Clutching an Oculus Go headset as he relaxes on a sofa at the Billboard offices, CEO Anthony Matchett shares the origin story of the company. "I started four years ago, based on the idea that there were a lot of people who couldn't see the concerts they wanted," he says. "I saw an early version of the Oculus Rift and started thinking about use cases for music, and realized there was an opportunity in the live space. There are lots of fans who can't see shows and lots of artists who don't tour that often, and VR seemed like a good place to see music and interact with artists."
Matchett called his friend Steven Hancock, who had been working at Ibiza Rocks and was immediately drawn to the idea. "It is a 3000 capacity venue in a hotel, and huge artists were coming through and demand would outpace supply," he says. "There was scalping and minors who wanted to see the show and couldn't. I spoke to industry friends and people at labels and they all thought there was a need for something like this."
After a few false starts, including a show where cameras melted while recording (the Melody team then built their own, which they've used ever since), the basic plan was in motion, and fundraising began. The team raised an initial £2.4m in May of 2016, followed by a £3.4m in September 2016, £5m in May 2017, and £10m in October 2017. At the same time, they were signing deals with major labels and shooting a massive library of shows, 60 of which will be available at launch.
Emmy Lovell, SVP digital at Warner Music Group, says that she was initially skeptical when MelodyVR approached her about partnering with the label, but says a single meeting changed her mind. "I work in tech and at first I thought it was very niche and expensive," she says. "But I was looking at it in the typical way and hadn't seen the real opportunity. VR provides an intimacy that no other medium can, and that's why we love so many artists -- because we feel close to them."
Lovell says that the label plans to integrate MelodyVR into release schedules and use the release of a VR concert as part of a broader marketing plan. She also points out that Melody can be compared to Netflix, as it is building a massive content library that users can discover at different points as they adopt new headsets.
New headset adoption will be the most critical part of Melody's business model, and unfortunately something it has little control over. After announcing the Oculus Go at Oculus Connect 4 last fall, Facebook (which owns Oculus) has been mum on the device, which was finally made available at F8 on May 1. But there has been almost no marketing for the device, a standalone headset that doesn't require a phone and lets users stream content wirelessly or sideload from a computer. The Go's soft launch comes in the wake of scandals at Facebook and could set back virtual reality's adoption curve if it fails to catch fire.
Matchett, for his part, is unconcerned, saying that, "people will love the product and the price. I'm sure we'll see demand at launch."
And like Lovell, Matchett sees Melody's play as a long game. "I'm thrilled with our launch class [which includes artists like Imagine Dragons, Kiss, Chainsmokers, and the Who], but I'm really excited about the gradual rollout of artists over the course of the year," he says. "I don't want to bombard new users and make them feel overwhelmed when they first come to the site."
When a user does put on the headset and see the MelodyVR app, they can choose from a front page of concerts, along with a handful of curated playlists of live tracks. Melody will also release more intimate artist experiences where the user can imagine they are in the studio with or being addressed directly by an artist.
Once in the concert, the user can select from a handful of vantage points and must take action if they want to view the show from another location -- something that many previous concert VR experiences failed to do, which resulted in a jittery and often disarming experience. After all, while concert-goers might move a few times throughout a show, getting close to the stage for a favorite song and then heading back for a beer during a lesser track, they almost never magically teleport from the stage to the front row to the back of the crowd and then back again. Still, a full concert is a long time to wear a headset, and standing virtually on-stage can be jarring at first and then a little dull as the show goes on -- it's a technically great experience, but without all the magic of what makes live music fun. There's no socializing with friends, no feeling the rush of the crowd or the sweat of the singer as they perform.
Of course, no matter how good VR concerts get, they'll never replace the real thing, and Matchett says they're not trying to do that. "This is not cannibalistic for other forms of music consumption, be it live shows or streaming," he says. "In VR, you have to pay attention, and this pushes back on the idea that music is something to do in the background, or something you have to watch through someone else's phone screen. It's another way to get close to artists that's different from anything else we have now."
"People will take more chances in VR," says Nikki Lambert, Melody's chief marketing officer. "It's hard to convince someone to spend money and an evening out to see a new band they've never heard of, but using VR means you can have a great experience at a much lower cost of entry."
And all practicalities aside, there is still something magical about being able to experience something without actually experiencing it that captivates fans and even some artists.
"In 1971, Pete Townsend wrote a science fiction musical called Lifehouse about a future where people didn't have to leave home to get real life experiences from outside their four walls, we thought it was mad," says Roger Daltrey of the Who. "But he proved to be right and MelodyVR have managed to bring this to life."