A shimmering Ariana Grande emerges from the starry night sky as she begins to run through her biggest pop hits. Dressed in a glistening sequinned two-piece and rocking a towering ponytail with hints of neon pink, the superstar is both levitating and incandescent.
Literally. This isn’t Grande’s latest festival outing, nor is the pop star even physically present. Rather, Grande is seen here in an entirely digital form as part of The Rift Tour, an interactive collaboration with the massively popular online video game Fortnite. Rolling out globally this weekend only, it’s a unique partnership the brand is dubbing a “musical journey” with the singer, and marks the latest chapter of an emerging relationship between two disparate cultural behemoths: music and video games.
“The range of Ariana’s music in her discography over the years was so rich to riff off of visually,” explains Phil Rampulla, head of brand at Epic Games, the company behind Fortnite, of their decision to partner up with the singer. “She’s an incredibly talented and strong woman and we really wanted that in our world,” he explains of a Fortnite fanbase that counts a whopping 400m registered users worldwide.
Crafting the musical journey (as they’re dubbing it) was a six-month process from initial discussions to this weekend’s launch and involved direct input from Grande and her creative team, complete with exclusive visuals and song remixes. It is not simply an animated concert film, but an interactive experience, rolled out by timezone, during which users can decide how to experience her performance by moving around in the world of the game – usually a setting for blazing battles.
“What we always ask is, ‘What would you want to do in Fortnite that you can’t do in the real world?’” asks Rampulla. “It all leads to some pretty crazy outcomes.” If you so choose, that even includes the ability to walk right up to Grande’s avatar as she’s belting out her hits. (The performance includes spins on her trademark hits ranging from 7 Rings to Positions). “It’s real-time interaction in a 3D immersive space,” says Rampulla. “And as technology gets better and bandwidths increase, these engagements are going to just get bigger and better.”
The partnership between Grande and Epic Games is the latest in a string of Fortnite artist collaborations which have previously included Travis Scott, Diplo and J Balvin, and started with EDM star Marshmello in 2019, attracting 10.7 million attendees; a record of his set won a Billboard Music award for best electronic album in 2020. The experiences have only grown in scope and popularity since, with 45 million watching Scott’s performance. “What makes it interesting is that no two shows are identical. The goal is to have as many people on the planet experience it at once.”
Jon Vlassopulos, global head of music of video game developer Roblox, which concocted a similar concert experience with Lil Nas X last November, notes that these interactive collaborations provide superstar artists with an undeniable opportunity. “They’re a unique, creative and novel way for them to express themselves and their music and engage with their fans in a hyper-immersive, social setting.”
According to Vlassopulos, the possibilities are endless when it comes to creativity and audience reach. “Artists can perform in an infinite venue that they dream up and perform for millions of fans in a single night, instead of having to fly around the world for 18 months on a physical tour,” he explains. “Limits are non-existent in the metaverse.”
“This is a new and exciting way to digest music,” explains Murray Matravers, frontman of UK pop act Easy Life, who collaborated with Fortnite in June (the band performed inside an animated O2 Arena). “It will never replace a live show in the traditional sense, but the limitless possibilities of video games allow for some really interesting outcomes. Music has always played a huge part in video games and this is yet another crossover.”
Those nonexistent limits also conveniently apply to cashflow. In the same way branded merch is sold at a Grande tour stop, Fortnite is hawking a digital-only line of Grande’s fashion and accessories this weekend – yet another layer of financial attraction for organisers. Vlassopulos notes that their Lil Nas X merchandise far outpaced their initial expectations, citing an eight-figure rate. “These virtual concerts give fans another way to express their fandom and support their favourite artists financially, just like they would in real life.”
“We’re just scratching the surface and we know it,” says Epic’s Rampulla. “This is the future of entertainment in general.”