Thu, 02 Feb 2023 17:42:36 GMT
After a 40 year hiatus, legendary Swedish band ABBA, took to the stage in East London in May 2022 to rave reviews. But the band did not dust off their iconic outfits and tread the boards once again, they were rendered in digital form by Industrial Light and Magic using intricate motion capture and Unreal 5.
This world-first has had people musing on which artists will be next and how the future of gigs might really look. But it's not just the epic VFX and production techniques that will define the future of entertainment, a new precedent has been set for the rights of artists and talent that could change how the industry works forever.
Looking to find out more about the business and legal impact the show will have on artists, event producers and VFX companies, LBB’s Tará McKerr sits down with the man who led the legals - Jamie Smith, partner at leading media and technology law firm, Sheridans.
It seems fitting that Jamie Smiths’ law firm is based in the heart of Soho; the place renowned for the most dense population of London’s creatives. Sheridans, as Jamie describes it, is a firm with a difference. They’re interestingly the first ever firm to accept payment in the form of bitcoin, but that only just scratches the surface. What separates the firm is their mingling together of legal advisory with commercial awareness, “It’s very much about understanding the business, the challenges faced, and how to then plug in the legal advice on top of that.”
Few and far between as they are, there is much to be said for the multidisciplinarians of the world - and Jamie falls easily into that category. Starting his career in private practice, he then joined Sony PlayStation as in-house legal counsel, before moving to The Mill as general counsel - though at heart, he would say that he’s a computer scientist. His interest in virtual reality peaked back when he studied computer science at Bristol University.
As Jamie approaches his fifth anniversary at Sheridans, he’s certain the return to private practice was the right decision. Alongside a team 16 lawyers strong, Jamie is working on everything from VR production, animation, AR and most of what's in-between, “I guess it’s real-time, longform creation.”
Most people who come away from the show are left feeling wonderstruck. Even for ABBA faithful's who didn’t think ‘Voulez-Vous’ and the likes could get much better, were proven wrong. There were countless reports of audiences being brought to tears. Having worked on the tour for over three years, seeing it come to life was an incredible experience for Jamie. When asked about what it was like to see the show itself, as an individual as well as a lawyer, Jamie said:
“There were two elements. One, it was a visually amazing experience. To be honest, it absolutely blew my mind. And secondly, I guess, was the element of ‘wow’ looking at what they have achieved, the incredible work that the whole team had pulled together to deliver a project, where nothing of that scale had ever been done before. But also, I was just awestruck by how visually stunning it was right from the design of the venue, through to the overall production. It was fantastic, really.”
Virtual production techniques and the marriage of physical and digital experiences are proving fertile soil for debate surrounding the future of entertainment, and the pioneering nature of the Voyage tour has us wondering what’s next.
“I think this show has set the blueprint for what legacy entertainment could look like for artists.” Jamie describes the rush that he’s witnessed from music labels and investment houses to invest in legacy music catalogues. For legacy bands and musicians, catalogues have been the traditional format, but there is now a new one emerging, in 3D. Jamie adds that people are looking for experiences, “the pandemic demonstrated a lot of things and one was how much people missed and needed entertainment. A lot of people came out saying that they want new experiences; to go out and see things, VR is another way of accessing that content.”
Jamie doesn’t expect that we will see pop-ups of dedicated stadiums for every band, noting that ABBA has a unique attraction that warrants having its own venue. Yet he suspects multi-concert venues working on a rotational basis that are adapted to particular bands could definitely be the way forward.
When Jamie was asked about the potential legal issues that might creep up off the back of virtual entertainment, his answer wasn’t quite expected. One might imagine different nuances and intricacies weaving their way into productions, and yet, “what’s interesting is they’re just like any other production”. He continues, “In a sense, they still require the various sorts of rights, music, image etc, and all of those obligations going in. From a technology licence perspective, it’s fairly straightforward.” It seems much of what is unfolding can be sufficiently controlled by existing laws, given that much of it comes down to pure copyright, and for that, the legal grounds are quite stable.
The nuances however, are wrapped up in areas we might not expect. Jamie contemplated the likelihood of the emergence of entities who are building up detailed models of individuals, bands, musicians and then controlling those rights. “So very much like the music publishers controlling music rights, you’re going to start to see these banks where they control that model and its use.” This bleeds into the issue of legacy when we consider what happens when individuals pass away. Jamie explains that the questions then become: what are their family trusts and how are they holding the rights?
All of this, he advises, should be considered whilst we also think about how investment companies and bankers will start to pull back and take control of some of these rights; this will be the prohibition to some of the experiences purely on the basis of cost.
Jamie, who sees himself as more of a ‘creative technologist’ than a lawyer, has been giving a huge amount of thought to the impact that AI could have upon both his clients and businesses. He worries that many entities are not going to exist in the future because they are not willing to adapt to new ways of doing things, specifically in the virtual space. In order to keep evolving - to ensure the world doesn’t continue spinning without us, leaving us behind in the rear view mirror, we must adjust with it.
Jamie anticipates that we will begin to see a breakaway of prevailing artists who recognise that this new wave is not going away and decide to lean into it instead. “I think the wrong way to look at it is to ask ‘how do we stop it?’ In my view, this is not the right question. I think it should be, ‘how do you embrace it? How would you monetise this?’”
He suggests that there is an opportunity to become almost like the British music copyright collective, PRS for Music, where they realised it would be impossible to stop people playing music in public places, but instead made it a licence requirement. “So again, we’ve illustrated that you could see a scenario where people create their own data bank of licensed work that an algorithm can reference, but for everyone who references, there is a payment. Even if we spread that amongst them, working on a scale of 10 pence, you’re still going to see hundreds of millions of queries generated - the scale still becomes quite significant if generated over time”.
He makes the point that artists should not look to use the law to prevent something inevitable. It’s about implementing it into the future of your working model and monetising it for your benefit.
Having witnessed creation unfolding on various projects first hand, Jamie left us with this. If you are operating without foresight, it is unlikely that any business model will be around for much longer. It is only by learning about and welcoming technology now, that in a few years time you’ll still be innovating.
It’s clear that shows like ABBA Voyage don’t just come into fruition overnight. They are born out of thousands of hours and multiple years where someone somewhere decided to imagine something which did not yet already exist; out of the courage to wonder “what if?” and the willingness to use whatever tools available to make it happen.
It helps to be ahead of the game, because when push comes to shove…the winner takes it all. (Sorry. We couldn’t resist).