Speculative Saturdays- Holograms are Bad for the Music Scene
Written by Duncan Holzhall
A few weeks ago at the NAACP virtual convention, Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris was asked who she believed to be the greatest rapper alive. Without hesitation, Harris answered “Tupac.” Though she has admirable taste, the slight issue with that statement is that Tupac Shakur has been dead since 1996. The fact that Tupac was dead didn’t stop Coachella from booking him, though. In 2012, a specter of the late rapper performed at the festival alongside Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg in a celebration of West Coast Hip-Hop. The crowd descended into bedlam as the emcee materialized in front of their eyes. This awestruck reaction has been shared by audiences of Frank Zappa, Roy Orbison, and Whitney Houston hologram performances. However, the novelty of the hologram concert does not outweigh the damage that could ripple out across the industry as a result of their proliferation.
One of the downsides of the hologram is logistical and economical. Right now, the technology required for this presentation is either rudimentary or too costly for a typical venue. The presentation of the Tupac hologram, as well as Michael Jackson and Roy Orbison performances, was achieved through the use of a Pepper’s ghost. Pepper’s ghost is an illusion technique that involves two rooms: the stage room and the hidden “blue room.” A piece of Plexiglas is placed at an angle to reflect the view of the blue room. It was a novel technique when it was introduced in 1862, but Jeff Jampol (manager of Tupac’s estate at the time of his Coachella performance) says “to watch a 19th century technology of a poor-quality film broadcast on a sheet of mylar that’s the same over and over again, I’m not getting it.” Other ventures have taken holograms a step further into realism, such as Eyellusion. They have designed a special stage that places the ghost in the center, being flanked by LED screens and supporting musicians. But, save for a few stadia, many venues do not have the technical capabilities or the economic resources to stage these performances on a regular, sustainable basis.
Another issue that arises with the hologram is the potential to extort the artists’ image postmortem, occasionally in a way that is antithetical to the artists’ personal philosophy. Many industry insiders, artists, and relatives have voiced their concerns about the situation. Musi journalist Simon Reynolds called it “ghost slavery”; Dionne Warwick called Whitney concert “stupid”; and Amy Winehouse’s ex-husband called her tour a “moneymaking gimmick.” Additionally, Tupac is an artist who is remembered for elevating hip-hop into a complex art form, and he stood as the embodiment of Black rebellion against a consumerist society. Considering this legacy, it is doubtful that Shakur would participate in such a celebration of excess as Coachella (while the festival itself isn’t necessarily consumerist, the demographics of those who can afford to attend Coachella speak volumes about the ethos of the festival).
An auxiliary ripple effect of hologram performance is the bust of the tribute band economy. While the tribute band bubble faces its own scrutiny in profiteering off of the image and originality of another artist, tribute bands often serve as a bridge, connecting the tribute artist to a localized audience that otherwise wouldn’t have been reached. Going so far as to dress and act like the artists they portray, tribute bands are full of talented musicians who would be out of a job without their tribute gig. Tribute bands already serve the purpose of the hologram, dedicating themselves to preserving the live performance of past artists.
Finally, a music scene with regular hologram concerts would enable older audiences to create an epistemic bubble, inhibiting the progress of new artists trying to break into the industry. The older artists being immortalized through holograms will always be appreciated by the nature of their initiation into the popular music canon. But their popularity came with a specific historical moment, a moment that ends when the artist passes on. And while everyone is entitled to their personal taste, not being exposed to new sounds (both good and bad) causes creative growth and innovation to stagnate in the art form. Without a continuous involvement in the new sounds of the present day, future generations will inherit an increasingly venerable canon, to the point where one day Prince might be regarded in the same way that Bach is today.
To be clear, this is not a typical boomer “Technology bad” slam against hologram concerts. The technology of holograms can help innovate in the realm of live musical performances. But too often, technology progresses at a much faster pace than the ethics of its usage. We’ve seen this story play out with social media giants, and it has the potential to spiral out with concert booking businesses. Let’s take a breath and think this through before we make the dead breathe again.