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On a clear day in Manhattan, the rooftop of Snap Inc.’s Midtown offices offers an excellent view — especially of the giant purple robot and friendly-looking hot dog that are waving from behind skyscrapers.
And no — no one here is on drugs.
The characters, which can only be seen when looking at the skyline through Snapchat, seem hilariously out of place. But company executives hope they will look right at home at Lollapalooza Chicago, which runs July 28-31. Ideally, the festival’s 100,000 attendees will make them so by incorporating these characters into their photos and videos that can only be created at the show in Grant Park.
Technology showing things on a screen that aren’t there in real life is augmented reality, an area of innovation that Snapchat and its parent company, Snap Inc., have quietly dominated for years. Since 2013, when Snapchat debuted Lenses — which let users apply AR filters over photos and videos — the company has developed AR technology for both utility and entertainment. Live music could benefit from both.
Now, as startups and tech giants alike are increasingly using AR, Snap wants to position itself as the company best suited to bring it to concerts. Its new, multiyear partnership with concert giant Live Nation, the parent company of Lollapalooza promoter C3 Presents, will surely help.
Kevin Chernett, Live Nation’s executive vp of global content partnerships and innovation, recalls his “aha” moment with bringing AR to live music in 2019 during a concert with The Chainsmokers. The dance act had partnered with Verizon to offer AR experiences such as live filters and photo opportunities. “I was standing there like, ‘Only the people here get this,’ and I like that,” says Chernett. “It’s the FOMO snap.”
The only problem? Such experiential enhancements could only be accessed through a pre-installed app fans had to download — which served no purpose after that show. The same year, at Atlanta’s Music Midtown festival, Live Nation offered a second AR experience, this time through the festival’s own app, and a similar issue arose. “It was just so obvious to me I’ve got to go where the fans are and not necessarily rely on the fans to discover these things on their own,” says Chernett. So, last July, he reached out to Ben Schwerin, Snap’s senior vp of content and partnerships.
“I was like, ‘We need to do this with you. You have 250 million daily users, I have basically zero,’ ” says Chernett. (Seventy-five percent of Snapchat’s 347 million daily active users across 20 countries are ages 13-34.) “There really was no other platform to turn to. If you look at AR interaction, there’s no other platform that’s even close.”
This April, at the annual Snap Partner Summit, Live Nation and Snap announced they had signed a four-year deal to bring custom AR to festivals and concerts, with help from Snap’s creative studio Arcadia, which launched last October. In May, the two companies unveiled the partnership at Las Vegas’ Electric Daisy Carnival, promoted by Live Nation subsidiary Insomniac. As promised, the partnership showed how AR could make festivals more fun, but also more navigable for attendees. One Snapchat Lens showed neon-colored daisies sprouting from the ground, while more practical tools included the interactive map AR Compass and the Friend FindAR Lens, launched at EDC in beta, which helps fans pinpoint their relative location from friends using visual aids like rainbow-lit AR pathways.
It was a full-circle moment for Snapchat and Live Nation, which had first teamed up for a one-off partnership at EDC in 2014 — when, as Chernett recalls with a laugh, “I got a call that there was this company trying to get into EDC for free to test this closed-circuit communications system that no one had ever heard of.” (Snapchat did, in fact, get in — and subsequently tested the platform’s first-ever Our Story, a user-populated reel of Snaps, at the festival.)
More than a dozen festivals are on deck for Live Nation and Snap, with Lollapalooza up next. Snapchat will offer four features at the Chicago staple: AR Compass, which works even without cellular connectivity and uses GPS wayfinding to show an interactive 3D map (for sustainability reasons, Lollapalooza ended its paper programs); Friend FindAR, now out of beta; Festival Planner, which lets fans note must-see sets and share custom schedules; and Lollaland, where the purple robot and hot dog live, contained within the Chicagoland area over the festival weekend by geofencing. (Patrick Dentler, director of marketing for C3 Presents, says the festival wants to integrate AR features while ensuring fans aren’t glued to their phones, which is why most of Lollapalooza’s AR offerings are utility-based.)
Snap’s Live Nation partnership comes at a pivotal time for the tech company, which in May announced it would likely miss its second-quarter targets for revenue and adjusted profit. Its stock took a beating, plummeting from an all-time high of $83.11 last September to $11.91 in mid-June. Following a small rebound, Snap’s stock fell to $9.96 after the company released its second-quarter financial report on July 21, which revealed a net loss of $422 million, compared with $152 million the year prior, even as revenue increased slightly, by 13% year over year to $1.1 billion.
Promisingly, though, the company’s daily active user growth increased 18% to 347 million during this period. And at this crucial juncture, AR provides a path forward for Snap to differentiate itself from competitors. The company wants to find real-life applications for the technology, and the concert business offers one with potential. Snap knows fans are already on their phones at concerts, so it wants to meet them there.
Snap’s interest in music goes well beyond concerts. The platform envisions itself as integral to an artist’s plans at each career stage, from launch — bolstered by the 2020 introduction of its Sounds feature, in which millions of songs were licensed to the platform for the first time — to ascent. Ultimately, the company hopes to become a central part of lasting careers at a time when TikTok virality is beginning to feel a bit too familiar — and fleeting.
One way the platform will double down is by bringing AR to a handful of Live Nation’s fall tours, starting with Jack Harlow’s 22-date Come Home the Kids Miss You shows, which begin in September. The rapper’s custom AR experience will include merchandise drops, experiences timed to key parts of the show and Portal Lenses, which allows fans to see special content when entering certain areas on the tour grounds.
“This tour is something my team and I have been working on and ideating for a while, especially during the making of this new album,” says Harlow. “Now that everyone’s back outside, the energy at live concerts has never been higher, so we wanted to create an even more immersive experience for my fans who are already capturing moments during my show. [We wanted to] take it a step further [with] augmented reality that extends the tour experience right in the palms of their hands.”
Schwerin expands on that idea: “AR is going to be the next important creative canvas for artists when they’re thinking about, ‘What is my show going to look like?’ As the technology evolves, we want to think about, ‘What does the future of concerts look like?’ ”
Resh Sidhi, the global director of Snap’s creative studio Arcadia, grew up loving sci-fi films, particularly Back to the Future, because of their sense of possibility. She says colleague Peter Sellis, vp of product at Snap, feels similarly, though his reference point is the “Mis-match!” closet technology from Clueless. “There were things we imagined and believed, and there is no reality in which those can’t be possible,” says Sidhi. “That’s what we want to enable. We can forge that future that we imagined.”
Sidhi has over a decade of experience working at the intersection of creativity and technology, with previous clients including Fenty Beauty, Nike and Samsung, and was eager to hit the ground running when she joined Arcadia and its roughly 40-person team in February. She believes “there is no better place than Snap in the world who is doing the best AR,” and says she’s particularly fond of its mission to democratize the technology with partnerships — like the one with Live Nation — that offer “a creative runway.”
That has been part of Snap’s strategy since it was founded in 2011 by Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy and Reggie Brown. Snap has remained independent, turning down substantial offers by Facebook and Google, but has a rich history of acquiring forward-thinking tech companies such as QR code scanning startup Scan.me; Looksery, which helped develop Snap’s now-famed Lenses; Bitmoji founder Bitstrips; and AR startup Cimagine Media.
“When people started using Snapchat, it felt like a really fun, innovative way to communicate with the people you cared about most because it was visual, it was ephemeral,” says Schwerin, who joined the company in 2015. “This felt very novel, and frankly, it still does. When you think about how all of these [other] apps have evolved, a lot of them have adapted features that we pioneered. They said, ‘How can we do our version of Stories?’ or ‘How do we do our version of Lenses?’ ” (Notably, Instagram has also leaned into AR, incorporating the tech into its own effects and filters.)
In 2016, Snapchat Inc. rebranded as Snap Inc. to become more inclusive of new product lines such as Spectacles and the mini drone Pixy, and in a 2017 Securities and Exchange Commission filing, it declared itself to be “a camera company” rather than a social media platform. In its continued pursuit of innovation and expansion, Snap has invested heavily in AR — and while the term might be unfamiliar to users, the technology probably isn’t.
“People have been using augmented reality, hundreds of millions of people now, for years,” Schwerin says. AR enhances, rather than removes, users from reality, Sidhi adds, noting that “augmenting the world in which you live is what we see as the future of how we are going to interact as a species, completely.”
“AR technology is moving at such speed it’s remarkable,” continues Sidhi, citing the rapid development of “segmentation” technology. “What we’re doing with sky segmentation we couldn’t do a year ago. What we’re doing with ground segmentation we couldn’t do six months ago.” Developed by Snap’s Camera Platform team and utilized by Arcadia, segmentation deals with obstacle detection and path planning of virtual autonomous objects, like a purple robot having the awareness to avoid “walking into” buildings or people. “As I look around the world, I see it in AR,” says Sidhi. “Like, ‘What else can we do? What haven’t we done?’ ”
These technological advances have opened new revenue possibilities. As Chernett says, a core part of Live Nation’s business is selling media sponsors experiential areas that take up physical real estate. “What my promoters quickly realized is [AR] isn’t going to take up any space. We’re just trying to create a utility to help your fans have a better experience and some fun entertainment — and we’re going to do it all here,” he says, holding up his iPhone. “I’ve had to educate my sales team because it’s like, now we have the sky. This is a whole new piece of real estate, literally. So it has forced us to think differently because [we can tell] our sponsors, ‘You got this, but you didn’t buy the sky.’ ” (At Governors Ball, the festival by Live Nation subsidiary Founders Entertainment in New York, Verizon purchased a bit of the sky, which allowed fans to hold their phones over the company’s physical Verizon Cabana space and festival main stage to see animations of neon lights, stars and fireworks.)
Pitching artists’ teams to use AR on tours can require some education about the technology and its applications. “They’re not building a tour thinking, ‘What’s our AR play here?’ ” says Chernett. “Yet — but that’s our goal. When Ben and I initially spoke, we were like, ‘How do we change that?’ And the only way to change that was to do it.”
“With artists, what we’re beginning to learn is [the importance of] really understanding what their creative expression is,” Sidhi says, “and then how do we bring a layer of AR into that? How do we create a moment of connection so that we transform [a phone] from being an intrusion to being a canvas?”
AR engagement can be just as beneficial, especially for generating revenue, when an artist is offstage. Both Snap and Live Nation executives particularly light up when speaking about the opportunities for AR and e-commerce. Sidhi describes a situation where a fan can try on merch using AR, purchase that same merch in-app and skip physical lines. In the future, AR might allow a piece of merch to come to life with graphics illustrating specific moments from an attendee’s experience. (“That’s the ultimate memento,” says Sidhi.) Fans might use Compass to find their seats or a dedicated Lens to populate set lists in real time (Live Nation owns setlist.fm).
“We’ve got to educate, we’ve got to adopt, then we’ve got to innovate — but it will take a minute,” Chernett says. “We can’t solve it all in one summer. I think we all know that.”
Snap has always played the long game. The key to remaining innovative, says Schwerin, is the years the company has spent developing and maintaining deep relationships with key industry stakeholders, like Live Nation, “and that’s managers and artists and everyone up and down the chain where we’re asking, ‘What’s going to be meaningful?’ That’s how we start the conversation: ‘How can we help?’ ”
The Snap team is optimistic such partnerships will bolster yet another new venture: Its music-centric Snapchat feature Sounds. Launched in October 2020, the platform has been used to create over 2.7 billion videos featuring music that Sounds licensed from each major-label group publisher; independents including Kobalt, BMG and DistroKid; and others. (No product launch is without hiccups, though: In May, Snap was sued for copyright infringement by SUISA Digital Licensing, which collects digital publishing royalties for some compositions outside the แมนเชสเตอร์ ยูไนเต็ด States for publishers and songwriters.)
The announcement was quickly framed as Snap’s answer to TikTok. (In July, Snapchat launched a web-based version for Snapchat+ subscribers that facilitates the platform’s chat and video features, drawing comparisons to another prominent company, Zoom.)
Yet, when Snap employees speak about its music strategy, the word “TikTok” seems verboten; the platform is only alluded to rarely, as an unnamed “other app.” Snap cites friend-to-friend recommendations as a key differentiator of how its users engage with music compared with other apps, with 40% of videos created with music from Sounds being shared directly with friends through the platform’s chat feature.
There’s also the AR component that, according to Snap, offers a distribution opportunity for artists at all levels. Before Sounds, mostly major-label acts had partnered on AR Lenses to support single releases, from Whitney Houston and Kygo’s “Higher Love” (which was used over 16 million times) to G-Eazy and Halsey’s “Him and I” (used over 61 million times). Today, Sounds from any artist — not just those with big followings or budgets — can be embedded in Snapchat’s AR Lenses.
Snap hopes this will lead to organic success. In August, it will unveil the Snapchat Sounds Creator Fund, a grant program for independent artists that will offer monthly sums of $5,000 to emerging and indie acts distributing music on Snapchat through indie distributor DistroKid, with the intent to award up to $100,000 in grants every month. (Artists must be U.S.-based and over the age of 16.)
“My dream would be there’s an artist in this program who does great and they have a song that goes viral and they start to build a following and then they release a new album and it’s a hit and then we see that they’re on tour and now we have a big AR partnership with them,” says Schwerin. “That, to me, is the journey that we want to be part of.”
That value in continued exploration is key not only to Snap and Live Nation’s evolution but also the development of AR as a whole — and is precisely what the pair’s new partnership is aiming for. “If we can transform the music industry with AR,” says Sidhi, “the opportunities are limitless.”
This story will appear in the July 30, 2022, issue of Billboard.