Interview with Billboard's Cherie Hu: Holograms, AI, and the Future of Music

We talk to Billboard's Cherie Hu about the potential for holograms to alter live music! The following transcript has been edited for clarity and hilarity. Please LISTEN to the FULL INTERVIEW

Joe Leonardo: Welcome to this episode of the Funny as Tech podcast. I am your co-host and comedian Joe Leonardo. And to my left is David Ryan Polgar, a tech ethicist. Who do we have on the show today?

David Ryan Polgar: Today we have Cherie Hu. Cherie is an award-winning, entrepreneurial music writer and analyst, focusing on tech trends and emerging markets. She currently serves as a tech columnist for Billboard and a music contributor for Forbes, with additional bylines in the Harvard Political Review, Music Ally and the Juilliard Journal.

At age 21, she received the Reeperbahn Festival's inaugural award for Music Business Journalist of the Year. She speaks at several conferences around the world; this year, you can hear her at SXSW, Music Biz, IMS Ibiza, Primavera Sound and Midem. Previously, Cherie spearheaded a research project on emerging music business models at Harvard Business School, and interned in product marketing at Ticketmaster and in A&R at Interscope Records. Her weekly email newsletter Water & Music reaches nearly 800 creative professionals and influencers, including executives at Spotify, Apple, Facebook and all three major record labels.

So Cherie, welcome to Funny as Tech.

Cherie Hu: Thank you. Glad to be here.

DRP: Well, there's a lot of issues going on right now when we think about music and how technology has impacted it. Especially with watching the Super Bowl recently. Can't help but think about Holograms, right? Because I guess even though Prince didn't appear as a hologram, there had been some discussions. So what's your take right now about we're holograms are in the music industry?

CH: Yeah, it's really fascinating. I think. So on the the recording music side, music industry is, a lot of people would say, in a new stage of growth. Live music has always been a really important source of revenue for artists. But I think amidst this growth, people are looking even more to how to grow the size of that pie, especially in live music. And the thing with artists estates is that once an artist passes away, there's no touring revenue anymore. That source of revenue just sort of goes by the wayside. And then all the efforts of the estate is on licensing the catalog in movies or in any other sort of media.

So from a revenue standpoint, the potential of holograms is really interesting in terms of keeping an artist's legacy alive and very tangible, at least to an audience.

So I was at a conference called Apap in January. And so at Apap they premiered a Hologram of Roy Orbison and of Maria Callas. And so I got to see the dress rehearsal with the orchestra and with the Hologram and it was more interesting than I thought it would be. I honestly went in with a lot of skepticism.

But the holograms right now are not interactive. It's still just like watching a movie there, there are a lot more cinematic possibilities in terms of making things look like they're even like floating or flying in the air, things like that. But it doesn't really interact with the audience or with the orchestra or any other people.

DRP: Let's just say you have an artist who would pay 50 bucks for, right? If they would normally get a $50 ticket and they die tomorrow and then they say, and then the estate says "Geez, he or she is dead, but we, we still need to pay for our Mercedes. Let's, let's make make them into a hologram." How much would I pay for that tour? Would I still pay $50 or is it now down to 25? Because the kicker and I, and I guess is probably what a lot of people are thinking about with holograms, is where does this fall under the spectrum? Is a Hologram akin to a cover band or something else? What do you think, Cherie?

CH: Yeah, that's a really good question. So yeah, I think if you're talking about an artist who you really liked and who you'd pay $50 for today to see as a real life human being, putting on a hologram show tomorrow, I think that people would think that that's really ingenuine.

And actually a couple of years ago there was an incident where a rapper/DJ was accused of, not sending, but putting a holographic projection in this place at a show because he couldn't make it.

JL: The digital version of wearing those glasses with the eyes open on them to make it look like you're not sleeping.

DRP: Well, I was actually thinking of a Ferris Bueller, right? His life would've been a lot easier if you could just had a hologram. He wouldn't have needed that snore machine or whatever.

Where do we draw the line of people saying "Oh no, they're a hologram?" For example, I think if all of a sudden Courtney Love said, hey, let's make a Kurt Cobain and into a hologram, people are really going to push back at that because they're going to say, "Oh my God, Kurt Cobain would be rolling in his grave."

JL: Well, it really just feels like if there's a market for it, if people are willing to pay for the tickets, then there will be it.

CH: I think permission obviously from the estate and from the family is really important. Roy Orbison is actually one of many attempts of making a Hologram and one of the few that's actually successfully going to go on tour and sell tickets.

I'm a big fan of the Beatles who I've never seen live. So it would be interesting for me and I think for a lot of younger fans who never had the chance to experience these older artists in person to even try it out because they never even had the opportunity to pay for a ticket to see these artists in a venue.

JL: It's funny that you mentioned the Beatles.In the late fifties or early sixties (fact check: 1965's Gold Cadillac Tour). Elvis decided to not go on tour, just have his car go on tour and they played the music with his car on stage. That was kind of the inspiration for Paul McCartney to come up with Sgt Pepper of having the album go on tour and not them since they couldn't recreate that music. (Article about this inspiration.)

DRP: So how much would people pay for a Beatles hologram? Would they pay a lot?

JL: I would pay for a Wings hologram. (laughing)

DRP: I want the Pete Best hologram version.

JL: Imagine having a Cavern Club hologram. Or imagine one hologram that's the Beatles throughout the ages. It starts at the Cavern Club and then we see them progress.

DRP: Like Ed Sullivan.

JL: Well I'm pretty sure it was a hologram back in 1964. (laughing)

DRP: Let's imagine you had a musician and they didn't swear in any of their songs, but now we create a hologram of them and then we have them sing a really dirty song. So what's their right when they were living to then decide. It's very similar to a lot of times as you, as you know, when you're licensing a song, the publisher might say, "OK, well you can use this song in this movie, but it can't be during the sex scene or can't be during a very violent scene." They have those limitations.

With holograms, do you think people are thinking about these issues now?

CH: I think people already are. This goes beyond music, but I think the extent to which people are considering these questions goes in tandem with the rise of a voice enabled devices in general. Alexa is not fully autonomous by any means, right? Alexa can only respond to very specific commands with pre-programmed responses.

[Let's take] Roy Orbison Hologram, for instance. It's very limited in what it can do visually. It's very impressive, but it's just simply taking songs from Roy Orbison's back catalog and sort of cleaning the vocals, isolating the vocals, so that it can work with a live orchestra. Roy Orbison's hologram isn't go on and talk show and sort of exhibit a personality that's completely autonomous. It's obviously very pre-programmed, this sort of cut-and-paste. So in that the licensing process is actually not that different from movies at all.

LISTEN to the FULL INTERVIEW with Cherie Hu below!

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