Thursday night and the lights are low, as the four members of abba, one of the most successful musical acts in history, take to the stage for the first time in nearly 40 years. Or do they? To the crowd at a purpose-built arena in east London, abba’s quartet—Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid—look authentic, their sequinned dresses and feathered mullets swaying to the beat provided by a live band. Yet the singers are computer-generated illusions, captured as they looked in 1979, and their voices a blend of recordings from nearly half a century ago. The virtual “Abbatars”, who played their first concert on May 26th, will perform seven shows a week while the human band members collect the royalties.
Concertgoers got used to digital performances during the lockdowns of 2020, when in-person gigs were not possible. Since the relaxation of covid rules, people have returned to shows in person. But even as live music roars back, some digital innovations are here to stay. Selling tickets to online video-streams of live gigs has become standard. Online gaming platforms are experimenting with hybrid music-gaming experiences. Musicians are realising that, pandemic or not, there is money to be made in performing gigs without being physically in front of the audience.
abba’s extraordinary new show, “Voyage”, goes even further. It demonstrates the potential for a new category of event that is at once in-person and virtual. abba’s reanimation took six years and cost £140m ($175m), a third of which went on a high-tech stadium. The band members spent five weeks performing on a stage in Stockholm, in front of 160 cameras operated by Industrial Light and Magic, a visual-effects company that has previously brought to life Jedi knights and Avengers.
Their rejuvenated virtual selves are eerily real: dancing, jiving and, between songs, joshing with the crowd (virtual Benny insisting that he is the real thing: “I just look very good for my age”). On the opening night the audience, which included the king and queen of Sweden, suspended their disbelief, unselfconsciously cheering and applauding what was, strictly speaking, an empty stage.
Most high-tech concerts are nothing like as sophisticated as the abba show. But basic digital services are changing the economics of even ordinary gigs. In the early days of lockdown, singers live-streamed impromptu concerts from their bedrooms on online video platforms such as Twitch. They soon realised that, when competing for screentime with the likes of Netflix, “you need it to look as cinematic and as spectacular as the latest blockbuster,” says Ric …….