Author: Sam Davies
Picture Credit: Courtesy of Lost Horizon
“Hi everyone I’m Carl Cox. Welcome to our festival.” A superstar DJ stands behind the decks in a Hawaiian shirt. “I’m so happy to be able to do this for you guys today. What I’m gonna be playing is some Glastonbury festival classics, some Carl Cox techno bangers, and a few new tracks as well.”
Before him there’s a man with blue hair wearing nothing but trainers and underpants, a dancer with the bright yellow head of a rubber duck, a woman who thinks she can fly, a man wearing a piece of toast on his face, and a dancing blue shark like the ones from Katy Perry’s 2015 Super Bowl show.
Orbital’s 1991 anthem ‘Belfast’ is Cox’s opener. This might sound like a typical scene at Shangri-La, the after-hours heart of Glastonbury’s southeast corner — and it is. But this is July 2020, in a summer when not a single festival took place.
This is Lost Horizon, in virtual reality. The members of the crowd are all avatars, created by real people but baring little or no resemblance to their true selves. Mr Cox is real: he’s in a kitchen somewhere standing in front of a green screen, beamed into the homes of millions by Sansar’s VR technology.
“It turned out we were the first one in the world!” says Chris ‘Tofu’ Macmeikan MBE, a director at Lost Horizon and Shangri-La, remembering last year’s event. “Or certainly the only one in England. Within weeks Tomorrowland was bashing it all out as well.”“Yeah, but it’s not a sociable experience Tomorrowland”, Robin Collings, also a director at Lost Horizon and Shangri La and formerly head of production at Boomtown festival, chimes in. “It’s essentially a very nice TV program. Whereas ours is like warts and all, messy, proper.”
When Glastonbury was cancelled in March last year it seemed like the dawning of the apocalypse for the events industry. Just about every festival, gig and real-world event was axed in the weeks that followed. “Our entire industry that we’ve all basically spent our entire lives involved in was just stopped,” says Robin. “Everyone we knew was out of work and everybody was like fuck.”
Both Chris and Robin have been involved with Shangri-La for over 20 years. This was a challenge unlike anything they’d ever faced. Then they met someone from Sansar, a virtual reality platform from San Francisco. “We decided there and then that it would be really fucking cool to recreate Shangri-La in virtual reality”, says Chris.
Despite neither of them being especially technologically minded (“I’m like one of the least technical people in the whole of England”, Chris says), the transition from festivals to virtual reality actually made a lot of sense. “We already work in 3D”, says Robin. “When I’m designing stages for Boomtown, we do that in 3D software packages. We create millimeter-perfect models, then we’ll go onsite and build it, and then we’ll rave the hell out of it. Now we have to use different software packages and we have to optimise it in different ways — in real life you give it to bunch of carpenters or set builders. This time we’re giving our 3D models to people who can ingest it into a virtual reality games engine.”
Chris and Robin took to the VR world as though born in it. Lost Horizon’s virtual Shangri-La was built with four programmable spaces — a nightclub called Nomad for garage and drum & bass, the Freedom Stage for bands, the eight-sided Gas Tower for big-room house and techno, and S.H.I.T.V, a satirical media centre showing films and livestreaming artistsin their kitchen — plus a landing zone and an art gallery.
Seth Troxler, Fatboy Slim, Peggy Gou, The Nova Twins and Pengshui were among the artists playing. 10,000 people watched through VR headsets. More than four million tuned in as Beatport streamed the event on YouTube.
Lost Horizon is not alone. Last November I watched a Burna Boy gig at London’s Roundhouse through an app called MelodyVR.
Available either on VR headsets or your phone, MelodyVR lets you watch an artist through a 360-degree camera, a few inches from their face. Turning my phone oneway or another I could see the whole venue, or up Burna Boy’s nose (if I wanted). MelodyVR have already begun to explore the festival space, working with events like London’s Wireless to offer the live experience to anyone not able to make the actual event. Another innovator is Soundscape, who have offered VR experiences at festivals like Burning Man, Suwannee Hulaween and Sonic Bloom.
In October 2020 Soundscape debuted their Artist Link experience, streaming a VR set from their resident DJ Silica Sol. “The participant experience is completely new”, says Ben Ferguson, director of marketing and operations at Soundscape. “You’re no longer restrained by the rules of physics. You can fly, paint with light, even shoot fireworks from your fingertips! ”
Also notable is that the DJ himself did the show wearing a VR headset, playing outsized digital dubstep and shooting lasers over the heads of his cyber crowd. “Practically speaking, the possibilities are infinite”, says Ben. “Because it’s virtual, real-world constraints disappear. Things like capacity and space no longer become a factor.
The infrastructure normally associated with producing a festival or concert is no longer needed. Spending money on things like golf carts and port-a-potties is no longer necessary. That’s a real game changer.” The way Ben talks, it’s almost as though VR might soon replace real-world gigs. He mentions the elimination of various costs, inconvenience, and physical exhaustion, from both the artist’s and the fan’s perspective, as benefits of the new technology.
“I don’t think anything will ever truly replace the experience of attending a live show, in person. But in that same breath, I also have to say that nothing in the real world has even come close to the experiences we’ve had so far in Soundscape VR!”
Chris and Robin are more circumspect. “Unless you’ve got a sub that can give you the same experience as a massive soundsystem in a field, then I don’t think that’s a worry”, Robin says. “What we’re doing is expanding the reach and accessibility, so somebody with a physical disability or who’s anxious in large crowds can fully experience what we’re putting on.”
“If you’re in frigging Luxembourg”, says Chris. “And you wanna see LD, Slowthai, Burna Boy, those sort of guys, you’re not gonna get the chance to see them. So there is this post-Covid life, post-fucking-Brexit life where you can still see those acts. ”As lockdown regulations begin to lift, Lost Horizon are planning hybrid events — where people will attend in person while also interacting with the avatars of people joining virtually from around the world.
Glastonbury 2021 won’t be going ahead irl, but Lost Horizon have big plans for their second year, aiming to bring round any remaining skeptics. “People are like ‘It’s VR, oh I haven’t got a VR headset so I’m not gonna do that’”, says Chris. “But actually no, it’s a fricking stream, and it’s better than any stream you’re gonna see, because everyone’s on the same stage.”
“I think the creative tech sector has probably leapt forwards five years in the last year”, says Robin. He calls it a technological revolution. “This is how telly’s gonna look in 10 years”, says Chris. “Every single fricking gig has something that’s never happened before.“
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
Sam Davies is a freelance culture writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.