Two days ago, I watched Roy Orbison rise from the ground onto the stage at the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center, donning a gray suit, a red Gibson guitar and his signature sunglasses. Supported by a live orchestra and conductor, Orbison performed his hit song “Only the Lonely,” an extravagant light show in the background balancing out his velvety voice and characteristically statuesque stage presence.
At the end of the song, however, Orbison’s body disappeared abruptly from view, and a white, 8-by-15 laser grid took his place. The sound and lighting technicians at the back of the venue announced the end of dress rehearsal, signaling the orchestral musicians to take a break. What I tried to forget in the moment of the spectacle came rushing back to me: the Roy Orbison I just saw wasn’t actually real.
Regardless of your reaction — horrified, intrigued, confused, excited — this is what Base Entertainment, the second-largest producer of live shows in Las Vegas behind Cirque du Soleil, is betting on as the next frontier in live entertainment: holographic shows.
In collaboration with Orbison’s Estate — managed by the late singer’s sons under the name “Roy’s Boys” — a new subsidiary of Base Entertainment called Base Hologram is taking a virtual Orbison on an international tour with local symphony orchestras. The tour is titled “In Dreams,” named after Orbison’s hit single, and the hologram will make its first-ever public appearance at the APAP Conference this Sunday (Jan. 14).
One might be skeptical about demand for a concert performed by a laser projection, but the U.K. leg of “In Dreams,” which begins in April, has already sold over 70 percent of its tickets. After the U.K., the hologram will play a total of ten additional shows in Europe and Australia, before embarking on a three-month North American run in fall 2018.
Base Hologram is neither a lone soul nor a pioneer per se in the holographic concert arena. One of its biggest rivals, Hologram USA, just opened its own hologram theater in Los Angeles where you can watch weekly, virtual performances by Ray J and the late Billie Holiday for $30 a pop. Another competitor, Eyellusion, is currently taking a hologram of Dio and Black Sabbath frontman Ronnie Dio on a world tour, with the goal of booking as many as 100 total shows this year. Even ABBA is plotting their own holographic tour for 2019, working with veteran producer Simon Fuller.
Base is betting on its roots as a live entertainment production company to outrun the competition, emphasizing stagecraft over technology as its ultimate selling point. “The main difference between us and our competitors is that they’re primarily tech companies,” Marty Tudor, CEO of Base Hologram Productions, tells Billboard. “They don’t know how to put on a show.”
The company has recruited Eric Schaeffer, who directed the Tony-winning show Million Dollar Quartet on its Broadway and West End runs in 2010 and 2011, as the creative director for Orbison’s tour, and has enlisted Paradigm’s Nashville office for booking support. “Living in Nashville, you get a great sense not just of the city’s rich history and bodies of work that have emanated from here, but also of the unique estates that are surrounding us, such as Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, George Jones and Patsy Cline,” Jonathan Levine, head of Paradigm’s Nashville office, tells Billboard. “The idea that there could be a way to bring this music to life onstage in a credible fashion, with absolute precision in the quality and integrity given to that body of work, is really intriguing to me.”
In fact, the success of “In Dreams” might depend on a key force that enables legacy estates to thrive and bands such as Guns N’ Roses, The Eagles and Metallica to sell out stadium tours in minutes — namely, cashing in on nostalgia from an aging demographic with more disposable income to spend.
That being said, Roy Orbison also has over two million likes on Facebook and over three million monthly listeners on Spotify, and the hologram tour could serve a similar function of introducing the singer’s music to new fans who otherwise would not have the opportunity to enjoy his work. “It’s important to make sure your core base is happy, but this [tour] is even more for the fans who missed Roy’s shows while he was still alive,” Alex Orbison, president and co-founder of Roy’s Boys, tells Billboard.
The potential for holographic concerts was first thrust into the public eye in 2012, when Digital Domain — the same visual effects company that created an entirely digital Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — designed a projection of Tupac to perform alongside the real-life Snoop Dogg at Coachella. But financial troubles prohibited any further developments, and Digital Domain was forced to file for bankruptcy that same year.
The likes of Eyellusion, Hologram USA and BASE Hologram are banking on a more sustainable future for holographic tours, as the underlying technology improves and wider audiences become more educated about the format’s storytelling potential. In some ways, the budget for “In Dreams” is more promoter-friendly, in that it requires only eight members on the road to handle the tech, with local symphony orchestras providing the rest of the musicians on the ground. This is a stark contrast to the 20 or even 30 crew members that accompany large-scale stadium tours for most A-list acts.
“In theory, you could be holding multiple tours at the same time, because the artist is essentially the technology,” says Levine. “If these types of shows gain traction in the way we believe they will, there’s no reason you couldn’t have an Orbison hologram performing in the U.S. at the same time it has a show in the U.K. or in Asia.”
Yet, the operating expenses around the new tech itself might fill in for the loss in human capital. “I don’t think it’s gotten any cheaper and I don’t think it will for some time, because the process of creating a hologram is so specialized that you need really high-end artists to pull it off,” says Tudor. “You’re also competing with movie studios who want those same artists.”
“It could’ve taken [Digital Domain] an entire week to prepare Tupac’s hologram for just one song,” adds Alex Orbison. “With us, we need to adapt Roy Orbison’s hologram for a show with a 20- to 40-piece orchestra over the course of several consecutive nights and weeks. We need to keep our tour at a first-rate quality while being able to set up in hours, not in days.”
The underlying tech varies from company to company. Hologram USA reflects images on angled glass, making 2D images appear 3D. Eyellusion installs its own specialized mobile stage into venues. For Orbison’s tour, Base is partnering with Epson, the largest manufacturer of boardroom projectors, on a specialized but tech-agnostic laser projector.
Orbison’s holographic voice is assembled from a mix of isolated, clean vocals from the singer’s catalog recordings, while the remainder of the music will be performed live by orchestral musicians and backup singers. The orchestral arrangements are loosely inspired by A Love So Beautiful: Roy Orbison With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, a studio album released in Nov. 2017 through Sony Music UK. “We’re not just trying to recreate a standard Roy Orbison show from ’68 or ’85,” says Alex Orbison. “We want this to be a truly 2018 tour, and to highlight these new orchestral arrangements that feel fresh, even to us as family members.”
Of course, holographic concerts are not without their opponents. Linkin Park co-founder Mike Shinoda spoke out on Instagram Live against the idea of making a hologram of the late Chester Bennington. “For any of you guys who have lost a loved one, best friend, family member, can you imagine having a hologram of them? Awful. I can’t do it,” he said.
The estates of Frank Zappa and Whitney Houston have run into their own roadblocks. After much hype about a global tour, Houston’s hologram was pulled from production in May 2016; Pat Houston, executor of the late singer’s estate, said in a statement that “Whitney’s legacy and her devoted fans deserve perfection” and “we decided the hologram was not ready to air.” Guitarist Adrian Belew recently withdrew from performing with Zappa’s hologram on an upcoming tour, calling the affair “far too caustic and divisive.”
Another concern that skeptics have voiced is whether ticket revenue from holographic shows will fairly reach rights owners, or if their growing popularity will only encourage more tech corporations to gobble up and exploit IP for profit. But both Base Hologram and Roy’s Boys speak positively to the fairness and integrity of their collaboration, and want to reassure audiences that “In Dreams” is meant to be an honest, authentic homage to Roy Orbison’s work, rather than a one-off gimmick designed to make a quick buck.
“I don’t think anyone should be concerned that the estates involved are not being paid properly,” Brian Becker, CEO of Base Entertainment, tells Billboard. “Because Roy Orbison passed away many years ago, his estate isn’t currently enjoying any revenues from touring. We are creating something that directly benefits his estate that otherwise wouldn’t exist. It’s also not rocket science in terms of the deals we negotiate: it’s comparable to licensing music for commercials or theme songs, in terms of the legal aspects involved.”
“There are definitely examples of people who sold all their rights not foreseeing the negative repercussions, and what we’ve learned is not to sell under any circumstances,” adds Alex Orbison. “We want to share and spread music as an art, but we also always tell ourselves ‘never bet against Orbison.’ We’re very proud of that.”
In the future, Base Hologram aims to work more with living artists, especially those who cannot otherwise meet the physically taxing demands of a 100-day world tour. There’s a cost-saving element on Base’s side as well: while it took nine months to develop Roy Orbison’s holographic self, “you can cut that time in half if you capture the artist while they’re still alive,” says Tudor.
It is important to note that the technology as it currently stands isn’t actually “interactive” because the live musicians onstage have to adjust to the hologram, rather than the other way around. In other words, if the audience stops applauding too soon or calls out the hologram’s name, the hologram won’t notice or react accordingly. Hence, in these early stages, these “virtual artists” are more like pre-scripted animated film characters rather than dynamic, human-esque beings, potentially undercutting eager audiences’ expectations.
But one of the functions of any early technological artifact — be that the first TVs, the first Internet browsers or any virtual or augmented reality today — is to awaken the public to new desires that are unique to its medium, with the hope of increasing demand for those experiences. Over the next few years, more and more musicians and their estates will inevitably invest in holographic technology to preserve and scale their influence, and it will be up to audiences to decide whether these new shows are truly an honorable celebration, rather than an exploitation, of their legacy.