Author: Marie Dapoigny
Photo Credit: London Warehouse Events
It’s 8:30pm on the Saturday of Easter Weekend, and an enthusiastic crowd of avatars, some realistic human shapes dressed in colorful and futuristic clothing, and some more whimsical, like a giant emoji aubergine or a giraffe with large sunglasses and a purple dungaree, invades the dancefloor of the Great Gallery at the first edition of Tobacco Dock Virtual. All ready to party. On the stage stands the real-life, holographic figure of Tim Reaper. The British DJ visibly delights his perky public with a fierce jungle selection. All over the room, digital ravers are showing their best dance shapes in the swinging beams of red lasers and yellow lights. I’m attentively watching my own avatar burn the floor with acrobatic moves whilst sipping a glass of cider in the comfort of my office chair. Someone yells a loud ‘BUYAKAAAA’ in my right ear. Welcome to the “partyverse” of 2021.
Virtual spaces. New dawn or deja-vu?
The place looks familiar: it is a perfect 3D replica of the room many festivals-goers have visited in the famous warehouse of East London. The scenography and the sound quality, which evolves depending on your orientation and position in the room, both make for an almost palpable energy. A glimpse of the feeling that ravers from all over the world have been craving for over a year. As my avatar gets cheerfully danced and jumped upon by a large creature half-man, half-spider, I take time to ponder on this “new dawn for hybrid music events”.
Developed by local dance music promoter LWE (London Warehouse Events) in partnership with Sansar, a leading virtual live events platform, the 2-days event available in full VR and computer desktop taps into the best of what the gaming experience can bring to the table in terms of live collective experience. It has a taste of deja-vu for anyone who has dipped a toe in the world of MMORPGs. Beyond being a substitute to our longed-for raves, digital gigs seem like they are not only here to stay, but durably transform the event experience. “We do believe that going forward there is increasingly a need for both the digital and live to co-exist alongside each other”, confirms Paul Jack, director of LWE.
With the first online edition of their massive techno festival Junction 2 going virtual last year, LWE’s pioneering venture in the digital realms was an overwhelming success during the first lockdown, with 3 million unique visitors. A year later, as the online competition is now rife with the multiplication of DJ streams and digital experiences by industry mammoths like Burning Man, Tobacco Dock Virtual still managed to gather 1,5 million visitors from over 70 countries. Such numbers, compared to the usual attendance of In-Real-Life (IRL) festivals, give a clue of the enormous potential for artists and events to reach global audiences, foster new engagement and commercial partnerships that can prove vital in a dire economy.
The need to open new opportunities for independent electronic music events is also at the core of the Club Qu project: “Club Quarantine” is the now famous underground queer nightclub hosted on Zoom. A much needed safe space for a community deprived from most of its usual socializing spots. Developed by three Toronto-based cofounders, the platform “aims to develop a new revenue stream for our industry peers such as venues, festivals, artists, labels and their staff who have not been able to deliver live performances”, affirms Eilidh McLaughlin, sustainability consultant for the project and core member of the global Clean.Scene initiative. “Looking beyond COVID-19, these new revenues can be layered on top of live performances as a complementary income stream. Club Qu has the potential for a fairer distribution of wealth for the content and labour of all people involved in virtual events.”
For LWE, the next challenge is how to make the event experience truly hybrid: “for this to be a true hybrid event format, both experiences need to meet, interact with one another”, explains Paul Jack. One of the avenues they are exploring are portals, where the crowds of simultaneous digital and real life events could look into each other in real time, like windows between realities.
But for the bright spectrum of possibilities online events can offer, digital and VR practices bring a new load of challenges. Regarding the virtual reality experience specifically, the hefty price of VR sets and the required Internet broadband can only but reinforce the existing digital divide – the gap between demographics and regions that have access to modern technology. “VR is an exciting space to be but very much limited by accessibility, and as part of our long term strategy we are working on ways to deliver a similar experience through mainstream desktop and mobile platforms”,says LWE’s director.
The developing costs of a full-on digital experience is also one of the key factors that have many a small structure already severely hit by the pandemic turn their back to it. “We chose not to host digital events because Woodstower is more about the human touch, social link and togetherness” argues Emilie Daub, communications manager at Woodstower festival, a 15,000 capacity event near Lyon, France. “In the digital sphere, even if it’s interesting in a given time, in pandemic times specifically, that togetherness has its limits. We can see it has lost some of its momentum. (…) Very expensive, those alternatives demand a lot of organisation and human and financial investment.” Many, just like them, have chosen to wait to meet their public again in the flesh.
“If events on a bigger scale won’t be possible, I’ll rather do smaller ones than go digital”, concurs Jakob, promoter and DJ with an academic background in sustainability science. He’s co-promoting Fluid Festival, a small event near Berlin with a no-flight policy. Although they are doing streams in advance, going fully digital is not an option. “Because we are all doing this out of passion for no money, and a real event is the only thing that is (for me) worth putting in the effort. (…) If anything this time pointed towards that and showed that digitalisation is not a feasible option for human connection.”
Public and artists alike are left craving the human touch. “As an artist myself, I don’t enjoy streaming because the atmosphere and energy is lacking, there is no interaction between the crowd and the artist in the same way as on a dance floor. This constant interaction is what makes events and festivals memorable” explains producer and DJ Max Kater, aka KaterUnser. Currently based in Brunswick, Germany, he organized several of his own events and studies environmental sciences at TU Braunschweig. With a small crew, he also promoted a 1,500 capacity festival with mostly zero emissions in Germany. For him, even though “we are heading towards more and more virtual reality”, it only concerns a minority of the global event industry.
According to Max, “due to a lack of broadly available technology and access to reliable bandwidth, it’s still more of a niche and creative way to overcome the lack of real events and socializing.” As a promoter, he remains convinced that IRL events will remain the norm, and that real-life interactions are a key component: “Festivals and events are meant to let you flee from reality, which in a way is the appeal of VR, and let you fully immerse into the music. The atmosphere, social interactions, sensations from lights, sounds and pumping basses. All of this is not provided by VR (yet). The whole purpose and charm of events is missing.”
Besides the economical gap, the new market of digital and VR events risks accentuating the already substantial carbon footprint of video streaming: recent studies, like the one published in 2019 by French thinktank the Shift Project, have shed a new light on energy use and carbon emissions from devices, network infrastructure and data centres. The “unsustainable and growing impact” of online video has since made its way into the green agenda. “With a higher demand for streaming events in 4K or VR’ explains Max, we will increase energy consumption by a lot. I don’t say we should not stream at all, but what’s important, and this goes for everything in life, is being aware and consuming moderately.” But what if imagining solutions could also be what will bring the scene together?
As a sustainability manager for Club Qu, Eilidh McLaughlin is researching and assessing the environmental impacts of virtual events and how they compare to real life ones. The results will influence their communication around sustainability. She sees here a key opportunity to engage festival and club goers as well as promoters in the sustainability agenda. “The biggest challenge we face is the ever increasing energy demand for the digital transition – especially in the coming years with the rise of AI and 5G – but, it has been made a lot more efficient in recent years thanks to strong efficiency improvements and a shift to cloud and hyperscale data centres”, she says.
The enthusiasm for the power of a community-led conversation is shared by New Delhi-based Amina Simone, a sonic arts student and member of the sustainability team at Magnetic Fields Festival. “I do think that cultural systems through varying forms of research, collaboration, and pedagogy, can be a safe zone for knowledge amplification of sustainable measures.” That is not to say that the scene should be lenient on its efforts:she believes “there also needs to be a vigorous approach towards curbing the global carbon footprint created by more subtle agents. The refraining of offering VR and 4k video streaming by events can and should be exercised more frequently.”
American DJ River Bennett, based in Barcelona, is a Master’s student at UMich in nuclear engineering and doing research on environmental justice. For him, “we could all begin attending digital events using digital equipment that was ethically manufactured and sourced while streaming on networks powered by clean energy. But that seems like an oversimplification of the problem.” The solution might be elsewhere – also in a community-focussed approach: “the host communities (…) need to take responsibility by working with promoters to make sure these festivals are not just cash machines and instead are generating actual positive impact for the communities where they’re taking place.”
For ravers, it is also a case of more mindful individual habits. “I think it’s more impactful to use what political (or market) influence we have as streamers to redirect and rethink how we produce and consume digitally. Maybe that requires an entirely new approach where we only upload to servers that use clean energy. Maybe we need to push companies like Soundcloud or Bandcamp to commit to sourcing their power from low-carbon sources”, confirms River Bennett.
For digital events, promoting internal conversations, knowledge-sharing and an open communication on the challenges ahead might be the key to a more sustainable model. If it manages to overcome the gap, the independent event scene may find here a strong new tool to build and sustain its community worldwide. It is Eilidh’s belief: “We empower our audience to connect with each other virtually in meaningful ways.” A digital experience can certainly complement a real-life one. And maybe that newly found connection is also part of what keeps us human, as she opens: “Whilst this doesn’t replicate a real world experience, developing virtual communities is key to sustaining wellbeing now and in the future.”
This article was conceived as a result of our first call for contributions that aimed to address the challenges and changes that festivals and cultural entities may face in the future. Thanks to the contributions we received, we were able to create the Future(s) of Festivals feature series, that this article is a part of. We’re open to new proposals for our next call for contributions, available here.
On the Author
Marie Dapoigny is a culture journalist, editor and founder of ANFER, a French think tank dedicated to ethical nightlife practices.