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quarantined concertgoers find solace in minecraft festivals

Last month, after a few weeks of anticipation, I got ready to go to a music festival. Instead of taking the train to a nearby venue or making my usual commute into the city, however, I simply turned on my laptop, called my friends, and logged into the pixelated world of Minecraft from the comfort of my room. Amid the shutdown of concerts worldwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic, various groups have turned to Minecraft as a platform to bring concertgoers together.

One organization that has hosted some of the most prominent Minecraft shows during the pandemic is Open Pit. Originally founded to throw a virtual birthday party long before there was a pandemic, the Open Pit team has since worked with artists that range from the emo mainstay American Football to pop pioneers like 100 gecs. 

In order to host these large-scale concerts, which often hold thousands of attendees, the Open Pit team streams pre-recorded sets created by each band through its website. Paired with the notoriously detailed Minecraft worlds the team builds, each virtual event offers creative aspects that can’t be recreated in real life while still feeling strikingly similar to in-person concerts. “There’s in-game merch so you can really emulate that concert experience and you see a performer, like a blocky avatar of them, on stage mimicking the performance,” Robin Boehlen, Open Pit’s community management lead, said. 

On a more local scale, the California-based artists collective Outfit Machine, which was initially founded to host in-person shows with area bands, has recently been bringing its usual showcases into the world of Minecraft, creating a temporary replacement for Californian concertgoers eager to return back to seeing local bands live. Using a model similar to Open Pit’s, Outfit Machine’s concerts also feature various things that wouldn’t be possible with in-person shows, creating a unique environment for attendees to explore while listening to the in-game music.  “We build the concert space in the server and fill it with the stage, art, parkour, and other activities,” Outfit Machine organizer Sterling Gietzen said. 

One of the biggest facets of Minecraft shows is accessibility. Although organizations like Open Pit and Outfit Machine could likely turn a profit by selling tickets, most have decided to host free events to allow access to everybody. “People who are either too young to go to shows or geographically are far away from shows or just aren’t comfortable or able to attend physically for any number of reasons [can come to our shows],” Boehlen said. 

Thanks to the fact that Minecraft shows are open to anybody who owns the video game, many people have connected with friends while attending these shows, much like they would during in-person shows. “I think that since COVID started, definitely more people have been meeting up in the game and hanging out,” Boehlen said. “Someone found their girlfriend at one of our events.”

As with any online platform, the virtual world of Minecraft still has its limitations, potentially putting a cap on the future growth of online shows. “Even though Minecraft is a really good platform for this in that it’s a game where you can do whatever you want and so many people already have it, it’s still like you’re constantly fighting against the limitations of the game,” Umru Rothenberg, who manages artist relations and graphic design for Open Pit, said. 

Until the pandemic ends and social distancing guidelines dissolve, Minecraft shows are all we have. Despite their limitations, Minecraft shows have brought people together during a time when it’s normal to stay apart. Although some teams like Outfit Machine plan to return to hosting in-person shows as soon as possible, the impact that these shows have had on concertgoers is bigger than anybody could have predicted. “We’ve had a great reaction,” Gietzen said. “Each show has been bigger and better and it really seems like people enjoy it.”

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