The history of virtual concerts - from K-pop to ABBA Voyage

·4-min read
The history of virtual concerts - from K-pop to ABBA Voyage

As ABBA begin their first international tour in four decades, they won’t be attending the concerts in person.

Instead, the Swedish foursome will be represented by digital avatars on their ABBA Voyage tour.

The avatars -- aptly nicknamed 'ABBA-tars' -- have the voices and movements of the real Agnetha Faltskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad.

But the holograms will depict the band members exactly as they were in their 70s heyday.

Ron Frehm/AP1979
Abba performing at United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday evening, January 9, 1979 in New York - Ron Frehm/AP1979

The first of the digital concerts took place last night (26 May) in London’s 3,000 seater Olympic Park. Sweden's finest were accompanied by a live band and a deluge of glitter and sparkles, was called “jaw-dropping” by The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis.

But how did we get to ABBA touring virtually? It turns out there is a long history of virtual concerts.

K-pop and Gorillaz at the forefront

Some of the first innovators in virtual concerts came at the tail end of the 90s.

South Korean music company SM Entertainment first experimented with holographic performances for the boy band H.O.T in 1998. With increasingly busy schedules, a virtual tour would allow the band to appear in more places than physically possible for the members.

Unfortunately, the tour was a failure and it would take another decade before virtual tours properly took off in South Korea.

K-pop superstar Psy, the artist behind 'Gangnam Style', embraced virtual tours in 2013, performing electronically to over 20 venues in South Korea.

On the other side of the world, in the UK, ex-Blur frontman Damon Albarn launched his new band Gorillaz the same year as H.O.T's virtual tour, 1998.

Gorillaz’s band members are the virtual avatars of fictional musicians Murdoc Niccals, 2-D, Noodle, and Russel Hobbs.

Although Albarn and other real musicians are present for concerts, performances and music videos have represented the band as if the virtual members are in control.

Mark Allan/Mark Allan/Invision/AP
Damon Albarn performs in front a screen displaying the virtual members of Gorillaz - Mark Allan/Mark Allan/Invision/AP

2Pac’s big appearance

One of the biggest moments pushing forward virtual elements of performance in western music was 2Pac’s appearance at Coachella 2012, 15 years after his death.

A hologram of 2Pac joined Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre on stage to perform his songs 'Hail Mary' and '2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted'.

At the time, people were awestruck by the lifelike-quality of the 2Pac hologram. And while 2Pac's mother was "positively thrilled", others felt like it was "unnecessary".

2Pac’s surprise posthumous return to the stage ushered in a new era of holographic performances by beloved stars from beyond the grave.

One of the latest deceased musicians to have hit the stage was a 2019 Frank Zappa concert in New York, which saw the guitar virtuoso return nearly three decades after his death.

A 1974 recording was used to recreate his exciting live performance.

There have also been hit tours of Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, and Whitney Houston. An Amy Winehouse hologram tour was planned for 2019, but the idea was shelved after a backlash from fans.

Video game concerts

The most virtual of virtual concerts have taken place in the alternative reality spaces of video games.

Duran Duran made history as one of the first major bands to perform a concert in a virtual world when they hit the stage in 2006 in the game “Second Life”.

PETER ZSCHUNKE/2007 AP
A screenshot from users wandering the virtual world of "Second Life" - PETER ZSCHUNKE/2007 AP

Although other games had featured recorded performances, Duran Duran’s presence in the game was unique as their performance was a permanent feature of the multiplayer virtual world.

Since Duran Duran’s debut in 'Second Life', other live video game concerts have taken place on Minecraft and Fortnite.

Minecraft has even hosted a virtual music festival called Fire Festival, while Fortnite held interactive concerts from Travis Scott, BTS, Diplo and Ariana Grande.

Covid concerts

Many of these video game concerts took place during Coronavirus lockdowns since 2020.

Balazs Mohai/AP
Nick Cave of the rock band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds performs during their concert at the Sziget (Island) Festival - Balazs Mohai/AP

With people sheltered at home, people missed out on gigs and the music industry needed to find a way to keep its artists and production teams afloat.

One Direction’s Liam Payne went on a live concert tour that gave fans a personal experience of being on stage with the star. Billie Eilish also gave virtual concerts a try in the midst of the pandemic.

Purposefully not trying to replicate the concert environment, Nick Cave recorded an intimate piano concert to an empty Alexandra Palace in London for a virtual concert in 2020.

While the pandemic meant many stars embracing the virtual concert for the first time, ABBA’s incredible new show may prove that the format will outlive the last few years’ restrictions.

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