Let’s take it to the stage

With revenues from gigs increasingly important, the visuals are becoming works of art. Rachael Steven considers the future of immersive concert experiences

Turn off that iPad tonight – I’m going to make you feel something.” Flying Lotus

At the beginning of a recent gig in London’s Roundhouse – the inaugural show in his You’re Dead tour – Flying Lotus ordered a member of the audience to stop filming and simply watch and listen. He arrived in darkness, visible only by a pair of glow-in-the-dark glasses, before launching into a mesmerising performance projected from a giant cube.

Standing at its centre, as if the source of the surreal animations around him, Ellison played his set amongst floating tentacles and dismembered heads, giant 3D skulls, optical illusions and swirling kaleidoscopic sequences. “We wanted to make a new kind of visual experience that would engulf the musician, like an extension of their performance,” explains David Wexler, an artist signed to Ellison’s Brainfeeder label, who collaborated with John King (Timeboy) on visuals for the show.

The performance was created using a layered projection system, Layer 3, made up of two transparent screens with the musician sandwiched between. Screens are operated independently to create an impression of 3D depth and visuals are drawn from a library of original animations, which are triggered by Wexler and King in real time, making each You’re Dead gig unique.

“We wanted to preserve the human and performative element of live visuals – Steve’s set changes regularly enough that we’ve had to be ready to improvise without any rehearsed plan in mind,” says Wexler. “It’s what makes the art-form fun – like it can fall apart at any moment, and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Ellison is known for trippy visuals in his music videos, album art and live shows, but You’re Dead is perhaps his most engaging live set yet, and one of a number of recent music performances attracting fans for visuals as much as sound.

From Massive Attack to Kraftwerk and Daft Punk, electronic musicians in particular have long been dazzling audiences with strobe lights, lasers and moving image work – a solitary figure on a keyboard doesn’t make for the most captivating on-stage performance – but new technologies are allowing more artists and designers to create elaborate, responsive experiences that are artworks in their own right.

“I think there is an explosion of the medium right now,” says Wexler. “The visual show has obviously become a way to enhance the live show… but in my experience, it is only recently that we truly have the idea of this new medium as an art form,” he adds.

Matt Bateman, a director at Flat-e studio who has worked on visuals for Jon Hopkins, Jamie Lidell and LFO, says there is now increasing pressure on artists to create shows that impress audiences visually as well as aurally.

“The likes of Amon Tobin, Massive Attack and the Chemical Brothers have shown how an amazing visual spectacle can open up new opportunities and audiences for artists. This has created a kind of arms race of visuals…and a scramble to make something with impact,” he says.

“When we started over ten years ago, the focus was on producing video content for video screens, which were becoming commonplace in bigger clubs and festivals – now it’s on creating something more immersive, combining video with lights, LED walls, and sculptural or interactive elements.”

Nathan Prince, co-founder of Silent Studios, which created visuals for Kasabian’s 48:13 tour and festival performances, says that while the visual element of a performance has always been a key consideration for musicians and labels, there is now more of a focus on creating experiences with imagery that feels “crafted at that moment, rather than something that’s just played out”.
For 48:13, Silent Studios worked with creative director Aitor Throup to create a performance that combined large-scale video projections with custom face-tracking software that linked faces in the crowd during a performance of track Lost Souls Forever. Images were then uploaded to Facebook, allowing fans to tag themselves.

“The interaction was added to the show to make it a more inclusive experience … it was a simple idea, but the crowd went berserk,” adds Prince. It was later adapted for festivals including last year’s Glastonbury and Hard Rock Calling, and played out alongside film footage of feathered sculptures twitching and growing in response to music, and high speed underwater explosions.
Watching a gig is, traditionally, quite a passive experience, but Kasabian’s show allowed fans to not only see themselves on screen, but share the moment online afterwards. Arena tours are challenging to design for – as Prince points out, it’s hard to deliver an equally visceral experience for fans in the back row as those by the stage – but interactive elements can help creae something that feels more personal and intimate.

It’s not just major artists and festivals commissioning ambitious visual experiences however – Silent Studios recently worked with ‘boutique’ act Close, led by producer Will Saul, to create smaller-scale visuals using a floating cinema screen and holographic lighting effects. Budgets are tighter, and spaces more restrictive but, as Prince explains, “[at small shows], there is much more of a connection with the audience”.

Established artists, too, have also been toying with smaller-scale, immersive gigs alongside larger tours and festival performances: last year, the XX performed 25 gigs in New York to audiences of just 40. Shows were held in a cavernous hall, which was transformed with swings, a huge fabric sculpture by Ernesto Netto that fans could wander through, and a small backlit performance space. When fans arrived, the band was already there waiting.

Nick Panama, co-founder of record label and live events company Cantora, which now also develops digital media and technologies for live experiences, believes this kind of intimate concert will become an increasingly popular medium for bands both big and small, as it gives them more control over the venue and overall experience.

“I don’t know how the economics of it would work, but I think more artists will look at perhaps playing more shows for smaller groups over a longer period of time. It allows them to craft premium experiences in more creative settings, rather than arenas where it’s all about a stage against one wall – it’s a much more personal, tailored experience for audiences,” he says.

Cantora is also experimenting with music experiences inspired by immersive theatre and film events like those hosted by Secret Cinema and Punchdrunk: the company is currently working with a well-known music act to create a ‘speakeasy’ environment for a series of gigs launching in the US in the spring.
“We want to create a kind of theatre experience – one that’s not about expensive technology, but putting viewers in an entirely new situation, and out of their comfort zone,” he adds. “It’s already happening in theatre and film, and I think it’s only a matter of time before music goes in that direction – it opens up a whole new world of opportunities for artists,” he adds.

Both Secret Cinema and Punchdrunk have shown there is real demand for creating immersive events that rely on audience participation – tickets for Secret Cinema’s film screenings among elaborate, large-scale sets regularly sell out within minutes of their release, and Punchdrunk has been creating interactive plays since 2000. The music industry has so far been slow to experiment with this kind of show, but that could be about to change.

In July last year, Punchdrunk worked with musician Jack White on a bizarre event set in a medical facility in the midst of a fictional outbreak. Fans wore surgical gowns, were asked to sign away their medical rights and down shots of ‘medicine’, before watching a performance by the musician and his band.

Events like this are costly and time-consuming to produce and ticket sales are limited, but for small groups of fans, it’s a much more memorable experience than standing at the back of a concert hall.

But while musicians and artists are striving to create experiences that command audiences’ full attention, they are still struggling to compete with smartphones, iPads and social media at shows. “It makes your heart sink. There are thousands of pound’s worth of lights ready to make your eyes bleed and performance that can make your hairs stand up on end, and 80% of the crowd is watching it on their phones,” says Prince.

Short of banning mobile devices altogether, as Kate Bush did for a recent gig in London, there is little acts can do to stop consumers using them, and for musicians, audiences who tweet and tag themselves at gigs provide valuable publicity.

Panama, however, believes that wearable tech could provide a less intrusive wayfor fans to interact at gigs, and for brands and musicians to interact with those audiences. The company is currently developing Nada, a wristband that acts as both a ticket and a messaging platform allowing brands or acts to send fans messages or ‘rewards’ during live events from sports matches to concerts. “With Nada, we want to create a solution that doesn’t have people on their mobiles – something unintrusive that can enhance a live experience rather than distract from it,” says Panama.

“The long-term vision [for Nada] is to create a kind of network for brands and entertainers to send value to consumers, but in a way that feels personal and relevant for audiences. It might be a free download, an exclusive track or a message from a musician thanking fans who’ve travelled hundreds of miles to attend that gig, or from brands offering free food and drinks at outlets as people are passing them at festivals or concerts, and for sponsors, it’s an incredibly valuable platform, as you have a captive audience, and can track their movements and deliver really tailored content while they’re at that venue,” he adds.

Wearable tech can also be used to add more interaction with performances: Cantora has invested in technology that tracks users’ heartrates (something Panama says could be used to influence visuals or music at gigs), while at
Saatchi & Saatchi’s New Directors Showcase in Cannes last year audiences wore wristbands which lit up in response to their excitement at the films they were watching. None of these provides a replacement for filming a gig on your mobile, but they are all aimed at providing new ways for consumers to experience and engage with live events without them.

As Bateman points out, the secret to designing a great live show is ensuring that both the tech and visuals before audiences don’t distract from the experience of watching a musician perform but enhance it. “Ultimately, people want to get lost in the music they are hearing and feel connected to the person who made it,” he says.

In that sense, little has changed at concerts since the days of Woodstock, but as live shows become more sophisticated, so too do audience’s expectations: elaborate visuals and immersive experiences are increasingly seen as essential components of a live show, rather than an added bonus, and in turn, it looks like artists will have to go to ever more elaborate lengths to deliver the ultimate live experience for fans in future.

“Artists have to step up to that now – it’s a bit of a game, and everyone’s trying to outdo each other. I think it has definitely pushed artists to go further,” says Panama.

“It seems that [musicians] have to prove that they have upped the ante. It’s almost as though touring a new album isn’t enough – people need to see something fresh as well as hear it,” adds Bateman.

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