Buddy Holly’s back ... as a touring hologram. But is it ‘live’ music?

Michael Lewis/Courtesy of Base Hologram Productions
A hologram of Roy Orbison performs in 2018 in Cardiff, Wales. This fall, a concert show featuring holograms of Mr. Orbison and Buddy Holly toured the U.S.

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Attendees at a recent Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly concert in Boston happily applaud after each song. Following a rendition of “You Got It,” one person yells out, “I love you, Roy!” 

This past year, the phrase “long live rock ’n’ roll” has taken on new meaning as musicians from across genres have been resurrected as touring holograms. A virtual Whitney Houston will join a live band and dancers for arena shows in Europe in 2020. Even ABBA, whose members are still alive, is planning a tour using “Abbatars.”

Why We Wrote This

How far can technology go in replicating performers? Fans are seeking authentic experiences and artists hope their work will survive them. The result is pushing the boundaries of what constitutes live music.

Amid debate over the ethics of using dead performers’ likenesses without their consent, fans are snapping up tickets to hologram concerts to see if these digital Lazaruses capture the essence of the original artists. Such nostalgia-driven audiences already support veteran bands touring with non-original members and they also feed a booming tribute band business. But this latest offering suggests a growing willingness to support the merge of technology and personhood to re-create a genuine concert experience.

Beth and Gary Thompson, visiting from Halifax, Nova Scotia, looked at each other in surprise when the Boston show first started. “I said, ‘Is it really a person there?’” recalls Ms. Thompson. “It’s so real!”

As soon as Donna Kemp heard about a joint comeback tour by Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly, she snapped up tickets at Boston’s Shubert Theatre. The last time she saw Roy Orbison in concert was in 1987. So when the sunglasses-clad crooner appeared in front of a live band on a recent Saturday night, his rendition of “In Dreams” made her tear up – just as it always has. 

It didn’t matter that the singers onstage were hologram projections of the two long-deceased artists.

“I was a little apprehensive,” admits Ms. Kemp. “But it’s good.” 

Why We Wrote This

How far can technology go in replicating performers? Fans are seeking authentic experiences and artists hope their work will survive them. The result is pushing the boundaries of what constitutes live music.

Her companion, Larry Donahue, was less convinced by the three-dimensional illusion. 

“If there was a person up there dressed up like Roy Orbison and moving around and even lip-syncing, it might be a little more effective,” he says. 

This past year, the phrase “long live rock ’n’ roll” has taken on new meaning as artists such as Frank Zappa and Ronnie James Dio have been resurrected as touring holograms. A virtual Whitney Houston will join a live band and dancers for arena shows in Europe in 2020. ABBA, whose members are still alive, is creating a tour consisting of “Abbatars.” 

Amid debate over the ethics of using dead performers’ likenesses without their consent, fans are snapping up tickets to hologram concerts to see if these digital Lazaruses capture the essence of the original artists. Such nostalgia-driven audiences already support veteran bands touring with non-original members and they also feed a booming tribute band business. But this latest offering suggests a growing willingness to support the merge of technology and personhood to re-create a genuine concert experience.

“What people are really seeking is as authentic an experience as they could hope for,” says Jem Aswad, senior music editor at Variety. “But also, I think they’re seeking a sense of community, because that’s what you really get from a concert.” 

Jockeying to get the tech first 

Ever since a surprise hologram of Tupac Shakur made a splash at the 2012 Coachella festival in California, companies such as Eyellusion, Hologram USA, and Base Hologram have spent millions of dollars in a race to develop live-show 3D technology. They believe it’s a growth industry, as a whole generation of classic rock artists won’t be touring for much longer. 

Courtesy of Base Hologram Productions
A tour featuring a holographic version of Whitney Houston is expected in 2020.

“There are artists who I have spoken to who are concerned that they may be forgotten one day and they would like us to preserve them on hologram because it lasts forever,” says Gary Shoefield, executive vice president of content development at Base Hologram, the company behind virtual tours by Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly, Whitney Houston, and opera star Maria Callas. 

For the estates of bygone artists, a touring hologram is an effective means to protect artists’ logos under U.S. law because if you don’t use a trademark, you lose it, says Ken Abdo, music lawyer and law partner at Fox Rothschild in Minneapolis. If artists haven’t left specific directions about using their likenesses after they die, he adds, heirs have control over the decision. “Without a directive, then that representative, that heir, is free to do what they want,” he says.

That has left room for the emerging hologram market, which capitalizes on the curiosity of fans. “The commercial success is actually based on the fact that the audience is aware that figure is not real but virtual,” writes Ke Shi, author of “Embodiment and Disembodiment in Live Art: From Grotowski to Hologram,” in an email. “This virtual-ness is the commodity here.” 

Mr. Shoefield, from Base Hologram, argues that most people, after a few minutes into a show, “forget it’s a hologram and just enjoy it for what it is.”

Emotional reaction

Holograms can evoke strong emotional reactions among those willing to suspend disbelief. One example: During the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, many audience members were moved to tears by the performance of a Michael Jackson avatar. 

“On a deeper level, it is an ancient urge coded in our collective subconsciousness to bring the dead back, a symbolic and theatrical move to defeat death,” says Mr. Shi.

Many touring avatars aren’t pure representations of the performers. Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison were re-created by filming body doubles who mimicked the style of movements of the musicians. The holograms are then projected onto a translucent curtain in front of a live band. 

In contrast to the stock-still Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly bops around like an inflatable tube man. Both men dissipate into a puff of smoke at the end – a playful acknowledgment that the whole presentation is just an elaborate illusion. 

But can they talk with the audience?

In the future, artificial intelligence technology may offer more interactivity between avatars and concertgoers. But at present the digital representations – which are accompanied by recordings of their voices, either live or studio performances – can only feign interplay by waving at the audience or glancing in the direction of the live band. (Base Hologram is also collaborating with paleontologist Jack Horner on an exhibition of hologram dinosaurs that, mercifully, will feature more bytes than bites.) 

The industry is watching to see how hologram tours perform. In Europe, the Whitney Houston tour has been booked for arenas. Ticket sales for the Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly U.S. theater tour, with tickets ranging from $55 to $100, have been solid. 

For David Brooks, senior director of the live and touring beat at Billboard magazine, this type of programmed performance “breaks down the whole notion of what makes live music and live entertainment special.” 

It’s not just about sharing a moment with a living performer but also about experiencing the element of uncertainty, he says, such as wondering if the musician will be able to hit a high note. 

Attendees at the Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly double bill seem less concerned about that, happily applauding after each song. Following a rendition of “You Got It,” one person yells out, “I love you, Roy!” 

When the show first started, Beth and Gary Thompson, visiting Boston from Halifax, Nova Scotia, looked at each other in surprise. 

“I said, ‘Is it really a person there?’” recalls Ms. Thompson. “It’s so real!”

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