Why MIA and Janelle Monae's Hologram Collab Signals The Inevitable Future of Concerts

The two musicians appeared on the same stage yesterday... but were performing on opposite ends of the country.

Apr 4 2014, 1:50pm

With the knowledge that the technologies discussed below are not "technically" holograms, but rather, projections in the vein of Pepper’s Ghost, the term “hologram” is here used for ease of exposition. 

Live shows might be the last vestiges of a music industry in the throes of a technological revolution: in the span of a single century, the advancements that brought us recorded music, captured it on evolving multitudes of physical formats, and then rendered them all obsolete within the last decade, have irreversibly altered the industry's financial models. Once a pursuit that required massive budgets for equipment alone, the process of recording has been simplified by weightless software. While in turn, live shows have become louder, bigger, and brighter, their underlying functions have remained the same: a band comes to town, you buy tickets to see them, and they play their songs live. While last night’s bicoastal duet between MIA and Janelle Monae didn’t shatter any boundaries in terms of visual performance, it breathed new life into a latent paradigm shift that could forever change what we, today, define as "concerts."

In the midsts of two concerts, separated by a few thousand miles, each performer was streamed holographically onto the other’s stage, resulting in a simultanous bicoastal duet. Monae’s hologram appeared in New York to drop verse on MIA’s “Bad Girls” and MIA’s hologram appeared alongside Monae in LA for “Queen.” Unlike the dead rappers we've seen performing via hologram, this performance aimed more for visual affect than realism. At the New York show, Monae teleported around the stage and at one point spawned a giant pixelated monster in her likeness. The translucent Monae bounced around the actual MIA angled against spiral backdrop, which was projection-mapped with a swirling, fluctuating stream of swirling graphics.

While the LA performance was entirely different, it employed the same elements, “The whole project is art directed as one piece,” creative director Peter Martin tells me at the New York event. His team hatched two live shows that would capture both artists’ visual aesthetics. “Janelle is very monochromatic, and MIA is very neon day glow. So when MIA is doing ‘Bad Girls,’ it's very colorful, very explosive. When Janelle appears, the set changes to monochromatic. The reverse happens in LA.”

Theatrics aside, there’s no new technology at play here, but the concept provokes a different perception of the live show. Virtual acts like Hatsune Miku and Gorillaz have amassed followings in their own rights, but if traditional performers can utilize the same methods, it opens up a whole new avenue for touring performance. Martin was responsible for the Tupac hologram at Coachella in 2012, and he realized then that “digital resurrection” could potentially become something that draws out fans. “Holography is the only way you're ever going to see these people live,” he says.

When Holo-'Pac appeared, at least some of the public found it exploitative; a backlash that suggested it might not catch on so easily. But that’s not the only application: according to Martin, “There are a lot of bands that people would pay money to see that are too old to tour. They want to continue to be out there but they can't anymore.” Imagine seeing The Rolling Stones with all the members in their prime, playing like they would have at MSG in ’72. Or even Jimi Hendrix at Monterrey Pop in ’67. That very sentiment could push holographic concerts from novelty to commercial function.

Purists will continue to resist the trend, maintaining that projections can never replace flesh-and-blood performers, but less discerning concertgoers may still give this new advent the support it needs. People paying to see a DJ care a lot less about the physical authenticity of the performance.

Moreover, Martin explains that it’s actually technically easier to implement a holographic DJ performance: “It’s perfect for DJing right now because their performances aren’t as expressive. They're not lip-syncing, they're not performing in the same way. It’s more about the audio than the visual. I think that will translate very easily. I think that's the first type of performance that will be multiplied very easily. When Avicii's playing in Vegas, he can also be in Macau or Beijing or Paris or London.” While the real DJ's do their things on stage, shows could be enhanced with virtual cameos by musical acts with larger-than-life stage presences.

The prospect of simultaneous performances in multiple venues is exactly what a show like the Monae/MIA collab purports, though. As the technology improves and such shows get tighter and more realistic, they could become a widely accepted live experience before long. Some are now experimenting with 3D projections that can be viewed from all sides. Martin expects the next step to be photorealism. “Is it real? Is it not? You're not necessarily going to know,” he predicts.

As for the backlash, Martin expects it to subside, citing history. “With theatre, you had a bunch of actors on a stage doing a play. Then a film camera came along and you could project that performance on multiple screens. That took a few years to get used to. It's not real. It's not a play. Why am I in an auditorium watching a film of a play? Now, it’s an artform.”

The wave holographic performances has stopped and started over the past several years, gaining fans and critics alike. But whether you’re into the idea or not, it will inevitably culminate in a larger form. “It’s going to happen with alarming regularity,” says Martin with conviction. “All the dead people are definitely coming back. That's definitely happening.”

This performance was a collaboration between Vita Motus, Dorian Orange, and Obscura Digital for Audi. Photos courtesy of PMK*BNC.