Emo pioneers American Football open a COVID-19 relief festival set with 'Stay Home' (which we already were), a crowd favourite and a direction for us to follow during this pandemic.
I am always excited for a music festival. This year it was to be Portals, an explosion of experimental rock in London. I couldn't wait to get on the plane – I'd finally see Totorro, an elusive French band set to headline – and it was going to be the highlight of my three-festival swing through the European summer.
It didn't happen. Portals, at the London Dome, was cancelled, everything was cancelled. Coronavirus.
And yet, on Easter Sunday morning, I was getting my festival fix, watching indie heavyweights American Football headline a show, in a lineup that included cult favourites Anamanaguchi, Iglooghost and Skylar Spence, as well as a surprise appearance by the rapidly rising Doja Cat.
Ever since the music world basically shut down in mid-March, performers have been looking for fresh ways to get their music out to fans and attempting to replicate the "live experience". Isol-Aid has hosted five online performances (so far) on Instagram featuring Australian artists Missy Higgins and John Butler in their lineups; Calvin Harris and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie have live-streamed sets and writing sessions on platforms such as YouTube and Twitch. Good moments but they lacked the festival experience.
Then came the Easter Sunday Nether Meant event: a music festival within a game platform, and not just any platform, Minecraft, one of the most successful ever created. More than a decade after launch, Minecraft has an estimated 100 million monthly users. It's a Lego-like game where players can build their own fictional worlds (or sprawling music festival sites). Festival goers logged in to a private Minecraft world built to resemble a festival – complete with a stage, a sound booth, bathrooms, merch stalls and a bar – while listening to an accompanying audio stream on the event's website.
Virtually dancing with a few hundred others in a video game – while the band's avatars stood on stage – made it feel fresh and special.
Running the festival within this platform had the added benefit that it could somewhat replicate the interpersonal dimension of a live show. From the festival goer's perspective, they could "shove" their way into the mosh pit and use the game's jump, punch and crouch features to simulate a dance. While many in the crowd stood still, a couple of users danced tirelessly. One had a camera dedicated to their dance moves for the entire event.
Each artist prepared, recorded and submitted a 20-minute set that would be played during their time slot. For electronic artists and DJs, who made up the majority of lineup, this is a standard practice for their live performances but for the bands and singer-songwriters on the ticket this was a challenge they tackled in different ways. Skylar Spence and Anamanaguchi intercut studio recordings of their songs with DJ segments, while HANA and American Football added crowd sound effects and pre-recorded chats to the audience between their tracks. American Football's Mike Kinsella wanted to know "why are you guys so obsessed with a game [Minecraft] that my kids wear on their pyjamas?" and "does this avatar make my butt look big?"
The Nether Meant festival, which raised money for the US-based charity Good360's coronavirus relief campaign, was the fourth Minecraft music festival hosted by virtual events organiser Open Pit. The group were also behind "Coalchella" in 2018, as well as "Fire Fest" (which played out much better than the original Fyre Fest) and "Minegala" in 2019. Thanks to the inclusion of American Football in the lineup, (their 1999 eponymous debut LP is regarded as one of the greatest indie records of all time), Nether Meant received coverage in The New York Times, Pitchfork and The Verge, becoming Open Pit's most popular event so far.
"Working with big acts is bound to make you feel like you have a certain set of expectations to meet," said Ben Stephens, from Open Pit's Community Management team. "Fortunately, we were able to work directly with the acts that we booked and were met with a lot of cooperation and kindness, which I feel took a lot of the pressure off. It definitely felt a little surreal, but I don't think it was anything that none of us were used to in the end.
The show's audio was streamed 167,047 times, with more than 165,000 live Twitch views and close to 8000 music fans experiencing the concert via Minecraft. That success brought its own issues. "Festival goers" attempting to connect to the Minecraft server discovered a network not set up to handle the number of people trying to come through the digital gate. My experience was I spent a lot of time on the main menu of the game trying to connect and getting a variety of error messages. When I did finally "get in", my movement, and that of other players was glitchy and jittery. An alternative route for those having tech trouble, or who didn't own the game, was to watch Nether Meant's live-stream on the Twitch website. However, even that suffered a few server disconnections and error messages. About halfway through the festival, Open Pit switched to a higher-capacity server to meet the strong audience demand.
"Minecraft isn't built to handle the amount of users we're bringing together in one space," said Dan Macphee, member of the Artists & Repertoire and Marketing teams at Open Pit. "Hell, I don't believe there's a single game that can handle 7.4k unique individuals in one space well, let alone something put together by a small group of volunteers. We're doing the best we can with what we have." While the game has tens of millions of monthly users, most are playing by themselves, offline. For thousands of players to come together in one area is almost unheard of in online gaming.
The company is already looking to up their game with the announcement of 'Square Garden', another charity music event on this weekend (April 25, 8am AEST) featuring pop superstar Charli XCX and critically-acclaimed subversive acts 100 gecs, Kero Kero Bonito and Dorian Electra, all of whom have a strong online presence.
Asked whether the "music festival within a game platform" genre had a future beyond COVID-19, staff at Open Pit said they could see online festivals playing an auxiliary role in how we consume entertainment. "I definitely believe online events will serve a purpose in the event industry, especially after we're done with this pandemic," said Mcphee. "I don't believe they'll ever act as a replacement, however; just as an alternative or addition to pre-existing spaces."
As the Easter Sunday show wrapped up, American Football closed with the 1999 studio version of their biggest hit, "Never Meant". I've heard this recording of the song countless times but virtually dancing to it with a few hundred others in a video game – while avatars of the band's members stood on stage – made it feel fresh and special. It's not going to replace the live experience any time soon, but it'll have to do for now.