This is the script of an invited research seminar I gave at the University of Bristol on 1 February 2022.
In April 2020, the video game platform Fortnite announced a special in-game event called Astronomical. Billed as a ‘virtual concert’ featuring hip hop artist Travis Scott, the event series broke records, reaching a global audience of nearly 28 million people. However, no live music was performed. The artist was hardly there at all. Yet Fortnite developer Epic Games received a Cannes Lions Grand Prix award and a profusion of glowing reviews. What does the success of the event reveal about popular understandings of live music, experiences of virtual media, and hip hop (for which liveness is so important)?
This talk reflects on the liveness of online concerts – one possible musical future for an increasingly unlivable ‘offline’ world – with reference to previous thinking on the concepts of virtuality and liveness. I make distinctions between commercial ventures like Astroworld and DIY-inspired, community-led charity benefit concerts (typically held in Minecraft). I argue that the low barriers to entry at video game concerts align with the accessible and participatory nature of hip hop, which perhaps explains the popularity of both the Fortnite event and Lil Nas X’s similar venture with Roblox. My discussion addresses the privatisation of the internet and the platformatisation of culture, as commercial and corporate interests encroach on virtual concerts. The talk concludes by examining how to resist such threats to the social connectivity and immediacy of live popular music.
What do you picture when you hear the word “concert” (or “gig”, or “live music”)? Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us would probably think of performers and an audience in a shared physical space. This hasn’t always necessarily been the case, but any live music events mediated online, broadcast via the internet, would previously have been thought of as an interesting exception to the norm: an oddity or experiment. By the start of 2022, we may be more familiar with the idea that a concert is something you listen to and watch on the internet. As the pandemic rages on, and as there is further global reckoning with pressing environmental concerns, we may become even more familiar with this idea.
Virtual concerts take a range of forms. Some hardly differ from how live performances have been traditionally broadcast on television, either pre-recorded or in realtime. Sets at major music festivals airing live on TV and the web are a clear example of this format. There are also cases where smaller, physically hosted events are livestreamed: Boiler Room, for example. James Rendell calls these “portal shows”, “a convergence between live music performance and digital media broadcast”.[i] Events without a physical audience but maintaining the performance for a live broadcast fall closer to “e-busking”[ii]: think of a bedroom musician performing on Twitch. These are each examples of music performance that remain, to some extent, live, and are, to some extent, digitally mediated.
Let’s carry this concept further, and turn to an early example of ‘pandemic media’, the One World: Together at Home series organised by Global Citizen. This comprised pre-recorded domestic performances by internationally celebrated artists including Lady Gaga, Stevie Wonder, Burna Boy, Lizzo, and Billie Eilish. The performances were assembled into an eight-hour livestream (a six-hour pre-show and then a simulcast two-hour television broadcast) which aired on 18th April 2020. It was billed as a benefit concert. It aired at a specific time. But there was no live music performance. It was filmed in advance, in disparate locations, with diverse styles of audiovisual production, seriously stretching the boundaries of what can be considered a live event. And yet, at a student seminar at my university the following day, someone asked, ‘who watched the gig last night?’.
There is serious conceptual slippage here, mixing liveness and mediation, virtuality and realness, performance and recording. While such elisions intensify, new events have been developed that combine music performance with the virtual environments of video games. These have been increasingly enabled by advances in computer and internet technologies, especially improvements in data transfer rates (what we call internet speed, basically) and reductions in latency. In many ways, realtime musical performance is a good fit for video games. Online multiplayer games already utilise near-instant player feedback and have resolved issues of simultaneous interaction through lag compensation (such as when calculating which of two players shot the other first). There are particularly exciting opportunities for virtual co-presence and interaction in video games. Attending a virtual concert by controlling a game character with friends in a shared gameworld is surely a more powerful experience of being “together at home” than the prepared media experience of One World. It is here where my study of virtual concerts begins in earnest, and I ask that you follow me into the Omniverse of Fortnite.
Much of the literature on online multiplayer games has focused on Second Life, World of Warcraft, and Minecraft:[iii] games popular throughout the late ’00s and 2010s. Each of these provides virtual worlds for online communication and interaction with other players. The rise of massively multiplayer online games gave way to multiplayer online battle arenas and then a wave of battle royale games like Fortnite. When players are not in discrete matches – the gameplay proper – they can engage with other systems housed by the game: group formation, a friends list, chat channels, news on events, player achievements, cosmetic customisations, and a store for purchasing digital assets. Some features, such as the ability to invite others to your party, are vital for playing the game with friends, whereas others, such as ‘skins’, purely enhance the visual experience through personalisation. ‘Skins’ is the unfortunate but now standardised name for the character model that the player controls in-game.[iv]
Adding all of these other features around the gameplay itself has led critics to dub these games-as-a-service.[v] This term recognises that they are essentially internet platforms, similar to media services for TV or music streaming. Games that fall under this banner are continually updated with changing content (known as ‘seasonal’ content), differing game modes, maps (the environments that you play on), and so-called ‘global’ events. They often require monthly subscriptions and typically invite microtransaction payments for supplementary game content. Because of the recurring subscriptions, rotating content, and match-based style of play, they suit ongoing participation on behalf of gamers rather than linear, self-contained play experiences. The rotating content structure of games-as-a-service lends itself well to time-limited experiences, such as ‘seasonal events’ with specific instances of altered gameplay. For example, an earlier Fortnite tie-in with the film Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker aired one minute of original footage on a virtual screen the gameworld, bookended by director commentary from an animated J. J. Abrams (pictured here) and the appearance of the Millennium Falcon. To top it off, attendees’ characters were given lightsabres.
Because games-as-a-service check so many of the boxes for realtime, online, mass participatory, and one-off events, they provide fertile ground for communal experiences like music concerts. They can be used to host events that are virtual through and through, since there is no physical audience, and attendees at video game concerts are themselves represented virtually. I will analyse three concerts hosted in video games in 2019 and 2020:
– Travis Scott’s Astronomical event in Fortnite
– Lil Nas X’s collaboration with Roblox, and
– benefit concerts held by Open Pit in Minecraft
I’m particularly interested in how each of these concerts stage hip hop music of one style or another. It’s often hip hop in its most commercial form, but perhaps that’s what makes it a good fit for a corporate, privately owned stage like Fortnite (or Roblox, for that matter). Hip hop serves as an ideal case study because as a cultural form it so prominently prioritises liveness, directness, and immediacy. Traditionally, hip hop has been understood as something that happens in the moment, on the street corner, at the house party, in the studio. In the contemporary era, it is certainly no stranger to mediation: of course, recorded rap music is one of the most popular genres globally – probably the largest[vi] – on music streaming platforms. But as David Diallo’s recent study shows,[vii] a sense of liveness remains one of the form’s major aesthetic priorities. The appearance of rap as ‘live and direct’ is a major factor in maintaining hip hop authenticity.[viii] How is the live spirit of hip hop performance negotiated in video game concerts?
Fortnite and Travis Scott: Astronomical
In April 2020, Epic Games announced a special in-game event called Astronomical, their news post describing it variously as a ‘journey’, ‘experience’, ‘tour’, ‘show’, and finally ‘event’. It was promoted particularly as a ‘virtual concert’ featuring hip hop artist Travis Scott, scheduled five times over three days. Notably, this was during a period when cultural activity rapidly migrated to the internet due to COVID-19 public health guidelines – ‘the first lockdown’, as we’d call it in the UK. Astronomical was developed as an online alternative to the annual Astroworld Festival in Houston, inaugurated in association with Travis Scott’s 2018 album launch and managed by the events company ScoreMore Shows.
In the days following Astronomical, Epic Games announced that the event series gained a global audience of nearly 28 million unique players.[ix] Reviews were pretty much in line with the event’s self-aggrandising title, with journalists describing it as ‘jaw-dropping’, ‘mind-blowing’, and ‘a gigantic, unprecedented success’.[x] However, its status as a ‘virtual concert’ has been called into question. It took place entirely in the game platform, though it limited the typical play experience, instead emphasising impressive audiovisual elements. Game journalist Patricia Hernandez described the event as ‘a totally new type of media experience’.[xi]
In the days prior to the event, a range of Travis Scott associated assets were added to the in-game store, such as a lifelike character model ($12), a ‘back bling’ asset (an object attached to the player’s back) displaying the logo of Travis Scott’s record label, Cactus Jack ($12) and an ‘Astro Jack’ alter ego skin ($16). At the appropriate ‘showtimes’, Astronomical was accessed from a static pre-game lobby where players could choose their skin, emotes, equipment, and more. At the start of the event, players emerged in the standard Fortnite map, although a virtual stage area was newly constructed, with a purple light beam illuminating a digital countdown. I’ll now play a decent chunk of footage – around five or six minutes – to give you a sense of the first-hand experience of Astronomical.
That was Astronomical: full of bombastic surprises, larger-than-life figures, teleportation, explosions, thunderous vortexes, and holographic rollercoasters. Players were granted significantly increased movement speed at certain points, free to dart about the place excitedly and look around take in the sights and sounds. The game also debuted swimming, an entirely new movement mechanic for Fortnite, then shot players into space for the final part of the event.
I was interested in attendees’ responses to the event, so I collected nearly 200 thousand YouTube comments on videos of event footage using the software Mozdeh and undertook thematic analysis. I won’t discuss the data in full today, but for a quick summary, the major themes I drew from the commentary were: related to the event, especially the format; appraisal or comments on attendee experience; reference to other virtual concerts; and an interesting focus on time, either to do with different ‘showings’ of the event or future Fortnite events (presumably brought about by its time-bound nature).
It was clearly a satisfying event for many involved. Beyond the feats in audiovisual design, aspects of accessibility of contributed to the success of the event. Epic Games reduced the usual restrictions on livestreaming and re-broadcasting in-game footage, so many videos of the event remain online. They have even contributed to the YouTube “reaction video” genre. Another factor in the event’s achievement was its reliance on pre-existing game technologies. Astronomical crucially relied upon many of the principles and processes used to create other Fortnite content such as animated video trailers and shorts. The character of Travis Scott was animated using Unreal Engine 4, the industry leader, and built around motion capture. This is a process which records actors’ physical motions and codes these into animated figures, resulting in highly fluid animations. Most Fortnite dance emotes will also use motion capture of dancers, although it is unclear whether Travis Scott himself recorded the performance of Astronomical. The negotiations with Epic Games are opaque, and my requests for information have been ignored. I think it unlikely Travis Scott performed it and suspect that another mocap artist performed in his style.
For avoidance of doubt, I should also point out that all the music you heard is pre-recorded. If you listen to Travis Scott’s music on streaming platforms, you will listen to identical audio. There is some vocal censorship for use in Fortnite, a game predominantly played by children,[xii] but nothing was performed in realtime nor freshly recorded for the event, besides environmental game audio and basic editing to fit the format. The event did debut a new song and project – the final song, ‘The Scotts’, with Kid Cudi – but otherwise comprises Travis Scott’s pre-released music.
Most resources for the event were produced by Epic Games: the platform, the map and all the visual art assets, the animations, the effects, the user interface, and other player affordances. It’s therefore difficult to describe Astronomical as a live event featuring Travis Scott. It more closely resembles traditional music synchronisation, such as a film licensing a song for its soundtrack. The artist’s contributions to the event are limited to the branding – inspired by artwork originally developed for the Travis Scott brand – the animated character in Travis Scott’s likeness, and of course the recorded music. In terms of the event itself, however, Epic Games essentially licensed Travis Scott’s music (including four tracks which had already been released) and his visual products to accompany an in-game event.
Despite all of this, because many players were presented with the music and figure of Travis Scott, assembled in a virtual space for a special event, the experience has been widely understood and described as a virtual concert. Thus is the power of the physical likeness, the lip-synching animation, the aspect of congregation, and the broadcast of music in a time-bound format.
It may be useful to think of Astronomical more like an innovative music video. The Weeknd has previously produced a 360-degree video, dubbed ‘interactive’, for ‘The Hills’ remix featuring Eminem.[xiii] Fortnite improves on this, also allowing viewers to move their characters and perform emote animations. That said, the movement of players around the map is relatively limited given the environmental ruptures and transitions. Epic Games described the event internally not as a “concert” but a “ride”:[xiv] highly immersive but not freely interactive. To what extent could attendees feel surrounded by friends or among a crowd compared to the archetypal concert experience? The comparison to music video is limited, however: the multi-track setlist and the company’s own framing of “tour dates” generated far more interest.[xv] Music video premieres are not usually attended by audiences in the tens of millions: only a handful of the biggest-name pop stars debuting music videos on YouTube have achieved even one million realtime viewers of new material. Evidently, Astronomical’s time-boundedness, the pre-existing game audience, and the novelty of the format provided an attractive sense of exclusivity.
Astronomical exemplified a professionalised and polished collaboration between a major gaming platform and a mainstream hip hop artist. I have argued that besides permissions granted by Travis Scott and his associated properties, it is primarily an initiative by the game developer rather than any live performance by the artist. Epic Games won a Cannes Lions Grand Prix award recognising the company’s ‘Technological Achievement in Digital Craft’, with no comparable institutional recognition for Travis Scott, although it was of course not without benefits for the artist. Moreover, the collaboration also served as a model for what future hip hop video game concerts might look like.
Roblox Presents the Lil Nas X Concert Experience
Six months after Astronomical, the hip hop and pop star Lil Nas X announced a similar event combining his music with a virtual performance animated in the game Roblox. The artist is best known for his breakthrough hit ‘Old Town Road (feat. Billy Ray Cyrus)’ and more recent number-one singles such as ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’. Much of the media discourse on Lil Nas X has characterised him as one of the most publicly visible, openly gay Black contemporary artists and observed his successful uses of social media to promote his work. His Roblox partnership represents another step in boundary-pushing forms of promotion. Lil Nas X is not the first crossover media event in Roblox, but his ‘concert’ is the most high-profile collaboration to date. The game platform Roblox announced an attendance of ‘more than 30 million visits’ at his event,[xvi] which exceeded that of Astronomical. This is a striking figure despite less enthusiastic media reportage (perhaps because it stands in the shadows of Travis Scott’s event and Fortnite is a better-known game).
Lil Nas X’s concert was accessed like any other Roblox game. It’s more of a database of games than a specific gameworld itself. Like Astronomical, there were specific airing times: three instances rather than five. Once loaded in, the map featured a virtual merch stand where players could spend dollars on Lil Nas X-branded items using the virtual currency Roblox. The event itself drew heavily from Travis Scott’s prior example, employing a giant-sized performer figure, brightly coloured thematic environments, and cut scenes transitioning between different virtual stages for each song. Let’s have just a minute or two of this.
So we did hear some newly recorded dialogue at the introduction for the event. However, the remainder played his recorded songs – ‘Old Town Road’, ‘Rodeo’ (without Cardi B’s guest verse), ‘Panini’, and ‘Holiday’. Once again, I wonder about the extent to which this qualifies as a virtual concert. Liveness is heavily implied by the game developer’s claim that the concert was ‘performed entirely within Roblox’.[xvii] Literally speaking, though, the music was not. The studio recording took place months earlier and included the voice of a now-absent Billy Ray Cyrus alongside the production work of many other musicians. Rather, the music was reproduced within Roblox, in the manner of radio play scheduling the ‘performance’ of a song at a particular time. Lil Nas X recorded motion capture for the performance of his avatar in the game, although this was also produced before the event aired. The absence of any live performance is therefore obscured by the ‘concert’ framing and the specific event times. Even a new pre-recorded musical performance (using original one-take vocals or instrumentation) would have made the event feel more live than the actual set of well-known, pre-existing sound recordings used in Roblox. In this way, Lil Nas X’s video game appearance follows in the footsteps of Astronomical by merely livestreaming his recorded songs with new visual accompaniment and some degree of audience activity.
This isn’t purely an exercise in cynicism or pedantry. It highlights anxieties surrounding the status of liveness in artistic performance, and especially popular music culture. Here we will take a dip into theoretical context. Perhaps the best known work on liveness is that of Philip Auslander. His work sought to defend the value of live artistic performance (defined broadly) from the dominance of the mass media. He bemoaned the intrusion of audiovisual and communication technology on live events and thereby the loss of liveness. For instance, he was critical that some major pop stars’ concerts tried to recreate their music videos:[xviii] putting the live in service of pre-existing audiovisual media rather than an end in itself. Though Auslander saw liveness as a fluid concept, his review of how it has historically and culturally been understood identified a few key features: spontaneity, presence, and feedback between performer and audience. Paul Sanden calls this “traditional liveness”.[xix] Even the most pre-produced and hyper-mediated physical concerts retain these criteria to some extent.
Live performances feature a degree of spontaneity, as they are always partly improvisational and subtly different from any other performance. What about Astronomical and the Lil Nas X Roblox event? Granted, the players experienced the virtual event at a specific point in realtime, and moved their character at will, but the performance was identical at each showing, and can still be experienced exactly so in recordings of the game event. Second, live performance has been enjoyed for creating a shared presence between audience and performer. Travis Scott and Lil Nas X certainly were not present. Although Lil Nas X recorded his own motion capture, attendees at the concerts could hardly have claimed to share space with the artists, even virtually. Indeed, Auslander noted that most of the apparent value of co-presence revolved around the “social-cultural value” or “symbolic capital” attached to being there.[xx] Finally, it is widely understood that live performance involves two-way communication between the performer and audience, the latter able to affect the performance. This is a complete impossibility in the prepared audiovisual experiences we see thus far in video games.
However, this may be part of a broader trend in which hip hop has adapted to constant mediatisation. David Diallo has written that rappers have long since developed early MCing conventions, and now “write performative lyrics that redefine ‘liveness’ in such a way that performers no longer need to be physically present”.[xxi] This is why the event is perceived as a concert, suggesting hip hop is already so saturated with mediation that any programmed stream of music feels live-like. It is certainly why adding a new visual and bounded interactive experience to pre-recorded music is not so jarring. It actually demonstrates hip hop’s adaptability to mediating technologies.
Returning to the example of Lil Nas X: perhaps compensating for a lack of musical novelty, Lil Nas X debuted a new song, ‘Holiday’. Roblox provided a platform to premiere the single, although a separate, unrelated music video was released on YouTube on the same day. The partnership with Roblox fits Lil Nas X’s typical release strategy, as he often iterates on past releases in the now-conventional manner of artists churning out material at a regular and consistent pace, as David Arditi has written about.[xxii] For instance, ‘Old Town Road’ has no less than nine YouTube videos, including an animated video and three remixes. The so-called Roblox ‘concert experience’ can therefore be seen as part of a diversifying set of visual media accompanying Lil Nas X’s music, channelling the illusion of liveness into new platforms, new audiences, and, through virtual merchandise sales, new revenue streams. In this paradigm, liveness becomes a selling point for artificial scarcity. The ‘one-off’, time-bound events superficially promote hip hop’s live-and-direct aesthetic as part of commercial ventures with a new set of media production partners: not live events companies, not music video agencies, but game developers.
Open Pit in Minecraft
What about when commercial profit and co-promotion for the artist and game developer are not the primary objectives? Very different experiences can emerge from other combinations of events hosting music played in video games. I have another example of music which is not performed live by artists in realtime, but offers a fresh twist on the video game concert idea.
In 2018, the design firm Parent Company, working at the fringes of hip hop, electronic music, and pop, developed a small production team named Open Pit, which began running virtual events in Minecraft. Owned by Microsoft and developed by Mojang (an early success story for independent game development), Minecraft is the best selling video game globally and has attained significant cultural spread, especially in youth and popular cultures. Its block-based sandbox environment affords considerable creativity in terms of world-building and online forms of participation. It has also provided an engaging arena for virtual contact among international underground communities of popular music.
Between September 2018 and August 2020, Open Pit ran eight ‘festival’ events using the in-game world as an interactive medium. For each event, the IP address or URL to access the server was circulated for players to join from Minecraft’s online multiplayer mode. Unlike Fortnite and Roblox, Minecraft has no capacity for playing specific music in-game, so participants relied upon a separate audio stream hosted on Twitch (and sometimes a mirror site like Mixlr). The general practice was for an attendee to open the music stream in a web browser in the background, then alt-tab and use Minecraft to interact with others’ avatars while they listened simultaneously. Players were free to explore a custom-built server, often with virtual landscapes and blocky buildings created with incredible sophistication and attention to detail. At many events, such as 2019’s Square Garden (like Madison Square Garden, but Minecraft), the nucleus of the event server was a virtual venue (called a ‘moshpit’) complete with custom game assets: a stage, speakers, and turntables rendered in Minecraft’s iconic, blocky style. Here’s an extract, just drenched in lag, from 100 gecs’ set at the virtual festival Square Garden.
Although there are principles similar to the Fortnite and Roblox concerts, there are also major differences. What is retained is the meeting of attendees in realtime and the broadcast of recorded music. For these events, however, each artist provided a set of approximately twenty minutes which was recorded in advance then streamed live, one after the other, by Open Pit. Many of these sets have now been archived on SoundCloud in the model of EDM culture, where producers commonly record and release full live mixes.
The idea of pre-recorded liveness is worth some examination, especially in highly electronic forms of popular music and hip hop. These sets contained original songs (or at least new versions – remixes of pre-existing tracks) with newly developed effects, transitions, and other mashups. While they were not performed live to an audience in realtime, they retain a far stronger sense of originality and novelty than the Travis Scott and Lil Nas X game events. Although DJs rarely deliver a complete render of their set ahead of time, most contemporary live performance involves significant musical preparation in a digital audio workstation. This has led to the derisive stereotype of major concert DJs simply ‘pressing play’ then focusing all their energy on engaging with the crowd, dancing, and miming changing equipment settings. This portrayal critiques the perceived inauthenticity of performing using computer equipment, but more importantly bemoans a lack of liveness. Here it is premeditation rather than mediation that becomes the issue disrupting the purity of ‘classic’ liveness as Auslander terms it.[xxiii] However, because the audience was clearly aware that sets were pre-recorded (and with the appearance of all-new exclusive material appeasing listeners), there was no such disdain for the omission of the live element. The use of Minecraft also compensated heavily for this by providing a realtime meeting place to interactively celebrate the music livestream.
Artists were free to appear in avatar form on the server during their sets and engage with the game as they wished. In-built game limitations meant that no performer could suddenly grow tenfold or send explosions flying. Artists had character models the same size as everyone in the audience. This is not a bad metaphor for the politics of inclusion and equitable participation espoused by the event compared to its corporate equivalents, which retain deeply stratified and patriarchal resonances. At Open Pit festivals, there was no celebration of a giant Great Man figure with complete control over the audiovisual environment, towering over his subservient audience. The performers controlled their own characters, just like every other attendee, and mimed or danced along to the prepared sonic performance.
The approach to original music aside, there are major organisational differences between Open Pit events and the other two examples. For the Minecraft events, the game environments were not made by the game developer itself, nor was any virtual animation produced in advance. Granted, the Open Pit team had designed in-game worlds, essentially by playing the game. These concerts, though, were not produced multimedia experiences so much as scheduled events liaising with artists to stream specially prepared music and developing virtual venues. Those facilitating the festivals form a much looser collective of industry personnel, event managers, artists, and fans taking on responsibilities. They were fundamentally driven by interest and enthusiasm rather than revenue, though they helped to publicise the artists and record labels involved. Open Pit events have also received sponsorships from Red Bull (who produced real T-shirts in honour of the events) and Pioneer DJ, who featured small in-game advertisements. So it would be unfair to claim that there was no corporate involvement. The major motivating factor, however, was charity. The event Lavapalooza raised $20,000 in donations for the Okra Project, a collective ‘dedicated to improving the lives of Black Trans people by providing culturally specific meals, therapy, and resources’.[xxiv]
Comparing incentives and outcomes
Comparing the charitable motivations of Open Pit concerts with the virtual currency spending incentives of the Fortnite and Roblox events makes the contrast between the developers’ incentives crystal clear. The partnerships between artists and game corporations provide direct economic rewards and bidirectional promotion for the cultural producers involved. Many fans installed Fortnite and created new accounts specifically to experience Travis Scott’s music in Astronomical. Conversely, several Fortnite players attended the event with little to no prior recognition of Travis Scott (though most seem appeased by the enjoyable game features). The artist has similarly collaborated with corporations like McDonalds (the Travis Scott meal, widely available across US branches) and Nike (Travis Scott Air Force 1 shoes). This represents a successful commercial model of hip hop promotion and enterprise.
Lil Nas X’s work with Roblox Corporation clearly follows the model of Astronomical, although targeted strategically at a younger audience. The Lil Nas X Concert Experience provides a useful example of how modern hip hop and pop artists are engaging with video game developers to create innovative multimedia experiences and original routes for music synchronisation. These kinds of collaborations indicate the ever-intensifying corporatisation of recorded hip hop music as well as its platformisation for the benefit of youth and gaming cultures. Mainstream hip hop music has long been criticised for its consumerist tendencies, but new streams for commercialisation are still emerging through partnerships with game companies and the mutual exploitation of their audiences.
Open Pit pursues DIY-inspired, charity- and community-oriented outcomes. The game developer is hardly involved at all. These events are not necessarily undermined by the Red Bull and Pioneer DJ sponsorships, since any economic profits are directly provided to selected charities. However, a lot of volunteer labour takes place on behalf of the organisers, which is surely unsustainable without reliable economic support. Due to the charitable context, all artists provide their work for free, and the limited income from sponsors barely cover the costs of the event production despite Open Pit’s desire to compensate artists adequately.[xxv] A compromise is struck in the form of extensive promotion of performers through in-game hyperlinks to artist websites. Open Pit, with its links to the design agency Parent Company, has a vested interest in the commercial success of the artists that perform at their concerts, since that may lead to more paid design work in turn. The Minecraft concerts therefore function as charity events that also provide rewarding and mutually beneficial promotion for artists, brands, and the events team, not to mention entertainment for the audience. All of this takes place without the need to funnel revenue in the form of virtual currency to the game developer in question.
Putting aside global inequities of internet access, there are minimal barriers to entry for audiences at all three events. Fortnite and Roblox are free of charge to play, although the account sign-up does involve parting with a bit of personal data. To virtually attend an Open Pit event would require the purchase of a Minecraft license (which is around 25 dollars, though I imagine most audience members already owned one). The events themselves are free. The one-off airing times of Open Pit events privilege a US audience, whereas the other platforms’ repeat broadcasts ensure more convenience and accessibility for participants across the globe. The Travis Scott and Lil Nas X events are entirely experienced within the game platforms, while Open Pit’s use of a publicly available audio stream on Twitch means listeners can also tune in in an audio-only format. However, it also means advertising revenues go to the Amazon-owned platform. It is evidently difficult to escape the corporate shadow of commercial internet platforms altogether. Nonetheless, Open Pit demonstrates a more equitable model with promise for future virtual hip hop concerts hosted in video games.
Discord and beyond
Some brief concluding thoughts on what comes next. Open Pit has inspired a number of similar independent festivals and artist showcase events, although none so popularly attended as yet. There has been more use of Discord for streaming music on a one-to-many voice channel (as an alternative to Twitch), retaining Minecraft as an interactive virtual meeting space. Sometimes there is no game complement whatsoever: the pit is a text channel with an illegibly rapid spam of reaction gifs, comments, and copypasta. Such events are promoted using social networking sites and accessed through private – albeit publicly distributed – Discord server codes.
The young and ‘extremely online’ audience typically in attendance exhibit a kind of informal community participation based in the aesthetics and practices of digital youth culture. There is a delightful sense of immediacy to these events, even down to the organisation, like set times shifting last-minute. The DIY style of event management and relatively unmoderated server structure resonate with hip hop conventions, reminiscent of independently organised ciphers and casual communities of practice. At times, the specific signatures of online youth interaction – emojis, abbreviations, opaque layers of irony – conceal the participatory sociomusical engagements at play here. Still, the spirit of hip hop culture shines through at the heart of these Minecraft and Discord concerts, supplanted to the contours of contemporary online interactivity. And at the heart of them is a desire to collectively experience the live broadcast (if not realtime performance) of music.
This sits in stark contrast with the Fortnite and Roblox events, where the animation and gratifying game controls are the stars of the show. Hip hop music becomes relegated to an accompanying soundtrack, with reproduction of recordings that have already been distributed and which fans already know. This is also true for live concerts in physical venues, although at least there the artist is physically present and performs the music in realtime. The pre-recorded virtualisation of hip hop performance enables player interaction with a multimedia production that sits alongside artists’ other properties like music videos and merchandise. The exciting aspects of immediacy are all bound to experiences of the game instead of the music. These are video game concerts using hip hop, rather than hip hop concerts taking place within a video game.
Open Pit and subsequent Minecraft events find a promising middle ground between liveness and mediation, with original sets produced in advance and with the potential for spontaneous interaction with the artist’s and audience’s virtual avatars. Broadcasting live motion capture, animation, and production as part of a simultaneous in-game audiovisual experience would be a technical challenge, although it is not inconceivable using contemporary technologies. It’s been shown to be feasible by the virtual entertainment company Wave, which uses realtime motion capture technology and sound recording to virtualise the performer. Admittedly, in these contexts, there is limited interactivity for audiences.
In any case, simultaneously recording and livestreaming sound should be the least of the technical worries here. So why do none of these examples of video game hip hop concerts opt for live sound? This is one tension that has not yet been resolved between internet platforms like online video games and hip hop as a mode of live performance. Many hip hop practices have translated effortlessly to mediated and online formats. And hip hop is at the forefront of exciting new media experiences that combine interactivity and audiovisual reproduction. Just like other online music concerts that pre-record performances (e.g., the One World pandemic broadcast), virtual hip hop shows in video games tend to prioritise extensive control over event production rather than realtime connection between artist and audience. A well-produced game experience is valued over musical liveness. In this way, hip hop’s spontaneity and immediacy as a musical art form are compromised – indeed, live musical performance on the whole is relegated – to comply with the priorities of commercialised, mediated interaction on video game platforms.
[i] James Rendell, ‘Staying in, Rocking out: Online Live Music Portal Shows during the Coronavirus Pandemic’, Convergence, 10 December 2020, 1354856520976451, https://doi.org/10.1177/1354856520976451.
[ii] Mark Daman Thomas, ‘Digital Performances: Live-Streaming Music and the Documentation of the Creative Process’, in The Future of Live Music, ed. Ewa Mazierska, Les Gillon, and Tony Rigg (New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), 83–96.
[iii] Tom Boellstorff, Coming of Age in Second Life, Coming of Age in Second Life (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015); Hilde G. Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg, eds., Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: MIT Press, 2008); Nate Garrelts, ed., Understanding Minecraft : Essays on Play, Community and Possibilities (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2014); René Glas, Battlefields of Negotiation: Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012); Charles Wankel and Jan Kingsley, eds., Higher Education in Virtual Worlds: Teaching and Learning in Second Life, First edition (Bingley, U.K: Emerald Group Pub, 2009).
[iv] Anne Mette Thorhauge and Rune K. L. Nielsen, ‘Epic, Steam, and the Role of Skin-Betting in Game (Platform) Economies’, Journal of Consumer Culture 21, no. 1 (1 February 2021): 52–67, https://doi.org/10.1177/1469540521993929.
[v] Louis-Etienne Dubois and Johanna Weststar, ‘Games-as-a-Service: Conflicted Identities on the New Front-Line of Video Game Development’, New Media & Society, 2 March 2021, 1461444821995815, https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444821995815.
[vi] MRC Data, ‘Year-End Report U.S. 2020’ (MRC Data / Billboard, 2021); Nielsen Music / MRC Data, ‘Midyear Report U.S. 2020’ (Nielsen Music / MRC Data, 2021); IFPI, ‘Global Music Report 2018: Annual State of the Industry’ (IFPI, 2018).
[vii] David Diallo, Collective Participation and Audience Engagement in Rap Music, Pop Music, Culture and Identity (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2019), https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-25377-6_3, 65-83.
[viii] James Gabrillo, ‘The Rapper Is Present: Sound Art, Liveness, and the Negotiation of Identity in Jay Z’s “Picasso Baby”’, Journal of Popular Music Studies 29, no. 1 (2017): e12202, https://doi.org/10.1111/jpms.12202.
[ix] Fortnite, ‘Thank You to Everyone Who Attended and Created Content around the Travis Scott Event! Over 27.7 Million Unique Players in-Game Participated Live 45.8 Million Times across the Five Events to Create a Truly Astronomical Experience. 🤯🔥 Https://T.Co/LSH0pLmGOS’, Tweet, @FortniteGame, 27 April 2020, https://twitter.com/FortniteGame/status/1254817584676929537.
[x] Oscar Gonzalez, ‘Fortnite: Travis Scott Astronomical Experience Seen by Almost 28 Million Players’, CNET, 27 April 2020, https://www.cnet.com/news/fortnite-travis-scott-astronomical-experience-seen-by-almost-28-million-players/; Tatiana Cirisano, ‘Game On: What Travis Scott Is Teaching Music Stars About the World’s Biggest New (Virtual) Stage’, Billboard, 25 July 2020, https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/9422287/travis-scott-fortnite-billboard-cover-story-interview-2020; die Makuch, ‘Fortnite Sets New Records With Travis Scott Event’, GameSpot (blog), 26 April 2020, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/fortnite-sets-new-records-with-travis-scott-event/1100-6476508/.
[xi] Patricia Hernandez, ‘Fortnite’s Travis Scott Event Is Incredible, but It Feels Wrong to Call It a Concert’, Polygon (blog), 24 April 2020, https://www.polygon.com/2020/4/24/21234398/fortnite-travis-scott-concert-schedule-epic-games-astronomical.
[xii] Common Sense Media, ‘Fortnite Frenzy: New Survey of Parents and Teens Reveals Concerns and Attitudes About the Video Game Everyone Seems to Be Playing | Common Sense Media’, Common Sense Media, 6 December 2018, https://www.commonsensemedia.org/about-us/news/press-releases/fortnite-frenzy-new-survey-of-parents-and-teens-reveals-concerns-and; Orla Meehan, ‘A Profile of the Battle Royale Player and How They Compare to Other Gamers’, Newzoo (blog), 22 May 2018, https://newzoo.com/insights/articles/a-profile-of-the-battle-royale-player-and-how-they-compare-to-other-gamers/.
[xiii] Shara Rambarran, Virtual Music: Sound, Music, and Image in the Digital Era (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).
[xiv] Jordan Oloman, ‘How Fortnite and Minecraft virtual concerts kept music alive while we weren’t allowed outside’, Edge Magazine, 7 July 2021, https://www.gamesradar.com/how-fortnite-and-minecraft-virtual-concerts-kept-music-alive-while-we-werent-allowed-outside/.
[xv] Epic Games, ‘Fortnite and Travis Scott Present: Astronomical’, Fortnite, 20 April 2020, https://www.epicgames.com/fortnite/en-US/news/astronomical.
[xvi] Roblox, ‘Explosive Lil Nas X Concert Paves the Way for Bold New Roblox Experiences’, Roblox Blog, 15 December 2020, https://blog.roblox.com/2020/12/explosive-lil-nas-x-concert-paves-way-bold-new-roblox-experiences/.
[xviii] Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2008), https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203938133, 34.
[xix] Paul Sanden, Liveness in Modern Music: Musicians, Technology, and the Perception of Performance (New York: Routledge, 2012), https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203078518, 13.
[xx] Auslander, 66–68.
[xxi] Diallo, 68.
[xxii] David Arditi, Streaming Culture: Subscription Platforms And The Unending Consumption Of Culture (Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing, 2021), 44.
[xxiii] Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, 61.
[xxiv] @TheOkraProject, ‘TheOkraProject’, Twitter, 26 January 2022, https://twitter.com/TheOkraProject.
[xxv] Oloman, ‘How Fortnite and Minecraft virtual concerts kept music alive while we weren’t allowed outside’.