The reveal was the first-ever VR-based Hulu original series, ON STAGE, featuring Lil Wayne that aired on January 26th. “Virtual Reality is an entirely new medium, and ON STAGE is a first-of-its kind premium music experience,” said Heller in a statement. “Our partnership with Live Nation, a company that is synonymous with connecting music fans with their favorite artists, has allowed us to create an experience where you, the fan, are on the stage for the performance, and backstage with the artist. The result is a highly intimate experience that you cannot find anywhere else.”
As VR begins to go from the underground geek and fan girl/boy stages to the masses, there will be a number of ‘firsts’ like Live Nation’s big reveal with Hulu, or VRTGO, the first live streaming VR platform to released by a major label, Universal Music Group (UMG), in partnership with VRLIVE. In this Kaffeine Buzz report I delve into the different channels where entertainment content creators, and Live Nation specifically, are breaking new ground with strategic, collaborative partners, while noting innovation progress being made in the industry and the hurdles yet to overcome.
The Differentiation Factor of Storytelling in VR
Last week at UploadVR’s new Los Angeles location in Marina del Rey, Nicholas spoke at DigitalLA’s VR Music event along with fellow trailblazers, including Linda Gedemer, Sound Source VR and VR audio evangelist; Jeremy Nathan Tisser, composer of Survios’ VR game Raw Data; Ryan Pulliam, Co-Founder of Specular Theory; Lars Perkins, Red Pill VR COO; Peter Martin, Valis Studios CEO; Aaron Lemke, TheWaveVR Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer; and Joel Douek, ECCO VR Co-Founder.
Each panel member introduced themselves and the role they and their respective companies play in VR. For Live Nation, “We're looking at VR as a mechanism for amplifying the live music experience and amplifying the connection to artists,” said Nicholas. “We look at that in a couple of different ways. Live stream is one; it seems like a sort of obvious one. But also, original content and interactive experiences around live music.”
Panel members were then asked to share a good thing that happened to her or him in the past week. For Nicholas, it was getting the green light for the next ON STAGE Hulu episode to air Tuesday, May 16, this time featuring the Major Lazer trio - Diplo, Jillionaire, and Walshy Fire – and their adventures in Kingston, Jamaica, home to the group’s passionate Dancehall influence.
In the opening of Major Lazer’s episode trailer, member Walshy expresses the group’s adoration for Jamaica, “We love this country and everything we do is for you guys, okay?”
This episodic VR move for Hulu, which has been a few years in the making for the company, along with the numerous months of post-production for Nicholas and his Live Nation Studios team, chose to take a different approach to storytelling for their collaborative ON STAGE VR series.
Instead of re-creating a concert experience in VR, although live performance moments like the “Major Lazer & Friends” concert at Mas Camp and Wayne's Lil' Weezyana Fest fundraising event were captured and presented in each episode, the aim for ON STAGE was to highlight a side of the artists that was a lot more personal and unique.
"What many people don't know about Wayne is that he loves skateboarding,” Nicholas explained to the VR Music attendees while discussing the making of the Lil Wayne episode. “If he's not on stage or in the studio, he's skateboarding. Like for eight hours a day. It's insane."
Within the Hulu VR app available for Daydream, Playstation VR, Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR headsets (with additional platforms coming soon), viewers can ride alongside the rapper, skating with him and his friends through the empty concrete waterways and streets, hearing first-hand of his affection for the sport and how it became a big part of his life.
In the Major Lazer episode, Nicholas talked about their producing approach that focused on the group's deep connection to Dancehall, enabling the viewer to walk the back streets of Kingston with Diplo, Jillionaire, and Washy as they see first-hand how the foundational sound systems for this genre are created. "It was incredible,” he said. “On the original content side, we're trying to tell deeper stories around artists and give you a way, interactively, to connect with them in ways you might not get in say, a music video or a traditional piece of content."
VR Music & Live Streaming - Where We Are Now and Where It’s Headed
Nicholas pointed out that at this time, the ON STAGE episodes were produced in 360 monoscopic, "That's where it's starting." But as the technology and the interactivity starts to scale, so will the level of immersive experience in terms of bringing in more advanced audio elements.
When live streaming technology began to evolve over ten years ago, promoters and event producers rightly tipped their toe in the waters, experimenting with service providers like Bulldog DM. The practice and methodologies improved in unison with technological innovation to deliver higher-quality experiences. The investment and expansion of this medium then followed.
Today it’s much more commonplace for festivals and concerts to live stream performances to fans across the globe with a brand sponsor to provide the investment to make it happen. Today virtual reality is following the same cautionary, experimental path, with producers like Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) providing VR live streaming to EDC attendees in a controlled, on-site lounge, or Live Nation entering into live streaming concerts in VR via their partnership with NextVR.
“We're being very strategic, very careful about what we do,” said Nicholas. “Live Nation, we do 25,000 shows a year. We have 80+ festivals. We're the largest concert promoter in the world. We manage over 200 artists. It's a massive organization that is far beyond what my little piece of VR is. What we're really careful about doing is doing things that can scale and are the kind of quality that can fit within our ecosystem.”
In 2016 Live Nation entered into this partnership with NextVR to produce a series of concerts in virtual reality. By downloading the NextVR app and using either the Google Daydream VR headset (which requires a Google Pixel phone or compatible device) or Samsung Gear VR, music fans have been able experience live concerts such as Killswitch Engage, Black Angels, Thievery Corporation, Robert Randolph & The Family Band, and Galactic in virtual 180-degree video by using a multi-camera shoot with between six to nine VR cameras. This Saturday, May 20, NextVR will live stream Slash with Jimmy Vivino & the Basic Cable Band & Friends from the LA Zoo.
“They've got a great way of capturing and distributing shows,” Nicholas says of NextVR. “They're 180, and a lot of people will knock the fact that they're 180 and not 360. But they're really focused on stereoscopic and spatial audio, and we chose them for that reason.”
Another reason Live Nation may have chosen to go with NextVR is that it didn’t cost them a dime in terms of a vendor budget, as the service has been delivered for free. This enables the promoter to be careful with their bottom line investments in VR while gaining valuable experience and knowledge in this new medium. Plus, it’s allowed one of their key sponsors, Citibank, to also play a part and begin to understand the potential for live streaming music performances to fans across the globe.
In terms of stereoscopic and spatial audio, that may have been a unique feature last year, but not today. As many on the VR Music panel stated, including Linda Gedemer, whose company Sound Source VR specializes in this area (her company provided the final Dolby Atmos Audio Mixing and Mastering for the Jack White performance at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Juant’s Cinematic VR), that given the critical role audio plays within a VR production, product life cycles, upgrades, and fixes are moving at a Silicon Valley rate of speed versus the glacial pace of legacy audio companies.
While Sound Source plays a part in post-production of live events, companies like VRLIVE who specialize in live streaming VR go beyond NextVR’s current capabilities, delivering advanced immersive image processing technology and ambisonic sound, utilizing several microphones and locating the sound source in specific areas within the VR experience.
In mid-April, Facebook announced an orb-shaped camera designed to deliver “six-degrees of freedom” by capturing video through 24 individual lenses, “Moving forward and back, up and down, right and left, and across three other perpendicular axes. This means they can capture a more complete and more realistic image than most cameras on the market,” according to Wired.
Aside from Facebook’s hardware developments, VR cameras as a whole are also making leaps and bounds in terms of capabilities while coming down in price. A mere 12-months ago VR cameras were not able to do perform the real-time stitching that cameras like the Nokia OZO can do today. At NAB last month, I heard a VR production company talking up the capabilities of the new Insta360 Pro VR camera, saying that it seemed to deliver the same quality and performance as the OZO, but at about one-tenth of the cost.
Nicholas is also excited about new cameras hitting the market, "There's a new Z-Cam S1 that can live stream, and it's literally the size of a Coke can." A camera this size can then be placed in a lot more places like in front of the drummer or right next to the lead singer, taking up about the same room on stage as a Snowball microphone while delivering a more intimate viewing experience.
“I'm excited about that since it's changing the live action version of the live experience, but also, when you look at what Lytro's doing, and that camera's way too big for any sort of live experience, but when you look at what's happening with the ability to move within pre-recorded live experience, that's going to change the dynamic too. You'll get different depths of field, that again, will blow it wide open.”
The integration of evolved sound technologies combined with these new camera capabilities like “six-degrees of freedom” enable VR content to get so much closer to the real-life experience of being at a show or at a sporting event.
While NextVR also has an agreement with the NBA, which one would expect to be similar to Live Nation’s, the limitation of 180 is not sustainable in the long term. According to a digital executive from one of the NBA teams, they also see the greater potential for fan engagement via 360 virtual reality capture and the incorporation of advance sound techniques; being able to see everyone in the stands and hear a player coming up the back court to shoot a three-pointer right before your eyes as if you had pricey floor seats.
Brands as Early Adopters and the Future Monetization Model
Wired also noted that Facebook’s investment in moving VR video forward via “six degrees of freedom” has the attention of high-end advertisers who are interested in this new breed of video. “In other words, Facebook may also expect these new cameras to bolster its bottom line.”
Bolster its bottom line, not in terms of hardware sales, but by licensing the blueprints directly to individual camera makers. More importantly, this new breed of video is seen as contributing to the next generation of video advertising, an area of great importance to Facebook’s economic ecosystem and its stockholders. This factor could also play a part in the company’s goal to expand their ad dominance further into the television space.
Speaking of dominance, Live Nation has long held a very robust sponsorship and advertising ecosystem. With those 25,000 shows produced each year, there’s a healthy supply of sponsorship opportunities. When asked during the panel whether their current sponsors were interested in investing in VR content, Nicholas answered without hesitation, “Yes,” stating that they’re now in active conversations with several brands. "We have different infrastructures and different relationships with a lot of sponsors. Citibank sponsoring a portion of our NextVR shows, for example.”
Live Nation has had the collaborative “Backstage with Citi” program running for some time. Backstage complements the existing pre-ticket sales agreements Citi has directly with artists. "They're pretty invested in the arts community. You ask any artist about Citi, and they'll say, 'Oh yeah, they actually help us sell tickets.'"
When it comes to the “why” of what leads brands to get in conversations with Live Nation about investing in VR content, "You've got sponsors that are interested in it because it's new, and then you've got sponsors that are interested because they feel like they have to get involved, but they want to see KPI."
Nicholas stated that's when the conversation stops. It's such early days for VR streaming and this medium is far from being able to track in a logical, detailed, and analytical way in terms of ROI and engagement as compared to other forms of joint advertising or even 2D live streaming activations. "I'm not going to be able to show you some viewer number that you're going to be like, 'That is worth my couple of million, or whatever I'm going to put into this.' That absolutely can't be your motivation to sponsor."
He continued to say that once they get past that KPI conversation and the sponsor is still on board, then they're all on the same page in terms of the incentive to invest in this type of media in its early stages.
What the brand gains by doing so is not only being an early mover in the space but also gleaning the first-hand knowledge and experience of playing a part in the VR production and delivery. Seeing the technology evolve over time, sometimes in just a few months, and curating intelligence that can impact other aspects of a brand's marketing and advertising campaigns provides great value.
Ryan Pulliam, who, in her position as co-founder of the content studio ('Perspective Series' screened at Sundance, Dolby Atmos VR, JEEP Brand VR Surf Experience) Specular Theory, has written on VR and branding for publications such as The Drum and has been featured in related pieces in Wall Street Journal. During the session she emphasized the need for education, which plays a large role in working with brands and getting sponsorships of VR content past the approval stage. "It's hard for most people to identify which companies to work with and really recognize talent in the space. At the end of the day, everyone just wants to engage fans more. For music artists or for brands, VR is a perfect way to do it. You can't get any more immersive or emotional than that."
She also pointed out that investments in some traditional but far from differentiating sponsor activations can be about the same cost as a VR activation, but the latter will have a greater, lasting impact.
Brands who have already sponsored live streaming activations at music festivals have found the addition of VR and 360-video to their sponsorship investment be a natural progression. This includes T-Mobile and Coachella, Samsung and EDC, and Coca-Cola Mexico’s sponsorship of Vive Latino.
As expected, the potential to monetize VR arose in the session’s conversation, and for Nicholas, he has a bearish approach to how hungry some in the market are to make money at this early stage of development and technical capabilities. This seems to justify why Live Nation and Citi are making their collaborative live streamed concerts available for free at the present time, putting themselves in the shoes of the music fan.
If a fan was forced to pay for say, a virtual ticket that’s produced in 180 with basic sound capabilities, they be initially impressed since it’s new to them, but they may be let down by the experience over time and lose interest. If a VR experience makes a viewer nauseous, which has happened, they may not return for quite a while. This is a fear of many in the VR in industry, and why there is so much pressure as a whole to deliver high quality content and immersive experiences.
Many of today’s VR experiences have been provided for free and taking short VR adventures are often playful. When you throw money into the mix, things get more serious.
“What it does to the consumer, is it goes, ‘I just paid $20 bucks for this thing that doesn't quite feel like a $20 dollar purchase.’ On the gaming side it's different. But on the live music side or music video side, you start to taint someone's view. I've seen the numbers of people who have sold VR tickets to shows that are not numbers that you'd want to be sharing around with anyone. But it's very easy for an artist to be wooed by that, 'Oh, you're going to split your backend with me?' There's no fucking backend. So there's an education piece that goes into those things.”
True. You don’t want to lead anyone down a primrose path with false expectations. At the same time, one of the obvious things to happen that will influence engagement numbers is wider adoption of VR headsets. The VR experience in a tethered headset like an Oculus Rift at $595 each versus a Google cardboard that you can nab for only $20 is going to be quite different.
As the technology improves, as the headsets become less helmet like, and as the price comes down, engagement has an obvious and greater ability to increase dramatically. Numbers like the unexpected 915,000 VR headset units sold to date, which Sony reported for its Playstation VR console in February, will be small by comparison.
Samsung’s sponsorships of festivals like EDC, partnerships with promoters like Live Nation as part of their Unpacked announcement in March of this year, and collaborations with brands like Coca-Cola to live stream portions of the Vive Latino festival in Best Buy locations across Mexico have seen to contribute to headset sales and adoption rates.
According to Business Insider, “Samsung’s Gear VR dominated the virtual reality (VR) market in Q1 2017, shipping an estimated 782,000 headsets during the quarter,” putting them ahead of Sony, who shipped an estimated 375,000 headsets, by more than two-fold.
Headset forecasts and crystal ball predictions aside, companies like VRLIVE were able to test the waters with the LEVITATION festival, selling 1,000 tickets for a 30,000 capacity event. For a festival of that size, and with the virtual tickets only going on sale five days before that gates were to open, that’s a pretty good test run.
Juan Santillan, founder of vantage.tv, another company that produces VR content and live streaming, has a bear approach to the monetization model. vantage.tv launched the Eric Church VR experience with Springboard, another video production partner with a long history of live streaming festivals like Austin City Limits, Coachella, and other tent pole events.
"It's been amazing. The user engagement. The reactions. When we see fans experience high-quality VR and content, it opens the door to VR ticketing, naturally,” Santillan said of this this new way to extend the investment in VR content capture beyond the live streaming festival window. “We believe that's the biggest opportunity. Of course, this is tied to the market. But at this point, it's undeniable."
Although VRLIVE and vantage.tv could be considered competitors, Heiner Lippman, VRLIVE’s founder, states the two companies have collaborated on VR projects and generally support each other in moving the VR medium and community forward.
When it comes to the topic of monetization, his stance sounds similar to Nicholas’, but with the emphasis on limited, outdated VR experiences versus the potential for enhanced, immersive VR voyages, “The audience needs to be convinced that this is a value proposition that you eventually pay money for.”
At the same time, companies like VRLIVE excited about working more advanced VR content projects made possible by technologies such as “6 degree of freedom,” the kind that consumers would be willing to pay for.
In combination with increased VR technology capabilities is the continued conversation on the quality of VR content being released into the market.
Last year Nicholas saw a lot of money being thrown at VR content creation like spaghetti at the wall, and it wasn’t pretty. Literally and figuratively. This year he saw a pull back, but it wasn’t because the money has dried up. Those investing in VR content are getting smarter about what will truly move people and the medium forward. “At the beginning of 2017, it really felt on the content side, like, wait a minute, what happened? Did the money dry up? The reality is, it didn't. It just got smarter. As everybody in the industry gets smarter about what works and what doesn't. The investor does. The consumer does. We start to really understand, ‘Okay, this is what's going to help move the needle and make this a 20-year thing not a flash in the pan.’”
Live Nation Team with Twitter on Its Live Streaming TV Expansion
Twitter and Live Nation have also announced plans for live streaming the series of the promoter’s concerts, including Train, Portugal The Man, August Alsina, and Marian Hill, and kicked things off with Zac Brown Band’s performance this past Saturday, May 13.
This is a move many, myself included, saw coming last year as Twitter shifted their business model emphasis towards streaming live content and going head to head with the de facto streaming standard, YouTube, while raising the stakes against Facebook’s similar plans.
After Twitter’s streaming deal with the NFL, the platform raised its game as the go-to social network to watch and hotly converse about the 2016 campaign debates, synching music fan chat with the live streaming of awards pre-shows like Billboard’s Grammy Awards, and airing live news programs like Cheddar. It seemed inevitable that festivals and live concerts would be part of the future content plan.
The deal with Live Nation was announced the same week as Twitter’s moved into 24/7 live television programming.
“What this really reflects is what people are already doing on Twitter, which is watching live video, watching TV, sitting at events, watching events, and tweeting about it, and talking about it, and engaging with that content and engaging in that conversation,” said Leslie Berland, CMO Twitter, in her interview with the Internet Advertising Bureau as part of Twitter’s first-ever NewFronts presentation. “What you saw us bring to live, whether it be sports, or entertainment, or music, it’s just amplifying that; taking it from a two-screen experience to a one-screen experience, frankly, in a way that no one else can.”
What will be interesting to follow is how the advertising model and potential for revenue will evolve between Twitter and promoters like Live Nation in the area of live streaming concerts and festivals.
Before Twitter lost the NFL streaming rights to Amazon for the coming 2017/2018 season (paying $50 million, five times more than what Twitter paid a season ago), their special football ad packages were running as high as $8 million, according to Digiday. The low end of $2 million was for pre-roll ads on NFL highlight videos and didn’t include any on-air commercial time.
Streaming Live Nation’s festivals like Bonnaroo or Governor’s Ball may not garner the same ad dollars as the NFL. What it could do is offer ad formats that are far more engaging than traditional ad spots pushed into a mobile experience, which were like a square peg in a round hole disruptive experience. With greater potential for branded and sponsored content, we could see Live Nation utilizing Twitter not only as a streaming platform for their properties in the way they’ve done with YouTube, but as another episodic content partner like Hulu.
When combined with the immense amount of consumer purchasing and entertainment data from their ticketing arm, Ticketmaster, or what they’ve gleaned since the launch of their Fan Connect programmatic platform two years ago, one would expect many interesting developments to come.
Of course, Twitter’s partnership with Live Nation and entry into 24/7 live programming coincides with Hulu’s launch of its live television, vMPVD offering that goes head-to-head with AT&T’s DirecTV Now and Dish’s Sling.
Hulu and Live Nation Present, ON STAGE, Season 1, Episode 2 - Major Lazer
So it all comes full circle. Social networks becoming television media platforms. Promoters becoming content studios. And entertainment content of all kinds is converging onto consumer’s mobile devices to the delight of cord cutters or cord nevers (it irks me to use buzzy language, but in this case, it's appropriate). We’re already five months into 2017, but expect the future to arrive on our doorstop sooner than later with promoters and content creators having plenty for us to see, hear, and experience, in all shapes and forms.
If you're a Hulu subscriber, today they released a mini 13-minute 2D behind-the-scenes episode of Major Lazer, including Live Nation's Jeff Nicholas explaining their approach and the making of the doc-like piece, which you can watch here. The similar format is also available for the Lil Wayne episode, which you can watch here.
And if you're in the Los Angeles area, Walshy Fire is playing the Avalon this Friday, May 19, as part of Mad Decent's Control par-tay.
If you're attending Digital Hollywood, which takes place May 23 - 25 at The Skirball Center in Los Angeles, I invite you to attend the session I'll be moderating, "Live Stream of Music Festivals and Concerts: Brands, Bands and New Technologies," on Thursday, May 25th, 2:15pm - 3:30pm, Track II: Herscher Hall, 2nd Floor, Room 202.
I'll be delving into these related topics by asking questions of the panelists that include John Petrocelli, CEO Founder, Bulldog DM; Brian Anderson, Global Programs Manager, YouTube Music; Raymond Roker, AEG Executive Producer, Content Creative Director, Coachella/Goldenvoice; Devon Copley, Head of Product, VR Platform, Nokia Technologies; Peter Csathy, Founder and Chairman, CREATV Media; and Jason Beukema, CEO/ Founder, Whet Travel/GROOVE Cruise. We hope to see you there!