#21 How ABBA Voyage changes ‘live’ music, forever


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Each edition/episode examines an idea or innovation that is shaping our future and seeks to explain it, and explore what it might mean for our tomorrow.

This week, I look at how motion capture technology and digital avatars are re-shaping the live music landscape and redefining what might be possible for the future of the entertainment industry.

As I explore below, ABBA’s Voyage concert, featuring the band as “ABBAtars” – digital representations of themselves – could be the proof of concept that heralds a new era of artists capturing their “digital essence” that appear in, what I call, “digi-gigs”. 

As of writing, the video version of the below has passed 50,000 views. You can watch it here.

How the ABBA Voyage concert changes live music forever

London, May 26th 2022: ABBA performed together in a way they haven’t for over 40 years. However, ABBA didn’t perform in person at all. 

London, May 26th 2022: ABBA performed together in a way they haven’t for over 40 years. 

However, ABBA didn’t perform in person at all. 

Their digital avatars rocked up on stage instead. So, does this change live music, forever?Many people were understandably sceptical about the concept: a big screen of the famous four’s holograms… No, no, no, they’re not holograms! They’re digital avatars. Completely different.

(More on that in a moment.)

But, the verdict on this voyage of live music discovery, seems to be clear:Image source: How the ABBA Voyage Concerts changes live music, forever

Other bands and artists may well be watching and thinking, mmm, is this a route we should be going down?

So, for all you live music fans out there, even those that don’t like ABBA (or at least pretend not to in public), the key question is this: what does the ABBA Voyage concert mean for the future of the live music?

What is ABBA Voyage and what makes it different?Billed as an “immersive experience” that blurs “the lines between the physical and digital”, this new series of concerts uses state of the art “motion capture technology” to allow digital versions of Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-freed to perform a 90 minute set of 20 songs.

The physical bits of the concert are: 
– A purpose built stadium, or “ABBA Arena”, in London’s East-End that can hold 3,000 fans and can even be flat-packed IKEA-style and shipped to another location.

– A lighting rig of 500 lights.

– A 10-piece band.

The digital bits are:
– The main vocals and Benny and Björn’s piano and guitar are largely drawn from the original recordings.

– The four’s digital avatars, perform centre stage on a 65 million pixel screen, buttressed by two floor-to-ceiling screens either side.

What makes this concert different? 

Whilst you might have caught Whitney Houston as a hologram in 2020, or Tupac as long ago as 2012, holograms are created by projecting light, whereas this project is something quite different.

The technology behind Abba’s digital avatars is similar to that used to create Hollywood’s CGI creatures and beasts. 

The group were required to don bodysuits dotted with sensors to capture their every move. And those moves were coaxed out of the four septuagenarians and choreographed by London Royal Ballet’s Wayne McGregor. 

Over the course of five weeks, 160 cameras scrutinised band members’ every flinch and facial expression. A one-thousand-strong army of visual effects artists from the George Lucas’s company Industrial Light & Magic (now part of Dinsey) transformed all of this data into digital avatars, giving them the look and feel of ABBA in their 1970s prime. 

Which kind of acts would this motion capture technology work for?

Acts that are simply unable to perform in the way they did back in their prime, feel like a natural fit for this kind of technology. Few older musicians are willing or able to get up and perform night after night for several hours at a time. This kind of schedule is pretty punishing. 

I toured a bit in the US in my early twenties and all the travel and adrenaline of playing big venues gets pretty exhausting. 

But digi-gigs offer performers and fans an alternative that no one has any illusions about: without the technology, watching ABBA perform like it was 1979 wouldn’t be possible. There is no real-world substitute available.

Are there limits to this technology?

1) Capturing the dead.
First of all, at present, the technology can only digitally capture those who are still alive. According to ABBA’s Björn, the technical barrier to resurrecting artists long since passed, is that you need the precise measurements of their craniums in order for the process to really work. 

But, I can imagine that once the void between life and death has been digitally bridged, they’ll be an irresistible clamour for the return of a very long list of lost idols.

But this does pose an interesting question and a possible second limitation… 

2) Capturing vituoso musicianship.
How could you digitally recreate virtuoso musicians like Led Zeppelin’s late drummer, John Bonham or Jimi Hendrix? Part of Hendrix’s enduring appeal and mystique is simply, how on earth did he make a guitar sound the way he did? Re-creating singing and dancing is one thing, but digitally capturing the virtuosity and precision of playing an instrument? I’m open to be persuaded, but…

3) Will punters want it?
Will punters be willing to pay to see their favourite band digitally when the band is fit and well, and still touring? The value and draw of a digital avatar concert is diminished when you could simply get a ticket to see the same band in the flesh. 

Contemporary acts thinking of performing in non-person, might wish to consider whether they pass the PIP Test (where PIP stands for Play-in-Person). The central question any performer should ask is: “if we decide to put on this digital concert, will our fans just think we couldn’t be bothered to play in person?”

But I suspect contemporary performers will be temped, or even contractually obliged by their record companies, to step into a bodysuit to capture their “digital essence” for future possible revenue streams.

Think 10, 20, 30, 40 years down the line and the limitless possibilities for repurposing an artist’s digital essence again and again in virtual tours or in a next generation karaoke booth. You could see your favourite artists perform at different points in their career, perhaps even combining artists into new super-group line-ups – consisting of stars that never even met or lived at the same point in history. And why stop with pop music? Or even the 20th century? What about re-creating Mozart, Mendelssohn or Mahler? Although, good luck trying to recreate people from the depths of time before film footage and photos. 

How does ABBA’s Voyage of digital motion capture change live music?
ABBA Voyage fundamentally challenges and redefines what we think of as a ‘live concert’. After all, what is the ‘live’ bit we’re actually buying into here? It’s all a bit blurred.

But, this concert’s initial run is the proof of new concept. It shows that digital visuals can be woven almost seamlessly into live elements to create something new and otherwise impossible to see in real life. And fans seem to love it. 

Some music journalists have been quick to point out that this is going to be replicated by other acts in the near future. (Assuming they are lucky enough to find some time with Industrial Light and Magic in the next decade.)

So, coming soon to a purpose-built venue near you, your favourite acts could be making an appearance, of sorts.

You can watch the full video here.

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Until next time…

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