s who have taken the brave and bold step to immortalise themselves into digital time and space, and metaverse folklore, by becoming the first to really do something special with the technology on offer these days.
I had never really thought about it as a way for old bands to find reason to re-emerge, as if no time has passed at all. As a force of nostalgia, that very often sells very well in music, as everyone is susceptible to going back to the songs they hold dear to them and that take them back to a time a and place in their past where they were possibly filled with a bit more life and adventure than they currently find. But this is an extraordinary awakening for other bands who would no doubt consider following in their wake.
The Virtual Liminal Space
That place where reality becomes enmeshed into the virtual world. That place you can pick up objects and walk around and interact with things in your 3D environment; communicate with others sharing the space, being fully conscious and present in the moment; looking around for ways to engage and test the limits of the immersion; to be wrapped up in an event that completely transports you to a place that surely can’t be real, but convokes every sense that you rely on that what is happening is full, authentic and to be taken completely seriously. That is the power of a truly rich VR experience, and when we begin combining it with the complex emotions such as nostalgia and memory that music immortalises within us and between us, then we are really working with fire.
What is liminal space? Author and Franciscan friar Richard Rohr describes this space as:
…where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible…This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy.
I believe ABBA have taken an incredibly bold and creative step into the future of live music. It is a step into that unique space between the familiar and the unknown, and it will be that for every single one of the fans that witness the experience.
It excites me because it is a whole crowd of people who would never have considered this technology meaningful or relevant to themselves. Maybe it’s something their kids or grandkids would be toying with but really it has no persuasion towards affecting their lives in any dramatic way. However, after witnessing the incredible power of the live event that is being designed for ABBA Voyage, surely there will be a whole new age group to be captivated by the power of motion capture, virtual avatars and live music in a digital realm.
The storytelling, the sound, the immersion, the experience, the science, the art, the technology. All of these factors come together to craft a time and space where people let go of their trained concept of reality, and take a bold step into the unknown and virtual world that is just emerging within our consciousness. It is going to be shaped by projects like this, and by brilliant minds who are funded and supported by musicians and curiously, deep-pocketed organisations willing to experiment and take a chance, to just see what can be done when an incredibly talented group of people try and create something radically new.
I think it’s going to be an incredibly historic moment for the ever-expanding dance between technology and music, that is only just beginning.
The Past 20 Years of Virtual Musical Experiences
There has been some incredibly unique examples where technology, music and virtual avatars have explored the world beyond physical space.
Most notably in my mind; Gorillaz. The virtual band created by Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett in 1998, made up of four fictional avatars. Gorillaz have pioneered a radically alternative way to generate mythology, story and to entwine that into the medium of music, animation and character creation. As a leap of imagination and collaboration between creators, Gorillaz have always been incredibly inspiring to me.
Other examples of virtual realms within music: the Travis Scott performance that took place last year within the online multiplayer video game sensation that is Fortnite. This was one of those moments that changed the script as to how music; and most importantly where, it could be experienced. It had opened up a doorway that we are still trying to fully understand. A realm between reality and fiction; the digital and the real. The laws of physics are completely different, the colours, the sound, the rules are baseless. That is unlimited potential for creativity.
There are artists and musicians out there creating incredibly immersive events with the wonders of modern technology. One that I was incredibly fortunate to witness myself was Aphex Twin at Field Day in 2017. That show changed my life and it’s hard to even convey what it was like to experience first-hand. Technology involved: facial mapping, projection, animation, laser choreography. Not to mention the technographic chaos that Aphex Twin build into every minuscule sound he generates, and the power of the space it was held in; ‘The Barn’ - which is the size of an airport hanger.
On the same day, Flying Lotus was performing his You’re Dead tour which used a lot of 3D projection technology to build an experience like no other. It’s fair to say we were spoilt that day as far as the grand collaboration between masters of their craft in electronic music and the wonders of live technology go.
Holly Atkinson is head of metaverse technology and a blockchain developer at Boson Protocol, and says this about the potential unravelling of reality behind the metaverse:
What is so special about the metaverse is that it will allow companies to break from convention and create a world that is totally unbounded by the existing limitations of physical space.
Now ABBA may just be immortalising themselves as avatars, for which people go and witness it on a screen. That is an important first step to take, and it’s safe to say that the majority of the people going to watch it wouldn’t be ready for a VR headset and full immersion into an alternate reality. But it starts the conversation, and exposes what is possible to a whole new demographic, outside of Fortnite.
Another moment that defined the relationship between technology and music you could argue was Tupac reappearing on stage to perform with Snoop Dogg at Coachella in 2012, after he had been dead for 15 years. That breached the rules of reality that we had always taken for granted in music, just as the ABBA Voyage experience challenges to do.
Over the next decade, technology will develop so much that the physical and digital world will become indistinguishably integrated. As brands pivot to align themselves with this new future, it is essential that they redress their focus to create user-driven immersive experiences that place ownership, creativity and inclusivity at the heart of their missions.
The NFT+ Experience
With the boom of NFT’s and the opportunity to design new systems of value and exchange on blockchains, the music industry is in a prime position to take back full control of the creative power they have been robbed of somewhat in the age of streaming and monstrous record label egotism, where business looks after itself and no one else.With NFT’s now beginning to peel the lid off of a whole realm of interaction and exchange between creator and community, I think experiments like these and examples of storytelling that break with what is known, and invite you into other places, fictional spaces and virtual escapes, are going to be huge in the next 15/20 years. I believe the technology behind NFT’s will play a huge part in how those interactions are experienced, collected, exchanged, communicated and woven into the fabric of culture.
I can’t wait to be a part of making these experiences a reality, and seeing where these alternate realms; these virtual realities and immersive shared stories can take us as an audience and as collaborators in the experience.
I’m going to be writing one article every week from now on, and hopefully release it on Thursday’s. It will give me a purpose and a time to commit to, and hopefully lead to a more productive and engaging output. Here’s to the next one!
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