The dance floor has emptied and the reviews are in. ABBA Voyage, the Swedish pop icons’ computer-generated concert extravaganza that opened in London recently, has been acclaimed as a triumph. The 95-minute, 20-song show sees Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Frida brought back to life as virtual (and much younger) musicians using the very latest motion capture technology.
The ‘ABBAtar’ show is, according to my colleague Neil McCormick, a “mind-blowing hi-tech celebration.” Another review said that the concert “really does look like the future of music”.
It’s a curious and dystopian idea: that the future of live music lies in using technology to recreate the past. Pop music used to be about using technology to sound like the future. But it’s happening. And, judging by the ecstatic reviews, it works. ABBA Voyage is now booking until December: 40 years after they split up, ABBA look to have a hit on their hands.
In the wake of Voyage, we’re bound to see other wrinkly rockers jump on the virtual bandwagon as they eye up new revenue streams. Who wouldn’t want to give their fans the chance to see, say, The Rolling Stones strutting their stuff in their prime? Not only would the ticket sales make them richer but it would help secure their legacy, bring them a new generation of fans and preserve them in digital aspic forever.
No room for failure
With this technology now proven, the possibilities are limitless. Did you miss Woodstock or Live Aid? No problem. The march of the ABBAtars means you could be there. How about seeing The Beatles play raw rock ‘n’ roll at the Kaiserkeller in Hamburg or The Cavern in Liverpool? Easy. Would you prefer the evening or the midnight set? I’d pay good money to see a 1973 iteration of David Bowie killing off Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon.
And to my eternal shame, I never saw Prince play live. I think I’ll go to the Sign O’ The Times tour 1987, please, so long as he plays the extra-long version of Purple Rain.
What’s more, putting on virtual shows takes the faff out of touring. Artists living or dead can hit the road without actually having to hit the road. They can play in multiple locations at once, without the need for hotel rooms. As ABBA Voyage producer Svana Gisla puts it: “They don’t moan too much if you keep them going for too long. And they don’t get Covid!” Nor can they lose their voices or get stage fright (useful for someone such as Adele, who has talked of crippling on-stage anxiety).
All of this is feasible. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. While ABBA may have opened up a new frontier in entertainment, experts say the future of traditional live music is secure. John Giddings is the veteran promoter behind the Isle of Wight Festival and has put on tours by everyone from Madonna and The Rolling Stones to Bowie, Genesis and U2. He saw a preview performance of Voyager recently and absolutely loved it.
“It was seriously impressive. There was one moment when Bjorn or Benny walks towards the front of the stage and starts talking and you really think it’s him. You really don’t accept that it’s on a flat screen. It is really clever,” says Giddings. But he says it doesn’t spell the end of old-fashioned concerts.
“People said to me ‘Do you think this is the future?’ and ‘Can you beat a live band?’ But ABBA aren’t a live band. This is more of an ‘experience’,” Giddings says (although the virtual ABBAtars are backed by a 10-piece live band on stage).
The magic called spontaneity
And this, he adds, is a key distinction. The essence of a live show lies in its spontaneity. And a show featuring painstakingly recreated computer-generated avatars of musicians cannot – by definition – be spontaneous, however lifelike they are. “I think for an entertainment purpose [an avatar show] is brilliant, but I don’t think it’ll ever substitute for the live thing – when someone stops the show or someone in the audience says something.
“The thing about live music is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. Anything could happen. Dave Grohl could fall off the stage and break his leg,” Giddings says. The Foo Fighters frontman did indeed do that at a gig in Gothenburg in 2015 – he went to hospital, then returned to finish the show.
The joy of live music lies in its unexpected moments (although Grohl might disagree). But it also lies in catching a band just at the right time. This is generally when they’re in the ascendancym and it can often come as a surprise. Surprises, says Giddings, like seeing “AC/DC at the Reading Festival a hundred years ago at three o’clock in the afternoon and realising you’re witnessing what’s going to be one of the biggest bands in the world.”
Or seeing the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club in 1976, or New Order at the Hacienda in 1983. The memory lies in that jolt of epiphany. “That’s the whole point. Otherwise you might as well go and see a theatre show as you know what’s going to happen. It’s planned,” says Giddings.
There are other reasons why ABBA may stand alone in the virtual world. One is the money. ABBA Voyage has cost a whopping £140 million to stage, including the construction of a purpose-built venue. It took five years of work. The idea that such ventures represent an easy cash-grab for superannuated pop stars is for the birds. Any investor in such a venture would want guaranteed long-term returns, and this means years of sustained ticket sales. ABBA are one of the small handful of artists to have the glistening song catalogue to back this up. I could see a Michael Jackson avatar show being a hit, or a CGI concert by Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac (avatars can’t bed-hop either). But there aren’t too many.
Is technology a poor substitute?
As time passes, the cost of putting on such shows will come down and the technology will improve, which may tempt others to follow ABBA’s lead. But falling costs and better technology create a double-edged sword: if such shows become more mainstream, audiences’ expectations will rise. When it comes to cutting-edge technology, things can look old hat very quickly indeed. To use a smartphone analogy, nobody wants an iPhone 7 in an iPhone 13 world.
And then there’s consent – both official consent from an artist and implied consent from fans. If an artist is dead, then his or her estate needs to give permission. Prince, who died in 2016, told Guitar World magazine in 1998 that the idea of virtual reality was “demonic”, denting chances of his estate giving permission (there goes my Sign O’ The Times show). In 2018 Amy Winehouse’s estate was working on a show about the late singer with a company called Base Hologram, which has toured hologram shows by Whitney Houston, Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly.
But the following year Brian Becker, the Base boss, told me that the Winehouse show wasn’t going ahead. The reason, he said, was that they’d underestimated how deeply her 2011 death from alcohol poisoning was still felt by fans. The show, he said, “would not have elicited the type of emotions we were intending to create.” In other words, fans weren’t ready. ABBA fans, on the other hand, can’t wait to boogie to S.O.S. and Dancing Queen.
Giddings believes that while there’ll be other avatar shows in the years ahead, they don’t represent the future of the music business. Real-life working pop-stars can rest easy. Traditional live music hasn’t met its Waterloo just yet.
The Daily Telegraph