Play It By Ear
After becoming a playable avatar on DJ Hero 2, a Family Guy video game, and something called Goat Simulator, a former programmer and 3D animator named Joel Zimmerman — better known as the masked DJ and producer deadmau5 — wanted to break the borders between fan and artist even further. In the early 2010s, he began livestreaming to his fans, demonstrating how he made his music and encouraging them to co-create alongside him. He would post instrumentals to his Soundcloud page, and within a few hours people would return with new melodies, grooves, and toplines. deadmau5 understood then that the future of fandom would no longer be authoritarian but collaborative — or, at least have the illusion of being so.
"The music and video game industries have been progressing in their lanes in parallel," he tells EW. "But now we're starting to see these intersecting points, which has been exciting for me."
While compelling for artists looking to connect with fans, that intersection is also at a crossroads, transforming what used to be solely labors of love — fan art, a dance routine inspired by your favorite song — into a lucrative revenue stream that many now consider imperative to the success of an artist's product.
"I understand the perspective that most people have, that the artist produces and the audience listens," says Richard Summers, the Chief Scientific Officer at Colabox, a tool for creating superfan ignition with the use of mini-games. "But actually, that's the opposite of fandom. It belongs in a gamified approach."
It's no coincidence that deadmau5 made all those video game appearances over a decade ago. He knew early on that gaming would intensify and re-invent the function and meaning of fandom going forward, if only the worlds of music and gaming could fully combine. Gaming, by its very nature, is interactive and immersive, the player's choices affecting the world around them. Recorded music, on the other hand, is static — unless it can be gamified.
Last year, Travis Scott spearheaded the mainstream adoption of immersive digital experiences when he was joined by an audience of 27.7 million for his virtual concert on gaming platform Fortnite. This year, in early October, Zimmerman went several steps further as he unveiled Oberhasli, his own constantly evolving virtual world, filled with easter egg-laden games, music, and interactive content, which he curated himself. Hosted on a game development platform named Core, Oberhasli is an example of what's now buzzily referred to as a metaverse, a term taken from Neal Stephenson's sci-fi novel Snow Crash, which envisioned a constantly expanding online environment that culturally mirrors our own world. The metaverse largely relies on user-generated content, resulting in a cultural shift both in how music is being consumed and how music fandom functions. In a trajectory no doubt fueled by a global pandemic that left much of the population wary of gathering in groups larger than their own household, Core and its ilk are fast becoming the primary engine for the convergence of the music and gaming industries.
In July, deadmau5 asked fans among Core's user base to create worlds inside the platform that could be included in the music video for his new single "When The Summer Dies," incentivizing them with the chance to win cash, merchandise, as well as the opportunity to meet the Mau5 himself. "Typically, it takes months and hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars to make a music video. In this case, we were able to pull together a video with stunning 3D worlds in just a couple of months," the producer said in a press release. "[It] demonstrates why more artists are seeking out unique opportunities inside of games to extend new experiences to their audiences."
Asked now if he considers it ethical to request free labor from fans in order to save time and money on video production, deadmau5 likens the dynamic to an unpaid internship "I've spent ten years of my life not getting paid for f--k-all and honing my craft, learning my tools, which then put me in a position where someone noticed and said you should get paid for this," he says. "I wouldn't just hire someone off the street."
Jon Vlassopulos, the Head of Music of Roblox, a metaverse built on user-created games and experiences that has developed a reputation for becoming a kind of virtual after-school club, says that he wants "fans to come from a place of passion, not obligation." Like many entrepreneurs with an interest in user-generated content, Vlassopulos has taken inspiration from the K-pop scene and the gamification of fandom therein. "If you look at how it operates, K-pop fans will go out and buy the album ten times so that it charts," he says. "We want to create an opportunity where fans, instead of building something abstract, can build worlds for artists they love."
With around 40 to 50 million daily active users, Vlassopulos believes that Roblox is going to "birth a superfandom era where, whether you have 100 fans or 100,000,000, you'll be able to interact and commercialize your fandom." As a micro-transaction platform, its users are used to paying for virtual goods, too. Lil Nas X sold around $10 million in digital merch after a 2020 performance on Roblox, which was watched 33 million times in a single weekend.
Paying for pixels might seem absurd to some, but a Deloitte survey found that 87 percent of Gen Z are regular gamers, up from 83 percent of millennials and 79 percent of Gen Xers. There's a whole new generation for whom virtual socialization has become as important as real-life experiences, and metaverses provide them with the chance to align themselves with their favorite artists.
This kind of artist-centered worldbuilding is ultimately creating more engaged fans, as well as shifting music consumption away from individual choice towards something increasingly collaborative and social. "I feel like it's a great way of expressing oneself as a fan, and it gives the artist a unique insight into how the rest of the world sees your art and how it's interpreted. It's really encouraging," says Sam Hewitt of the up-and-coming band Easy Life, who performed in a virtual makeshift version of the O2 on Fortnite back in June. "Not only that but it creates a much stronger sense of community within the fanbase."
Swedish pop singer Zara Larsson, who performed at a virtual album launch party in May says that, for her, "It was a totally new experience and a different way to connect with people."
Industry insiders believe metaverses — followed by whatever innovation is around the corner — will soon be more popular than TikTok and Instagram. And with artists as big as Justin Bieber performing on platforms like Wave, they may be right. But will in-person concerts truly become a thing of the past? While fans likely felt parasocially closer to Larsson as they ambled toward her enormous avatar, the singer admits she left her virtual event feeling removed from the typical fan-artist relationship: "I can imagine it's amazing for them, but there is nothing like seeing your fans in front of you at a concert."
As the gaming industry continues to give music fans new tools in which to co-create and develop parasocial relationships with their favorite artists, the line between their empowerment and exploitation is increasingly being blurred. And, while artists are, fortunately, being compensated with more for less, their fans are merely rewarded with the illusion of intimacy. It's the kind of activity — an artist profiting from the uncompensated time and energy of their fans — that was referred to disparagingly as "free labor" by the Italian theorist Tiziana Terranova in the early 2000s. Eventually, the gamification of music fandom, while dressed in a rhetoric of empowerment and participation, may end up benefiting everyone but the fan.
A version of this story appears in the January issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Dec. 17. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.