'Fortnite' And Travis Scott Tore Up The Live Music Rulebook, According To Experts
These are strange and wild times we're living in, friends. It's safe to say that the current global crisis has hit countless industries in a number of ways, but perhaps one of the hardest hit sectors is that of live music.
Many retailers and restaurants are finding ways to continue serving and functioning amidst lockdowns, and pubs, clubs, and other stores will inevitably start to reopen again at some point - albeit gradually. But the idea of shoving large numbers of people into a cramped venue, whether that's an underground sweatbox for 200 or a massive stadium for 100,000, is bound to make experts nervous about giving that dreaded second wave a helping hand.
In other words, if you had a gig or festival you were looking forward to in 2020, it's almost certainly going to be cancelled or postponed - that's if it hasn't been already. But does that mean music is just gonna... give up?
Of course not. We're already seeing dozens of livestreams from artists who are working to keep their fans engaged and entertained. The majority of these performances are sweet and intimate, but they clearly lack the power and razzle-dazzle that many crave from a live show. Fortunately, Travis Scott and Fortnite were on hand to show us that the spirit and energy inherent in live performances is far from down for the count.
If you haven't seen the show yet, there can be little doubt you've at least heard about it. The rapper took to the popular free-to-play battle royale for a spectacular (and record-breaking) virtual concert that saw a staggering 12.3 million log into the game to get involved in the fun. Hundreds of thousands more watched on as streamers aired the performance live on Twitch and YouTube. It was wacky, over-the-top, and wonderfully loud. Basically, it was one hell of a show.
This isn't the first time Fortnite has hosted a live concert. Only last year American DJ and producer Marshmello performed a virtual concert in-game that attracted an impressive 10.7 million digital guests. But with the current crisis threatening to change all aspects for a long time - if not forever - you have to wonder if shows like this are part of the future of live music.
"I wasn't surprised by how successful the event was," Sally Dunstone, a talent agent at X-ray Touring, tells me over email. X-Ray Touring is an independent, global music agency which has looked after the "live careers" of well over 400 touring bands and artists, including the likes of Blur, Coldplay, and Green Day.
Sally continues: "Marshmello's in-game received 10 million-plus viewers in 2019, and currently there's a captive audience with people staying indoors due to COVID-19. With current circumstances meaning live shows are on hold for the foreseeable future, I feel artists will turn to in-game events more and more as an outlet to express themselves, connect with fans and promote their music where they may have done before with live events."
"I couldn't help but keep thinking about how much of a massive game-changer this moment was," Matt Newton, senior marketing & PR coordinator at events and festival organiser DHP Family, agreed. "Crazier than any type of stage set, choreography or pyrotechnics and more impressive than any high budget music video I've ever seen."
"The artist and creators of the performance were completely unrestricted in ways they haven't been before," Matt continues. "I'm excited and only hope that the gaming industry continues to collaborate on things like this as a new way for artists to express themselves and their creative visions in the future."
"Game-changer" seems to me to be a crucial phrase here. While I'm sure there are a few slightly sniffy music purists and those that hate Fortnite who'd love for this to be a flash in the pan, a novelty, we can't just ignore those numbers... can we?
"It's not quite as binary as this, but you either get involved in doing something or you're stuck doing nothing," a third industry insider who works in festivals and wished to remain anonymous told me. " We're lucky that we're living in a time where gaming and online platforms have advanced enough to provide all kinds of ways to interact with fans. It's never been easier to stay connected, but fatigue will set in and the novelty will definitely wear off."
"There is an aspect of novelty involved," Sally admits. "But if the level of the shows is consistently high, audiences will continue to tune in. Also diehard fans will always tune in to events affiliated with their favourite artists."
"The gaming industry dwarfs the music industry," Matt adds. "So I know that music companies will have had their eye on potential ways to tap into that market for a long time. "I think the commercial success of the performance (the premiered track in the show racked up 7.45 million plays in the first 24 hours on Spotify, and remains the world number one) means the collaboration between these two industries will continue and evolve in the future."
Indeed, it's hard not to see this continuing in Fortnite, especially with the release of the new 'Party Royale' mode, a combat-free space that even strips away the ability to build in favour of a smaller, entirely social arena for players to hang out.
But the question then becomes how artists can viably make money from in-game shows over selling tickets for a 'real' gig? Fortnite is a free-to-play game after all, and I can't imagine Epic would want to start charging people at the door, so to speak.
Of course, most of us are also aware that touring is one of the more reliable sources of income for bands in this digital age we're living in. So exactly how might a band find a way to make these in-game shows make sense financially, were it to become a regular thing? For Sally, these virtual concerts seem to be a pretty solid way of boosting other revenue streams, though she warns against performers charging for access to the shows themselves.
"Travis Scott released a selection of merchandise on his Cactus Jack website based around Fortnite's Astronomical event, which sold out easily," she tells me. "The Monday and Tuesday before the event, Scott's streams increased by 26% with 'STARGAZING' streams jumping 50% [according to Rolling Stone]. The event also helped further Travis' campaign for 'The Scotts' with Kid Cudi, which premiered on the platform."
"But I think artists should be cautious of charging for access to events such as this, especially in the current climate of economic recession," Sally adds. "Now, more than ever, people are conscious of where they are spending their money."
Matt disagrees, however, explaining that a future where we do pay for in-game concerts might not be "too out of the ordinary" after all.
"I think the narrative will change on expecting artists to perform live online for free," he suggests. "I think Patreon's subscription content tool could be used more by artists too, alongside their live streams and other forms of content, while the situation continues."
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"For in-game performances, as it's widely known how successful Fortnite is in terms of the revenue it generates, I'd consider these big blockbuster performances like Travis Scott's more akin to brand partnerships than a digital gig," he continues, "especially considering all the merch they have collaborated on since the performance. Hopefully for these types of shows artists will get compensated in a similar way to a sponsorship deal.
"When you set certain limitations like making it a one-off, with limited ticket releases like physical concerts, there will be an appetite to pay. Add in extra factors like exclusive merchandise to those in attendance or gamer profile badges to say you were there, and I could see there being a lot of demand for this."
While this certainly does sound like the start of a promising new future, you have to wonder where it might leave smaller artists. Obviously Epic Games was happy to work with an artist like Travis Scott because... well, he's Travis Scott. Weird coincidental side note, Scott is actually signed to Epic Records - although Games and Records aren't affiliated in any way.
Regardless, you can hardly expect a juggernaut game like Fortnite to start promoting smaller indie acts, can you? Herein lies the biggest problem, according to all three of my new music industry chums.
"Smaller artists are the ones who are going to suffer most," my third, anonymous contact reasons. "Particularly in any DIY scene, because those bands build a reputation and a fanbase by touring - by having those terrible shows where five people watch. That's how they get better.
"Live promoters take risks and believe in supporting grassroots music in a way that I've never seen the gaming industry replicate. Maybe that'll change, but they've investors to appease and their own angle."
"I'm confident acts such as Travis Scott and Marshmello would still receive huge viewing figures," Sally comments, "but it's uncertain how artists that aren't at this level would fare charging for access. I imagine the more casual fans would wait for the footage to be uploaded to YouTube."
Matt agrees with his peers, but takes a slightly more optimistic view of how and when smaller, lesser-known artists might be able to carve out a future for themselves via in-game concerts.
"Obviously Fortnite is cherry-picking who it wants to work with at the moment, and will pick huge global acts," he explains. "But I think this will change as the concept of in-game performances becomes more established."
"In the same way that Fortnite's developers Epic created Unreal Engine and opened it up for other developers to use, I'm hoping they'll eventually open up the ability for anyone to organise shows in the game and the ability to create avatars of artists, opening up the opportunity for smaller artists."
That's a pretty fascinating take, and certainly not something we can rule out completely. We are, after all, living through an unprecedented time. The music industry is going to have to adapt to survive, there's absolutely no doubt about that. But in-game shows are far from the only way forward for those of us craving our live fix.
"Some artists may turn to VR as another way to reach fans in their homes," Sally says. "Companies such as VR Melody already offer fans access to concerts on Oculus. Recent years have seen a big increase in artist holograms being licensed - Tupac appeared at Coachella with Snoop Dogg in 2012 - but I think it'll be some time before holograms and the software associated will be honed enough to be a regular feature in peoples homes."
"It's a bit of an obvious answer, but I think the live streaming performances across platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitch will continue to be the way forward," says Matt. "A lot of people have been performing for free, but I think the expectation to watch for free will change. You could argue we are reaching peak live-stream, but if so this should be seen as a positive thing. The huge amount of competition out there forces people to do something new, offer something different and exclusive and I think we will see that more."
My third contact agrees: "Beyond gaming, Instagram, and YouTube there will be someone out there right now developing a new platform to help solve the problem artists are facing and provide a way for them to tour digitally."
"We've already started seeing talk of paid-for live streams, and we've also seen publications and brands lean in hard to presenting live artist content. Also, have you seen countries that have started doing drive-in shows, like drive-in cinema, but with a live band!? I do think in-game performances are a fascinating one though, purely because of the endless opportunities they present."
That, really, seems to sum the whole thing up. In-game shows and big artists teaming up with Fortnite for ballsy spectacles that draw in millions of viewers will have turned the heads of almost everyone in the music industry. There's absolutely no way artists and managers around the world aren't already looking into the "endless opportunities" these kinds of shows would present. But if my chats with Matt, Sally, and our anonymous friend are anything to go by, these opportunities also come with an equally endless supply of caveats and "what-ifs?".
I guess my main takeaway is this: It seems that the live music scene is at something of a crossroads right now. And that's exciting, but it's also scary - and more than a little upsetting. For so long, the rise of digital and social media has dictated the way music is released and consumed. Live music - actual live music - might just be the last vestige of a time that we'll never be able to get back. Not fully, anyway.
Again, that's not to say we won't ever get to attend a live show again in our lives. Of course we will. But the industry has to adapt - and is adapting. If video games, or Facebook streams, or virtual reality, or all of the above really are the way forward for the industry, then so be it. Anything that brings people together to stay connected should really be celebrated and embraced, right?
With that said, live music will always have that something special - that electric atmosphere you can only get by physically being in the same space as your favourite band, sharing those songs with your closest friends (or often complete strangers). It's not something that can easily be replicated, but Epic's battle royale gave it a damn good go.
As far as I'm concerned - and believe me when I say neither one of these are what you'd call my cup of tea - Fortnite and Travis Scott have come the closest to capturing the indefinable essence of the live show. The excitement, the spectacle, and the social element were all there. Throw in the constant smell of urine and the taste of warm beer and you've basically got the festival experience down.
Whether you want to describe Fortnite's Travis Scott show as an affront to music, an affront to gaming, the future of both mediums... or simply an industry trying to make the best of a bad situation is up to you. All I know for sure is that we definitely haven't seen the last of these collaborations. The numbers are just too good to ignore.
Featured Image Credit: Epic Games