Looking Back: One Year in Second Life
Friday, August 29th, 2008 – My experience in Second Life (SL) has yielded a number of observations about audiences, venues, performers and music in general. As both a presenter and a performer in real life, I think that these insights may be worth while for those looking to explore SL.
The first thing that a listener in SL notices is the quality of the musical performances, both in terms of musicianship and technical quality of the audio stream. There’s quite a variance. Performers have a wide range of methods to enhance their sound in ways that may not work in an RL setting. So far I have seen people use audio backing tracks, and even MIDI backing tracks – the latter being hideous. There are even a few folks who just DJ their own tunes from CDs or MP3s. As for the material, the majority of performers seem to still rely on cover songs, but originals are still heard (though in my opinion not enough).
My own SL experience as a performer has gone like this: started DJing tracks to expose people to my music, scheduled some shows with combination live and pre-recorded tracks for things that did not lend themselves to live performance (electronica or pieces with lots of parts). In any case, I always noted which pieces were which. My sets have included a combination of covers and originals. I eventually did away with all prerecorded tracks, except for preshow music, and now prefer to do everything live.
Covers or Originals – This is the perennial question, even in RL. Much depends on whether you want to be known as an interpreter of other people’s music, or if you want to be known as a writer. I’m a bit of both in RL, but in SL my goal was to develop a new persona that wasn’t necessarily tied to what I was doing in RL. I was hoping to dust off some of my more experimental material as the basis for a new sound that perhaps would only be available in SL. I wanted to explore the bizarre stuff that doesn’t usually make it on record or into my live performances. This was, after all, my “second” life, right?
That did not go as planned.
So far, with few exceptions, I have found SL residents want something familiar to them. Even though the sky is the limit in terms of experimentation in SL, they still want to hear covers, and are even content with hearing them done poorly. That is no reason to dumb down my own performance of course, but the bottom line seems to be that one has to cater to the demands of venues and the audience. Not much different from RL if you are going to chase that carrot as a performer.
So SL presents some interesting challenges for a performer who has been writing for 15 years, has released several CDs and really wants to explore his muse rather than rehash versions of “The Gambler” and “City of New Orleans”.
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between RL performing and a performance in SL is how the performer interacts with the audience. For those that do not know, an audio stream usually involves some delay so that the audience hears what you play (or say) up to 20 seconds after you play (or say) it. So the only hope for real time interaction during a performance is via instant messaging. This presents its own challenges as you hold a guitar and try to juggle the keyboard.
There’s no eye contact of course. Playing in front of the computer is not likely to produce a catharsis in even the most passionate performer. If anything, it is distracting and somewhat comic. You can be playing and all of the sudden a chicken avatar swoops in. Text messages and announcements pop up all over the screen. There’s room for some interactivity in all of this, allowing listeners to send you song requests, but it requires you to keep part of your brain preoccupied with managing that aspect of the performance. It’s that preoccupation with all of the extra technical elements that really differentiates SL from RL.
SL performing is a different animal entirely from RL performing. RL performers moving into SL – if they are tech savvy – can have a decent time. Unfortunately, due to bandwidth and lag issues, there is no guarantee that your performance will sound as good as you think it does once it reaches listeners. In that respect, RL is preferable because you know how something sounds in a real space because you are in it with the audience. In SL, the perception of the real space depends on the audio stream, and processing power. At the same time, SL performers who attempt the move to RL are bound to have a rude awakening. For one thing, you have to leave the house, carry equipment, drive (or walk), and deal with many other variables besides that don’t present themselves in SL.
When RL Calls
I recently had to make the choice between an SL rehearsal and an enriching RL event. There was a second or two of thought, but the RL event won out. It was the choice between sitting in front of my computer (something I already do far too much) or listening to a live Bulgarian wedding band. Hopefully the reasons for my choice are obvious. Sure, I wish Thaylon luck in SL and I am trying to develop him as much as possible. The problem is, Thaylon doesn’t exist without me there to guide him – and in fact, it is questionable whether or not there is any real difference between us. And if my first commitment is to supporting my RL musical community, that community will win out every time over SL.
I bring this up because I think it demonstrates the struggle that can occur as you get pulled into SL more and more. The choices about where to spend your time get even tougher when you have choices in two worlds. Many of those choices may mean time away from music. Do you want to have a good-looking avatar? Well, that will cost you a few Lindens, and probably several hours besides, even if you are not doing complex avatar modeling yourself. The networking alone can rival the networking needed to get gigs in RL.
I recently hit the $100 (in real dollars) mark in SL. That was after a year of very, very, part-time performing in-world. Even though the time I put in was minimal compared to other artists, the amount I made was not a good return on investment for the number of hours put in. One or two RL gigs would have been more lucrative. Still, I had zero travel expenses and I clearly wasn’t doing this for the money anyway. The experience itself, which allows me to write about it now, was invaluable.
One of my biggest concerns about places like SL is that ASCAP, BMI and SESAC have yet to really set down any guidelines for how artists are supposed to be compensated for performances of cover songs. I say this with a sense of doubt that there is any way to truly police it, but I think there are far too many holes as things stand now. Is SL like an Internet radio station, and subject to the same licensing that (legitimate) streaming audio sites abide by? Or, are SL venues like RL venues that should (if they are legitimate) pay performing rights fees? Should SL venues have their own class of licensing? Who pays that, the venue or the performer? Will the concept of performing rights even hold up as more and more people push the boundaries of virtual worlds? When will the PROs weight in? Are they even educating themselves on this?
Personally, I doubt it. Even now, radio still hasn’t become sophisticated enough to tell us exactly how many times something is played. Yet, it is technologically possible to digitally watermark every song and track each time it is played right from the station and report those findings directly to the PROs. But how do you police something like that in SL where the audio streams may only exist for an hour and you have no way of knowing before hand what someone will play? Do we all pay a little more for music in other formats to offset the perceived loss of revenue that songwriters face from untracked performances in SL?
This is one of the reasons that, even as a songwriter, and a member of ASCAP, I see the days of performing rights being numbered. It is becoming less enforceable (and convincing) to make anyone pay for music in certain instances. I think songwriters need to face the fact that technology has brought them tremendous boons. Consumers can now preview, share and purchase music faster than ever before. There has been an increased demand for music in the movie and game industry as more and more people gain access to digital content creation tools. New markets and delivery systems (like cell phones) are opening every year.
Music makers have also benefited by the enhancements in creativity that have come from numerous advances in audio processing, synthesis and composition. We are very fortunate indeed. Of course, there is a dark side. Now, the entry point for the music-making process is so low that anyone can make passable noise and broadcast it to thousands within moments. It could be argued that ears become less discerning as a result. Or, maybe we can still hope that the really good stuff (however we define good) will come to the top rather than get buried. Maybe it is our definition of “good music” that is changing just as the ways we consume it. What is certain is that more people have access to the tools to make music. With SL, they have even more access to sharing it.
Posted to Muse of Fire blog Monday, September 22, 2008.
Originally written 8/29/08.