We catch up with Keith Lawler, former art director and co-founder of Firstage – the first virtual stage.

So, what exactly is Firstage? It’s an augmented reality app for artists created by artists. The app creates new opportunities for emerging artists both virtually and financially. Keith and his partner Neil Harrison packed in their jobs at Saatchi & Saatchi, Dubai and moved back to Ireland to pursue their app venture in more familiar waters.

Although the two weren’t new to the music industry, app design was something that was quite fresh for the both of them. Keith reflects that the journey has seen its ups and downs. He recalls, ‘We committed to a launch before we had our product with the assumption that our product was going to come through in time and didn’t. So that was definitely the biggest learning curve, not to commit to anything until the product is designed.’

Although both their backgrounds aren’t in app design they have found that it has in fact been a massive help. ‘We don’t see any of the barriers that someone who has designed an app before might. So we are looking at it very much from fresh eyes. We are learning all the time and we are learning hard.’

Firstage asks established artists to curate emerging artists. Last year, Firstage collaborated with the Hard Working Class Heroes Festival and Le Galaxie frontman, Michael Pope. Michael picked ten artists from a pool of 100 for Firstage to record. These artists were then featured on the app and on the cover of the Irish Times music supplement, The Ticket. This collaboration with the HWCH festival has been a proven success with three of the selected artists signing major label deals since the festival. One of the bands that were part of this test curation were Hare Squead who have recently signed with Columbia Records UK.

The two partners are currently in the process of working on the next phase, Firstage Live, a concept where you can interact with artists right at the venue they are playing at. ‘Say you walk into a venue and there’s a band onstage and you don’t know who they are, the app will tell you who it is that’s playing. You will then have a monitory interaction with that band on stage where you can buy their merchandise and tracks from them directly onstage.’

Firstage highlights the importance of how the app generates money for emerging artists in new ways and rewards users for doing so. ‘The more you give artists the more you get back in the app. So it might unlock points that will then allow you to buy tickets to the next show or to purchase an augmented gig.’

It has been a fast journey for the pair, hitting all the major music industry festivals such as CMJ, New York and SXSW, Austin over the past year and meeting with big players in the AR field such as Silicon Valley based, Meta.

Keith discusses the major players in the field of AR, ‘Meta, Magic Leap and Microsoft Hololens are looking like the three big augmented reality headsets that are open to killing mobile phones in the next five years. Magic Leap are certainly the most intriguing in the field; they are quite secretive in fact.’

Although Firstage is an augmented reality app, they aren’t ruling out the possibility of a crossover into VR. However, they feel that VR isn’t as scaleable as augmented reality for opportunities for artists. Keith reflects on the projected market for mixed reality being approximately 130 billion euro by 2020 with 110 billion of that being augmented and 20 billion of that being virtual.

We discuss ‘glassholes’ and VR experiences. Keith confesses, ‘I had a VR Game of Thrones experience in New York where you get to the top of the wall where the knights watch is. I nearly floored myself. It was terrifying. Although, it’s amazing to think what can be done with it and where it is at the moment.’

The conversation is directed back to the mechanics of the app, ‘So the logo is the stage but one of lots. We can make anything a stage. It could be a label on a beer bottle. It could be anything really at all. We are looking for brands to partner with that have a real respect for music and the craft of music. It has to be a partnership that makes sense. We can make anything a stage, we just have to activate it, whatever that might be. So at the moment the five euro note is a stage. So if you point the app at a five euro note you will see bands playing on that. The Firstage logo acts as a signpost. So when you see this logo it stands for quality emerging musicians playing a gig.’

What do the guys have lined up for the future? Well, the two are hoping to launch the first global augmented reality festival, called AmplfiAR in November, which will take place in ten different countries. They have also been recording some new artists, curated by Soak, an Irish singer-songwriter and recent winner of the Choice Music Prize. So, whether you are watching your next gig on a fiver or on the front page of the Irish Times, watch this space.

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