But that wasn’t a problem, because the entire thing was virtual. Welcome to Nether Meant, a music festival that took place entirely within the video game Minecraft.
The event was the latest in digital festivals created and curated by Open Pit, a virtual events producer. Instead of spending months creating massive festival grounds like they have for Coachella and Mine Gala, the team spent two weeks creating a pixelated, scale recreation of the actual Brooklyn venue Elsewhere, which they dubbed Elsewither. Their primary goal? To provide some at-home quarantine entertainment with “fun, unique, community-driven chaos,” said Robin Boehlen, the org’s community management lead.
Interested parties could “attend” in a few different ways. Some watched on the video game streaming site Twitch. To really get into the action, though, you needed to log into Minecraft, plug in the proper server info and, voilà!, you’d pop to life in a hallway and then explore the venue through your first-person viewpoint.
Purchasing a VIP pass (with real money) allowed access to special cordoned-off parts of the venue and the chance to chat with the artists on the gamer hangout app Discord. Meanwhile, the nearly 100,000 unique viewers on Twitch were encouraged to donate money to disaster recovery org Good360, which ended up with roughly $8,000 in proceeds.
Like at any traditional concert, there’s the stage, and a bar on the other side of the room. (Despite this reporters’ best attempt, it did not appear possible to purchase a virtual brew.) People’s avatars mulled about in the pit. A few checked out the in-game merchandise, such as an American Football T-shirt for their avatars. Some attendees sauntered up the stairs to find various pieces of art, which were accompanied by small nameplates bearing the name and Twitter handle of their creators.
The primary method of communication was an enormous group text chat — the game doesn’t allow for individual conversations — which mimicked crowd noise. Much like at an actual rock concert, some attendees shouted out their favorite bands, as “I LOVE AMERICAN FOOTBALL” proved a common refrain.
Also like at an actual rock concert, things didn’t roll as smoothly as they could have. Overloaded servers proved problematic early in the evening. But eventually, the room filled with blocky avatars doing their best to dance. Minecraft’s minimalist sensibility doesn’t allow for dynamic character movement, but audience members jumped together in the pit during certain songs, emulating a mosh pit best as they could. You could join in the jumping by tapping your space bar, and the screen would bob up and down — in tune with the music, if you were rhythmically inclined.
“Faster! Faster! The music’s getting faster!” the crowd chanted all together via text during a particularly exciting crescendo in the Sleepycatt & Y2K set, which also included a call and response chorus: “I say mine, you say craft! Mine! Craft!”
The music was not performed live, but the bands did record unique sets for the night, including banter. When American Football took the stage, frontman Mike Kinsella quipped, “We’re so happy to be here, wherever ‘here’ is. … So this is the future, huh? Honestly, I thought there’d be more pixels.”
Will Wiesenfeld, a producer who records as Baths, took the advice of Anamanaguchi drummer Luke Silas to make his set “bespoke” and “as weird as possible.” He wasn’t the only one.
“It gives us an opportunity to play some fun stuff that we’d never really play, even in a DJ set,” said Anamanaguchi guitarist Peter Berkman, explaining “no one’s really expecting anything.”
For a first-timer, the experience can be equal parts fascinating and confounding. To avoid disappointment, it’s best to think of it more like a video game than an actual concert — particularly since the music isn’t actually live. Most of the fun comes from exploring the world, dressing up your avatar, hearing the curated set lists and engaging in the group chat.
Still, despite the best efforts from the event’s moderators, trolls showed up en masse in both Minecraft and Twitch, intoxicated on everything from ketamine to cocaine to good ol’ booze, if their incessant messages can be believed. Eventually these trolls could convince even the most enthusiastic of concertgoers to turn off the chat function.
American Football drummer Steve Lamos agreed with a message he noticed that said, “This text thread is like a river of filth flowing at a thousand miles an hour.” Almost none of the messages could be reprinted in a family newspaper.
“It was sort of poetic how gross and over-the-top it was,” Lamos said. “Hearing our band soundtracking this thing and then watching the river was almost an aesthetic experience and not a pleasant one.”
Despite the bugs, Lamos thought the event might have brought the band’s music to a new audience. “I think this is a window to the future,” he said.
While Nether Meant was much smaller in scale than Open Pit’s other online festivals, it drew a much larger crowd. That’s partly because American Football brought a new audience — but also because people stuck at home are thirsting for a communal experience.
“I think there’s going to be a bigger need for them in the coming year,” said Wiesenfeld, before referencing a recent report in which bioethicist Zeke Emanuel suggested concerts will not return until fall of 2021. For Wiesenfeld, online shows include some of the same “thrill and excitement of things in a live venue experience.” And he sees nothing but potential for expanding the concept to include actual live music, more fan interaction and even better graphics.
Open Pit has a few more Minecraft festivals planned — where thousands will gather online to keep hitting the space bar to the beat, dancing alone, together.