Sometimes technology just gets in the way.
More than 80,000 fans at the recent Global Citizen India Festival had to watch as their 16-year wait to see Coldplay perform live in their country was prolonged by a guest appearance by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A pioneer of video conferencing on a mass scale, the Indian PM used the technology to quote some Bob Dylan lyrics and promote a state-sponsored cleanliness drive, before finally letting the rock act do their thing.
The appearance no doubt won the PM some more youthful admirers, but with all the potential it holds to bring together artists from across the globe in live song, this is not how we want to see video conferencing used on stage.
Instead, we want to see VC bring together musicians and musical forms that otherwise would be separated by miles and genres.
Video Conferencing Is Invading Concerts
For all its ability to eradicate distance, video conferencing is seldom used to unite remote artists in live concert.
Veteran pop stars The Monkees recently used it to reunite for a series of 50th anniversary gigs, but that’s hardly the kind of act likely to inspire a public demand for more remote performances.
The cooler kids on the block have generally only embraced video calling as a quick social aspect of their concerts. Adele and Selena Gomez have both used Facetime to speak face-to -face with remote fans during concert performances, while many artists have streamed live shows across platforms like Facebook Live and Periscope, neither of which really offers much in the way of two-communication.
The reason video calling hasn’t yet redefined the onstage dynamic by bringing together the best musicians in different parts of the world is that it hits a time barrier that, though measured in mere seconds (or less), makes synchronized singing a really tough exercise.
Signal Latency Makes Live Music Lag
The glitches you may encounter in your private video calls–those momentary frozen screens or missing words–are a death knell to live music collaboration. Few professional artists are going to expose themselves to the potentially jumbled mess of trying to harmonize with a partner whose voice is delayed by even just a second or two.
That latency can be dramatically reduced down to a level that does allow for musical duet, but it takes a lot of computer crunching and near-perfect network conditions to make it work.
Leading U.S. music conservatories have solved the problem by using Internet2, a ridiculously fast, dedicated internet network that operates exclusively between 200 universities and their public and private sector benefactors.
Another university project, this one based between Australia and Europe, solved the latency riddle by running the signals from six remote locations through a master hub where they were all effectively delayed and then relayed simultaneously. It was powerful enough to allow a remote conductor in France to lead orchestras in Australia, Austria, Singapore, and China.
So despite all the progress in the audio and image quality of video call hardware, advanced internet networks are the kind of high-tech investment you’re looking at if you want to stage a real-time duet around the world. But it may well be worth it, even financially, if music fans can be given something they’ve never seen or heard before.
Holographic, Interactive, and Instant
To be clear, we’re not talking about pairing a live artist with a pre-recorded holographic video, such as the technology that gave renewed life to Michael Jackson. What we’re after is a way for artists to collaborate on a live stage, something more akin to the 3D wizardry Jimmy Kimmel employed to have remote guests pick his nose.
Again, that requires tech and investment beyond the horizons of a fireworks and lights show at a regular concert. But the technology is currently available, and with the right ambition could be deployed today.
Which means any artist could dedicate time in their concert to bringing out a guest star from anywhere on the internet-enabled planet.
When Rihanna recently surprised audiences at the Desert Trip festival with a duet with Sir Paul McCartney, she had to literally trek out to the desert to do so. With a strong VC link in place she could have performed from the road, the studio, or home, and saved herself the trip.
And McCartney could have invited other contemporary stars to the stage, or invited a European orchestra, a South American band, or an African choir to back him–perhaps we could someday hear McCartney backed by the choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
The combinations are limitless, because the artists need nothing more than a high-quality camera and microphone, and an inclination to share stage time with their heroes, inspirations, and peers.