In 2012, fans were shocked when a virtual Tupac appeared at Coachella. Since then, hologram tours have become a prominent component.
Powered by an overhead projector, tilted piece of glass and mylar screen, Tupac Shakur was received with an eruption of cheers as he yelled “What the fuck is up Coachella?” to tens of thousands of spectators in The Palm Desert. The rapper’s posthumous comeback, nearly 16 years after his death, kicked off with a rendition of “Hail Mary.”
Tupac Shakur’s likeness “graced” the Coachella stage via hologram as part of a headlining performance alongside Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. The performance was visually stunning. The hologram looked exactly like Pac and had the same mannerisms as the legendary rapper. Naturally, the performance erected reactions and commentary during the set and in the days, weeks, and months that followed. The conversations were multi-faceted, but much of the initial chatter surrounded the possibilities of a fully-fledged holographic Shakur tour routed across the United States and internationally. Dr. Dre instantly refuted such claims. “Get it right. I want to get rid of all the rumors out there. This was not done for a tour,” he said. However, when asked about a future tour including a hologram of Shakur, he said: “we’ll see.”
Coachella 2012 brought with it a spectacle that transcended the Empire Polo field stages and became a permanent fixture in hip-hop culture and a reference-point for concert events to follow. A Shakur hologram tour has yet to occur. But the usage of holograms has only grown.
Two years after Tupac’s Coachella appearance, Michael Jackson appeared as a hologram at the Billboard Music Awards performing “Slave to the Rhythm.” His inclusion, like Tupac’s, was met with conflicted opinion. Lindsey Webber, Vulture’s Associate Editor at the time, expressed confusion with Jackson’s appearance via Twitter, whereas recording artist Trevor Moran noted that the performance was “rad.”
In the years that followed Coachella 2012, the mainstream music market has experimented with the ever-evolving holographic technology to enable 3-D experiences that employ the use of virtual artist appearances. The use has extended to artists both dead and alive — from the recent announcement of a Whitney Houston hologram tour to beamed appearances from Chief Keef.
In addition to providing posthumous performance, holograms have also been integrated to attempt to resolve instances where artists are unable to perform publicly due to legal obstacles like bans in particular territories. Chief Keef stands as the largest case-study in this terrain. Having already briefly appeared as a three-dimensional picture during his Stop the violence benefit concert in Hammond, Indiana, plans to extend the use of his likeness were officially unveiled in August of 2018. In collaboration with Hologram USA, Sosa was set to start the Chief Keef and the Icons of American Music tour at the Hammersmith Apollo based in London. In a press release accompanying the tour announcement, his strategic rationale behind the tour was disclosed. “Chief Keef will beam in live to the shows to deliver his message of peace and anti-violence, despite having been banned from entering the UK and the city of Chicago,” the release read.
To date, the tour hasn’t happened.
Despite slow traction in western markets, the holographic-touring space has manifested into a lucrative market in the East. Debuting in 2007, Hatsune Miku exists as a form of Moe Anthropomorphism, created by Crypton Future Media in Japan. Donning pixels of bright blue hair and programmed charm, the figurative creation has opened for Lady Gaga and been used as a muse for Marc Jacobs’ designs. Miku was initially conceptualized as a voice synthesizer but has evolved into a successful virtual Japanese pop star. In February 2016, South Korean act Jaejoong managed to fill theatres in Tokyo with 10,500 fans who watched him perform as a hologram. Miku and Jaejoong are proof that space for this format of live-showing is viable and already happening on a large-scale.
More recently, plans for posthumous touring — as opposed to one-off performances — have also accelerated. The late Frank Zappa (who voiced an interest in putting on hologram shows prior to his death) came back to life this year through The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa, a three-dimensional, holographic experience launched across America and the UK that was met with vastly positive reviews from fans and the likes of Rolling Stone. A similar conception was planned for Amy Winehouse and announced in 2018 by both her estate and BASE Hologram. But earlier this year the tour was put on hold due to “unique challenges and sensitivities” that arose during creation.
Even with specific examples of the complexities of orchestrating posthumous hologram tours, the trend continues to be explored. Whitney Houston’s estate is the latest to announce their addition to the archetype with An Evening With Whitney. Choosing to also partner with Los Angeles based BASE Hologram who, according to their website, specializes in the production of “unique non-replicable holographic productions designed to tour with live artists or stand alone,” Whitney’s estate plans to launch the tour in early 2020. With preview images from production already released publicly, it appears as though the tour will likely debut with little to no teething problems.
While the difficulties associated with hologram touring are new to the market, the associated shortcomings are indicative of a wider soft-spot that is as old as the music industry — the monetization of dead artists. The estates of Prince, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, and Avicii have all released posthumous material with the inevitable gain of revenue for doing so. In most cases, the families of the deceased are consulted on the release of material. Avicii’s family, for example, announced the release of his last album in 2018 highlighting it as “a collection of nearly finished songs, along with notes, email conversations and text messages about the music.”
Despite this, and partnerships from estates where hologram concerts have been planned, some can argue that the use of technology and posthumanism has gone too far. The release of music usually involves the incorporation of actual audio — like in the example of Avicii — and real experiences with deceased artists. Commenting on the authenticity of albums released after an artists’ passing, journalist Ann Powers spoke on Michael Jackson’s Xscape album in 2014.
“Over the long term, an artist’s legacy changes time and time again, and everything we hear from someone like Michael Jackson is going to help us understand him better.” This is likely a sentiment Amy Winehouse’s father, Mitch Winehouse, would agree with. Although the hologram tour centered around the late singer has been canceled, for now, Winehouse said that the possibility of a tour presented “a chance to show the real Amy at her best.”
In contrast, virtual-reality led tours are a far cry from reality. They merely paint a make-believe conception that’s built on what the artist was — not what they could’ve been. It also gets into the ethics of posthumous tours, where a vast majority of the dead acts who have either publicly performed or toured to date as a hologram never publicly expressed the desire to do so while alive. Even with the consent of said person’s estate, the complexities of this area of business have been expressed on numerous occasions in recent months. The right to publicity is a legal framework that exists in territories such as North America and varies from state to state. ABC reports that in California, this framework — giving someone the right to profit off of someone’s likeness — is valid for 50 years post-death, whereas in New-York, this right ends at death.
Posthumous incarnations of this are only an evolution of this paradigm, with enclaves of stan-bases and fanbases already invested in the extension of an artist’s likeness beyond the grave. Acts such as Roy Orbison, selling out on average 1,800 seats per show, ultimately establishes a space for these extremes. The pursuit for profit will not only guide creators to innovate solutions around the law but will allow them to succeed in such efforts. As the persistence to elevate the ability to generate profit in this realm expands, it appears that creators may stray further away from actual thoughts, ideas and touch from the artists of whom they are trying to curate in the process.
Nicolas-Tyrell is a freelance music and culture journalist and podcaster from London with bylines at HYPEBEAST and Clash Magazine. Follow him @iamntyrell