Music in the metaverse

There is so much groundbreaking progress being made in technology, virtual concerts being one of them. But do we really want our experience of life moving forward to exist primarily in the metaverse?

Although it’s talked about like a futuristic concept, the metaverse — essentially all digital and virtual environments, interactions and economies — is already all around us. Over the past few decades, we’ve steadily been increasing our engagement with the digital universe, and since the pandemic, it’s become an even greater part of our lives. For many people such as gamers, social media influencers and even remote workers having meetings over video call, we now spend as much time (if not more) in the virtual world as we do in real reality (RR).

The impact this has on the safety and protection of human wellbeing is a topic that has been on everyones lips, especially since Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s recent disclosure of the priorities of Meta (fka Facebook). It’s something that is most likely true of many tech giants; knowing full well the collateral damage that digital platforms cause and not being transparent about it; prioritising their money-making business model over the repercussions it has on the mental health and wellbeing society. This does not only apply to social media, but to every digital platform and online game or experience that people are increasingly spending time in.

Losing a sense of reality

Earlier this month at Web Summit, pop singer Zara Larsson and Jon Vlassopulos, Global Head of Music at Roblox held a press conference to talk about their recent collaboration. The Roblox platform is an online gaming experience marketed at teenagers, with the average user being between the ages of 13-17. The graphics are rudimentary, but users can customise their own avatars, chat and interact with each other, much like other digital games.

Taking things to the next step, Roblox has partnered with singers Zara Larsson, as well as Lil Nas X, and hosted virtual concerts on the platform. This is not the first time this has been done — you might have seen the likes of Travis Scott or Ariana Grande holding pre-recorded and live concerts on the gaming platform Fortnite in recent years. With Roblox, these performances are not only live, but the singers are additionally able to interact with their virtual audiences, reading and responding to the live chat.

Vlassopulos shared how some of the kids that attended the virtual concert on Roblox spoke about it like it was real, as if they could not distinguish between virtual reality and real reality. It’s apparently all the same to them, and for many, they consider this virtual concert to be their first real concert. But is that honestly what we want our future to look like? For those of us that remember our first concert, we know that whole experience — the jostle of the crowds, the vibrations of the music pulsing through your body, the sheer energy of being physically surrounded by people that share your passion, and the high you leave with — simply cannot be substituted virtually.

A money-making business model

Although the concept of virtual concerts and the potential trajectory of the technology is impressive, you cannot help but wonder, what real value this is giving people. At Larsson’s recent “launch party“, there were just under 4 million attendees. However rather than just being there to enjoy the music, the kids were being encouraged to spend money on virtual merchandise to be able to dress their avatar up like Larsson. Subsequently, she is the first artist in the world to have made over $1 million in revenue from digital merchandise. It begs the question, is the company really driven by wanting to bring people together and make music more accessible to wider audiences, or is it just a money-making endeavour?

There has already been a Black Mirror episode, Fifteen Million Merits, that reflects this concept. In case you haven’t seen the episode, it depicts a dystopian society being stuck in a rat race, pedalling bikes to earn money, or “merits”. All the while, they are bombarded with advertisements of virtual “stuff” they can spend their money on, like outfits for their virtual avatars. It’s heavily marketed in a way that speaks to the consumerist weakness in them, and they give in to those unfulfilling instant gratifications. One of the many messages of this episode is how meaningless it all is, and how much virtual peer-pressure affects them, both online and offline.

With that in mind, it makes us look at platforms like Roblox more critically. We have to consider what impact virtual consumerism has on young teenagers’ still-developing brains, and what sort of people might they become in the future if that is what they value and associate happiness with.

A harmful effects disclaimer

Digital platforms and experiences are theoretically supposed to bring people together, but enough of us are aware of how interacting online often makes us so much more disconnected from real human experiences and emotions. The anonymity of the virtual world can often leave us susceptible to uncensored online hate, abuse and pressure, and mental health issues are rising as a result. This is especially dangerous for young people who have only known life in the digital age.

Many people are still unconcerned or unaware of the impact on mental health, and digital platforms have a responsibility to provide transparency of those risks to users. For tobacco companies, since the truth has been out in the open, they are no longer allowed to advertise cigarettes, and all packaging must come with a warning of the harmful effects of smoking. So why are we not doing the same with the metaverse? Digital experiences and platforms need to come with greater transparency and a health warning disclaimer too.

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