From Skepta’s dystopia to Travis Scott’s fairground: are immersive shows the future of live music?

Danny Wright
From Skepta’s dystopia to Travis Scott’s fairground: are immersive shows the future of live music?. Presented with ever-higher ticket prices, fans have become more demanding, hence a rise in Secret Cinema-style gigs

Live shows, we are often told, are where like-minded people join together in a shared euphoria. In reality, however, you are either pressed up against a metal barrier as beer (you hope it’s beer) rains down on your head, or stuck at the back, desperately trying to make out the tiny figures on stage. But, presented with ever-higher ticket prices, music fans have become more demanding; hence a rise in immersive, Secret Cinema-style gigs.

Last year, Skepta’s Dystopia987 in Manchester was billed as “a waking dream that presents Skepta’s singular vision of the future”. Part gig, part theatre, the location was revealed via SMS on the day (phones were then banned during the show), with the audience escorted by masked actors to an industrial warehouse. Tokens could be exchanged for flashing LED strips to glue to your face, because why not?

Meanwhile, at Travis Scott’s second annual Astroworld festival – inspired by his youth spent at Houston’s original Astroworld theme park – guests could ride ferris wheels and carousels surrounded by roaming performers and a 35ft-high planetarium projecting lasers. The rapid growth of technology has made ever more ridiculous ideas possible. Where Skepta banned phones, the sci-fi and tech-loving US rock band Starset embrace them, with augmented reality allowing a huge virtual spaceship to land on the stage.

But immersive does not have to mean futuristic. Last year’s Legitimate Peaky Blinders festival saw the streets of Digbeth transformed into a fully realised 1920s experience with live music, performance, poetry, theatre and flat caps.

This May, there is Human Traffic.Live, a “theatrical rave show” based on the 1999 cult film, featuring actors, breakdancers and trampolinists (not on pingers, we hope). And the only way you can hear Yasiin Bey’s first album in a decade will be at a museum, while nodding thoughtfully at murals by contemporary artists. If those are not to your taste, what about the Willy Wonka-meets-electronic music of Unusual Ingredients, where sound artists will pair honey, coffee and seaweed with specially composed pieces of music?

Are these shows a glimpse of what gigs could be or something of a fad? Skepta’s show, for example, met with criticism for being an airbrushed approximation of a rave. But really, if songs are about telling a story, it is natural that pop stars might want to showcase theirs in the most all-encompassing way. If they get it right, it could be incredible. Imagine a fully immersive version of Beyoncé’s Lemonade with Jay-Z begging for forgiveness in a secret room, or a multisensory version of Slowthai’s Nothing Great About Britain with all the sights, smells and … Oh, OK, maybe not.