Michael Silverglade distinctly remembers that day that everything changed — for himself, his internship, his band and even his senior project.
The fourth-year music industry student set to graduate this June was interning for Live Nation at its 2,500 capacity Philadelphia concert venue, The Fillmore, the day of March 12, 2020. He got to work in the morning, and everything was seemingly normal. The Disco Biscuits were set to play that night, and the tour for his own band, Courier Club, was supposed to kick off just a few days later, and continue on into May. Setting up the tour had been a part of Silverglade’s senior project for his degree.
“Then, by the afternoon, it was like, everything was cancelled or postponed and we couldn’t do anything,” Silverglade recalled, as the afternoon of March 12 was when the order came down from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf strongly encouraging the suspension of gatherings with more than 250 people to limit the spread of COVID-19. The City of Philadelphia then took it a step further, and prohibited gatherings of 1,000 or more people.
“It was a weird day. It was pretty disappointing, but we definitely turned a bad situation into a good thing through Block by Blockwest, because now it’s probably the coolest thing we’ve ever done as a band,” he added. “And, we wouldn’t have done it if we were on the road right now just playing normal shows.”
Creating a fully virtual, Minecraft-hosted music festival was something Silverglade and his bandmates in Courier Club had discussed before, though not at all seriously. But as of March 12, it was one of their only options for ways to play their music to an audience — and for Silverglade, creating a music festival was a great way to salvage his senior project. So, he enlisted Courier Club’s manager to start reaching out to potential artists to fill a line-up based on a list generated by Silverglade and his bandmates. The requirement was that each musical act would record a 20-minute live set to be streamed through the video game as well as additional social media outlets, by any means they had access to while observing social distancing standards.
The result? Block by Blockwest music festival starting at 3 p.m. EST on April 25 is set to host nearly 40 bands and thousands of virtual spectators, as well as donate most of its proceeds to the Center for Disease Control’s COVID-19 emergency response fund.
“I was not expecting the response we got and I think we got some really cool artists, so I’m pretty pumped about it,” Silverglade said.
How will a Minecraft music festival work, the non-gamer might ask? Silverglade said attendees will join the Minecraft server he’s set up, which is basically a “world” within the game one can connect to through a unique IP address. There, Block by Blockwest will host two massive stages, as well as a virtual merch stand which will actually feature photos of each of the band’s merch items being offered that attendees can click off and buy from their online store. The stand will also offer an exclusive Block by Blockwest t-shirt, 100 percent of the proceeds from which will go to the relief fund.
Though there will be no “tickets” sold and users can technically join in the fun for free, they will be prompted to donate to the cause when joining the Minecraft server. Festivalgoers can also upgrade to VIP status with a $15 donation, the perks of which include access to a “VIP lounge” on the server, and an exclusive Discord channel for VIPs to chat with some of the bands.
“We’re hoping that will kind of encourage people to donate too,” Silverglade said.
For the gamers, Silverglade has incorporated some more traditional Minecraft activities onto the server for extra entertainment. And for the non-gamers, you can even skip the Minecraft environment all together and listen to the audio and interact with other music lovers on the Block by Blockwest Discord channel, or watch as the whole event is livestreamed via Youtube, Facebook and Twitch.
“It’s more of a leaned back experience than being super engaged,” Silverglade said of attending the festival outside of Minecraft. “So, we really just want to try to make it accessible for anyone who wants to be a part of it, but you don’t really have to be playing the game or buy the game or anything like that if you don’t want to.”
Pre-fest activities have included the launching of the Discord channel, which Silverglade said has been hugely helpful in promoting the festival, since droves of fans of the various bands on the line-up — over 2,000 just on the announcement day, to be exact — are joining and already engaging with each other in anticipation of the main event.
Silverglade also made a “pre-fest” server for Minecraft players to engage with the game like they normally would, but get to know each other and building community in the process.
“So, by the time the festival starts, people will already know each other and it will be like going to a festival with your friends, but virtual,” Silverglade said.
This notion of coming together, even when we’re all apart, was of course a huge driving force of setting up the festival in the first place for Silverglade and his bandmates.
“We pretty much just want people to have a good time and enjoy each other’s virtual presence, and also just give people the opportunity to see their favorite artists ‘live’ because so many people count on going to concerts to bring them joy and community, and that’s something that no one is able to do right now,” Silverglade said. “So, just providing that experience for people is important, even on a virtual level.”
Jeff Apruzzese, assistant professor and director of the Music Industry program in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, said the type of entrepreneurship that Silverglade and his bandmates exhibited in putting together Block by Blockwest is going to be required for artists to survive the disruption in the concert industry brought on by COVID-19.
“With live events making up the bulk of artists’ income, virtual concerts are going to be the norm for a while – especially as tour postponements keep getting pushed further and further back,” he said. “Virtual concerts are allowing artists to still connect to their fans and maintain some sense of community and engagement while we are all hunkered down for the foreseeable future.
“This is yet another great example of artists coming together during this challenging time to keep the music alive.”
Due to how well the lead up to Block by Blockwest has been, Silverglade and his bandmates are already discussing other virtual events they can do in the future — whether social distancing is still required then or not. One idea is to take it a step further and develop their own game or virtual reality experience to host something in a completely unique virtual environment.
“Obviously I don’t like the situation that we’re in, but it is a good opportunity to try to push the virtual spaces forward just because there’s not really an alternative,” Silverglade said. “So, I think [this situation] is a blessing in disguise, definitely.”
In the long run, Silverglade is looking forward to graduation, continuing on with his band and with the professional music industry experience he has already been taking part in during his four years at Drexel. Oh, and things going back to normal would be a plus.
But in the meantime, he would encourage anyone — including Drexel students — to tune in for the festival this Saturday.
“I feel like music is just essential for people and it’s something people rely on to just like exist, and it’s something people love,” Silverglade said. “So come have a good time and listen to some cool bands and artists and meet new people and discover new music. That’s probably what you would get out of it as a student or anyone else.
“I think it will be a really cool event that will be more interesting than Netflix or whatever else people are doing.”