In the darkened theater, hundreds of people couldn’t wait to see legendary rocker Roy Orbison. An orchestra pumped up the crowd with a medley of his hits. Old photos of him flashed across a giant screen.
The crooner appeared to rise magically from the stage, wearing his signature light gray suit and black shades and jamming on a red Gibson guitar to his 1960 hit “Only the Lonely.” Fans screamed as they raised their smartphones to record the spectral image.
“This is as good as seeing him in person as you’ll ever get,” marveled 71-year-old Ray Sadowski, who paid about $200 for a pair of tickets to the Oct. 2 show at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles.
Of course Roy Orbison is not alive.
Thirty years after his death, a digital version of him — a hologram — is making a national tour, the latest ambitious example of how holographic technology is transforming the music industry. (The tour stopped at Memphis on Oct. 24.)
The 65-minute show, which features 16 songs and orchestral accompaniment, is among the first full-length concerts to feature a holographic dead singer.
Such images and shows are becoming more common, as families of deceased celebrities look for ways to capitalize on their legacies. But as technology evolves and it becomes easier to create three-dimensional, lifelike visuals of artists, there’s debate over how those images will be portrayed — and whether they represent how the artists behaved when they were alive.
That has prompted some celebrities to add language in their contracts about holograms and to be more meticulous in selecting who is in charge of their estates. It has also sparked threats of lawsuits from estates to bar companies from profiting off a celebrity’s image without permission.
“This is a big issue,” said Aaron Moss, a partner with law firm Greenberg Glusker. “With new technology, you could essentially make somebody an unwitting and involuntary actor in a film that a celebrity has no part of.”
Buzz surrounding holograms of dead celebrities picked up after a digital representation of late rapper Tupac Shakur appeared on stage at the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. The singer’s likeness was projected onto a Mylar screen, reflecting the image on stage. Although the technique produces a holographic image, it is not technically a hologram, which is defined as a three-dimensional image from a laser.
Other acts soon followed, with a holographic version of jazz singer Billie Holiday on stage at Hologram USA’s Hollywood theater. Pop star Michael Jackson was digitally resurrected at the Billboard Music Awards. Last year, a holographic image of Black Sabbath singer Ronnie James Dio went on tour through Los Angeles-based Eyellusion.
The growth in technology has spawned a cottage industry of companies specializing in creating these effects. It has also created new revenue opportunities for music labels looking to increase record sales.
The Dio holographic concert alone sold on average 1,200 tickets over 11 dates, said Jeffrey Pezzuti, Eyellusion’s chief executive.
Pezzuti says music companies have a back catalog they need to continue to sell, and if artists “are not in front of people, it’s hard to get a lot of buzz.” Holographic images can solve that problem for dead artists.
“It’s a whole industry change,” he said. “We can keep the legacies going and keep them on the road.”
Orbison’s hologram was made by Base Hologram, led by Brian Becker, the former chief executive of Clear Channel Entertainment, a major promoter of live entertainment. Unlike other companies, Base Hologram says its images of dead celebrities are projected by a single machine without the help of a screen or archived concert footage.
The Los Angeles company hired a model to mimic Or-bison’s actions, and computer animation work was done to create a digital representation of Orbison that is beamed onto the stage. Orbison’s voice was taken from recordings and paired with a live orchestra and synced to the hologram’s movements.
This year, the company brought the Orbison hologram tour to 15 locations in Europe, selling 38,000 tickets. Los Angeles kicked off the North American tour.
The concerts have attracted older audiences as well as millennials. Next year, Becker says, he expects revenue of $25 million to $35 million.
Base Hologram is also promoting a tour in Mexico and South America of the late opera singer Maria Callas, who died more than 40 years ago. The soundtrack was released Sept. 14.
“I hope that it will be effective in exposing her to new audiences,” said Jeff Bronikowski, Warner Music Group’s head of innovation and a senior vice president overseeing global digital business development. The concerts could bring in additional album sales or streaming revenue, he said.
Base Hologram plans an Amy Winehouse tour next year.
Eyellusion and Primary Wave are collaborating on a hologram tour featuring renowned 20th-century pianist Glenn Gould, who died in 1982. In a news release, the companies state an announcement of tour dates will be made in late 2019.
Although holograms have created new moneymaking ventures, their growing use has also stirred anxieties among celebrities who are worried about how they’ll be portrayed after they die.
“It’s very hard to control that from the grave,” said Derek Crownover, head of the entertainment law practice group at Dickinson Wright in Nashville.
Some states, including California, have laws that protect a celebrity’s right to control how their image or likeness is used, and those rights can be passed on to family members or an estate. But family members have come under fire for how they handle a dead celebrity’s image.
In 2013, a Johnnie Walker whiskey ad featuring a digital representation of martial artist Bruce Lee was criticized by some fans because Lee did not drink alcohol. The company had consulted Lee’s daughter for the ad.
One commercial used footage of legendary dancer Fred Astaire to market a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner. Astaire’s widow approved of the ad, but his daughter told Variety she was “saddened that after [my father’s] wonderful career, he was sold to the devil.”
Alex Orbison thinks his father would have liked the idea of a holographic concert because he loved Hollywood and cinema.
The hologram took about a year to create. Base worked with the Orbison family to create a concert that included songs that the legendary rocker never performed live on stage. The family suggested tweaks, such as adjusting his sunglasses between sets because he would be sweating.
Alex Orbison said he was nervous when the show had its opening night in London. But as the holograph reached the high notes and fans cheered during “Crying,” it was Orbison’s turn to cry — from relief.
“It was seeing couples holding hands and the way that these families looked at each other,” Orbison said. “The fact that these people were having the experience of my dad … in 2018 is just so incredible.”