In April 2020, the video game platform Fortnite announced a special in-game event called Astronomical. Billed as a ‘virtual concert’ featuring hip hop artist Travis Scott, the event series broke records, reaching a global audience of nearly 28 million people. However, no live music was performed. The artist was hardly there at all. Yet Fortnite developer Epic Games received a Cannes Lions Grand Prix award alongside a profusion of glowing reviews. What does the success of this event, and others following in its footsteps, reveal about popular understandings of liveness, virtuality, and online music performance? This talk examines how virtual concerts in online video game platforms transform the performance, mediation, and experience of hip hop music. While technology companies advertise virtual reality music performance as the ‘future of music’ in an increasingly unlivable ‘offline’ world, I consider how digital mediation challenges the core hip hop value of coming to you ‘live and direct’. I compare examples of commercial ventures like Astroworld to DIY-inspired, community-led charity benefit concerts that have been held in Minecraft and Discord servers. I argue that the low barriers to entry at online video game concerts align with the accessible and participatory nature of hip hop. My discussion builds upon previous research on the privatisation of the social web and the platformatisation of cultural production, as online music performance practices have become enmeshed with commercial and corporate priorities. The talk concludes by examining instances of online communities resisting such threats to the social connectivity and immediacy of live popular music.
Dr Steven Gamble is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Bristol, specialising in the study of popular music, digital methods, and online music cultures. He is the author of books How Music Empowers: Listening to Modern Rap and Metal (Routledge, 2021) and Digital Flows: Online Hip Hop Music and Culture (forthcoming with Oxford University Press, 2023), and has also published in Popular Music & Society, First Monday, Global Hip Hop Studies, Ethnomusicology, Journal on the Art of Record Production, and Metal Music Studies. He is a board member and webmaster for the International Society for Metal Music Studies and the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Music Studies network.