This year the legendary band ABBA will be back on stage! But although they'll perform a few new songs, they won't actually be on stage! Their avatars will perform live. Is this a glimpse of the future of live music?
What is ABBA Voyage?
ABBA could have retired and not play again at all. They're well in their 70s now and their songs still earn insane revenue. But they they wanted to take control of their legacy. And they wanted to set ABBA up for the future of the music industry.
ABBA Voyage is a concert show, in which life-like avatars act out on stage. ABBA chose to record their songs – old and new ones – in a studio using motion-capture. All their moves were mapped onto virtual avatars of their younger selves. It's the perfect merge of them playing the music and acting out on stage with the look and feel of the original band in the 70s. It also allows them to perform two shows a day without ever getting exhausted.
The illusion seems to be pretty strong as first audience members reported. They felt transported back to the 70s. But despite the nostalgia, they could also hear and see their heroes perform new songs from 2022 live on stage. It's definitely a completely new concert experience.
Is this a good development?
Before we talk about the implications of all this for the future of the music business, let's pause for a moment and ask whether we like this or not.
Some commentators immediately react hostile towards ABBA's new show. They criticize it to be a lifeless attempt to make more money and control their heritage. You could also criticize that such a show exacerbates the youth obsession plaguing our society. Why not be honest and vulnerable and stand up on stage as your own old self?
And if it is just a computer show and the original band members actually sit in the audience and watch their own show, isn't this any different from watching an old ABBA concert on your TV at home?
I personally think that, while some of the critique is valid, ABBA's new approach is innovative and good for the industry. Instead of criticizing, I would rather learn from them.
What can we learn?
ABBA is not the only band existing as virtual avatars. If you're from Germany you might remember the band Milli Vanilli: They were acting out on stage, while unknown artists actually played and sang the songs. Milli Vanilli was only a facade – although not yet as computer avatars.
Today there are countless "artists" who are not even real humans. Computer-generated figures portray a fictitious yet real-looking life on TikTok and Insta, while releasing albums and giving virtual concerts. Heck, we even have a band of bored apes (TheZoo) performing in the metaverse and having their own NFTs.
And if we're really honest with ourselves as musicians, it has always been that way! Even decades ago bands and artists were carefully constructed personalities that were often very different from the real human characters behind the show. Moving from made up human characters to made up computer characters doesn't seem like a far step. It's even more efficient, because you don't have to reconcile the fictitious image of a "star" with the character traits of the human being behind the star. You can now freely sculpt an artist character without having to bend a real human soul to its will – something that had wrecked many musicians in the past.
With the advent of NFTs it's even possible to license these characters for music, merch or movies and build a solid business on it. No need for a unique human just to tie royalties and rights to. It could be the beginning of an artistic and creative explosion in the years to come.
Another advantage for ABBA and other virtual artists is the efficiency. Virtual artists can do concerts 24 hours a day and 7 days a week without getting tired. It's a much more scalable solution! Albeit we have to be careful not to ruin the uniqueness element. While we didn't need artificial scarcity with real humans, we need with digital artists. NFTs help a bit here, but still we need to be careful not to make "stars" too much of a commodity.
All in all I feel we can learn a lot from ABBA, TheZoo and other virtual artists. It's just a new field for innovation in the music industry – much as synthesizers, records or the invention of the piano-forte were. We should embrace it and think about how we can take advantage of the opportunities!
Is this the future of music?
So, will virtual avatar artists be the future of music? Will humans vanish from stages?
I don't know, but I don't think that it's an either or. Virtual artists will definitely broaden the spectrum of what is possible. They will open up new business opportunities and creative fields for all of us – much like the ability to record music did for our industry.
But I also think that human artists playing in flesh on stage will be part of the future as well. As with so many things, it will not be about slicing the cake differently, but about adding more cake for everybody.
There will also be hybrid forms – like ABBA already is. The possibilities of virtual artist will influence human artists and vice versa. It's gonna be an exciting future!
The key is to embrace these developments whole-heartedly and use them to our advantage. I'm boundlessly optimistic about the future of the music industry and the future of live music! I don't know what exactly it will look like in 10 or 20 years, but I sure know that it's gonna be an awesome hell of a ride 🤘
Btw: If you want more ABBA, you might enjoy my reharmonization of Mamma Mia using a lot of music theory tricks or the article about the magic of the major 7th in ABBA's Dancing Queen.