Storme Whitby-Grubb credits her long history in the music industry for her success in the virtual reality space. The British-born Whitby-Grubb, who now calls Los Angeles home, spent 15 years as an artist manager and live tour producer until she quit managing two years ago and forged a new career on the creative side of the business. “I was just burned out from the industry, didn’t want to do it any more,” she says. “And I ended up getting into videos and then concepting videos for big directors – you know, big-budget videos.”
We’re sitting in a pair of overstuffed chairs in a hallway at New York University’s Kimmel Center, where the Mondo.NYC music and tech conference and music festival is taking place. Mondo.NYC, which wrapped up on October 8, offered panels addressing a range of issues confronting the music industry in the digital age, and Whitby-Grubb has just participated in a panel discussion called “It’s Time To Pay Attention to VR” in which she and five other leaders in VR music content discussed the creative potential and challenges of VR.
Whitby-Grubb is the founder and creative director of Imagu, a multiplatform studio she calls “basically a fancy way of describing my brain and my ideas.” The studio’s website describes it somewhat more prosaically as “specializing in ideation and visual storytelling in the video, commercial, virtual and augmented reality spaces.” Whitby-Grubb’s role is similarly broad-based. “Sometimes I’ll get asked to concept videos,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll be asked to direct videos, sometimes I’ll be asked to concept virtual reality. “
Initially, she says, she wasn’t familiar with VR at all, but contacts on the Los Angeles music scene came to her, asking her to concept projects for big-name artists. “I was like, “VR? What? What? I don’t understand,” she recalls. “That was about a year and a half ago, and, you know, the potential and the possibilities just really appealed to me because I have a very vivid imagination.”
She says she went out, bought a “really crap $30 headset on Amazon and watched a bunch of terrible stuff and I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t what I imagined at all.’” But she applied her creative sensibilities to this new immersive technology. She “started concepting things just spherically instead of flatly, as it were, and it kind of went from there.”
Whitby-Grubb may be in the VR world, but she’s not of it. “I’m kind of like this weird rogue that comes from the music side that just loves visual content in any form. Any form,” she says. She sees a disconnect in the way the tech and music communities relate to one another, and she feels her value lies in her ability to see the technology’s creative possibilities and to translate them in ways artists and record labels can understand.
“I’ve had a very esteemed manager friend of mine say to me, ‘I’d never let a tech company loose in a room with one of my bands without me [meaning the manager] there,’“ she says. “Because that’s a business transaction. But when you come from, like, a video director world or, you know, the artist, the creative, the music industry world, it’s very different. They’re happy to leave people in a room together and just, like, blast out creative ideas.”
Central to those ideas is an approach she calls “thinking outside the headset” – finding ways to maximize the value of content that would appeal to budget-conscious labels. Whitby-Grubb understands how to utilize both virtual and non-virtual content in creative ways in order to ensure that a label’s outlay has a good return on investment.
“If you have an artist that has a crazy dedicated fan base that will do anything for their artist, do the headset content,” she says. “That’s great. But then lead that visual into something that could be offline, i.e., a ticketed event with, you know, a dome activation where people can go, because that’s real estate. That’s something a brand might want to get involved in, that’s something that could be ticketed, that could be sold. That’s something that merchandise could be purchased…You could bring a b-roll crew and shoot the event, so then you could social additional content. And then there’s a talking piece, and then there’s a press look. And that’s when I think things start to look a lot more attractive to a record company, as opposed to, ‘We have to spend money on a piece of content and we have no idea how many people are going to watch it.’”
As a child in England, Whitby-Grubb was a rabid music fan who frequented online chat rooms where she’d talk to people in America about music. Like any music fan, she couldn’t wait to get the new releases from favorite artists. “When Radiohead would put a new single out, I would get the first train into central London and wait outside Virgin Megastore so I could buy CD1 and CD2 of “Paranoid Android,” she recalls. She’d chat with fellow music fans in line alongside her — a shared community based on mutual love for music.
She believes virtual and augmented reality offer the same kind of shared experience, albeit in a higher-tech form. “AR allows people to come – physically come together in a physical location but still be cool, still be tech, still be forward-thinking, still be exciting, still be new, still got that ownership for young people where, you know, the rest of us are like, “What?” she says. “And that’s exciting. So it’ll be interesting to see how that’s going to play out with consuming music, because I’m excited to see that space grow.”