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SXSW 2021: 5G Opportunities to Reimagine Live Music


The Pandemic changed everything. Musicians and performance artists around the world, who largely depend on live performance for their livelihood, saw their primary medium of expression and monetization shutdown almost completely for the better part of a year. Necessity has forced the industry to pivot hard to online channels but artists and audiences alike miss the vibe of live music events. neXCurve attended SXSW 2021 to gain insights into how music artists and producers are recreating the live music vibe virtually and remotely on top of the 5G networks of today and tomorrow.

Despite all the talk about 5G transforming our lives, today, we are early in the innovation cycle of this fifth generation of mobile wireless network. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, mobile networks and operators are in the early stages of their 5G evolution and deployment. The global pandemic has kept a large portion of people home making them much less mobile. Finally, we are only beginning to see devices coming to market beyond the smartphone that can take advantage of the benefits of a 5G network public or private.

It was not much of a surprise that SWSW 2021 was not a revelation of a 5G revolution. Rather, it was an inquiry into what could and will be possible with the vast promise of 5G. It was clear from the many tech-focused sessions and panel discussion that we attended that there is a substantial need to bridge technology with industry ideas before artists, musicians and music lovers can realize revolutionary benefits from 5G technology and networks.

Pandemic: the crucible of 5G innovation

The possibilities start with the problems to be solved. Over the past year since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, music artists, musicians and the broader music industry have had to make a very hard pivot as live performance venues from coffee shops to stadiums effectively closed. This is a problem that has not only hit the most commercially successful music artist but the singer songwriter trying to make a living performing at the local club. Recurring lockdowns throughout the year have persistently strangled the artist’s primary revenue and income streams sourced from live music.

Why is live music of all sizes important? According to Billboard’s Money Makers chart of the highest-paid musicians of 2019, the vast majority of the top money earners such as the Rolling Stones and Ariana Grande generated the vast majority of their income from touring. In the case of the Rolling Stones, the band drew in $60.5 million in 2019 from touring while earning $2 million from streaming. Consider that for the better part of 2020, global music acts cancelled their tours and have yet to come back. For most artists and musicians, live music performance is their only source of livelihood.

The loss of live music was more profound than the massive financial losses suffered across the music industry and profession. Artists and fans were deprived of the “vibe”. What is the vibe? Paraphrasing experts on a panel entitled “Supercharging Live Stream Events for DJs”, it is the unique blend of music, visuals, community and space that makes live music the outsized revenue generator that it is. The fusion of these four elements shapes the live music experience and forms the energy that both the artist and the fans feel. It is the emotional content.

Live music: a greenfield for 5G innovation

The last year has been a struggle to virtualize the vibe, the community and space aspects in particular, to recreate the magic and the revenues of live music experiences through digital formats and online channels. The wildly popular South Korean boy band, BTS, held record-breaking virtual concerts attended by over 750,000 paying fans around the globe. Lil Nas X garnered 30 million views of his metaverse concert hosted on Roblox. Despite their novelty and some impressive engagement statistics, the appeal and impact of virtual music events have been mixed bringing in only a fraction of the receipts per attendee of a live concert performance.

In terms of an experience, virtual events have not been the substitutes for concerts or IRL (in-real-life) performances that fans might have hoped for. Much of the blame is directed at technologies, VR and AR in particular, that are broadly deemed not ready for prime time and unable to meet the needs of the industry’s urgent pandemic pivot to digital channels and formats. 

Artists and producers consistently cited that a cornerstone technology is needed that can bridge capability gaps that currently prevent aspirational virtual experiences from becoming mainstream. Asad Malik, an AR artist and director at 1RIC, stated that much of the volumetric content remain in “cold storage” until digital distribution and XR (extended reality) technologies reach a tipping point of consumer adoption. 

The bridge technology most often cited by Asad and his fellow industry pundits and experts was 5G. This makes sense because the vibe is generated through a four-way communication between the artist and the audience, the artist with other artists and performers, the audience and the artist, and the audience with each other. In these capacities, truly real-time connections form the fabric that bring the elements of the vibe together which make IRL music experiences so unique and special. 5G fits the bill to make these connections possible as we continue to socially distance. 

5G innovation in the eye of an artist

One of the very few but thought-provoking sessions at SXSW 2021 that specifically addressed 5G was hosted by Qualcomm’s CEO-elect, Cristano Amon, who interviewed legendary DJ and producer, Steve Aoki, known for his collaborations with artist such as Lil Jon, Linkin Park and BTS. The discussion was a freeform exploration of 5G possibilities from the perspective of an artist.

In the 18-minute video shot at Steve’s Las Vegas home, Steve and Cristano touched on three areas for 5G innovation for artists during the pandemic and in the post-pandemic era to improve current and future resiliency of their businesses and to invent compelling IRL and virtual music events.

  • 5G Innovation Area 1: Take the friction out of the creative process
  • 5G Innovation Area 2: Virtualize live performances
  • 5G Innovation Area 3: Augment live performances

Take the friction out of the creative process

According to Steve Aoki and other artists who expounded on the role of technology on the creative process, it is all about supporting the flow. The flow is the rhythm of inspiration locked in with the process of creativity. Wonderful things happen when artists get into the flow. Bad things happen when the flow is disrupted. Ideas get lost and inspiration can evaporate. 

From the artist’s perspective, the role of new technologies is not allowing older technologies and methods get in the way of the creative flow and rhythm. The abilities to develop, capture and produce ideas quickly, easily, anywhere and anytime are vital capabilities supporting the creative flow of an increasingly mobile artist who is, for the time being, distanced from their audience due to the pandemic. 

Real-time remote jamming and creative collaboration

The creation and production of music is often a collaborative process with a group of musicians and artists who contribute to the development of a song or a performance routine. The pandemic has made it difficult for musicians and artists to jam live, face-to-face. Social distancing has been particularly difficult for bands. Special moments of creativity happen during a live jam which involve testing out parts and phrasings, playing around with arrangements and dynamics, and making mistakes which are occasionally happenstances of unintentional genius. The same creative dynamic applies to dance and other forms of art that complement music media and performance. 

5G has the potential to open up a new world of mobile artistic collaboration and real-time jamming for artists and musicians who are remotely located from each other. These interactions require communications latencies of less than 20 milliseconds from the mic or video camera to the monitor. Within certain distances, 5G networks will be able to support the low latencies that are vital in delivering the vibe and supporting the creative flow for highly time-sensitive pro musicians. Musicians who are not co-located will be able to feel the groove and the rhythm section will be able to get into the pocket. 

The 5G mobile studio

In normal times, Steve Aoki is traveling around the world putting on over 200 shows a year. Unfortunately, it is not easy for artists to take their creative process with them due to lack of access to studio-quality tools and production-grade compute power on the road. Raw audio files use high-resolution uncompressed formats that can be very large. A song file may be comprised of dozens if not hundreds of tracks and include automations and effects that take up several gigabytes. Rendering a mix and mastering can take several minutes if not hours of intense processing that can easily drain the battery of a portable PC or mobile device. 4K video and volumetric media files are even bigger and require a tremendous amount of compute power to edit and render into a composition.

As 5G networks continue to expand coverage and improve quality of service, creators will have quicker access to their content thanks to the dramatically improved average download and upload speeds of 5G for recording and producing studio-quality audio and video content on the go, possibly on their smartphone or tablet. There are several DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) applications for mobile devices already available such as FL Studio Mobile and GarageBand as well as video editing apps such as Adobe’s Premiere Rush. 5G broadband capacity and connection speeds will enabled new distributed computing models and mobile app architectures for music and video production that will allow resource-intensive workloads for rendering media both audio and video to be offloaded to a central or edge cloud.

Virtualize music performances

The biggest industry challenge has been to reproduce the unique experience that is the live performance. Simulating the atmosphere of a venue and replicating the energy of a crowd of fans have been critical deficiencies that all music artists and musicians have suffered. As Ed Hill, media group VP at BeatPort, put it, the audience’s energy is an artistic inspiration lost for many artists especially DJs who are used to performing in front of audiences regularly. 

The virtualization and digital augmentation of music performances for delivery and consumption over existing and emerging online channels are exciting areas of innovation catalyzed by the pandemic. While providing degree of business resiliency during the pandemic for some artists, the democratization of performance production and emerging monetization models through metaverse platforms present new possibilities for artists to share their art and engage with fans in a post-pandemic future.

Real-time virtual stage 

The thing that Steve Aoki has missed the most during the pandemic has been the energy of his fans and the inspiration that they provide him during live performances. When we think of live music the real-time feedback that artists get from their audience typically takes a back seat to the performance itself. When it comes to IRL music experiences, the interaction between all participants in a live music venue is what makes the vital difference.

The pandemic has driven the artists and the music industry as a whole to jump on XR technologies. While mainstream consumer adoption of VR headsets and AR glasses remain elusive, the foundational technologies are being heavily experimented with in the real-time and interactive production of virtualized performances. A great example is being set by Electropop pioneer Imogen Heap. She showcased a novel application of a VR glove controller that she co-developed called Mi Mu Gloves. She uses the device to activate and control AR graphical elements in her live and pre-recorded performances effectively converting her studio in the basement of her London flat into a virtual stage. 

As we get back to a post-pandemic normal and 5G networks continue to mature, artists will be able to go mobile with their virtual stage and compose pro-quality live content infused with AR and VR augmentations from anywhere opening up new possibilities for performance art capture and production. They will also be able to remotely monitor the reactions of fans to their performances in near-real time with fan walls and a more fledgling attempt by the NBA to bring the energy of the fans to the court by providing players a 360-degree soundscape of fans reactions at games held during the pandemic.

The citizen broadcaster

Metaverse platforms such as Fortnite and Roblox and gaming media platforms such as Twitch have democratized the distribution of virtual music performances according to Sheri Bryant, President of Wookey Technologies. With most populations around the globe largely social distancing, artists have an opportunity to connect virtually with their fanbase through gaming and media streaming channels. This means that smaller artists have the same access to an audience as large brands such as Adriana Grande, Diplo or Steve Aoki.

5G starting with 3GPP Release 16, examines the applications of LTE Broadcast on 5G networks. The expanded spectrum, especially in the mmWave range, provide the bandwidth to support the broadcast and multicast services that can deliver 4K, 8K and volumetric video content at massive scale. Release 17, which is currently in the works, will include work items to advance 5G multicast and broadcast which will undoubtedly open up new possibilities for digital content distribution as well as innovative and possibly disruptive business models for broadcast and multicast services.

Augment live performances

What happens in the post-pandemic era when we get back to a better normal? Will live music make a comeback? There is no doubt. There is also no doubt that 5G network rollouts, which continue across the globe at a faster-than-expected pace, will usher us back into IRL venues better ready to support novel live music experiences. The robust mobile wireless infrastructure that 5G can provide will enable new possibilities for artists, show and stage designers to digitally augment performances and reimagine the operation of live music events. 

The 5G augmented stage 

Live music is a massive real-time operation that requires tactile latencies and reliability. Stages are also dynamic environments with hundreds if not thousands of elements orchestrated during a performance in tight coordination and continuous unison. For these reasons the stage has historically been a wired environment with the exception of wireless mics and instrument jacks. Why? Venues lack a standard for wireless connectivity to support the demands of live music performances and untethered stage designs.    

While power is a generic utility, content conveyed in an audio or video signal is not. Untethering the stage and the venue will open transformative possibilities for how stages can be architected and how shows can be designed to capitalize on the benefits of wireless connectivity. Emerging 5G capabilities such as deterministic networking geared toward industrial use cases such as precision manufacturing will bring industrial-grade reliability and performance to the untethered live music stage. It will also make new on-stage VR, AR and volumetric media applications possible providing immersive new ways for artists to create and express themselves on stage and for fans to engage in the vibe.

The 5G smart venue 

Consider that a live music venue is a space that is constantly repurposed and retool throughout the year for each act that comes through. Each live stage design has a unique configuration for audio, video, lighting and pyrotechnics. Also consider that stage crews must lug miles of cables and cords of varying types and lengths to manually connect the thousands of pieces of equipment and instruments that make up the stage and support the delivery of the show. 

Now, imagine if you could eliminate most if not all of those wired connections. As we proposed in our article “Untethering Live Music with 5G” featured in Pro Sound magazine, 5G has the potential of enabling a wireless rethinking of live music venues from the local church to a stadium or sports arena. The 5G roadmap over the next couple of years includes a number of capabilities that will allow live music venue owners and operators to provide the highly reliable and high-performance wireless communications that artists need to produce their live shows while reducing the cost and time of setup and teardown. Most importantly, no more arguments over who can’t wrap a speaker cord properly.

Making the 5G revolution happen for the music industry   

Cristano Amon summed things up best in his off-the-cuff comment after Steve Aoki explained how it would be great if he could access his massive library of tunes and samples from the cloud directly on his Pioneer digital turntables.

“We’re going to call these guys up and put a 5G modem in here.”

Cristano Amon, CEO-elect of Qualcomm

Yes, why not put a 5G modem in a DJ workstation? Why stop there? What about the various lighting, visual and audio elements of a performance stage that deliver the “show”? A critical first step in bring about the 5G revolution for the music industry is to get artists, show designers and engineers imagining and then building upon the novel live performance and production architectures that 5G can enable with industrial-grade wireless connectivity. Dare we say it will require an ecosystem to be developed that brings the value of these innovations to artists and their audiences? Yes, it will.

While SXSW 2021 did not surface evidence of a magical 5G inflection point for the music industry, the potential for imagining, designing and implementing valuable 5G applications is clear. As 5G networks become more pervasive and capable, the possibility frontier for a 5G music industry revolution will only expand from here. It’s a good time for the music industry to take a hard and practical look at 5G.

“That’s what we need!”

– Steve Aoki, DJ and Producer

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