Posthumous Performance: The Future of Live Music?

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by Lily Hartenstein

Whitney Houston was such an iconic musical star that she just announced an upcoming world tour, despite having passed away in 2012. We are now living in the age of tomorrow and death means little in the face of potential capital gain. 

Her world tour, announced on Sept. 13 and set to begin Jan. 2020, will host dancers and a live band to support the star herself, a hologram of Houston. Her estate is collaborating with BASE Holograms to put on the event.  

“An Evening With Whitney: The Whitney Houston Hologram Tour” may very well be the first hologram tour of its scale, but live hologram events have been starting to appear more and more recently. In 2018, an Amy Winehouse tour was announced and a Roy Orbison tour sold just under 2,000 seats a night; it was such a success that Orbinson’s likeness is set to tour with a Buddy Holly hologram later this year. 

Companies like BASE Holograms and Eyellusion, which put on a sold-out Frank Zappa tribute in New York recently, have pounced on this emerging market for holographic live performances. Many professionals within the live entertainment industry have said this is the future of music. These companies are betting on that. 

Michael Bierylo, chair of electronic production and design at Berklee College of Music, has likened the hologram performances now to what color television once was. “It’s hard to imagine 50 years from now,” he said, but acknowledges the potential impact, and expects the technology to move beyond the spectacle it is today, “Artists always seem to embrace whatever technology becomes available, and we would hope that their creativity will help provide a viable business model for the new technology.” 

Ahmet Zappa, Frank Zappa’s son and Eyellusion’s EVP of global business development, said that hologram technology is the ideal way to maintain an artist’s legacies. Mitch Winehouse, the father of Amy Winehouse, said: “To see her perform again is something special that really can’t be put into words.”

Not everyone, however, agrees with the concept of posthumous touring. Described as “ghost slavery” by music journalist Simon Reyes, statements of continuing legacy and appreciation for an artist seem like a mask for the ultimate motive of capitalistic gain, no matter the exploitation. Blake Fielder-Civil, Amy Winehouse’s ex-husband, called her hologram tour a “money-making gimmick”.  

It’s hard to ignore the dystopian tone. After the Houston tour was announced, many fans on Twitter compared the idea to the Black Mirror episode “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”, a reflection on exploitation in the music industry which involved a pop-star being put into an induced coma so music could be extracted from her dreams. 

While these artists are not, in fact, being held against their will to make new music, there is a level of violation associated with using someone’s image when they are no longer around to consent. There is something eerie about Frank Zappa, who wrote the satirical album We’re Only In It For the Money, filling the pockets of people he’s never even met long after he’s died. In 1992, Ronnie James Dio of Black Sabbath worked on a song about a computerized God that is literally performed by his own hologram today. Hopefully, his audiences register the inherent irony. 

The implications for what hologram tours could mean for artists in the future are equally as unsettling. Could rights to posthumous touring be written into artist contracts when they sign to a label? What about if an artist, alive and touring today, gets into an argument with their label about an upcoming tour. Could a holographic replacement be wielded over their heads like an evil doppelganger? 

Right now, the budding industry of hologram tours is built on spectacle and based in legacy, but if it really is to become the future of live performance, both industry-makers and audience members have a lot to consider about the ethics behind posthumous performance.

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