Fans can mourn the passing of music legends for years, the hits echoing long after the unique voice is silenced. Little wonder, then, that recent advances in holographic technology and artificial intelligence have found a ready marketplace for performances from beyond the grave.

But this ability to resurrect deceased artists in spectral form raises fascinating questions on the ethics, artistry and the economic implications of those modern revival shows.

Since a holographic Tupac Shakur headlined at Coachella in 2012, there have been similar tributes to Frank Zappa and Roy Orbison. Posthumous tours have also been staged or proposed for Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse and Ronnie James Dio.

But it’s the holographic performance by a still-living act that stands because the landmark case. ABBA, the Swedish pop sensation that ruled the charts in the course of the Nineteen Seventies and Nineteen Eighties, launched their ABBA Voyage virtual reunion tour in 2021, describing the holographic versions of themselves as “ABBAtars”.

Our recent study of the “tour” found a mix of fan reactions, from some who found it emotionally satisfying to others who questioned its authenticity. The results suggest we’d like to know more in regards to the enormous cultural implications of those holographic experiences.

Virtual success

While the music industry routinely uses the term “hologram” to explain such shows, it’s not strictly accurate. A real hologram is a 3D object produced by the intersection of sunshine and matter, designed to be observed from all perspectives.

With the exception of ABBA’s recently developed holographic concert, today’s holograms are more akin to digital videos, where images are projected onto a translucent screen in front of real musicians, with the virtual artist seeming to interact with the band and audience. It’s much like the theatrical optical illusion often called “Pepper’s Ghost” utilized by Nineteenth-century magicians.

Creating a convincing audience experience is a challenge, nevertheless, as fans will be cynical about such events, and the technology doesn’t translate well to YouTube or in photographs. Some find these shows feel too very like watching a movie.

Still, the demand and enthusiasm for virtual live shows is rising steadily, with impressive crowd turnouts and fans paying as much as US$125 for a ticket. The Roy Orbison hologram tour sold a median of 1,800 seats per show.

‘Ghost slavery’

Our ABBA Voyage study confirmed the explanations for this popularity. After analysing upwards of 34,000 online comments discussing the virtual concert, we found audience members reported positive responses overall.

People mainly appreciated the chance to witness the legendary band “perform” over again. Two comments are indicative of the overall feeling:

I don’t care in the event that they’re avatars. Nobody expected ABBA to ever reunite in any way, shape, or form, so that is amazing!

It can be so wonderful to see them as I remember them and transport myself back to my childhood. It’s just like the closest thing to time travel.

Fans also appreciated the technical wizardry chargeable for recreating the band in its 1979 prime:

I find the very fact they use the Abbatars as a substitute of themselves on stage simply an incredible idea. It keeps us feeling young and them timeless.

Not everyone was emotionally moved, though, with some questioning the authenticity of the shows. This echoed previous criticism of holographic shows as lacking the essential “live” element of performance, and likewise being exploitative – what one critic called “ghost slavery”.

Technology has evolved since a ‘hologram’ of rapper Tupac Shakur ‘performed’ at Coachella in 2012.
Getty Images

Replacing the irreplaceable

Recreating an artist is one thing, but capturing their spirit, charisma and spontaneous performance style is where motion capture and AI technologies are beginning to make an actual difference.

The process involves an in depth scan of the artist to create a 3D digital model which AI then refines. Next, movements are digitised through motion capture and transferred onto the model (again using AI), recreating an artist’s distinctive performance. AI can also be used to analyse vast recording archives to mimic the artist’s voice.

For all that, AI’s ability to capture the spontaneity and charisma of live performances stays limited. The way forward for holographic live shows, then, will likely depend upon continued technological progress, shifting audience reactions, and careful navigation of the moral issues raised.

Future applications could also extend beyond music to educational displays of historical figures. Given the success of ABBA and their Voyage experience, it would even expand the touring capability of living artists.

All this requires a fragile equilibrium: honouring the artist’s legacy, acknowledging fans’ emotions, and providing an experience that genuinely transcends present limitations. Replacing the irreplaceable could also be possible at some level, but ultimately the audience will determine.

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