A musician’s death long ago ceased to be an impediment to releasing their records. Forty years ago, when Elvis Presley died, he instantly went to number one in Britain with his final single, “Way Down”, and in the years since his death, RCA, his record label, have managed to scrape the barrel, the ground underneath the barrel and the bedrock beneath the ground beneath the barrel, releasing 105 Elvis compilations. “Christmas With Elvis”, released in October, is his 12th posthumous Christmas album.
But records are the easy part. It has been harder to send a dead artist out on tour to rake in money from live performances. But these days death is no impediment to stage shows either. We are now entering a new phase in posthumous performance, where stars appear in the form of a hologram. While there have been one-off holographic performances before – notably by Tupac Shakur, a rapper who died over 20 years ago, at the Coachella festival in 2012 – the full tour is a new frontier in entertainment beyond the grave.
Next spring Roy Orbison, who died in 1988, will tour Britain with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, playing nine dates in arenas and theatres in April. He has been beaten to the punch by Ronnie James Dio, a former member of Black Sabbath who died in 2010. He will appear with the Dio Disciples in a series of shows in Europe in December. Frank Zappa is also planning a holographic tour, 24 years after he passed away. Even Abba, whose members are still alive but have no interest in reuniting, are considering it. “Some of the biggest names in touring history are coming off the road. Some can’t or don’t want to perform anymore. This allows artists to stay on the road forever,” says Jeff Pezzuti, the promoter behind Dio’s shows.
The holographic tour has arisen for two reasons. The first is technology. Rock-star holograms are based on an old carnival trick known as Pepper’s Ghost – named after John Henry Pepper, who demonstrated the effect in 1862 – in which an image is projected on to a piece of glass and then reflected to appear in a given area of the stage, where it seems to float in thin air. In the past, the image yielded by this technique wasn’t detailed enough to impress a paying audience used to crystal-clear images on high-definition screens. But when Dio tours Europe, the image the hologram is based on will be created at 5K – a resolution of 5,000 pixels from one edge of the image to the other – and then projected at 4K, which is the standard for digital cinematography. But, says Pezzuto, “this isn’t going to feel like watching a movie. Fans are getting a real live performance! It will be loud, there’s a light show, beer lines – this is the real deal.”
Meanwhile, new technologies are being developed to make the spectacle even more impressive. Pepper’s Ghost is a two-dimensional effect, and can only be seen from front on. Danny Betesh, who is promoting Orbison’s tour, says that he is unable to sell any of the seats to the side of the stage. But in 2015, a South Korean research team announced what appeared to be the world’s first 360-degree colour hologram. They didn’t manage to create a moving image – it was just a Rubik’s Cube – but Jeff Pezzuto estimates that within five years there will be a 3D holographic rock star on tour.
The second reason is economic necessity. Over the past decade, record sales have plummeted. In the ten years to 2014, they dropped from £1.2bn to £700m in Britain. That has made the money generated by live performance more important to record companies – especially those with dead artists on their books, who won’t record new work. The new holographic tours target two reliable demographics – the fanatical and the old. The Dio show is aimed at fans of heavy metal, known for their intense loyalty to the artists they love. While he was never truly a superstar, Dio is regarded as one of the founding heroes of metal, which makes a holographic tour a safe bet. The Orbison show, meanwhile, targets ageing fans whose spending power is obvious from the album charts, where light entertainers such as Alexander Armstrong, a British comedian who records covers of classic songs, battle it out with show singers like Michael Ball and old rockers like Elvis and Roy Orbison. “A Love So Beautiful”, an album featuring Orbison’s voice set to new accompaniments by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, is in the top ten. It’s now industry gospel that familiar songs sung by familiar names generate large amounts of money. If you can find a way to supplement the living with the dead, then why not?
Record companies now see holographic tours as a way to prop up flagging record sales by reactivating back catalogues. Warner has released a Dio box set to tie in with his shows. The holographic tour looks likely to be live music’s next big growth area. Welcome to the world of the all-singing, all-dancing dead.