Prior to the pandemic which has kept many of us locked down at home since March of this year, concert events within gaming platforms were already very much a thing. It was way back in February of 2019 that Marshmello performed a set within the Fortnite world, opening himself up to a brand new audience in the process, while also opening up some minds to what can be achieved.
Minecraft, too, was already the e-venue for a number of concerts and festivals pre-lockdown. Deadmau5, to name one, has been very active in the block-based world. So the technology was in place. But it’s also very clear that COVID-19, and the subsequent fact that in-person live music isn’t going to be a viable option for some time yet, has boosted people’s interest in just what is possible on a gaming platform — people that perhaps had never shown any interest in Minecraft and Fortnite before. Maybe people like this writer, who have been able to take pointers from their young children and immerse themselves in something completely new.
That was all cemented in April, about a month into the lockdown, when rapper Travis Scott’s Astronomical concert took place in the Fortnite world and replayed for days afterwards. Word of the incredible scale of the spectacle spread way outside of normal gaming circles; non-gamers were tuning in, or muscling in on their kids’ consoles, to have a look. Another show, featuring Deadmau5, Steve Aoki and Dillon Francis, followed soon afterwards. And make no mistake — these things are visually stunning.
Minecraft saw interests raised too. In May, Block By Blockwest saw the likes of Grandson and Cherry Glazerr perform in block form (proving that rock & roll can get involved), while artists such as Doja Cat have also mixed it with the ender dragons and creepers.
Rave Family Block Fest
July will see arguably the biggest Minecraft music festival yet: Rave Family Block Fest. Over 850 artists will appear on 65 hosted and specially designed stages. Jauz, for example, will perform on an appropriate shark-themed stage. Rave Family is the company behind Rave Family Block Fest, and Jackie McGuire is the founder.
“[Rave Family Block Fest] is a music festival set inside Minecraft,” she says. “When I built it, my concept for it was a music festival meets a theme park with all these themed areas where there are things like pirate ships and sharks. When I was thinking about what I missed from music festivals, there were two or three big things. One, obviously, is the music. But I think even more important is my friends. Hanging out with people that enjoy the same things that you do, running around and exploring. Then the third thing I missed is the costumes. One of the most amazing things about festivals is how creative people get with what they wear. While you can’t do the exact same thing in Minecraft, everybody gets to design their own skin if they want to. You can use one that’s pre-made, or there are a bunch of tools out there where you can use a paintbrush and paint your own skin.”
On the surface, it would appear that concerts on Minecraft and Fortnite are a variation on the same theme. The graphics are different, but essentially we’re talking about sitting at home and watching e-versions of artists perform within a game. But there are key differences, and not just aesthetic. Notably, a Fortnite event is hosted by game creator Epic Games. Their people designed the stage, the show. It’s their thing. Not so with Minecraft.
“Minecraft has this really interesting business model,” says McGuire. “Minecraft, which is made by Mojang but now owned by Microsoft, is an open source platform. So you pay for a license for the game, but with the license, you actually get permission to modify the source code of the game. That’s how you do most of the cool stuff you do with Minecraft — you’re modifying the source code in the game to make certain things look like other things. So as far as I know, Microsoft and Minecraft have not really been involved with any of the festivals. It’s just people like us that think something would be really cool.”
So in other words, the concerts and events taking place within the Minecraft world are being arranged, designed and promoted by third parties. In theory, anyone can decide to put on a festival in Minecraft, which obviously isn’t the case with Fortnite. Still, those Fortnite events have been spectacular, and they set the bar for what can be achieved on a gaming platform.
“I originally watched the Marshmello one — my kids adore Marshmello and I think everybody’s kids do,” says McGuire. “I actually didn’t have a video game console up until four or five months ago. I streamed the video on YouTube for my kids. So yeah, I’ve been watching that and what struck me when I saw Minecraft for the first time was anybody could develop anything in the game. Because the first thought I had when I saw the Travis Scott thing was, ‘I wonder how much that cost?’ I kind of know — I’ve worked in virtual reality but I’ve always done the CEO role, strategy and whatnot, I haven’t been doing the development. But I know kind of how those game engines work and how 3D engines work.”
The first Marshmello event on Fortnite took place way before COVID-19 had the world on lockdown, but with in-person concerts and festivals obviously not an option at present, more eyes have been on the games.
“What I think has changed is the willingness of artists to try new things,” says McGuire. “I think a lot of times, if you’re making a decent chunk of change for every live performance you do, you get stuck in ‘this is how I do things.’ A handful of artists I’ve been talking to started to make the migration to more virtual stuff, gaming based stuff, well over a year ago. So I definitely think it was top of mind for the industry anyway, but this has forced everybody online. Everybody’s playing more, everybody’s looking for more things to do. The real trick is how do you make money doing it?”
“New technology and media types have always been the first step towards new forms of artistic expression,” add Tom Howie and Jimmy Vallance of Canadian electronic duo Bob Moses, performing at Rave Family Block Fest. “We think this was sort of inevitable, given the high focus on AI, VR and the ever increasing power of computer processing in our society. Creative people get excited when there are new frontiers to discover and new boundaries to push, and all the recent technological developments are ripe for experimentation. So we think this was definitely happening anyway in various forms, but we can’t deny the fact that necessity has focused us all towards new ways of connecting. We’re excited to be a part of it.”
Aundy Crenshaw of Dirtybird Records (and Claude VonStroke’s wife) believes that the e-gigs offer something different but can’t ever replace the “real thing” in the long term.
“It’s not going to replace any sort of feeling that you get at festivals, it’s a totally different way for people to hear about our sound and see what fun it could be in real life,” Crenshaw says. “It’s a way to connect with people on a different level.”
That’s absolutely correct. It’s also interesting that Minecraft users don’t believe that the boxiness and pixelation that is part of the game’s charm pulls you out of the immersion. Rather, it actually helps.
“The weird thing is, because it’s so 8-bit and blocky, you actually immerse a lot faster in the virtual space because the unfortunate thing about trying to do hyper realistic ARVR is that your brain is constantly looking for things that don’t fit, that’s not quite real, and it pulls you out of the immersion,” says McGuire. “So you’re in this half in. half out stage where you’re trying to pick out little things that don’t make sense. With Minecraft, none of this makes sense. It’s all cartoon and 8-bit, so you immediately immerse yourself because your brain isn’t trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not. You just go with the fantasy.”
Still, Sian, who is also performing at Rave Family Block Fest, admits that there are challenges to overcome.
“I think it is always strange to perform or exist in another brand’s space,” he says. “To keep your identity as an artist under the pressure of a giant branding, inside of a game, isn’t easy. I would like to see artists maintain their vibe and take that into the games world.”
“[The] complete lack of income from shows for musicians to lack of energy, the raw ability to feel the room, and remember a vibe that could maybe even change your life [are challenges],” adds Anabel Englund, also performing at the e-festival.
The aforementioned Jauz concurs, saying that the lack of a crowd and the associated energy presents additional challenges to artists that ordinarily feed off of that.
“When I play crazy, aggressive, high energy music it’s because I’m in front of hundreds or thousands of kids who want to feel that energy and they give it right back,” Jauz says. “Sitting in a room by myself or with just a few people, it’s really hard for me to want to play music like that. I always end up wanting to play music I enjoy listening to and playing when I’m not at a crazy festival or concert — mostly house music. Regardless of how many people are watching online, at the end of the day it’s just me and a camera, and if I’m not playing music I’m enjoying, what’s the point? I know kids who love hearing aggressive music at live events still love getting that experience even through the internet, but as a performer and producer it’s hard for me to want to give that kind of show from home.”
Also performing at Rave Family Block Fest, San Fran’s Gryffin says that pleasing two potentially different groups of people will keep artists on their toes.
“The biggest challenge is creating an experience that is really special for the artists’ fans but also excites the game’s users that may not know who you are, and assimilates into the games’ environment naturally,” he says. “I think it would be a fun challenge and hopefully we will be able to succeed with the Elevate stage at [Rave Family Block Fest].”
Ultimately, this is all still relatively new, but the technology is there to provide us with a virtual concert and festival experience from home (minus the dust and food trucks). It’s only going to improve, and McGuire can even foresee blends of in-person and virtual festivals once lockdown is completely lifted.
“That’s my dream,” she says. “I’ve been trying to bring AR [Augmented Reality] VR [Virtual Reality] into festivals for like three years. I pitched EDC [Electric Daisy Carnival] to make a VR version of VIP and one of the stages. That was 2017 or 2018, and from their perspective the adoption of the technology wasn’t widespread enough. I still think that’s the case. But I think there’s going to be a lot more mixed reality, so a combination of AR, VR and in-person. That’s going to be significantly more commonplace when we go back to in-person events. I think it’d super cool if the festival map is in Minecraft and there are little easter eggs in the game that correspond to easter eggs in the real world.”
Meanwhile, L.A.-based DJ MK believes that, after the pandemic has eased, these events will remain popular as new audiences immerse themselves in gaming worlds, now aware of what can be done.
“I 100 percent think it will remain popular,” he says. “It’s really cool and a different experience for both DJs and fans. It doesn’t take too much time off of a DJ’s schedule to do it, so I think artists will want to keep being involved.”
So stay tuned — these game-based events are the biggest thing to have happened to the music industry in some time, and this is the new normal.
Editor’s note: As of July 10 2020, Rave Family Block Fest has been postponed. A new date has yet to be announced. Go to electricblockaloo.com for all of the info.