ABBA and the Holograms

Image: SMH

It’s a futuristic scene, but one we may be about to become very familiar with.

The lights go down and the audience in a packed-out Rod Laver Arena stops its chatter.

The usual pyrotechnics foreshadowing the start of a pop concert begin a ramp up and the fans begin to cheer.

A flash on stage and the set appears. Drumkits, guitars, a piano, mics and stands. Drilled back-up singers march to their posts.

Somewhere in a booth a technical director says “cue: Agnetha and Anni-Frid’s entrance”.

Fade to black and then… Bam!

Cheers turn thunderous as the two Swedish divas, coiffed and poised, begin to sing the opening number in perfect harmony. Somewhere a producer is counting the considerable box-office.

Much in the same way 20th century audiences watched the shellac gramaphone record become the vinyl, become the A-track, become the cassette, become the CD… 21st century audiences will watch the evolution of a new medium: the hologram.

In London next year, the most co-ordinated salvo yet will be fired in the ongoing assault of the hologram artist.

It’s not the first.

Japanese vocaloid popstar Hatsune Miku (anglicised: The First Sound of the Future) debuted in 2007. Fourteen years later, Miku now has number one hits, millions of sales, a cult following of fans and an entourage of lesser, celebrity hologram singers.

Tupac’s hologram’s performance at Coachella has over 85 million YouTube views. Maria Callas, Whitney Houston, Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison were all on tour before COVID struck.

What makes ABBA’s endeavour different is its not a prototype or a resurrection. It’s one of the most anticipated comebacks in modern history.

Holograms have been around for a while and despite the quality of the image we are now seeing, not much has changed with the logistics of the technology being used.

Laserlights are projected onto each other forming a 3D image with detail and depth. The challenge for decades has been making that light look real enough for people to pay to watch it perform.

Even now, with digital realism rendered in magnificent 4K and motion capture ready to make any pose and expression easily programable, we’ve still only seen the tip of this techs iceberg.

Watching fan vids of Whitney performing before packed houses in the UK, there’s still a limit to what the digital rendering of the diva can do.

Whitney looks breathtaking – luminous. But she doesn’t stray far from centre stage.

Her voice is taken from unreleased live performances. Her movements are exquisite and her scheduled banter fits neatly into the gaps between generous audience applause.

But even with four living back up dancers pounding the boards around her, the star attraction remains hauntingly under control.

Image: NPR
Considered one of the greatest voices of the 20th century, soprano Maria Callas now performs in hologram form, fronting a live orchestra, dressed to kill and wielding props ranging from a shawl to tarot cards.

Reviews of Maria Callas in concert have praised the technology by Base Hologram (also responsibility for Houston’s hologram) but complained the artist and the audience remained eerily disconnected.

If you’re a hologram, you can’t respond to your audience in real time. Not yet.

ABBA’s hologram show next year will be in a purpose-built arena in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and comes with a new album, Voyage, by Benny and Bjorn.

It’s first two singles have already topped charts around the world while ticket pre-sales crashed the box-office website on its first day.

Sales to the general public for the first release of performances kick off on Tuesday, September 7 at 10am GMT with prices ranging from AU$40 to AU$280.

The good news for fans is there will be no shortage of availability. This act can play seven shows a week indefinitely.

The bad news for the live music industry is this is going to be the new normal, whether anyone likes it or not, including the audience.

The allure of nostalgia and its usefulness in selling new technology has become so strong in modern pop culture, holograms had to take over eventually.

The main gap in the market now is cost, with high quality holograms an expensive and labour-intensive piece of work needing major venues and purpose built tech.

Gramophone players sold well when they went into mass-production in 1895, but one shellac disc could only hold two songs. When radio came along in the 1920’s it became wildly more popular because it was cheaper and more adaptable to popular trends and audience needs.

No doubt in 2021, audiences are watching the shellac disc of what the hologram can and inevitably will be.

It takes very little foresight to imagine digital extravaganzas being programable into any professional venue, eventually into the home and finally onto our individual devices.

Associated technologies like virtual reality, 7D and the metaverse can only contribute to a revolution of the way music as an artform is delivered and perceived.

Questions of whether holograms are a good thing for art, ethical for artists and their estates, or a responsible business move are now virtually redundant.

In the decades ahead, regulation will be the order of the day as companies, individuals and entire governments rush to decide just what context this daunting new tech should take.

Here’s hoping they get it right.

The future of modern culture is at stake.