By Eli Enis
Last month, in the midst of quarantine, a one-night music festival drew 130,000 attendees and raised $50,000 for charity. It was called Square Garden, it featured artists such as Charli XCX, Cashmere Cat, and 100 gecs, and it all took place in the video game Minecraft. Best of all, it wasn’t an isolated event.
Just two weeks prior, emo legends American Football headlined another Minecraft festival called Nether Meant (a cheeky misnomer of their iconic song “Never Meant”) alongside artists like Anamanaguchi and Baths. In mid-April, a different emo and punk-centric Minecraft festival called Fourchella — a stand-in for a postponed real-life festival of the same name — featured bands like Origami Angel and Retirement Party. And on May 16, a Minecraft festival called Block By Blockwest — featuring Nothing, Nowhere, Cherry Glazerr, Pussy Riot, and nearly 40 others — will make its second attempt after so many people joined its April edition that the servers crashed within the first minute.
Although they’ve recently begun to make headlines and seem designed for a world in lockdown, Minecraft music festivals have actually been happening semi-regularly for about two years. But over the last couple months of international quarantine, they’ve gone from a niche alternative to real-life festivals to one of the few options anyone has for a “public” celebration of live music. For instance, the small-time Philadelphia band Courier Club, who are putting together the entirety of Block By Blockwest, crafted the idea in early March when tour cancellations were just beginning to ripple through the music industry.
“It stemmed from us joking around on Twitter one night, being like, ‘If our tour gets canceled we’re just gonna throw a show on Minecraft,’” frontman Timothy Waldron told MTV News. “And, welp, the tour got canceled.”
As the return of in-person concerts in a post-COVID-19 society remains uncertain, Minecraft festivals offer a unique experience unlike any other traditional livestream. They’re also notably different from the concert that rapper Travis Scott recently held in the video game Fortnite, which was more like an interactive music video than a communal gathering of like-minded music fans. Minecraft festivals have a much different energy.
“The biggest thing I think is immersiveness,” said Eden Segal-Grossman, a core team member of the organization Open Pit, who were responsible for putting on Square Garden, Nether Meant, and many of the first successful Minecraft festivals. “It’s an experience that you can really be in rather than just watch from outside. You get the same feeling of going to an actual concert, I’ve found, after an event in Minecraft. Even though you’re sitting at home, you still feel like you’ve been to something big — you’ve been a part of something bigger than yourself.”
That special feeling is hard to describe, especially considering the many ways Minecraft festivals are unlike real-life concerts. Artist’s sets are pre-recorded (live mixing from 40 different streaming locations would be a nightmare), everyone at the show is a blockhead figure (Minecraft is by no means a visually realistic game), and both the artists and the fans are home behind their screens in physical isolation. Yet somehow, witnessing an artist “perform” in a virtual venue is much more satisfying and transcendental than watching a one-dimensional live set on Instagram.
“I’m not really sure what it is that makes that magic work,” Segal-Grossman said. “It’s something about the combination of seeing so many virtual avatars jumping around in front of you, seeing the chat go crazy with people super excited about whoever’s playing, getting to talk to the artists and take screenshots with them.”
“It’s interesting how even though you’re not actually seeing the artist in person — you don’t see their face, you don’t hear them talking — they’re still there somehow.”
There are two ways to attend a Minecraft music festival. Fans who own the game can join the specific server where the festival is going down while they stream the audio portion through community app Discord. Once they’re in, they can hang out on the dance floor, romp around the expansive map, take part in parkour challenges, and buy real-life merch from virtual merch booths. However, the way most people experience these fests is by streaming someone else playing the game through Twitch or YouTube, which gives you access to a live chat of fans excitedly reacting from behind their keyboards.
Although this option removes you from interacting in the map itself, the chat is surprisingly effective at manifesting the enthusiasm of cheering and other physical expressions that can’t translate through the game. It also creates a whole new element of the concert experience in which you can see people verbally reacting to the music without the interruptive nature of someone yammering in your ear at a live gig. For Anamanaguchi songwriter Peter Berkman, that’s one of the most thrilling aspects of the whole Minecraft festival affair.
“There’s no such thing as group talking at a show or festival,” he said. “No text at all. It’s cheering, or booing, or whatever can be reduced to the reaction of a studio audience. There’s a lot more nuance to the crowd-artist relationship in this way when it’s mediated through writing.”
Anamanaguchi are veterans of the Minecraft festival circuit. They played Open Pit’s inaugural event Coalchella (Open Pit love pun titles) in September 2018, which featured roughly 60 acts — mostly DJs, electronic producers, and weirdo Soundcloud pop artists. That’s the community of musicians that Open Pit was born from, and Square Garden — which was hosted and co-coordinated by their friends in 100 gecs, who also played at Coalchella — felt like a celebration of how far their scene has come. The whole map was littered with easter-egg references to artists who were playing (like a courtyard called “Claws Clementine Grove,” named after recent Charli XCX single “Claws”) and the stage was in the thick of a gigantic tree, which has become somewhat of a totem for 100 gecs fans.
Other maps are slightly more realistic. Nether Meant took place in a fantastical replica of the Brooklyn venue Elsewhere, which Open Pit dubbed “Elseswither,” and Courier Club are basing the Block By Blockwest venues on the actual stage schematics for the legendary German festival Rock am Ring. Minecraft is all about building, so the potential for epic stages is virtually limitless. And unlike an IRL festival the size of Rock am Ring, which draws a similar number of attendees to witness some of the biggest acts in all of rock music, Minecraft fests give small artists the chance to shine in front of 130,000 (or more) people. That’s part of Open Pit’s mandate when they put together lineups, and since Courier Club are an actual DIY band who put on small-time events in non-pandemic times, that mentality carries over into Block By Blockwest.
“That energy got taken away with quarantine. I think this is kind of where we put it all,” Waldron said.
These eclectic, immersive, creative, and free-to-stream festivals are a ton of fun — until the servers crash. Although there’s technically no maximum capacity in any given Minecraft map, virtual festivals aren’t one of the game’s intended features, and when thousands of players try to enter a map in a short window of time, things get buggy. Open Pit has been working toward mitigating this problem for years by bringing on an actual Minecraft coder onto their team, who’s helped build custom servers to try and support the large loads of a free, open-to-the-public music festival. But even they still experience issues with servers crashing.
“It’s a game that’s designed to be played with maybe 100 people maximum, but typically more like 10 or 20,” Segal-Grossman said. “So just shoving thousands of people onto a single game server just doesn’t go well. People aren’t able to connect. People can’t play. It just crashes the whole thing.”
Courier Club experienced a particularly nasty bout of this at Block By Blockwest, which was originally scheduled for April 24, but ended up getting postponed just 30 minutes into the festival after they attracted thousands more attendees than they ever expected.
“We were expecting around 10,000 players throughout the day and around 30,000 streaming it,” Waldron said. “But we had 7,000 players in the first second and then when we shut everything down I think we had around 88,000 people streaming the festival. And we shut things down about 30 minutes into the festival.”
As Waldron explains it, they were running on a custom server with 128 gigabytes of RAM, but they needed nearly 100 times that (10 terabytes) to actually handle the number of participants they received. Since then, they’ve invested in the proper amount of infrastructure and are ready to try again on May 16 with even more elaborate maps.
“Having this many servers is what massive companies run off of,” Waldron says. “But we’re at the point now where it’s like, we have to make it happen.”
Fortunately, Courier Club was able to get some sponsors to cover the costs, but the band isn’t making any money off of this festival. Segal-Grossman says Open Pit was paid to build the map and help with promotion for Square Garden, but other than that, these festivals are all being put together on a volunteer basis. None of the artists get paid for their sets, either. That’s an obvious obstacle for not just Minecraft festivals, but livestreaming events in general — especially because Courier Club and Open Pit want these events to be free for fans.
“It started out from our distaste of festivals costing so much money,” Waldron said. “It becomes a little lame at a certain point. You’re a kid and you want to go see your favorite band, [but] you have to pay a $1000 ticket.”
Nevertheless, artists need to make money somehow, and the Washington, D.C. emo band Origami Angel found a clever way of doing that. The festival they were playing, Fourchella, also experienced server issues that prevented them from being able to control their characters in-game. Instead, they just streamed the audio from their set — which frontperson Ryland Heagy had pulled an all-nighter just 12 hours before to record — on Twitch. In the middle of their stream, the band’s label, Counter Intuitive Records, messaged them and offered to press the audio of their set on vinyl and put it up for pre-orders immediately after the festival. The band agreed and the first Minecraft “live album” was born.
“I thought he was joking, but he was being for real, and it was so impulsive and fun,” Heagy said. “There was not even really a plan for this thing to exist even 16 hours before pre-orders went up.”
Right now, Minecraft festivals are a wholesome escape from our bleak timeline and a constructive way of keeping the spirit of music communities alive and well. But even after quarantine is eventually lifted and real-life concerts resume, Open Pit and Courier Club believe that these events, whether on Minecraft or a different virtual platform, will serve an important purpose in years to come.
“There are all sorts of barriers about going to real-life events,” Segall-Grossman said. “Things like money, access to transport. Some people don’t like being in big crowds. Some people just don’t have people to go with. Things like that are all barriers that I think we can solve to some extent. It’s an experience that there’s nothing else really like it, I think.”
They may be their own thing entirely, but as Waldron puts it, they still feel distinctly human.
“I think that being in a virtual world, even though you’re just with a bunch of blockheads jumping up and down, it feels very human and it still hits the same way, weirdly enough.”
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