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Why Virtual Reality Supports Musical Diversity

Virtual reality challenges the music industry's lack of diversity by shaping new artists and priming executives to brace new sounds.

The music industry is in flux. Barriers of entry continue to devolve as self-made stars engage directly with fans and record labels chase behind, following a trail of viral YouTube videos. Apple Music and Spotify have dethroned CDs, and musicians make money on massive tours rather than the act of creation. But if you think the dust has settled, think again. A new frontier of change is on the horizon, and it’s one that may finally spur the recognition of underrepresented talent, both on stage and behind the scenes. We all know that creativity necessitates a collaborative melding of disparate ideas, and yet our business consistently fails to embrace diversity along gender, racial, cultural, socioeconomic, sexual orientation and generational lines. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) may finally address that bias.

Sure, so far we’ve mostly seen immersive concert experiences from Coachella and Lollapalooza, and 360 degree music videos launched by artists like Taylor Swift and Bjork. But the truly exciting part about VR isn’t the ability to see our favorite bands perform right next to us, or to walk directly into the music video of a powerhouse artist (although both of those things are, admittedly, amazing). Rather, it’s the discovery and inclusion of new voices that were overlooked or ignored far too often in the past. After all, despite the industry’s persistent chatter, lists like Billboard and Music Week dependably give 80 to 100 percent of their space to white men. It’s hard to believe such bleak statistics in the age of Beyoncé, but unfortunately they’re true.

VR gives emerging artists one more tool to expose a wider audience to their work. And because it’s immersive, artists that are able to produce VR content well and circulate it widely are more likely to breed loyal, enthusiastic fans. Why? Because VR cultivates an intimacy that traditional music doesn’t. By making the listener a part of the video, VR (and the artist that uses it well) creates an experience for fans. Much has been written about the experience-driven culture of Millennials. And if consumers are more interested in collecting memories versus “stuff,” then VR is driving the music industry in the right direction to capitalize on those shifting priorities.

Likewise, the medium has the potential to generate interest in lesser known musical forms from faraway corners of the world, as well as emerging genres from overlooked demographics within the United States. In theory, VR can raise the profile of these artists and musical styles more easily than other platforms because its immersive qualities have long been touted as empathy generators, meaning that gatekeepers will find themselves more emotionally affected by their VR-based musical introductions.

Indications of VR’s potential to increase interest and identification are everywhere. Tribeca Film Festival’s Immersive arcade, for example, showcased one project, Terminal 3, which used AR to position viewers as interrogators at airport security who must question Muslim travelers and determine whether they may enter the country or not. Terminal 3 is meant to illustrate the vast swath of personalities, backgrounds and viewpoints that comprise the travelers that might be identified as Muslim (even if the travelers themselves don’t self-identify that way). It’s meant to beget understanding.

Another program, called The Machine to Be Another, is a performance art piece where viewers swap their perception with a performer, literally enabling a person to see through someone else’s eyes. The technology allows anyone to view the world as someone of a different age, the opposite sex, a different race, or as someone with a disability. Stanford University, which is studying the effects of such technology, believes VR can have a deep effect on behavior. Jeremy Bailenson, Director of the University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, is running a research project called “Empathy at Scale,” which explores ways to use VR to teach empathy. So far the group has uncovered several interesting revelations. One finding is that seeing the world through the eyes of a color-blind person makes the average viewer two times more likely to help that person. This, of course, has hopeful ramifications for disadvantaged artists that stand to reap the advantages of sympathetic executives proactively working toward meaningful change.

In film, VR has been used to generate empathy for everything from endangered elephants in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Syrian refugees to poverty and starvation in America. The concept, of course, has its cynics. Among them is game developer Robert Yang, who published a diatribe against the idea of VR as an “empathy machine,” arguing that it could really only provide viewers with the “illusion of empathy.” This may be true, especially in cinema where a traditional film can cause viewers to forget themselves in their intense identification with the main character, while a more immersive experience tends to put the viewer center stage, making it harder to leave preconceived notions and worldviews behind.

For music, however, the benefits feel clearer cut. Emerging artists don’t necessarily need true empathy. They need identification, interest and a level playing field. In the music business, artists of all backgrounds would benefit from another layer of exposure. And for executives, experiencing the music first-hand and, in some cases, through someone else’s eyes, would help to neutralize bias and generate enthusiasm for artists or trends that may not have otherwise had the ability to go mainstream.

And then there’s VRs impact on songwriting and creation. Music lovers can now experiment with composition and production while bypassing the typical barriers of entry, like owning an instrument and knowing how to play it. Another Tribeca Immersive experience called Lambchild Superstar: Making Music in the Menagerie of the Holy Cow, allows users to create their own music without the need for guitar or piano lessons. A collaboration between filmmaker Chris Milk and the band OK Go, Lambchild Superstar presents a colorful environment packed with zany animals that help participants compose unique songs, all with the no-pressure feel of a game. If more games like Lambchild Superstar become the norm, socio-economic concerns around how to pay for an instrument or music lessons are negated, paving the way for more artists to take shape.

Emerging VR resources can revolutionize music education, composition and production, further democratizing the industry. In addition to programs designed to educate, would-be artists will also benefit from established musicians inviting fans into their spaces. Artists will speak more openly about their craft and processes, sharing instructional content with the musicians of tomorrow. And the experience need not be one-sided. Many believe that with VR, unlikely collaborations will become the norm, with bands forming within chatrooms between musicians from all over the world.

And that’s just VR’s impact on creation. The technology has the potential to open doors for diverse candidates in production, marketing and promotion, too. From recording studios to release parties to concert stages and beyond, here’s hoping that the industry’s latest reinvention finally heralds opportunity for all.

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