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Block by Blockwest Preview: Are we entering the era of the virtual concert?

Block by Blockwest is an upcoming music festival featuring a range of musicians, including grimy English trip-hop collective Massive Attack and the radical Russian feminist punk-rockers Pussy Riot. Previously set to launch on the 25th of April, it had to be postponed when over 100,000 people all attempted to rush the stage at once. How is this possible? Well, it’s because this particular festival is being held within Minecraft.

Concerts were one of the first to go in the age of social distancing. There was simply no way to justify the recreational cramming of thousands of people into a single venue, barely 1.5 centimetres between attendees, let alone the 1.5 meters mandated by the Government. But a lot of professional musicians still have to perform music to get by. The rise of music streaming services has created a business model that is increasingly reliant on concert tickets to turn a profit. So, with tour dates cancelled and venues locked down, what are these artists to do?

Well, like everyone else, they move to the online space.

Particularly, into the interactive world of videogames such as Minecraft and Fortnite⁠ — digital spaces with the perfect amount of flexibility to shift the interactive element from building and shooting, to players engaging with popular musicians as they recreate their sets in a virtual format.

This shift, embraced out of both necessity and novelty, is beginning to pick up some serious traction. In April, Fornite saw over 27.7 million unique players log in to participate in a series of pre-recorded, interactive Travis Scott concerts.

And on the 16th of May, a new online music festival is looking to take this a step further with live acts performing within the cubic confines of Minecraft. Courier Club, the hosts of Block by Blockwest and one of the headliners, say that the event ‘aims to forge a hub of human connectivity in this time of social distancing through live-streamed acts, competitive minigames, a vast art gallery featuring rising fine artists, as well as a handful of other features for the festival goer to explore’.

Over 30 acts will be playing live music across multiple stages while attendees can walk around a custom-built Minecraft world, playing games and purchasing real-world merchandise through simulated merch stands.

The incredible flexibility offered by videogames, such as Minecraft, make using them an easy sell for many musicians looking to continue performing under quarantine conditions. The creation of a purpose-built interactive space isn’t a feasible prospect for the majority of musicians. Because of this, the pre-built engine and online infrastructure of Minecraft allow for a digital experience they otherwise wouldn’t be able to give their fans without significant effort.

Of course, hosting digital events comes with its own set of hurdles. While physical venues have a set max capacity limit and release only enough tickets to accommodate this capacity, online venues are limited only by the capacity of its servers to service the traffic.

Block by Blockwest was initially slated to be held on the 25th of April, but as 100,000 people all attempted to join the festival within the first hour of it going live, the servers weren’t able to keep up with the traffic and the whole event crashed. Due to this, Courier Club announced it will be postponed until the 16th of May, where it will assumedly re-launch with stronger servers more equipped to handle the traffic.

Whether Minecraft music events persist post-Corona remains to be seen. So while musicians are out there experimenting with the digital space, it may be worth checking out. That, and all money raised through the concert will go to the Coronavirus Emergency Response Fund so it’s for a good cause.

A full setlist can be found here, on the festival’s official site.

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