Finding ways to make your work stand out has always been difficult for musicians (and artists in general). But in the age of visual albums and surprise releases, getting noticed is getting harder, and releasing a “regular” single, album, or music video sometimes doesn’t seem like enough.
Which is partially why more and more artists are starting to put out VR (virtual reality) or “360” music videos—videos that one can watch either with a VR headset or online, using a mouse to move an invisible camera and “explore” visuals from multiple directions.
Gorillaz made waves when they released their 360 music video for “Saturnz Barz” back in March. They made the bold decision to release both a “normal,” 2D music video as well as an accompanying 360 video in which the viewer can experience the same events from a different perspective. In the 2D video, you see (the appropriately named) 2-D open a fridge and eagerly stare at a cake. In the 360 video, you see the same scene but this time have the ability to look around the fridge and see what else the artists chose to put inside. In another scene, 2-D floats through space. In the 360 video, you have the chance to look around and admire both 2-D and the dozens of animated moon rocks drifting through the cosmos.
Mac DeMarco did something similar when he released a 360 music video for his single “This Old Dog” in August, six months after releasing a 2D music video for the same song. Unlike the two “Saturnz Barz” videos, the 2D and 360 “This Old Dog” videos are very different from one another. In the 2D video, people roam around the city wearing plastic dog masks that can only be described as “unsettling”. The 360 video, on the other hand, is entirely computer animated (by multi-media artist Rachel Rossin) and features a CGI pug who wanders around an island and floats through the sky while crude-looking staircases and buildings appear out of thin air.
The Gorillaz video follows a linear storyline while the Mac DeMarco video plays out like one big, confusing drug trip. But, somehow, both manage to effectively take advantage of VR’s capabilities. The fact that both videos are full of colourful, mesmerizing, sometimes confusing details makes you want to take every single one of those details in, and being able to examine those videos from all angles gives you the opportunity to do just that.
The success of the Gorillaz and DeMarco videos also prove that animation and VR can (and should) go hand in hand. Using animation gives musicians the chance to insert tiny visual details viewers may not notice until they move their mouse. Plus, animating a 360 video means not having to worry about where to put lights and other recording equipment. One can easily put that equipment behind the camera while filming a 2D video, but artists don’t have that luxury when filming a 360 video.
But that doesn’t mean making a great live-action VR video is impossible. One Republic’s 360 video for “Kids,” for example, transports viewers back and forth between two bedrooms, one belonging to a teen boy and one belonging to a teen girl. Each time the camera moves back to a different bedroom, a story slowly starts to come together—boy pines after girl, girl argues with her mother about boy, and eventually they realize that they have feelings for each other. It’d be a great video even without the 360 element, but the ability to look around their bedrooms gives you a sense that you’re getting to know both teenagers on a personal level.
Avicii’s “Waiting for Love” music video encourages viewers to move the 360 “camera” back and forth while several dancers pop in and out of different doors without any indication as to who will appear where at what time. The concept for the video is definitely cool, but could have been executed a little bit differently, as the doors only take up about 180 degrees of the entire 360 degree space.
The same goes for Muse’s 360 “Revolt” music video. Again, the chaos-ridden, post-apocalyptic concept is cool, but doesn’t always provide the viewer with things to look at from all angles. If you look in one direction you might see a mob of people descend upon an army of robot police officers. If you look in the other direction, you might see nothing but complete darkness (which might be the point, as Muse clearly has a very bleak idea of what the near future might look like).
School of Rock: The Musical’s promotional music video, on the other hand, uses VR pretty much perfectly. The video, in which School of Rock’s cast members perform “You’re in the Band,” takes place in a bright, messy, and inviting school classroom. There’s tons to look at, from the instruments Dewey sets up for the kids to the kids themselves. At the end of the video, you can swing the camera down when Dewey drops to the floor and starts jamming out on his back. You can even swing the camera up, as the lyrics and guitar chords for “You’re in the Band” are written on the ceiling of the classroom.
A few other Broadway productions have created 360 music videos as well. The Lion King posted a video of its cast performing “The Circle of Life” live on stage back in 2015, and Dear Evan Hansen recently posted a 360 video that features fans holding up signs with the hashtag “You Will Be Found.” And while the Lion King video gives viewers a sense of just how theatrical and visually impressive the musical is, the Dear Evan Hansen video gives viewers a sense of comfort, as they’re literally surrounded by people telling them that they’re not alone. Not gonna lie—that one actually made us tear up a little.
The Dear Evan Hansen video proves that while more detail is usually better when it comes to 360 videos, sometimes simplicity can be just as effective. Take Sampha’s VR video for “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano.” The features Sampha playing the piano while a nearby woman slowly dissolves into strands of colourful dust—and that’s it. But for a stripped down piano ballad, using VR to create a sense of intimacy makes more sense than using VR to roam around a complex, detailed landscape.
Honestly, the VR possibilities are endless. Artists from Imagine Dragons to Duran Duran are starting to put out 360 lyric videos, and in April the Chemical Brothers played around with combining music, VR, and video games with their video for “Under Neon Lights.” The video presents viewers with a menu page where they can choose to watch the video with a VR headset or a mobile device, and even though you have no control over video’s character (a computer-animated young girl who matures into a young woman), the 360 view kind of makes it feel like you do. Even up-and-coming artists are starting to use VR, like English YouTuber Roomie and singer-songwriter Sam Tsui.
Maybe one day we’ll be able create our own avatars and use those avatars to affect the world within a music video—like contained versions of Sims set to music. Or maybe artists like Taylor Swift will start using VR to make their music video Easter egg hunts even more immersive. Making a VR music video takes a lot of time and effort. But according to a 2016 Google study, they also typically attract more listeners, viewers, and subscribers. VR might be the future of music videos, and as long as those videos are creative and interesting to look at then we’re all here for it.