The finale of KISS’ seemingly never-ending farewell wasn’t farewell after all. The make-up-caked cock rockers utilised their ‘final’ concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden as the big reveal to their future selves as a digital entity, entering a “new era” as a virtual act like ABBA before them.
“The band deserves to live on because the band is bigger than we are,” Paul Stanley said in a roundtable interview which accompanied the announcement. Whether KISS deserve to live on is up for debate. Still, they’ve certainly got the dedicated fans and schlocky pantomime aesthetic to turn a digital concert into a thigh-slapping, devil-horning good time. Also, they’re justifiably jumping on the bandwagon, having witnessed the overwhelmingly positive response to ABBA Voyage.
But with another legacy act investing their chips in a potentially lucrative revenue stream, it surely won’t be long before more follow suit. Worryingly for live music, it may eventually become the norm. For independent music venues already on the brink of destitution, digital concerts could be the final nail in the coffin.
An increasing number of music legends like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Stevie Nicks, and Neil Young have sold off their entire catalogues and life’s work for hundreds of millions of dollars a pop. Calling time on the toils of touring in favour of a sparkly new virtual concert is a fail-safe way of pulling in money for their future estates, whilst said artists can put their feet up on their well-earned pot of gold.
For artists with devoted fan bases like Ozzy Osbourne, who increasingly seems like he’ll never be healthy enough to perform again, let alone tour, sadly – a virtual concert might be the only opportunity to experience his music in concert. It wouldn’t be a surprise if it were already in the works, and I doubt anybody would begrudge the former Black Sabbath legend.
Besides, concert-goers are frequently guilty of complaining after seeing legacy artists – often for excessive amounts of money – that they’ve “lost it” or to call it a day, so it’s a win-win, right? I’ve been to ABBA Voyage. Not only was it glorious, but it was undoubtedly bang for your buck.
Word has spread, with the virtual concert’s tenure at the purpose-built ABBA Arena in East London being extended to November 2023 and then again to May 2024. It was only initially due to run between May 2022 and December 2022. Given it’s been a rip-roaring success, it’ll likely be extended again, proving that virtual concerts aren’t merely a flash-in-the-pan novelty, especially when they’re of ABBA Voyage’s calibre.
When ABBA revealed their digital likenesses or ‘ABBA-tars’, Björn Ulvaeus said that the Swedish pop legends wanted fans to “feel emotional and to feel that they’ve gone through something that they’ve never seen before.” Achievement unlocked: their avatars were remarkably life-like, thanks to Industrial Light and Magic.
The special effects company, founded by Star Wars creator George Lucas, worked painstakingly with motion-capture and state-of-the-art performance techniques, needing a team of 850 people to digitally reimagine ABBA. It marked the company’s first foray into the world of music, and KISS were next in line.
It’s all good and well when an artist coming to the end of the road fancies digitising themselves. It’s their call, whether or not you love it or hate the idea of a virtual concert. The waters are murky, however, when deceased stars enter the conversation.
There’s been consistent chatter around virtually reanimating the corpses of bankable music icons for over a decade now, since Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg revived Tupac in holographic form for their headline set at Coachella in 2012. Discourse has rumbled on from then, with names like Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince, and George Michael being touted for holographic tours not long after they’ve been eulogised. Amongst acolytes of the aforementioned, music industry moguls, and live music fans in general, the debate stirs even still.
An AI-powered Elvis Presley hologram was only recently announced and is set to open in the UK in November 2024. British immersive entertainment company Layered Reality have acquired the rights to the concert titled Elvis Evolution, which will “recreate the seismic impact of seeing Elvis live for a whole new generation of fans, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy”. And unlike ABBA Voyage, Elvis, of course, won’t be involved in its creation.
The company’s founder, Andrew McGuinness, explained to BBC News how Layered Reality created Elvis’ virtual likeness: “ABBA Voyage had the luxury of capturing live performers, but we’re not that fortunate. The AI generates an authentic version of Elvis, born of original material, but it [also] allows you to do new things with him.” With the advent of AI, Pandora’s Box has already been opened. It just depends on the disposition of consumers, ahem, concert-goers.
ABBA and KISS both sanctioned their digital avatars and were heavily involved in the process, so there’s no ethical choice to make before purchasing a ticket. But with legacy artists dominating the lion’s share of vinyl sales and still going strong in the streaming game, there might be a few more moral dilemmas yet.