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Live After Death: Inside Music’s Booming New Hologram Touring Industry

With specters of Frank Zappa and Roy Orbison attracting respectable audiences, are holograms truly music’s final frontier?

Kory Grow Sep 11, 2019

"It's a concert, but it's more than a concert," explains a fan of the Zappa hologram concert experience. Photo: Bryan Weber*

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A recent tribute concert dubbed The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa in Huntington, New York had all the markings of a concert by the rock iconoclast from nerdy fans geeking out about the night’s guitar players before the show to doo-wop intro music but with one marked problem: Frank Zappa died in 1993. The mustachioed musician at the center of it all, playing alongside erstwhile members of Zappa’s band, wasn’t a real person at all. It was a hologram.

To be fair, the apparition truly looked like an otherworldly version of Frank as it played guitar, adjusted its shirt, and wiggled its mustache. It sounded like him, too, since the audio came from an uncirculated 1974 live recording. It was enough of a spectacle that the packed house gave it a standing ovation. “At first, I felt a little sad,” a fan, Annelie Indilla, said after the show. “I got a little choked up for a second, because he’s not around anymore, but I just really liked it. It’s very unusual. It was very well done.”

The show was sold out, and the rest of the tour sold well, too, with people paying as much as $125 a ticket. Similarly, a Roy Orbison hologram tour last year was a financial success, selling 1,800 seats on average per show. There’s enough demand that those tours have more dates lined up — Orbison’s will be touring with one of Buddy Holly this fall — and holographic versions of Ronnie James Dio, Whitney Houston, and Amy Winehouse will be hitting the road later this year. It’s a trend that marks a new wave of holographic tours that is much more sustainable than one-offs, like the Tupac hologram at Coachella in 2012.

“On the shows I went out to, I asked the fans what they thought of it afterward,” says Ronnie James Dio’s widow Wendy, who also does industry relations for Eyellusion. “And there wasn’t one negative comment whatsoever. They were all thanking me for bringing him back.”

Getting these shows to the public, however, hasn’t been easy. “The hardest thing is convincing people what the show is,” says Jeff Pezzuti, CEO and founder of Eyellusion, which produces the Zappa and Dio tours. “It’s very hard to describe. It doesn’t translate as well to YouTube or photos. People think they’re coming to watch a movie, and it’s not that at all. It’s a live show.”

For the Zappa and Dio shows, Eyellusion has built a special stage that places the apparition in the middle, and musicians play on either side of it, as LED screens all around the screen show off wild animations. The company that handles the Orbison, Holly, and Winehouse shows, Base Hologram, projects their specters on a translucent screen in front of the musicians. The latter is a modern effect, while Eyellusion uses a variation on a 19th century magician’s trick called “Pepper’s Ghost,” in which a moving image is projected onto Plexiglas.

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“Our technology gives us an enormous amount of freedom,” says Robert Ringe, Base’s CEO of distribution and touring. “It gives us the ability to have the hologram walk onto the stage from the wings and interact with either the band, the orchestra, the musical director, the audience, et cetera.”

Ringe says that when the Orbison hologram played London, there were people dancing in the aisles. At the Dio shows, Pezzuti has seen parents with young kids. “We finished our 18th show last night, and maybe 15 percent of the audience has been made up of kids 15 or younger,” he says. “To me, it’s amazing.”

Phil Sandhaus, whose Sandhaus Entertainment manages Buddy Holly’s estate, says he was initially skeptical of holograms when they came onto the market but that he now “doesn’t have the luxury to ignore them.” “Very few people saw Buddy Holly onstage back in the day,” he says. “But we’re going to create a great entertainment experience.”

Experiences like these can only grow, though, and the tours going on now are small potatoes compared to what could come in the future. Outside of holograms, Soundgarden recently testdrove a “concert experience” where they showed a concert film with audio mixed in “live” surround sound, and Queen continues to superimpose imagery of Freddie Mercury on screens next to Brian May for performances of “Love of My Life.” And of course artists like David Bowie and Pink Floyd have in recent years turned their collections of artifacts into a cottage industry of bespoke traveling museums.

But holograms have a unique growth opportunity. After seeing the turnout at their shows, the execs from both Eyellusion and Base think there’s room for a lot of growth, too. Base is planning a large-scale production for the Whitney Houston hologram featuring 18 singers, dancers, and musicians onstage. It’s also working on a dinosaur spectacle for museums and another production with historical figures. And Eyellusion would like to expand how it presents its shows; Pezzuti’s dream is a David Bowie show that featured him in each of his guises, and he would also like to make it so he could potentially “stream” a hologram show in another country. Both companies have been in talks with representatives for living artists who want to expand their touring capabilities. “It’s infinite what we can do,” Pezzuti says.

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“I do hope that this becomes more of the norm,” says Ahmet Zappa, who is also Eyellusion’s EVP of global business development. “Other artists are going to pass away, and if we want to keep having these magical experiences, technology is going to be the way to keep people engaged and hearing the music.”

Of course, not everyone has been so keen on the idea of hologram shows. Music journalist Simon Reynolds has called these sorts of tours “ghost slavery,” Dionne Warwick described the Whitney Houston event as “stupid,” and Amy Winehouse’s ex-husband decried her upcoming posthumous tour as a “moneymaking gimmick.”

Jeff Jampol, who manages the estates of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, John Lee Hooker, and the Ramones, is equally unimpressed. He saw the Orbison hologram last year and says that while he applauds Orbison’s estate for taking a risk and that the music was phenomenal, there were visible empty seats and the Orbison apparition didn’t move very much. “It’s obvious there are live people but right in the middle, there’s a black hole where this film is being projected,” he says. “I couldn’t suspend enough disbelief. It’s like watching a movie. If I want to watch a movie, I’ll spend 10 bucks and go to the theater or I’ll stay at home.”

Jampol managed the Tupac Shakur estate at the time of the late rapper’s hologram debut at Coachella, but says he would like to see something more than Pepper’s ghost for these types of events. “I want something where Jim Morrison could walk right up to you, stare you in the eye, sing at you, turn around, and walk away, and everyone was watching it from 360 degrees,” he says. “That would be interesting. But to watch a 19th-century technology of a poor-quality film broadcast on a sheet of mylar that’s the same over and over again, I’m not getting it.”

Of course, not everyone shares his opinion. Some fans have even seen hologram tours multiple times. Outside of the Zappa show, a guy who called himself Jammin’ Jonny said he’d already seen the hologram show twice before. “It’s amazing,” he said. “It’s a concert, but it’s more than a concert. I think the only drawback is it’s got to be the same thing note for note. The real Frank would never play the same solo twice. But it’s incredible. If you’re a big Frank fan, you’ll cry and laugh.”

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