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The Experience Renaissance

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Dan Runcie

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This week’s essay is about The Experience Renaissance. The term was coined by this week’s guest writer, Michael Hines. I loved the idea when he pitched the story, and I’m excited to share it with you today.

The Experience Renaissance

For IRL experiences, it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times

The future of entertainment used to look like millions of teenagers at a Travis Scott show in Fortnite. Now, it’s drunk Brits in sequinned onesies singing Dancing Queen in time with a holographic ABBA.

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve also seen U2’s “distortion pedal for the mind” show at The Sphere in Las Vegas. Live music is the bleeding frontier of rich media experiences. Our culture is littered with examples of great experiential creativity designed to blow your mind.

Think about Heliot Emil sending models down the runway on fire and Coperni spraying Bella Hadid’s dress on using robots; sensory experiences that open the doors of perception like Dream Machine; or artistic spectacles like Kusama’s Infinity Rooms and JR’s Chiroptera.

We have found ourselves in The Experience Renaissance.

What’s fuelling The Experience Renaissance?

The increasing importance of live moments can be traced back to the early Noughties when the accelerating penetration of mobile internet and social media created a parallel cultural response. People were able to film and stream live moments, but they also gained a new appreciation for what live experiences could bring that you couldn’t find online or in a social network. 

 

Then came The Pandemic. Covid-19 was the biggest natural experiment in experiential deprivation in 100 years. History suggests that humans search for meaning during pandemics, and afterward we forget and party. After glutting ourselves on streaming content during on-off lockdowns, the innate human hunger for the visceral, the real and pure spectacle has only intensified.

This mixture of creativity, opportunity and technology allows great experiences to scale far beyond the audiences that attend in person. Creators and artists now have a better grasp of the limitations of physical and digital, and their ability to blend the two has accelerated as mixed-reality tech scales up. 

Even so, as the author William Gibson said, when it comes to experiences, “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” The big digital players are still very West-centric (North America, the UK and Western Europe). Still, the value of live moments relative to digital services is much stronger in Asia-Pacific and Latin America. And there’s likely still a massive amount of demand for live experiences still to be met. 

Live Nation

With the internet fragmenting from Web 2.0 into a series of smaller communities held together by fandom, all roads lead back to live moments. And the human hunger for real experiences will probably intensify in reaction to the future prevalence of AI in much of online life. What happens in the flesh is human, real, and will always be more valuable.

Artists and creators are pushing the boundaries with their work, and examples of what experiences can deliver for artists, fans and the bottom line are everywhere – but that’s just half the story.  

Not everyone is invited to this party

The Experience Renaissance is the best of times for big-name creators and the worst of times for their audiences and grassroots artists. As demand grows for major concerts, tickets to live music are more expensive than ever. In the US, concert revenue is up 15% since pre-pandemic, but the number of concerts is down 14%[1].

It’s not just live music: index trackers built out of companies’ share prices that benefit when people stay in versus going out suggest that many more people are staying at home[2], ordering in, and streaming. The age of the “hermit consumer” is a $600 billion shift from outside to inside.  It’s partly a problem of supply and demand as much as changing habits. Many venues, artists and parts of the hospitality and entertainment industries went bust during the Pandemic, and we haven’t pumped enough funding into the system to resurrect them. The superstars can participate in the Experience Renaissance and fill the big stadiums, but the middle and rising artists have fewer venues to play and places to tour. We can’t build the venues fast enough. As Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino said at the 2023 Liberty Media investor conference:

“There’s a whole movement now, if you’re a major city, to figure out how to build venues so live performances can come there……..Typically they have soccer stadiums, they don’t have arenas, they don’t have a 5,000-seat [venue], [it’s] been underdeveloped and underserviced [in] most of the world… And every day there’s a new arena built in Sao Paulo or Milan.”

While the industry plays catch-up on building the infrastructure required to stage live experiences, digital can help audiences who can’t make it in person. Streams of live shows have accelerated and are estimated by 2028 to be worth about $4-5 billion a year[3]. VR is likely to further blur the boundaries and expand access, and shouldn’t be overlooked or dismissed. As Marc Andreessen of VC Andreessen Horowitz has pointed out, a big selling point of VR is in reducing “reality privilege.” Virtual reality might be an inferior version of the real experience, but it’s better than being shut out entirely due to money or geography. So live streams, TikTok streams, VR and concert films all have a role to play. But if you were given the choice of any of these options versus seeing your favorite act in the flesh, which would you choose? 

We risk falling into a situation where live IRL experiences become gated enclaves in meatspace for the 1%, and the rest of us get cheap digital dilutions. We can’t live in a world where experiences are the preserve of those who can fork out for them and the closest people to the stage are always there just because of money. Collective experiences — what Neuroscientist Anil Seth refers to as “moments of massed consciousness” — are the fuel that helps humans feel alive. Shows, raves and live sports are some of the last spaces in society where people will mingle with those whom they wouldn’t be seen dead sharing an online filter bubble, and they are a vital societal bonding agent.

If the industry doesn’t foster the live infrastructure needed to feed new talent up into the spotlights of the big arenas and venues, it’s going to find those places empty and lifeless some time in the near future. 

There is huge value in extending the power of live experiences to those who don’t have the money or ability to access them and making it easier for artists to create them too.


 1 Source: Anil Seth, “Being You”, which everyone with a brain should read.

Winning in The Experience Renaissance

Creative entrepreneurs and artists who can help resolve this tension will win fans for life.

If you’re an artist with a big following, you likely have an extreme mismatch between the number of fans who want to see you live and those who can afford to. Look out for new forms of exclusivity applied to IRL access in the same way fashion labels like Telfar, Vollebak and Corteiz have made getting hold of their products a game of love, ingenuity and effort, not just whether you can afford them.

Expect a resurgence of illegal and informal events that don’t need costly infrastructure to happen, particularly for grassroots artists. Queens of the Stone Age made their name as Kyuss playing generator parties in The Mojave Desert, and Homebass have reignited UK rave culture with their guerrilla live shows. When ticketed experiences become unaffordable and mainstream, DIY events on the margins are where the action is. Transgression is part of the appeal.

Marketers will be welcomed anywhere where they can expand access to great experiences without ruining them, and this offers scope to build relationships with new audiences that fans might never have interacted with. Mobile network O2 has built out a long-running loyalty program in the UK on the basis of their venue sponsorship and offering priority tickets to the big names of their customers. Converse Rubber Tracks built the brand’s credibility amongst musicians by offering grassroots acts valuable studio space to record. It’s easy for marketers to throw big money at massive names for a guaranteed audience. Still, those who help create space and platforms for rising stars to grow are likely to reap a bigger payoff in loyalty and credibility. 

Big-name players commanding big-ticket prices are now in an experiential arms race to justify those premiums. The level of sensory overload on offer at shows is going to accelerate, as fans will expect live experiences that border on religious ceremony to justify the insane prices. Expect to see a growing focus on rockstar experience designers like Es Devlin, whose work with Kanye West and U2 shows how creative craft and vision can elevate a live experience into something spectacular. 

Every album launch from a superstar seems to rewrite the model of how to go to market. More and more artists will push this using experiences as a vital tool to deepen engagement and feeling.

Finally, watch the line between spectacle and illusion. AI and collapsing boundaries between digital and physical mean that it’s never been easier to fake the real thing like Jacquemus’ Giant Bags or North Face’s jacket on Big Ben.  Entertainers might be tempted to cut corners by trimming away the most costly bits of great experiences. This might mean more people see what you do, but the power of it will be diminished. Don’t compromise feeling for reach.

The most important thing to remember in all of this? Experiences are memories, and memories are what prove you’ve been alive. There’s never been a better time or tools to create them or audiences more hungry to participate in them. Go forth, think big, and aim for the spectacular.


[1] Source: Trapital Report 2023, drawn from Pollstar Data until June 2023

Michael Hines is a writer & strategist working at Wieden + Kennedy London. He can be found at Fiction + Persuasion.

 

Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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