The future of music consumption, or a gimmick that makes you look like a nob? Childish Gambino’s new ‘VR vinyl’ experienced

Last week Thomas Gane strapped on some cardboard goggles to road-test Donald Glover's latest project around 'Awaken, My Love!'

In 2016 Childish Gambino went from being a cult favourite to one of the most respected artists in the world. His TV series Atlanta was a critical and commercial success, his PHAROS festival out in the Joshua Tree desert was lauded as unique, and he released arguably the most acclaimed album of his career, ‘Awaken, My Love!’ In the last twelve months he’s also been cast as Lando Calrissian, Simba and won two Golden Globes, propelling Migos to their first number one in the process by shouting them out in his acceptance speech. When Donald Glover does something now people take notice.

As such, when House Of Vans announced an ‘Awaken, My Love!’ “VR Screening Party” earlier this month it generated quite a lot of buzz. The event was to celebrate the launch of the ‘Awaken, My Love!’ limited edition VR Vinyl, which had been announced months ago to general bemusement (VR Vinyl works how…?). Tickets were free, but balloted, and promised “world-first access to this hyper-immersive showcase” that included “the incredible 360° footage shot at [Childish Gambino’s] immersive PHAROS concerts last summer”.

This finally gave us an indication of what to expect from a VR Vinyl. PHAROS was how Donald Glover announced the return of Childish Gambino in June last year. Almost two years after all of his social media blacked out following the release of ‘STN MTN / Kauai’ Gambino returned with a single Tweet that linked to the PHAROS Earth app. The app opened to an animation of speeding through space with a mysterious timer counting down to what most presumed would be new music. A little over 24 hours later the timer reached zero and it was revealed to be a festival announcement.

The PHAROS Festival took place in the Joshua Tree desert in September. Phones were completely banned from the performance areas and ticket holders were instructed to wear blue, the “vibrancy colour”. Gambino used the opportunity to premiere the first of three episodes of Atlanta and the new music that would become ‘Awaken, My Love!’. Reviews were glowing, with Tyler Mitchell in The FADER calling it a chance to live “fully inside an artist’s idea of the world” and Nathan Slavik for Bundle.Media writing, “The future is now, and it looks exactly like Donald Glover.”

That PHAROS would be a big part of the vinyl release shows how much planning had gone into the release of ‘Awaken, My Love!’, and the chance to finally experience the festival was an exciting prospect. Outside of that however the fans I spoke to were unsure of what would happen – a fairly common theme in the career of Childish Gambino. “I was enjoying not knowing what to expect,” said Sian from North London.

Walking into the theatre at House Of Vans we were handed a phone, a pair of headphones and a decorated, cardboard VR headset. The experience centered around the PHAROS Earth app which links to the VR Vinyl when ‘activated’. The audio from the festival is within the app and you don’t listen to the vinyl whilst wearing the headset, so the name VR Vinyl may be a tad misleading.

As everyone wore their own headset the actual experience was very solitary and it became clear the word ‘screening’ in the title was carefully chosen. This was not a collective live experience, more a lot of people watching the same thing at different times in the same room. People watching was actually one of the most entertaining parts of the event, as everyone took in the VR, as with music, in completely different ways. Some pressed the cardboard tight to their face, leaving goggle lines etched into their skin as they twisted, turned and jumped. Others were far more casual, placing the headset lightly and leaning back, letting the experience come to them.

Putting the headset on transports you to the start of the PHAROS Festival performance, the crowd cheering as the opening chords of ‘Me And Your Mamma’ rained down. When you looked up however you were confronted by a giant robot that supplied the deep, villainous laugh that kickstarted the guitar riff. Childish walked towards the front of the stage as the crowd roared. Resplendent in body and face paint and wearing a grass skirt, there was a heavy ritualistic element of the performance, a clever contrast to the high tech way it was viewed and the giant robot.

One complaint of this section however was the camera quality, which was grainy. “I think the camera used at the concert was a bit webcamy,” said Drew from London. Cara from Islington had a similar belief. “It will only ever be secondary to the personal live experience, especially when it’s in the cardboard,” she suggested. “If you’re a really big fan who’s going to pay for it then you’re going to need something a little higher res, something a little sexier.”

The performance moved on to ‘Zombies’ and it became clear why some people were so active. Throughout the experience your field of vision rotated at an imperceptible rate, meaning you often found yourself looking in the opposite direction to Gambino, the natural object of your attention. At first this seemed glitchy, but after repeat watches it seemed more like subtly directing your gaze. The ‘Zombies’ performance spent a lot of time on the crowd, with a glow in the distance and some dark red creatures floating in the sky. The most striking moment came during the breakdown when Gambino sang the refrain “Do you feel alive?” as you looked directly into the eyes of the front row. Into the eyes of people who look real, are real and were really in that moment, but were rendered by pixels. Meta.

We left the PHAROS festival to be transported through space to a gorgeous, colourful forest that was filled with skeletons dancing to ‘California’ (a metaphor a little more on the nose than the previous ones). The animation had a late 90s/early 00s video game style (Zelda in particular sprang to mind) and was vibrant, colourful and incredibly immersive, with Drew describing it as “like I was listening on a weird, spacey, drug trip.” The dancing skeletons and gorgeous rendering of the forest drew you in completely. “When you were going through the jungle it made me look around a lot more,” said Sian. “I was going up and down and everywhere to see what was going on.”

This turned out to be a trap as suddenly a dark, ghoulish figure appeared directly in front of you. This was the stimulus to travel to the final location, a desolate planet filled with more ghouls that slowly danced as a holographic Gambino sang ‘Stand Tall’. The hologram gradually moved closer and this became the most arresting part of the experience. With Gambino singing to you, surrounded by dancing demons, the lyrics and soulful beauty of the song really took hold, making it almost impossible not to take Childish’s advice as he sang, “So smile when you can, when you can.” “The fact that he’s singing personally to you makes the lyrical content, his sentiment and his expression so much more personal,” said Cara. “It made you engage so much more.”

The overall effect was, much like the album itself, was open to interpretation. “You don’t have to go to a concert anymore,” Joana from Hackney told me. “You can just download an app and watch a VR with so many different animations going on. It’s telling a completely different story. You’re put in the place that the artist was and you can see what they want you to see.”

Others were less convinced that replacing a live show was possible. “I don’t think it would replace a live show,” said Sian. “You’re all in there together watching the same thing, but you’re all having such an insular experience that it couldn’t replace the feeling of actually being there.” Drew agreed, saying “I think the visuals and overwhelming sound of a live performance can’t be replaced.”

Others were less impressed by the event itself. “I really like the record and the artist, however I don’t think it was added to in any sort of way by having a VR experience,” said Arthur. “I think collective VR experiences as well are a strange thing, but I like how he’s experimental and at least thinking about new technologies.” Tasmin concurred; “It’s hard to understand the purpose of this event. A bit style over substance.”

To me the VR seemed like dipping a toe in the water. VR will undoubtedly revolutionise how we consume almost all media, but at the moment the technology simply isn’t there and as such the VR Vinyl seems a little muddled. The sound and video quality isn’t high enough to match the sensory bombardment of a live show, whilst the headset isn’t comfortable enough for you to want to casually listen to and watch as a visual album (would you enjoy an hour of pressing cardboard edges into your face?).

What it does to however is open up possibilities. The animation within the concert was exciting and engaging (so many live music VR’s forget that VR is more than 360 video – why would you just film when you can do literally anything?), and it got me thinking about the potential for a show that used augmented reality through something like Google Glass. Some of the fully animated sequences were also gorgeous, particularly ‘Stand Tall’, and were a wonderful way to add feeling to a song outside of the standard story or performance format of most music videos. Another big positive of VR is you can’t be distracted by anything. You can’t Tweet, read or message which means you entirely focus on the music and what the artist want you to see.

So maybe the ‘Awaken, My Love!’ VR Vinyl offers more questions about how the form could be used than answers, but the effort in itself is interesting and exciting. The reason people make music, or rather should make music, is they have something to say and want to do so creatively. That creativity should extend to the form itself and not simply the content. This also isn’t the final product by any means (using the app means Gambino can keep updating and adding to the content) but in the coming years far more immersive and complete VR music content will be produced.

“We will get to that point in the second or third gen,” Cara suggested in our chat, and I would agree. Once the resolution of the video and the sound quality improves this would definitely be worth paying for, as a stand alone album concept or as a way to watch a headline festival performance. I’m sure Gambino knows this isn’t the end product, but somebody has to take the first steps and he should be applauded for taking the risk. At the moment however with a price tag of £50… let’s just say I went home empty handed.

Images by: Kat Mackenzie (Black Sparrow)