When the pandemic forced promoters to pull the plug on live shows, artists and venues scrambled to find digital alternatives. But psychedelic rock pioneers The Flaming Lips followed their own path back on stage, courtesy of some souped-up transparent pods.
In January, the group officially debuted its Space Bubble Concerts, with each band member inside an inflatable ball—while the audience members enjoyed the show from balls of their own.
The band’s frontman, Wayne Coyne, conjured up the idea based on his pre-pandemic penchant for using plastic bubbles to surf atop the heads of concertgoers. But the new concerts shouldn’t be viewed as some excuse to get out and rage against health precautions.
“I don’t want anybody to think this is some kind of freak party,” Coyne said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “It’s a very restricted, weird event. But the weirdness is so we can enjoy a concert [without] putting our families and everybody at risk.”
With safety as the paramount concern, The Flaming Lips tested a scaled-down version of the concept at The Criterion in the band’s home state of Oklahoma, USA in October.
The plan for the January concerts called for 100 bubbles at each show, which required spot-on spatial planning. First, the team worked with the venue operators to divide the concert floor into a 3-meter-by-3-meter (10-foot-by-10-foot) grid, with a single ball placed inside each square.
The team also enforced social distance mandates on event day: Masked ticketholders were kept apart as they were ushered to their reserved pods. They were then placed into their respective bubbles, a process that took about 20 minutes. Bubble capacity maxed out at three people, with enough oxygen for pod residents to breathe for 70 minutes.
The team also carefully thought through user experience, allotting each of the attendees their own wearable high-frequency speaker to keep the live audio from being muffled. Each pod also included a battery-operated fan, a towel, a water bottle and a sign proclaiming “I have to pee” on one side and “It’s hot in here” on the other. If life got too steamy inside the terrarium, venue operators offered a blast of cool air. And concertgoers who needed to use the restroom were escorted outside of their pods—with masks on—by staff.
After selling out in minutes, the first round of shows was deemed a great success, with critics gushing about how the band pulled it off. The Flaming Lips have since announced two additional shows for March. But perhaps the bigger win is for the live entertainment sector, which now has an innovative model for getting people back into venues safely. “I do have high hopes that other groups will find unique ways to do stuff,” Coyne told Consequence of Sound. “For me personally, I just don’t think that the streaming works very well. It doesn’t fill the void of going to a concert.”