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What Charli XCX’s Roblox Concert Reveals About the Future of the Music Industry

The music business is setting its eyes on the wildly popular tween gaming universe. But what are concerts inside Roblox actually like?

Two Fridays ago, I rode a hoverboard around a giant facsimile of Charli XCX’s body and bounced on a smartphone as if it were a trampoline. This all happened in Samsung’s Superstar Galaxy, a virtual concert experience featuring the pop star, staged in the online games platform Roblox to promote a silly-looking flip phone. For five weeks before the performance, participants could roam around a gleaming white space station, completing mini-challenges in order to unlock virtual prizes like a Charli XCX cheerleader uniform. My avatar, one of the platform’s default characters, looked like an emoticon version of Pete Wentz in a beanie, shaggy hair, and a pizza sweatshirt. It took a “selfie” in an in-game photo booth, did the “running man” in a neon arena called “Cyber City,” and encountered a Lego-style fellow in a red shirt who asked questions like, “How do you think your friends would feel about you having a Samsung phone?”

To understand why Charli XCX agreed to perform in this setting in the first place, consider this: Half of America’s children play Roblox, making it one of contemporary society’s most formidable youth culture engines. It’s not a standalone game like Elden Ring or Zelda; it’s more of a storefront and creation platform, where users can develop a wide range of virtual experiences and share them with millions of other users. “Anyone can make their own game there, so it’s more akin to YouTube,” Polygon writer and Roblox reporter Ana Diaz tells me.

Because its applications are so open-ended, it is one of the major frontiers of the metaverse, even if it’s branded for kids. Spotify launched its own island in Roblox, recently unveiling a K-pop-themed theme park. The Recording Academy hosted a Las Vegas-themed Grammy Week there. Charli XCX was only the latest in a succession of major artists to play on the platform, including twenty one pilots, Lizzo, and Lil Nas X, whose 2020 concert gathered 33 million views. If all goes smoothly, artists can reach a new generation of listeners and trigger a secondary layer of content creation, as Roblox-centric Twitch streamers, YouTubers, and TikTokers rush to append their own commentary.

Roblox activations are part of the music industry’s larger push into gaming, which accelerated during the pandemic amid the loss of live shows and led to supercharged endeavors like Travis Scott’s Fortnite world tour. Gaming hasn’t provided the music industry a temporary fix so much as the opportunity to rethink its entire financial strategy.

A 2021 report by the UK research firm MIDia summarizes the difference between the gaming and music sectors as rooted in its audience’s willingness to spend money: “As music fans expect to consume ever more new music for the same all-access price, gamers dive deeply into the games and platforms they obsess about–spending as much time and money as they can afford.” Essentially, while your average music consumer might not feel compelled to invest beyond a Spotify subscription or a one-time concert ticket, gamers are constantly making small purchases—a new skin, bonus features—to unlock new experiences and amp up their engagement. (They also stream music at twice the rate of your average consumer and are more likely to buy music merch.)

Artists who’ve sold digital accessories within Roblox have seen a big payoff. Within six months of hosting a “Dance Party” in Roblox to promote her album Poster Girl, Swedish pop star Zara Larsson made over a million dollars off the sale of virtual merchandise, including a neon cowboy hat, flower crown, and Zara Larsson-branded face mask. Looking at my cheugy, 2000s-hipster default avatar, I could understand why someone would buy virtual swag—you might as well look cute online if you’re spending time there, just as you would want to in real life. “The nice thing about it is that exposure isn’t limited to that one-time event,” Diaz says. “People will continue to wear those items on their avatars throughout other games, and it will ripple outwards.”

The Charli show itself was bizarre and messy, like the fever dream of a sadistic gay fan. A large digital Charli emerged in a black minidress and boots—the singer’s real movements were broadcast in-game via motion capture suit—and stomped around to her song “Good Ones” while little avatars scuttled near her feet. (Step on me Charli!) If the HAIM sisters and Dua Lipa got shit for their wooden dancing, Charli’s avatar was like a character from Toy Story. Glitches abounded: At some point there were two versions of the British pop star, one levitating motionlessly in a T-pose while the other prowled around awkwardly. Multiple recorded tracks would play at once, worsening fatigue from an already-limited song selection. I attempted to talk to other viewers in the chat by asking whether they liked Caroline Polachek, but the phrase “Caroline Polachek” was inexplicably censored.

“Concerts like this usually get a little messy,” a 15-year-old Charli fan and Roblox player named James told me. Ava Max’s avatar fell into lava at her Heaven & Hell launch party. Zara Larrson said “I fucking love rhubarbs” at her event, even though swearing to an audience of children violates the terms of service. This time, a stan war broke out in James’ server (“CHARLI OUTSOLD FLOPKANYE”), and people in mine tossed digs at Samsung (“Apple outsold.”) Viewers observed Charli from odd angles, basically getting upskirt shots in what I assume was a programming malfunction, and while the avatars were on hoverboards, they were able to zip through her body as if she were a ghost.

To put it euphemistically, Roblox concerts tend to be more interactive than your average live show. Obstacle courses, quests, and the opportunity to survey the virtual landscape keep players immersed. According to Josh Neuman, the president of Roblox-centric development studio MELON, Roblox offers the opportunity for artists to invest in more permanent experiences: “Destinations can continue to be updated and refreshed, and then artists can continue to feed music and experiences through the platform. The next time you want to put a song out, you’d come back and create gamification around the theme of that song.” Imagine if Taylor Swift, whose fans are already always on a wild goose chase for Easter eggs, had her own Roblox universe—the Swifties would never log off.

All of this might leave out smaller artists, who don’t have the fame and financial resources to generate a dazzling virtual experience inside of Roblox. According to Neuman, MELON is creating their own world on the platform, which would have multiple tiers of music programming: “We’ll be able to include artists at all different levels as long as the music is compliant with the platform.” This is how I imagine the Spotify Island will eventually operate, with users being able to discover new music by wandering around different parts of the space—not that dissimilar from finding a new song on a playlist, and raising the same questions about which artists are prioritized during curation.

That might require some complicated licensing negotiations; last September, Roblox settled a $200 million lawsuit from the National Music Publishers’ Association over copyright concerns. There are other issues artists and developers will have to contend with, like content moderation and navigating the balance between authentic expression and catering to kids who only know one TikTok hit. “We’re in the brave new world,” Neuman says—and for now, that new world looks like Charli XCX cosplaying Jesus Christ nailed to a virtual cross.