Nearly seven years on, it remains one of the most iconic moments in Coachella history: Hologram Tupac. During the climax of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s headlining set in 2012, the gangsta rap duo was joined by their long-dead collaborator, who “performed” “Hail Mary” before trading verses with Snoop on “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted.” The effect was so lifelike, audience members could be forgiven if they thought they were witnessing Tupac’s resurrection (at least, until he exited the stage by exploding into light).
But despite all the attention, we never got a tour from the Tupac hologram. And while we’ve since seen performances from the holographic likenesses of everyone from Michael Jackson to Ronnie James Dio, there isn’t a massive market for touring holograms, at least not on the scale some predicted back in 2012.
However, that may be changing in 2019.
Back from Black
In December, Mitch Winehouse, father of retro-minded singer Amy Winehouse, announced that a hologram of his late daughter would be touring in 2019, complete with a live band and backup singers.
“As a family, we felt ready to bring Amy’s incredible talent back to the spotlight, give her fans a chance to experience her music again and for new generations to continue to discover her,” Mitch Winehouse said when announcing the tour. “We experienced first-hand how these hologram shows celebrate great artists.”
Winehouse also said that “[a]ll the family’s proceeds from the hologram tour will go to the Amy Winehouse Foundation.”
There are also plans for a Frank Zappa hologram tour dubbed “The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa,” which will reportedly include new music and appearances by Zappa’s former band members.
The Amy Winehouse tour is being produced by Base Hologram, which has previously worked on holograms of the late opera star Maria Callas and rock pioneer Roy Orbison. In October, Orbison’s tour made its North American debut at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. According to the Los Angeles Times, one audience member dubbed the concert “fabulous” while another remarked that the experience was “as good as seeing him in person as you’ll ever get.”
Base Hologram is betting big that other audiences will share that sentiment. The company, which is led by former Clear Channel Entertainment executive Brian Becker, expects to earn between $25 and $35 million in revenue in 2019.
“Not only can we experience these artists again, we can experience them in different ways, in a new environment,” Becker told the Times.
Copyrights for Copycats
While the technology to create these holograms is already in place—it typically involves a motion capture performance by an actor or impersonator, combined with a digitally rendered version of the singer’s face, which is synched to previous recordings—the biggest hurdle that promoters must overcome are legal restrictions.
First, the promoter must pay for the rights to use the performer’s music. But in the U.S., there’s an additional “right to publicity” that allows a person (or their estate) to profit off of their likeness. The problem is, each state has its own laws. As Australia’s ABC News points out, “in California, the right to publicity extends 50 years after death. In New York, that right ends at death.”
Because of these laws, promoters typically must work closely with the families of the artists. Roy Orbison’s son, Alex, said his family was deeply involved in the development of the hologram, suggesting subtle touches like adjusting his glasses between songs.
Creepy or Captivating?
The bigger question is whether or not audiences will embrace a digital version of their favorite artists. While animated groups like Gorillaz or holograms like Hatsune Miko exist solely in a virtual space, it’s different to pay for tickets to see a virtual representation of a deceased artist. That may not be an issue for holograms of Billie Holiday and Jackie Wilson, both of whom have been dead for decades. But for someone like Winehouse, who died at the young age of 27 less than eight years ago, audiences might see a holographic tour as morbid and exploitive.
Beyond that, there’s the issue of concert dynamics, in which an audience’s response drives the band’s energy, and vice versa. A pre-recorded performance, even one that includes live musicians on stage, can’t possibly replicate that organic chemistry.
Or can it? Jeff Pezutti, the CEO and founder of the Zappa tour promoter Eyelusion, told ABC that the audience for his Ronnie James Dio hologram quickly lost themselves in the performance.
“People watched the first minute-and-a-half, and before you knew it, they had their devil horns up,” Pezutti said. “When they sang back to the hologram, that’s when I knew that we had literally captured something. You forget you are looking at a hologram. Now you are at a rock show.”
As with all art, people’s responses will be subjective. But, if nothing else, 2019 will offer the most opportunities yet to check out the technology for yourself. Just don’t expect to see Tupac again any time soon; his avatar now exists solely in the archives.