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Splendour XR: virtual music festival was an eerie, empty reminder of what we’ve lost

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The primary function of a music festival is escapism; the music is often secondary. So what do we make of a virtual festival experience like this past weekend’s Splendour XR?

Funded with $1.5m in Australian government Rise funding and hosted on virtual reality platform Sansar, the two-day online iteration of Splendour in the Grass promised “a world-first online experience”: “A virtual world where music, art and culture reigns supreme. Where lockdowns and social distancing don’t exist. Where mesmerised mobs dance in the forest to the freshest beats.”

In other words, the festival – which cost $50 for a two-day ticket, $30 for one day – would be a virtual concert experience more elevated than grassroots streaming festivals like Isol-Aid, and less predetermined than the high-budget spectacles offered by Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa.

Related: Gang of Youths, Natalie Imbruglia, the Goon Sax and more: Australia’s best new music for July

It’s a noble goal, but one immediately drowned out by dissonance: Splendour XR was clearly meant as an alternative to the drudgery of pandemic life, but the internet is unfortunately the exact site of anxiety many are attempting to break free from right now. Unlike Splendour in the Grass, where one’s phone may die or lose reception, during Splendour XR I can flick to my inbox or my Instagram at a second’s notice (try as I might not to) – and after months spent inside, a weekend on the internet feels like no escapism at all. It’s a perverse blessing for the organisers of the festival that, due to lockdowns in parts of Australia, much of Splendour XR’s key audience would have been spending this weekend online anyway.

Entering the virtual world, I am asked to pick from a set of prefabricated avatars. Many are wearing Nike – a forced brand interaction that, if anything, feels very true to the spirit of most music festivals. When I’m finally “inside”, I’m surprised at how little genuine functionality there is. From the festival’s marketing, I assumed that I’d be able to “walk” around the festival site to each stage and to different stalls, not unlike last year’s in-world Minecraft festivals that featured artists like 100 gecs and Charli XCX. Alas, no: the ability to walk between stages, it turns out, is limited to those with VR sets and gaming PCs; the rest of us have to just click around.

Upon entry to the festival site, I am offered different “camera angles”, each showing me a different tent – ticket booth, merchandise, a bar and so on – with each sending me to an outlet where I can spend money. If I want drinks, I can click out from the bar to a third-party website and order myself some delivered booze. If I want merchandise, I can go to another third-party site. If I want a pair of Nike Huaraches, the Nike tent will direct me to the Nike website to learn more. And if I want to see how much fun everyone else is having, I can check out the social media wall, which shows me blurry Instagram photos of attendees wearing festival outfits while sitting at their computers. Most bizarrely, there is a police stall with no interactivity whatsoever. (Thankfully, unlike at the real Splendour in the Grass, they are unable to unlawfully strip-search teens here.)

These zones are eerily static, a handful of virtual avatars moving back and forth occasionally as if I’m watching a looped gif. In the chat to the right of my festival screen, I can communicate with my fellow attendees. Many, it seems, are having technical difficulties – lag despite using a gaming PC, sound garbled on an iPad, VR glitching out.

When I click into one of the handful of stages available for viewing, the stream defaults to the prerecorded live set of whichever band is playing. I am then offered the opportunity to view the stream as if from the crowd, which superimposes a kind of frame on top of the stream, adding fake lights and fake crowd members.

Client Liaison’s easily digestible pastiche of 80s pop was pretty much made for festivals, but watching with the fake crowd, all I can think of is what this experience lacks. Perhaps this would be enjoyable for those watching with friends, but that seems like an unlikely prospect when so many in Australia are in lockdown. Similarly, a set from the snotty and wonderful Sunshine Coast punk band the Chats mostly elicits a kind of blithe curiosity, rather than the frenzied rush that I imagine one of their real-life live gigs might. My attention drifts to the edges of the scene: Was this filmed at the Croxton Bandroom? Is that avatar dancing right in front of me a glitch? Is that the beep of the washing machine?

When it comes time for the first night’s headliners, an age-old festival conundrum emerges: Denzel Curry and Phoebe Bridgers are playing at roughly the same time. (I wonder initially why a utopian virtual festival would have any clashes at all, before realising that – of course – on-demand viewing of missed sets is a $20 add-on.)

My instinct is to watch Curry, a Floridian rapper who puts on a pummelling, frantic live show – but featuring just Curry and a DJ, his low-production set is strangely disconnected.

I leave it for Bridgers, but her set is one of many, many livestreams she’s done off the back of her acclaimed album Punisher, and there’s little to differentiate this from the others. When the main camera stream fails to show video during the first few minutes, it doesn’t feel worth it to wait.

I wander – or, rather, click – over to the Tipi Forest, to watch an anonymous DJ play anonymous EDM. I would need many, many friends around to enjoy this.

On my second day at Splendour XR, I resolve to find fun outside the carousel of prerecorded sets. The programming beyond the main stages is not unlike the kind of prerecorded video content I might watch on YouTube to pass the time: I catch a conversation between Grace Tame and Tarang Chawla at the Forum, before clicking over to the Global Village, where I see a guy in head-to-toe leather lip-syncing to Queen while juggling. Ultimately, though, there’s only so long you can spend in one of the festival’s extraneous zones when just watching through a laptop monitor.

I flick over to the Amphitheatre to watch the Jungle Giants and see frontman Sam Hales begin clapping as if to lead an audience, despite clearly being alone with his band. It is admirable that these sets were recorded with the intention of capturing a genuine live set experience, but again it’s overwhelmed by a profound sense of uncanniness – as when Hot Dub Time Machine cycles through rote vintage hits such as The Chain and Take On Me while asking the “crowd” to sing along “louder”.

The Avalanches’ set, filmed at one of their recent Enmore Theatre shows, at least includes crowd shots, which gives the whole thing the redolence of a concert film as opposed to the visceral emptiness of some other sets. Theirs is perhaps the most musically impressive too, an erudite and impeccably structured DJ set highlighting songs from their stunning 2020 record We Will Always Love You. A peak of my weekend is hearing them mash-up We Go On with Queen’s I Want To Break Free, an inspired moment that, at an ordinary festival, you could imagine people talking about for months. Without people to share it with, though, the moment feels like ephemera. Like anything else I might see online on a given day, it makes me smile and then slides away.

Another drawcard is British underground electronic act Charli XCX. Her live show is uniquely adaptable: at a festival, she’ll play a set featuring her hits (I Love It, Boom Clap, a Spice Girls cover, and so on) and at a headline show she’ll play the songs that have made her an underground star (Vroom Vroom, Femmebot, Backseat). She performs the former set for Splendour XR – but her hardcore fans, having clearly bought one-day passes just to see her, begin to flood the chat asking her for her lesser-known songs.

Charli’s performance seems to be optimised for VR, and without a headset it’s lacklustre and repetitive, the pop star dancing back and forth in a tiny patch of screen, with none of the artistic sheen of some earlier sets. Charli, without a crowd, comes off a little disinterested, while those watching seem perplexed and let down; it all has the air of something none of us wanted a part in but which everybody is partaking in anyway.

Where the failure of Charli’s set seemed to lie in a misinterpretation about what Splendour XR actually is, Grimes and her team have it pegged: a branding opportunity. Halfway through Charli’s set, news comes through that viewers will have to move to the popular messaging network Discord to watch Grimes play. She has a partnership with Discord and stars in its new ad campaign, making this forced migration a particularly galling move: in addition to getting her presumably hefty (grant-funded!) Splendour XR headliner fee, Grimes gets a whole host of new users signing up to her Discord server – and, presumably, gets their data too. Any user who bought a Splendour XR ticket just to see Grimes is, then, effectively stooged – they could have just waited for the announcement that Grimes’ set was moving to the free platform and signed up. Adding insult to injury, the set Grimes ended up streaming on Discord was an audio-only DJ set – enjoyable for some, undoubtedly, but a far cry from the promise of Splendour XR.

The moment represented the festival’s broader failure: far from providing an escape from Covid and lockdown, Splendour XR mostly revealed just how much we’ve lost.

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