With most festivals now cancelled until next year, some bands have turned to a new form of live music experience: virtual festivals.
Minecraft is a sandbox video game where players can build and explore vast worlds, making it the ideal platform to develop a music festival where artists and fans alike can connect from all across the world, interacting in a real time virtual environment.
American experimental duo, 100 gecs, were one of the first bands to utilise Minecraft’s blocky landscape to create a virtual show, after playing their first live gig within the video game last year. In April, they announced the ‘Square Garden’ festival would be their next venture, set to feature appearances from Charli XCX, Cashmere Cat, Benny Blanco, Kero Kero Bonito, A.G. Cook, and more.
The team behind the festival, Open Pit Presents, have already hosted numerous Minecraft-based events, featuring everyone from American Football, to Pussy Riot, to Slipknot.
Held on a Minecraft server, with a capacity of over 9000 players, Square Garden filled to its limit within minutes. After multiple failed attempts, I finally managed to enter the server, and quickly set to exploring the festival grounds.
After navigating through (and getting lost!) in a trippy terrain filled with glowing mushrooms and vibrant flowers, I final found the festival’s stage, located within the ‘Tree of Clues’; named after 100 gecs’ upcoming remix project. I watched as internet icon Parry Grip stormed through an eclectic set, packed with lyrical references to space unicorns and raining tacos, before heading to the ‘bar’.
Square Garden’s line-up mostly drew upon the experimental-electronic scene of music, fusing kaleidoscopic DJ sets with far out solo sets from the wittiest of electronic artists. From start to finish, every part of the festival was wild – whether it was ‘drinking’ virtual alcohol, or watching anticipation build for one of the world’s biggest pop stars to perform in Minecraft, Square Garden was like no other experience.
The joint DJ set from Cashmere Cat and Benny Blanco bounced from Cotton Eye Joe, to Barbie Girl, to Cascada; also managing to squeeze in Venga Boys, Post Malone, and even a reference to Tiger King’s Carole Baskin. Meanwhile, Kero Kero Bonito brought their feel-good dance-pop to the festival, skimming through some of their most popular tracks, including ‘Flamingo’ and ‘Trampoline’.
My experience at Square Garden was abruptly ended after a surge of a fans joined the server, desperate to catch a glimpse of the final two sets, Charli XCX and 100 gecs. Luckily, the entire event was being livestreamed across Twitch and YouTube, allowing me to capture the final 40 minutes of the festival.
After proclaiming that she ‘didn’t even know what Minecraft was’, Charli played an energetic set, performing tracks from her recently released album, along with an unreleased fan-favourite, ‘Taxi’. 100 gecs were enlisted for a performance of ‘ringtone (remix)’, featuring both artists, before the American duo went on to play the final set of the night.
The hype around Minecraft-based festivals carried forward into the next day, when the Courier Club presented event ‘Block By Blockwest’ was due to take place (aptly named after the cancelled SXSW festival).
Over the course of an hour, 100,000 people attempted to get into the festival – something which the server was far from able to handle. Subsequently, the festival was postponed for three weeks, whilst the server went under heavy maintenance to make it fit to join.
A huge capacity increase later, BXBW was set to go again, this time without the addition of British trip-hop legends Massive Attack. And it worked. Albeit, the festival capacity was now too high, leading to some (slightly) empty stages – but it all worked out fine.
Featuring three different stage areas, and over forty artists, BXBW even included a minigame where players were able to pit against each-other in a giant game of ‘paintball’. Alternating between medieval castles and rainbow tunnels, each stage contained bars, merch tables, and even art galleries, allowing fans to support artists via links to webstores.
Swapping racing through muddy fields to catch the final song of the setlist, to barely lifting a finger to see seven different bands, virtual festivals bring an ease to watching live music, allowing as many fans as possible to access their favourite artists. From running up a snowy mountain to see IDLES perform in a giant wooden tower, to watching Sports Team play a gritty set inside a castle, BXBW brought a new light to virtual festivals, blending artsy, blocky architecture with energetic live music.
From the funky basslines and groove-soaked melodies of Argonaut and Wasp, to the jangly guitar tunes from Los Shadows, each artist brought their own flair to the festival. Like with many festivals, I found myself discovering new bands. The set from Polar Boys was a personal favourite, mixing heartfelt, dreamy lyricism, with lively choruses, as they rolled through Beach Boys-esque sounding tracks including ‘Nothing Has Changed’ and ‘Life’s A Dream’.
Meanwhile, Your Smith’s charmingly rich vocals waltzed through woozy lo-fi synths, whilst the addictive melodies from HUNNY formed a dynamic, hazy surf rock set packed with anthemic vocal hooks.
Hosts, Courier Club, put on arguably the best set of the night, with their fuzzy spirit resulting in endless blocky mosh-pits with no real prospect of dodgy injuries (unless of course you count aching thumbs from incessant spacebar pressing).
Both Square Garden and Block By Blockwest have set a high bar when it comes to virtual festivals. They have an ability to connect fans to bands in a way which feels much more intimate than an Instagram Live; drawing out the energy of being in a packed music venue, and embedding it into a virtual experience, which can be accessed straight from a bedroom.
It may not quite feel like the real thing, but it’s certainly good enough for now.