Starting next year you’ll be able to see Amy Winehouse on tour for the first time since her death in 2011. No, medical science has not finally achieved reincarnation, she’ll be “touring” as a hologram. The Amy Winehouse hologram will follow the Michael Jackson and Tupac holograms into the uncanny valley. As someone who performed in music, worked backstage at music venues, and currently works at a business that distributes royalties to musicians (or their heirs) I’ll admit that the hologram trend is deeply disturbing and ghoulish to me. I understand feeling sad that you’ll never get to see your favorite artist perform live, but a hologram isn’t a replication of that. Live performances are special because they are LIVE and a hologram will never be that.
This is the part where I’m supposed to rhapsodize about live music but the truth is that my words will always fall short. I can’t tell you what it’s like to truly experience music as the amazing LIVING thing that it is in the hands of talented performers. If you’ve been at a show like that, you will understand the experience. I can tell you about the time I worked The Lion King for a month, and one day one of the soloists came to work after the birth of his first child, a boy, and the joy in his voice on his solo was like sunshine spreading through the theater. He wasn’t even a lead. But he was the star that night. I can say that listening to an orchestra perform a piece that was written centuries ago is a form of time travel, a way to engage in an ongoing culture and conversation that stretches across nations and eras. I could talk about how hearing your favorite song in room throbbing with people and energy and proximity is thrilling in a way a recording never could be. And that’s what a hologram is, a recording. A very high-tech, complex recording, but it’s a recording. Its voice will never hitch at a certain line, it will never draw out a moment for longer than it’s programmed to, it will never connect with the audience in front of it because it can’t.
At the heart of the music business is a drive to get money away from people who actually make music and to people who don’t. They want acts to be successful, but the legions of studio musicians, touring musicians, orchestras? The less people that need to be paid, the better. The history of the music business from the 20th century onward is a history of vast swaths of musicians losing jobs to radio, then recordings, then television using recordings, then Broadway using digital replications, and now we’re at the point where they can replace the actual, live performers with a hologram. This is not progress. You may say that they’re only making these holograms of musicians who are already dead and I’ll say “for now.” You think anyone would pass up the chance to book the Taylor Swift hologram and get to sell tickets to a show where they just paid the hologram company and not the entire local back-stage staff and insurance fees that would be necessary for a show like hers? And how much easier would it be for someone like Bruno Mars to do one live show that was able to be captured instead of spending months grinding it out on the road? It’d be great for the headlining artists but a huge blow for touring bands and local musicians that are brought in to back up those artists when they go on the road.
There is not just one contributing factor here. I’ve worked backstage on concerts and musicals, I know how many people are employed to get one show up and running for one night, most of them by the stipulations of union contracts. It is expensive to produce live music, I won’t pretend otherwise. It is also frequently expensive to go to concerts, especially with “facility fees” and other markups not visible in the initial ticket price. I am not going out to see live music every weekend, and when I do pay to see a show I make sure it’s a performer I know will make the experience worth the money. Not all pop artist are good performers, and their shows can be a letdown. Even good performers have bad days. Because of this risk, more artists seem to be pulling larger shows towards spectacle rather than true performances. Maybe it’s this trend we have to blame for people thinking holograms are an acceptable substitute for live musicians. But even with all the technology of the world at her disposal, Beyoncé brought out a full marching band to perform with her at Coachella because good musicians will always be superior to canned recordings.
Live music can be a transcendent experience. For many pop artists, the best they can hope to sound is on a studio track that’s been fully engineered and smoothed, but that’s not true for all artists or for all songs. The Amy Winehouse hologram will be, literally, a pale imitation of the actual woman with the captivating voice. It will be more reliable than she was, it will hit every note perfectly and sound exactly the way the audience remembers from her recordings. It will be nothing like seeing an Amy Winehouse show.
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