I wasn’t at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival this year, but I can imagine the crowd full of wide eyes and open mouths as Tupac Shakur appeared on stage during Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s closing set. Head bowed, shirtless with tattoos and abs exposed, hands patiently clasped together in front of him, as he literally rose up onto the stage. I can picture the confusion and disbelief when the infamous rapper, who was shot and killed almost 15 years ago — three years before the first Coachella lured music fans into the desert – bellowed out inquisitively to the shocked crowd, “What’s up, Coachella?” before they could ask themselves, ‘How is this possible?’ Maybe some people knew the truth right away. Maybe some believed they were seeing the long-awaited proof of the “he will rise again” 7-Day Theory of Tupac’s afterlife ego, Makaveli. Or, maybe they even thought they were witnessing a miracle. As such, it was a miracle. Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, called it “amazing” and has reportedly been thrilled with its outcome. Dr. Dre, AV Concepts, and the Digital Domain Media Group had used digital imaging technology to raise her son from the dead.

In order to examine the implications of this feat, we must first look at its history. Known as the Eyeliner 3-D Projection System, the technology used to create what is now known as the Tupac hologram is at its heart nothing new. Rooted in late 19th century magic tricks, the reflective mirror-based illusion, according to Eyeliner System patent holders, Musion, borrows from a technique called Pepper’s Ghost that debuted in London’s Royal Pyrotechnic Institute for an 1862 Charles Dickens play. It shouldn’t come as a shock that within the proceeding 150 years, we have continued on the path of using digitally created images of live or even deceased performers. Filmmakers of both The Crow (1994) and Queen of the Damned (2002) resorted to digital help when their lead actors, Brandon Lee and Aaliyah, respectively, were killed before filming was completed; in 2007, rotoscoping allowed Celine Dion and Elvis Presley to duet “If I Can Dream” on the American Idol stage; and last year, thanks to the same Eyeliner System that digitally resurrected Tupac, the “hologram” of a very much alive Mariah Carey performed simultaneously in five different European cities for a Christmas-timed publicity stunt. Most recently, on May 14, Queen frontman Freddie Mercury appeared on stage at London’s West End Dominion Theatre to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the musical We Will Rock You — of which Queen guitarist Brian May told BBC, “It’s a little unfortunate they did that thing with Tupac as we’ve been trying to make Freddie appear on the stage for quite a while.”  

With so many examples of reanimating artists, why is the Tupac hologram so shocking? Because, like Ed Ulbrich, chief creative officer of Digital Domain Media Group, told The Wall Street Journal, “This is not found footage. This is not archival footage.”

And herein lays the miracle. This was not a recreation. The trio created a new, unique, and specifically purposed performance of an artist who has been dead for over 15 years. This wasn’t a rebroadcast. It was original content. It was digital creationism.

So, now, after the dust in the desert has settled and the initial awe, excitement, and hologram jokes inserting the Tupac hologram into Star Wars scenes have passed, it’s time to get serious. Pandora’s Box has been hacked, and while we are just beginning to see what lies inside, we must ask ourselves a few questions: How could this affect live shows? Is this beneficial or harmful to the music industry or to artists? What are the implications of using technology to raise the dead (and in creating a new life for them)? And where can we locate the ethical boundaries for doing so?

After the first Tupac hologram performance on April 15, rumors surfaced when WSJ reported that Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg might be planning to tour with the illusion. Ulbrich seemed to hint toward this by saying, “This is just the beginning. Dre has a massive vision for this.” Dr. Dre responded to these rumors via YouTube stating clearly, “This was done strictly for Coachella. I want to [sic] get rid of all the rumors out there. This was not done for a tour.” But it was too late. Our imaginations and desires got the better of us, and soon conversations, minds, and the Internet were flooded with the possibilities, prompting Aux.tv to create a flyer for Coachella 2013, featuring an “Exclusively Hologram Lineup.” According to MTV, TLC is rumored to be planning a tour that includes late member Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and The Jackson 5 have similar intentions for deceased members of their group. Think about it: No one ever has to die. Younger generations could experience the musical icons of decades past; Blind Melon wouldn’t have had to wait for a Shannon Hoon sound-a-like to arrive before reuniting; The Beatles could start an annual tour; you could watch Elvis (and Madonna for that matter) at various stages of their careers! And arenas could be packed every night — but would they?

Would the live concert experience suffer if our living and breathing acts were replaced with projected and reflected images flickering across the stage? Mike Kaminsky, artist manager for such acts as 3Oh!3 and Meg Frampton at KMGMT, says he saw something similar to the Tupac hologram two years ago in Japan.

“Personally, I love it,” he says. “We are moving more and more toward electronic music, electronic production, etc. For many music scenes, [it’s] less about the actual song and more about the overall experience. Any time you can enhance that in new and interesting ways, it adds an exciting element to the show.”

However, Los Angeles based producer, Tim Moore, who has recorded such talent as NBC’s The Voice contestant Katrina Parker, sees a darker side to this use of technology.

“Advancements in technology are one of the primary causes of the devaluation of music and the musical experience,” he argues. “We have programmed the audience to place more emphasis on the delivery of the art rather than the art itself.”

It’s become clear that technology and music have had a rocky relationship. The music industry still hasn’t fully recovered from the popularity of the late ’90s music file-sharing service Napster. We are an active third-wheel in the tumultuous relationship between music and technology, and for better and worse, it’s had an obvious effect on our own relationship with music. Long gone are the days dripping with anticipation over the release of a favorite artist’s new album, waiting in line at a record store, or even listening to music as anything more than background noise. The advent of digital recording, music files and the prolific act of music sharing, have all revolutionized and crippled the music industry. This has left live performances as one of the remaining ways fans can tangibly connect to music, and where both industry and artists alike look to make money. The latter of which begs the question, could “hologram” tours not only revive dead artists, but album sales as well?

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