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VR Concerts: A future for Quebec’s music industry?

par Stephan Boissonneault

“In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” 

Whether many in the music industry know it or not, they have been reflecting on this ethos by Albert Einstein constantly. Promoters, venue owners, and other industry folks alike had to remain optimistic after Quebec ended its first lockdown, and unleashed a deluge of concerts and live events. Things were good and the worst seemed like it was over. Then Omicron made its way to Canada … and I don’t have to reiterate what happened next. 

Two festivals that were caught in the middle of Quebec’s second lockdown are the past Taverne Tour in Montreal and the upcoming Le Phoque OFF alt music festival in Quebec City. The teams behind both festivals could have cancelled their February festivals and no one would have faulted them; cancelling or rescheduling live shows has been a two-year reality for promoters. I think Lucy Dacus has been rescheduled three times? And really, who knows what’s going to happen? All we can do is live with optimistic hope. 

Hopping into the Matrix

Still, Mothland decided to persevere in early February, switching their Taverne Tour into a virtual reality “Matrix” experience with sprite avatars and a digitally-recreated world of Montreal. It kind of felt a bit like Habbo Hotel meets a Gameboy version of Pokémon Yellow or something of that nostalgic videogame ilk. 

Taverne Tour festival was free, with shows pre-recorded, and an amalgamation of festival attendees, some who had their video on continuously, and others who remained black screens. There was a digital merch table of the artist playing and you also had the option to watch the shows on Youtube alone. If you missed Taverne Tour, not to worry. The generous team at Mothland is leaving the concerts on the Taverne Tour website here for some time

There were customizable attire options for your avatar and private chat spaces so you could watch the shows with your friends or alone in peace. The streams were, for the most part, without any latency issues or lag and the sound quality was quite superb. People were pretty respectful (you never know in this world of online trolls) and everyone danced in unison by pressing “z.”

It was a chance for many, like myself, to discover artists that I had been itching to see “live,” like experimental rock wizards, Atsuko Chiba, psych-rock darling, Alias, the freak psych-folk legend, Gus Engelhorn, or new to me, synth-pop crooner, Andy Jon

Did it replace the live music experience? Of course not, but that was not the point. It was an enjoyable VR concert alternative and much more community-focused than watching a concert stream at home. 

Metaverse Music

Next on the list is Le Phoque OFF on Feb 21 – Feb 25, boasting more than 50 artists of different genres like Les Lunatiques, Érika Zarya, Charlotte Brousseau, Zouz, La Fièvre and Émilie Landry. 

“We had the festival ready to go with some big names playing, but with the Quebec government restrictions, there was no feasible way. So we looked to our friends at NOWHERE to create a Metaverse festival experience.”

Festival co-founder and managing director of Le Phoque OFF, Patrick Labbé, says this to 15 or so media personnel during a mid-afternoon media visit, within the metaverse. What does that look like? The digital room is tinted in blues, purples, and pinks and the main wall says “WELCOME TO THE NOWHERE LOUNGE,” “NOWHERE” being the 3D metaverse platform that has worked with Nine Inch Nails, SXSW, Red Bull Music, etc. 

Everyone is on a webcam attached to a floating hexagon moves by using their keyboard. You can also jump with the space bar to get a birds-eye view of the digital landscape. 

There are three virtual stages, or “scenes,” each with its own colour tone and background.

The main Sirius XM room has glass platforms you descend to get to the stage and in the distance, there are floating mountains and a star system. Another room, DOZE, looks like a synthwave album cover while the quiet room is mostly dark and opaque.

I bounce in and out of these scenes with ease as we all watch a pre-recorded show of Quebec City’s, l i l a. Who knew that soft indie rock in the metaverse would really fit?

“The problem is many people hear about a show in the metaverse and have no idea what it will be like,” says Labbé. “We have to get people in this headspace that this really is the future.”

Labbé knows virtual shows will never replace live music, but he does envision them becoming more commonplace, especially if the pandemic continues. 

“We’re not even done with this year and we’re already thinking about having a hybrid model for festivals down the line,” says Labbé. “Think, you could watch a show with friends in different timezones while being at a festival. The possibilities are endless.”

Virtual concerts are here to stay and while they will never replace live music, during this time of confusion, they could be an alternative to echo the live experience.  

The full week pass of Le Phoque OFF is 28$ or you have the option of choosing a 10$, one day pass, modest prices considering many stream shows are usually in the 20 dollar range. So if you have nothing to do during that week—as I’m sure you won’t because Quebec isn’t fully “opening” until March—give Le Phoque OFF a try. 

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