While live concerts continue to be a financial boon for the music industry — the world purchases an estimated $30 billion in concert tickets annually, and prices are rising faster than inflation to accommodate increasingly complex productions — there remain several pain and friction points in the live experience itself.
For audience members, concerts are still largely a passive spectator sport, rather than a truly participatory, interactive activity driven by the latest technology. Audience identification, engagement and targeting solutions are already thriving within our own mobile devices, but even the most sophisticated developments in wearables and RFID struggle to target and enrich the customer journey before and after, in addition to during, a live show. Companies across the spectrum, from corporations like Live Nation to startups like TheWaveVR, are investing in virtual- and augmented-reality content around live events, but such content still feels detached from the tangible, in-person experience that music fans love and pay for so readily.
James Dolan, executive chairman and CEO of the Madison Square Garden Company, claims that his company has the ultimate venue solution for all of these issues — and is drawing inspiration in part from science fiction.
Speaking to an exclusive audience of music industry execs at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday (Feb. 8), Dolan detailed how science fictional works predicted many major developments in tech, and how live music would inevitably be next. “Jules Verne predicted submarines and moon landings in 1869; H.G. Wells the atomic bomb, in 1914,” he began. “With Brave New World, Aldous Huxley predicted genetic engineering in 1931; and Arthur C. Clarke, with 2001: A Space Odyssey, predicted smart watches and satellites. There’s nothing more potent than the human imagination when it comes to predicting the future.”
Dolan then proceeded to read an excerpt from Ray Bradbury’s short story The Veldt, which describes a virtual-reality “nursery” with “crystal walls” (perhaps predicting the onset of LCD screens) that could reproduce any environment its users could imagine across all five senses. As he read through the excerpt, a rendering of what appeared to be a stadium-size, 360-degree, fully immersive planetarium appeared on the projector screen behind him.
Suddenly, it became clear that Dolan was not simply waxing poetic about blue-sky scientific ideas: he was referencing a real, tangible project from Madison Square Garden, a portfolio of immersive, intelligent venues known as MSG Sphere.
A vision more than two years in the making, the first MSG Sphere will begin construction in June 2018 in the heart of Las Vegas, with plans to open to the public in 2020. Designed in collaboration with award-winning architecture firm Populous, the construction will be an expensive affair of literally unprecedented heights: the 18,000-capacity venue will measure nearly 200 feet tall, with an equator width of over 500 feet. In comparison, MSG is 150 feet high, and the largest cinema screen in the world measures 88 feet high. An additional MSG Sphere venue will be developed in East London, and is predicted to support approximately 3,200 jobs annually, according to analysis from EY.
Aside from its massive height, the MSG Sphere in Las Vegas will boast a fully-customizable LED exterior, with over 36 miles of LED lighting wrapping the entire building. Inside, the venue will feature what MSG claims to be the largest, highest-definition screen on earth, comprising of 250 million pixels with a 19,000 x 13,500 resolution. This brings the total display surface of the MSG Sphere, inside and out, to 180,000 square feet.
The unveiling of MSG Sphere comes just over two months after the Madison Square Garden Company acquired Obscura Digital, a Bay-Area creative studio specializing in immersive experiences whose previous clients included CNN, the Sydney Opera House and the Empire State Building. Obscura marked the first-ever acquisition of MSG Ventures, a new subisidiary dedicated to investing in and acquiring startups across the immersion stack — from in-concert connectivity and audiovisual tech to content distribution before, during and after an event.
During his speech at Radio City Music Hall, Dolan pointed to key MSG events from the last few years that illuminated opportunities to push boundaries even further on connected, multimedia live experiences. League of Legends has sold out several nights at MSG since 2015, luring dozens of thousands of people to watch just five to ten gamers compete onstage. Dolan saw enormous potential to make these types of eSports tournaments more interactive, bridging the gap between the audience and the stage — “not just five people competing against five, but five thousand against five thousand, or one against ten thousand,” he said.
On the music side, Swedish House Mafia sold out MSG in Dec. 2011, even though “the DJs were merely serving as cheerleaders to a soundtrack they had already created earlier, which is an experience you could have in pretty much any standard discotheque today,” said Dolan. “And yet, Swedish House Mafia sold out four consecutive nights. Why did those crowds show up in droves? They didn’t just show up for the music; they were there to be with each other, to enjoy the experience together. They couldn’t have possibly had that same experience at home, even if you replicated the sounds and light show perfectly.”
Dolan hopes the unique display capabilities of the MSG Sphere will serve as an “open platform” for both artists and sponsors to create entirely new storytelling and visual paradigms around concerts, films and even brand activations. Whether through immersing viewers in deep ocean trenches or through generating more market enthusiasm about a new product line, the new venues will be uniquely positioned to “push the definition of what it means to be an educated consumer,” said Dolan.
To tailor video content for MSG Sphere, MSG developed its own working video camera rig, a combination of seven RED Weapon 8k cameras (currently selling on the market for up to $79,500 each) that can capture and live-stitch 360-degree footage at two gigabytes per second. MSG plans to develop its own proprietary archive of live event videos and original films that can thrive both inside and outside of the venue, and also plans to use volumetric capture techniques to create bespoke AR/VR experiences for Sphere shows. Yet despite all the underlying technological complexity of the Sphere, Dolan emphasized that “as with any vessel, it’s the content that will define its success.”
After Dolan’s speech, all audience members were invited onto the Radio City Music Hall stage to engage with a “Science Fair” experience, comprising of nine different stations that showcased different technological capabilities of MSG Sphere — from haptic floors and seats, to the VR capabilities of the video camera rigs, to a 40-foot-tall, working replica of the Sphere itself. Apple Music chief Jimmy Iovine was spotted demoing the venue’s beamforming sound technology, which distributes sound pressure and volume evenly across large distances such that every seat is, at least sonically, the best seat in the house. Designed in collaboration with German company Holoplot, beamforming has several performer- and audience-facing applications, from tailored monitor mixes that follow performers around the stage to assistive listening for the hearing-impaired.
The MSG Sphere is one of the most ambitious attempts to build a series of permanent venues that can travel and adapt technologically at the speed of culture, but we will have to wait a few years before the venue fully comes to life — and we can only imagine how quickly technology will advance within that time.