Virtual Music Festivals and the Re-Valuation of Connection in a COVID-19 Live Music Marketplace
Paxton Haven / University of Texas at Austin

Screenshot of the custom in-game structure built for Open Pit's Coalchella 2018.
Custom in-game structure built for Open Pit’s Coalchella 2018 virtual music festival

As music industry revenues radically shift due to COVID-19 related cancellations and the rescheduling of live touring aspects of the business, musicians have taken advantage of this time to test out various co-production techniques, increase their digital fan engagement practices, and host virtual hangouts and dance-parties. The latest of these experiments deals explicitly with this gap in the live music sector of the industry. Dubbed “the age of the virtual music festival” by Dazed’s Dean Mayo Davies, these events are positioned as the new frontier of the concert-going experience as the promise of virtual reality immersion becomes increasingly accessible.[1] These virtual music festivals, however, did not begin as a reaction to COVID-19 distancing measures, with some of the earliest examples coming from Berlin underground music collective Boiler Room’s collaboration with Google’s Daydream VR in 2016.[2]

This collaboration between underground music collective, Boiler Room, and Google Pixel illustrates early experiments in the intersections of immersive virtual reality and club cultures.

The interactive potential of these virtual events has continued to expand, with festivals hosted within online video games such as Minecraft and Fortnite. Open Pit, a volunteer collective of marketing specialists, graphic designers, coders, and producers, are leaders in this new virtual event planning space. Their first two events were Coalchella in September 2018 and Fire Fest in January 2019. Riffing on the ill-fated ultra-exclusive Fyre Festival as well as Coachella, a decades-old event increasingly becoming an Instagram playground for celebrities, these titles illustrate Open Pit’s cheeky, yet critical, engagement with the inflated contemporary music festival market. Accessibly, inclusivity, creativity, and diversity define the mission statement of Open Pit’s free and open events that, instead of aiming for wide profit-margins, donate any money made from merchandise or VIP passes to various charities. The latest of these virtual festivals, Square Garden and #AETH3R, raised funds for COVID-relief organization Feeding America and the National Bail Fund Network. In a COVID music market where virtual reproductions of connection are the only remaining response to live music experiences, Open Pit shifts the exchange value of this affect to present both a critique of and alternative to the profit-based structures and systems of promotions that were integral to the inflated pre-COVID music festival economy. Open Pit’s events, therefore, operationalize dance music’s histories of co-productions of space and sound to reflect and address contemporary global precarities.

This teaser trailer for Open Pit’s Coalchella 2018 provides a survey of various featured artists as well as illustrates Minecraft’s customizable worlds employed by the collective’s developers.

Using dance music to form participatory structures aimed at strengthening and supporting collective politics is not a new phenomenon, as Open Pit is very much a part of a legacy of DIY innovators who used the affective and communal aspects of dance to create parties with a social and economic consciousness. Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music, 1970-79 explores the pre-disco downtown party culture of New York City during the early 1970s. Detailing rise and fall cycle of iconic clubs such as the Loft, Sanctuary, Limelight, and Tenth Floor, Lawrence discusses the DIY roots of these early DJ cultures that utilized a “social and egalitarian model of making music in which the DJ played in relation to the crowd, leading and following in roughly equal measure.”[3] Early innovators including David Mancuso, David Rodriguez, and Steve D’Aquisto understood the role of the DJ was to create a sonic and spatial conversation with the audience, “a synergistic alliance” built through a co-production of mutual and equal ownership of the dancefloor.[4] This downtown party network quickly “formed a popular avant-garde that, in contrast to more insular cultural revolutionaries, wanted to spread their radical message rather than bask in their unpopularity.”[5] These creative ideologies of organic and equitable co-production very much reflects the “punk-edged Warholian electro-pop” sonic aesthetic of these virtual festival lineups.[6] With headlining acts like the “appreciate-everything-remix-anything” experimental pop duo 100 Gecs for their recent Square Garden festival, Open Pit’s lineups encompasses a new digital avant-garde that through their multi-valent job titles as DJ/artist/producer/promoter/event planner pays homage to the DIY ethos of dance music cultures of yesteryear.[7]

This fan video gives an in-game perspective of virtual festival attendance that features 100 Gecs’s full set from their Square Garden event.

Connection within the context of these virtual music festivals operates as the organic product of the networked collaborations and creative co-productions echoed and enacted by Open Pit’s team. As the histories of early dance music illustrates however, these valuations of connection are also the social result of specific economic and cultural conditions that necessitate these spaces of bodily communion. Similar to how the popularization of discotheques in the mid 1970s were a reaction to “the conversion of industrial-based economies into neo-liberal markets,” the trend of virtual music festivals presents a framework of intersecting profit-based and creative ideologies of popular music industry in a society and economy depleted by a global pandemic.[8] Just as “work hard play hard” became the mantra of mid-70s consumer capitalism that necessitated the overcrowded dance floor, the self-entrepreneurial spirit of neoliberal flexible labor largely contributes to the participatory structures of the jammed virtual server.[9]

Recent political economy approaches to analyzing labor and commodity in the post-CD music industry provide generative frameworks to conceptualize the ideologies of capital implicit within Open Pit’s decidedly anti-capitalistic approach to music festival economies. Jeremy Wade Morris’s Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture tells a history of technologies that construct the new digital music commodity. Rather than streaming devaluing or dematerializing music or previous business practices, Morris argues that digitization “transformed digital music files into conflicted, networked, information-rich, traceable, and manipulable cybernetic commodities.”[10] These “micro-materials” define a cultural understanding of these music economies as “free” when in reality, this “vision of computing as an act of personal expression and self-actualization” comes at an exchange of personal data and compliance with corporate surveillance.[11] Therefore, as these virtual music festivals are “free” in terms of monetary exchange, the cost of connection comes at a steep price for both the user and the artist-producer.[12]

Specifically addressing the precarities of the contemporary artist-producer, Leslie M. Meier’s Popular Music as Promotion: Music and Branding in the Digital Age explores the rise in “artist-brands” to examine the implicit economic logics of “360-degree monetization” of artists through sponsorship, licensing, and endorsement deals.[13] Meier argues as neoliberalist policies lead to greater privatization and deregulation, the flexible economies of post-Fordism only provide the record companies with greater mobility and profit, while enforcing precarious working conditions on artists. The promotional industries’ growing dominance over popular music illustrates that post-Fordism economic flexibility has constructed the artist-brand as a fiscal response to the digitization of music distribution under the guise of self-entrepreneurialism and customization, while Fordist industrial logics continue to reinforce rational utility of workers within this system of working artists’ commodification and exploitation.[14]

The exchange value inherent in Open Pit’s organic, creative, and networked affect of connection, therefore, presents a contradictory battleground of meaning, consumption, and industry power. As the market continues to expand for virtual spaces of connection due to COVID-19, it will be interesting to watch as the bulky blocks and faulty servers of Minecraft’s customizable world-creation become increasingly professionalized in both the infrastructural complexity of coding and the promotional strategies like “Travis Scott and Fortnite Present: Astronomical”. Only 24 hours prior to Open Pit’s Square Garden, this official partnership with the Epic Games coincided with the in-game premiere of Scott’s most recent single, “THE SCOTTS,” as well as spawned a Fortnite-inspired line of merchandise, action figures, and Nerf Guns. As Scott’s digital avatar reigns over the sea of users (1:30) with in-game structures that replicates Astroworld’s album cover (0:46), the power of “artist-brand” in the contemporary digital music economy is most literally illustrated.

Full event video for “Travis Scott and Fortnite Present: Astronomical”

As Vice’s Lewis Gordon discusses in his article, “The Best New Music Festival Is in ‘Minecraft,’” Open Pit festivals like Square Garden are also beholden to the platform regulations and user agreements of Minecraft’s owner Microsoft. Gordon aptly points out, “Minecraft—a platform in its own right—enables such events to take place but their existence is contingent on Microsoft’s continuing goodwill and, more importantly, the synchronisation of mutual interests, the benefits of which will always be weighted in favor of the platform provider.”[15] While the promotional logics of Scott and Fortnite’s collaboration are much more transparent, this type of industry partnership presents a successful profit-based alternative to Open Pit’s egalitarian and communal festival economies. In the current music marketplace, where record labels and event companies alike are figuring out ways to recuperate massive loses in live music revenue, the feeling of connection in these digital spaces is a commodity quickly rising in stock value.  

The latter-half of Lawrence’s history of early 70s dance music cultures illustrates that as the industry recognizes the value of connection within DJ-based co-productions of sound and space, the genre category of disco enforces commodified logics in production, reproduction, and circulation of these musical products. In connecting the trajectories of these early DIY dance music cultures, the creative ideologies of virtual co-production inherent in Square Garden and other virtual music festivals, and contemporary political economic approaches to digital music economies, I illustrate both the political power of DIY dance cultures throughout history while also presenting a cautionary tale for future industry intervention into this virtual music festival space.

As virtual music festivals are cost-efficient, immediately global in reach, and an environmentally friendly alternative, Open Pit’s events provide an inclusive and class-conscious reaction to the outpricing of fans while also presenting an ethical response to the large carbon footprint of these IRL festivals. In a way, this moment of collective understanding exposes the various inflations of the current music festival marketplace and reorients conversations around exchange values within the music industry. How talent buyers, concert promoters, booking agents, and labels choose to react to this cultural and economic moment of increasing concern for the collective will forever change the trajectory of the live music sector; a fiscally critical aspect of the contemporary music industry.


Image Credits:
  1. Custom in-game structure built for Open Pit’s Coalchella 2018 virtual music festival
  2. This collaboration between underground music collective, Boiler Room, and Google Pixel illustrates early experiments in the intersections of immersive virtual reality and club cultures
  3. This teaser trailer for Open Pit’s Coalchella 2018 provides a survey of various featured artists as well as illustrates Minecraft’s customizable worlds employed by the collective’s developers
  4. This fan video gives an in-game perspective of virtual festival attendance that features 100 Gecs’s full set from their Square Garden event
  5. Full event video for “Travis Scott and Fortnite Present: Astronomical”
References:
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  1. Davies, Dean Mayo. “100 Gecs Are Ready for the Age of the Virtual Music Festival.” Dazed. April 20, 2020. https://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/48794/1/100-gecs-laura-les-dylan-brady-minecraft-charli-xcx. []
  2. Second Life, an online virtual word, hosted a three-day music festival in collaboration with Intel in 2007. For the purpose of this article, I focus on later experiments in the live music space to be more specific to the structure of feeling that results from large contemporary music festivals. For more information on the early Second Life virtual festivals, check out this short piece in The Guardian from 2007. []
  3. Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture; 1970-1979. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2003, 38. []
  4. ibid, 38. []
  5. ibid, 116. []
  6. Trapunski, Richard. “We Attended 100 Gecs Music Festival in Minecraft. Heres What It Was like.” NOW Magazine. April 28, 2020. https://nowtoronto.com/culture/gaming/minecraft-100-gecs-square-garden/. []
  7. Horn, Leslie. “100 Gecs Explain the Weird World They Built for Their Minecraft Music Fest.” Vice. April 24, 2020. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/n7ja58/100-gecs-minecraft-music-festival-square-garden-tree-of-clues. []
  8. Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture; 1970-1979. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2003, 183. []
  9. ibid, 183. []
  10. Morris, Jeremy Wade. Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture. Oakland, CA: Univ. of California Press, 2015, 6. []
  11. ibid, 194. []
  12. Tim J. Anderson in his book, Popular Music in a Digital Music Economy: Problems and Practices for an Emerging Service Industry, more favorably describes this exchange as a dialogue between service providers and users, as users are now both producers and consumers of these new digital music commodities. Anderson, however, is keen to point out that digital music economies are now largely based in music-related experiences that places much higher monetary value on artists as brands. []
  13. Meier, Leslie M. Popular Music as Promotion: Music and Branding in the Digital Age. Cambridge: Polity, 2017, 75. []
  14. See: The fourth chapter of Meier’s book, “’Flexible’ Capitalism and Popular Music: Branding Culture, Designing ‘Difference’,” for a generative exploration of various economic ideologies that structure the contemporary music industry. []
  15. Gordon, Lewis. “The Best New Music Festival Is in Minecraft.” Vice. January 17, 2019. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/nexje8/the-best-new-music-festival-is-in-minecraft-fire-festival. []

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