As a person on the Autism spectrum, I often struggle a lot with social events with strangers outside my home. Crowds, clashing sources of sensory information, unclear social rules, and people I know nothing about all add up to create situations I find really overwhelming and difficult.
The exception to that rule is going to live concerts.
For as long as I can remember, live music has been a rare example of a loud, crowded, intense social event I can not only tolerate, but actively love. There are understood rules about order of arrival and your resulting position in the crowd, the sensory information is loud enough to drown out any background noise and be all consuming, everyone there has a safety topic of interest in common, and if you already know the band you are going to see, then everything that happens during the show is likely to feature a degree of predictability that is safe and comforting.
If I go and see a band I love play, I can talk to people around me about my favourite songs confident in the knowledge they share that interest, I can sing along with songs I know word for word, and I can anchor myself to something familiar in the chaos of a live crowd. In all the jumping, and screams, there’s something I can predict, music I can’t help but focus on, to carry me through. There are days where my symptoms prevent me from engaging with live music, but on the whole they’re a real ray of light for me.
Going and seeing live bands perform was, prior to the pandemic, one of only two real hobbies I had that really encouraged me to go out and meet new people. It was a centrepoint of my social calender every year, every few months ideally I’d go and see a band play live, camping out 12 hours before the show for a great spot, making friends in the queue, securing myself front and centre barrier, and losing myself for a few hours to the music.
Obviously, this past twelve months has not been a great time to be a fan of live music. That part of my routine fell away pretty fast, and still seems a fair way off returning to normalcy. As the one year anniversary of the UK entering lockdown has come and gone, with me spending a whole year of my life sat at home, not leaving my small town, I have found myself really missing the experience of going and watching live music performances.
I was meant to see my all time favourite band, My Chemical Romance, play a reunion show after a years long break from performing, in the Summer of 2020. The show was pushed back to Summer 2021, but I have no faith it’s going to happen. Realising that wasn’t going to happen, I wanted to instead try and recapture the magic of live music from home, as best I could.
My first plan, understandably, was to go on YouTube and try to find some good quality live performance recordings from my favourite bands. Phone camera video and audio quality has improved a lot in the past few years, and it’s pretty easy to find a high quality camera recording of most bands you enjoy performing, but for me, watching those bands perform on a screen didn’t capture the energy I missed from live performances. The feeling that you were one of many, a sea of faces all anonymous, but all here for the same thing, to enjoy music that you love.
Watching a concert on my PC screen, I didn’t feel like I was in the room with other people. When the performers on stage told the crowd to raise their hands, or to wave back and forth, there was no way I was going to join in, the dissconnect between reality and the scene I was watching was too great.
As someone currently in the process of getting diagnosed with ADHD, I also find that watching a live performance on a screen is just not immersive enough to discourage me from multitasking. At a real live show, one of the key things I love is getting truly lost in a performance, so that the world around you fades away. There’s no need to check your emails, or doomscroll. Messages can wait a little bit to get a response. I want to be focused on just the performance, and with a performance on a flat screen I inevitably find my mind wandering, looking for other things to occupy part of my brain.
And so, I picked up my Oculus Quest VR headset, and spent a day in the world of VR concerts.
So, when it comes to VR concerts, there’s not a lot of currently existing content designed to actually be viewed in true VR. For most bands, what you’re going to need to do is play around with a 2D video, and making it as convincingly immersive as possible. Open YouTube in your VR headset, find a good concert recording, curve your virtual screen, make it as large as possible, then bring it a little closer to yourself than the default viewing distance.
It’s not true VR, but you can get it pretty darn close. Sure, if you look too far up or to either side you’ll see the edges of the video as hard cutoff lines, but while facing your head mostly forward it’s possible to get most of the edges of the scene out of view. And, even if you do see the edges of your world, it becomes pretty easy to tune them out once you let yourself get into the performance.
As I was feeling bummed about the fact I’ll likely have another year to wait before seeing MCR play in the UK again, I ended up watching a fan recording of the band’s January 2020 L.A. reunion show this way, and the effect did a lot to really draw me in. I know it’s going to sound a bit ridiculous, but I let myself raise my hands in the air and rock out as I watched. I knew it wasn’t real, but it was close enough for me to not feel foolish getting really into the performance. Moving around and jamming out helped; I felt some of that magic I had been missing. I stayed in the headset for the full performance, never once taking a break to check my phone, and I got to feel a glimpse of a show I have been gutted about the wait to see.
Now, if you are lucky, you might be able to find an actual VR concert recording of some shows online, depending on the artist. One of my favourite performers, a speed rapper named Watsky, uploaded to YouTube in May 2019 a full concert recording of one of his live shows. While it’s not a 360 degree recording, there’s an area behind the viewer they didn’t bother to record which fades into an empty virtual space, this show had a much greater sense of physical presence in the room, a better viewing angle, and was built in a way that really sold the illusion of being in the room with the crowd.
Obviously, VR concerts are not widely available, you need a pricey headset to enjoy them, and they’re unlikely to replace the experience of actual live music for me, but in a year without live shows to attend, taking the time to enjoy a few hours of live music with no distractions, and a sense of place in the crowd, scratched an itch I have needed to scratch.
I desperately miss live music, but VR is helping.
If you’d like to read a more in depth piece about my experiences seeing live music as an autistic person, and the role VR concerts play when I’m having difficult sensory days, you can read about that here.