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The inevitable rise of the hologram rock concert

Why should a little thing like death stop a musician from touring?

By Jim Sullivan

I see dead people.

Not quite the same way the little boy in “The Sixth Sense” did, but…I’ve seen singers that have gone to the great beyond, and yet magically reappeared in front of me in concert.

Specifically, in November 2019, I watched “Roy Orbison” — dead for 31 years — and “Buddy Holly” — dead for 60 years — play to a crowd of 1,000 at a Boston theater. The iconic performers were wrapping up a long American tour, and concurrently touring in Europe. Spoiler alert: This isn’t a supernatural story. Each singer was a hologram: a light-beam produced, three-dimensional image, produced by a Las Vegas-based company called BASE Hologram Productions.

Their voices were real: remastered Orbison and Holly vocals, once again singing hits like “Only the Lonely” and “Rave On.” They sounded great, especially the operatic Orbison, who during his life was dubbed the “Pavarotti of pop.” Truth be told, they both looked pretty good, too, Holly about 20 and Orbison maybe 40. They were lifelike enough to make some fans think they were seeing impersonators — until the singers disappeared in a puff of mist or descended into the stage floor.

“Roy Orbison” performs in London in 2018. Photo by Tabatha Fireman/Getty Images for BASE Holograms

These remastered versions of Orbison and Holly have performed together about 60 times so far; the Orbison hologram alone has had another 60 tour dates. BASE has also sent a hologram of opera singer Maria Callas, who died in 1977, on two tours across Europe and North and South America. Recently, the company announced an “Evening With Whitney” tour, featuring a hologram version of Whitney Houston.

As other popular musicians shuffle off their mortal coils — or simply get tired of touring live, while they’re still alive — it’s worth wondering how these virtual tours will change the future of live music. Will audiences find a reason beyond just nostalgia to buy tickets? And will artists’ estates start to see tricks of light as a natural, if also deeply unnatural, way to extend a music career?

For many would-be patrons, the prospect of non-live live music is unsettling, to say the least. When I started asking friends and musicians what they thought about hologram concerts by deceased rockers, many — whether they’d seen a show or not — responded with some variation of “Sounds creepy!” or “That’s ghoulish!”

“The whole thing is a travesty of epic proportions,” said Kevin Patey, a Boston-based singer/guitarist who plays roots rock and rockabilly, and is a huge fan of Holly and Orbison. “There are tribute acts, but this is something entirely different, a violation of all that is pure. Let the dead be dead. Honor their memory, but not in this manner. Pay tribute, but with a shred of decency.”

David Hirshland disagrees. He’s the executive vice president of music publisher BMG, responsible for bringing the Buddy Holly catalog into the BMG fold in 2015 and forging a liaison with BASE — and has seen the Orbison-Holly show live three times.

“For the most part, all three audiences I saw it with reacted very positively,” Hirshland told me by phone. “There’s the ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ factor when the hologram first appears. People are kind of amazed, and then they realize they’re at a show and they’re just having a good time.”

“There are tribute acts, but this is something entirely different, a violation of all that is pure. Let the dead be dead.”

Indeed, nearly everyone I saw at the Boston show left smiling — even if some of those smiles were somewhat quizzical, and even if, during the show, patrons seemed unsure if they should clap after each song. (The holograms were backed up by a five-piece band and two female backup singers. They could hear the applause.)

“This is the essence of the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll pioneers,” said David Urbina, 51, a suburbanite who brought his eight-year-old godson to the show. “I wanted to expose him to this.”

“I’m a fan of Buddy Holly!” the eight-year-old told me.

That preteen digital native might well be the future of music fandom: too young to have ever seen Orbison or Holly in the flesh, with a computer-wired-from-birth brain that’s tied less to the reality of an experience than the presentation of it. Maybe every tween in the country would think a hologram show is “sick.”

It was largely young people who witnessed what might be the most famous digital appearance from a deceased star. In April 2012, 80,000 fans at Coachella were stunned — but happily so, it seemed — to see Tupac Shakur, who died in 1996, rapping alongside real-life Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Created by the companies AV Concepts and Digital Domain, Tupac 2012 wasn’t technically a hologram, but an old-school, two-dimensional projection called a “Pepper’s Ghost.” Commonly used in haunted houses, it works by reflecting an image off a sheet of plexiglass.

When Marty Tudor, CEO of BASE Hologram, saw a video of the show,  his mind was blown. Then, Tudor told me by phone recently, he had an idea. “‘Ok, what’s the next thing here?’ They did two songs and spent a ridiculous amount of money, like five million dollars, to pull the damn thing off, and it was over and out,” Tudor says. “They missed a big opportunity; they should have put this thing on tour because they had so many eyeballs on it — two billion eyeballs worldwide. So that’s part of what was the trigger for us.” 

Once the company made deals with musicians’ estates, engineers at BASE, who have also created virtual dinosaurs and Vegas hologram shows, started building musicians’ holograms from scratch, Tudor says. “Essentially, what we’re doing is using a digital laser projector to project light,” he said, noting that a team of engineers put in hundreds of hours, working with Holly and Orbison videos as reference points. Tudor said each hologram has over 200,000 frames and each one of those frames has to get touched by hand.

“The technology has improved,” he added, “and we are constantly improving it and upgrading it. It’s a very big, complicated process and it takes a good nine months to a year from the moment we say ‘go’ to when we deliver a show.”

BASE is tight-lipped about how the technology works, but the company’s website offers some hints: “The team starts with a body double who works closely with the director in a lengthy rehearsal process to choreograph the performances.” The resulting images, the website says, “are coded with cleaned up and re-mastered cuts of the artist’s original songs.”

In the show I saw, Orbison rarely moved or spoke from the stage, but then he rarely did in life, either. Holly jerked about, but didn’t stray from the mic stand. Tudor says many people assume holograms are limited in movement, because in the live shows, they stay relatively still.

In fact, he says, the technology allows for all kinds of movement, but the choreographers are determined to stay true to the performer’s real-life style. “I could have had Roy doing backflips and flying through the air — literally, I could have — but he didn’t,” Tudor says. “And this goes back to the creepy factor.”

Not every artist’s estate is ready to jump into the hologram business. After an Elvis Presley hologram briefly sang “Can’t Help Falling in Love” in the 2017 movie “Blade Runner 2049,” I interviewed Priscilla Presley for a newspaper story — and she seemed doubtful about the prospect of a full-fledged hologram tour.

Today, BASE’s Tudor is equally circumspect. “We’ve had the conversation,” he told me. “The estate is not anxious to do something. But I suspect at some point they’re going to come around.”

A BASE-produced Amy Winehouse tour slated for this year was scrapped; a company statement said there were some “unique challenges and sensitivities” on the path to “remembering Amy Winehouse and her legacy in the most celebratory and respectful way possible.”

But the company is prepping for the Whitney Houston tour, which will feature 18 accompanying singers, dancers, and musicians. They’ve been talking to Johnny Cash’s estate. Frank Zappa, who died in 1993, and hard rocker Ronnie James Dio, who died in 2010, toured last spring and summer, in shows created by a competitor to BASE, the Eyellusion Company.

And some artists are realizing that you don’t have to be dead to reap the benefits of hologram technology. Eighteen years ago, when I interviewed ABBA singer Bjorn Ulvaeus for a Boston Globe story about the launch of the musical “Mamma Mia!,” I asked him about the possibility of a reunion tour. (Holograms were not then in the picture.) He nixed the idea, despite the billion-plus dollars it could have earned.

“People should remember us for who we were,” he told me at the time. “We would play to tens of thousands, and they would all be disappointed. We wouldn’t have had the energy.”

“If it’s done right, it could be amazing. I think Johnny would love to have it. He was so into movies and this is like a movie.”

But two years ago, the members of ABBA agreed to a hologram tour dubbed “ABBATAR,” and reconvened in a studio for the first time in 35 years to create their digital doubles. In an online statement, Ulvaeus talked about an “existential dimension” to the process, the chance to be “young” again: “They photographed us from all possible angles, they made us grimace in front of cameras, they painted dots on our faces, they measured our heads. Apparently a cranium doesn’t change with age the way the rest of your body falls apart.”

“It’s perfect. We can be on stage while I’m home walking the dogs,” ABBA’s Benny Andersson told the Melbourne, Australia Herald Sun. “I don’t have to leave my house. If this really works there’ll be a lot of artists wanting to do the same thing, even artists who are still young and still touring.”

So far, no ABBATAR tour dates have been announced. But the prospect of more hologram tours, with artists living and dead, got me thinking about possibilities: What about one of the most iconic punk rock bands of the modern era, the Ramones? After all, they’ve appeared in “The Simpsons.” They’ve had a dedicated comic book. All four original members are dead, but the band’s popularity keeps expanding: Think of the brand new RAMONES t-shirts worn by kids who never saw the band live, and weren’t even born during their heyday.

So I asked Vera Ramone King, the former wife of bassist Dee Dee Ramone, whether she’d be open to a hologram tour. “It’s genius and would be a moneymaker,” she told me. “This new generation of Ramones fans have never seen anything like them play live and unfortunately never will.”

The two people who hold the key to the futuristic kingdom — because they co-own the rights to the Ramones catalog — are Joey Ramone’s younger brother Mickey Leigh, and Johnny Ramone’s widow, Linda Ramone.

“I love the idea of a hologram,” Linda told me by phone recently. “I would do it in a flash. I’m in the business to make it bigger and better and I feel what fans like and don’t like. You can’t make everybody happy, but a hologram, where you see them in their heyday with the original lineup —  if it’s done right, it could be amazing. I think Johnny would love to have it. He was so into movies and this is like a movie.”

Leigh says he’s already been approached by different producers about a potential hologram show. He’s open to the idea — and says he expects that, in time, seeing a hologram show will feel no different than seeing a film of a live performance. “I’m sure we’ll be seeing more and more of it, alongside further technological developments and advancements in sound,” he told me.

That’s got to be music to some fans’ ears — and to a hologram concert producer like Tudor, it’s an excellent sign.

“As more artists pass away, this could be a real avenue for not only estates to maximize their interests, but fans to relive the concert experience with their families, and share it with their young ones,” Tudor says. “It’s another way to pass the torch, and celebrate artists by introducing them to a whole new generation. Frankly, it very well may be the future.”

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Jim Sullivan is a writer based in Boston.


Illustration by Dom McKenzie


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