Monday, September 14, 2009
Zak weighs in on Second Life Cover Charges
Since everybody and their respective monkeys have offered an opinion on the proposals to standardize cover charges at Second Life live music shows, I felt a need to add my L$10 to the fray. Don't worry; I don't think you'll find anything particularly inflammatory or controversial here. Just a few thoughts on the topic. First, the background.
Late last month, the Second Life Newspaper ran an article on a cover charge system that was brought up by a fellow SL musician, Mankind Tracer. Note that I said "brought up"; he's hardly the first person to suggest this plan, nor the first to implement it. But he seems to be the focus of the controversy for current go-round of the idea that SL audiences should pay a cover charge to see live music events, as opposed to relying on people's desire to tip artists and venues on their own accord.
Why is this even being considered?
Pretty simple answer to a complex situation: it's getting harder and harder for venues to pay performing musicians. Many venues that formerly offered a fee to musicians found themselves unable to do so for various reasons, and one of two things happened; they either closed their stages, or they convinced the musicians that performing for tips only was in the best interest of everyone. So today, the majority of places you go to see live music in SL do NOT pay their musicians (but some still do... more on that in a bit).
So, according to the article, Mankind Tracer's plan would have a preset entry fee, enforced by a "bouncer bot" that would eject non-paying residents from shows. He initially suggested a ticket price of L$500 (about two US dollars, for those of you unfamiliar with SL's in-world currency) for an artist of his caliber, from which a 20% portion of the total take would go to the venue. Sounds pretty good on paper, at least for the artist and the venue, right? Let's say Mankind gets 30 people to come to the show at L$500 a pop. The evening grosses L$15,000, the venue takes $3,000, and everybody is happy, right?
Here's why this system is not going to work for most artists, venues, and (most importantly) audiences in SL live music. In no particular order...
• Standardization simply does not work in SL. The moment that a number of venues switched over to a cover charge system, the very first thing that will happen is a backlash from other artists and venues who will begin using the LACK of charges as an advertising bullet point. "COME TO OUR SHOW! NO COVER CHARGES!". You get the picture.
• Many musicians do not WANT to charge audiences. I think of people like Soundcircel Flanagan, who, in March 2008 after becoming disgusted with the commerciality of the SL music scene, not only stopped charging venues fees for his performances, but also stopped putting out a tip jar or soliciting tips at all from his audience. You're going to tell a guy like that to have shows where people cannot attend without a mandatory fee? Some of these people do what they do for the love of playing, such as Soundcircel referenced above. Others have a more self-centered agenda: they want to use SL as a springboard for their real life music, and it should go without saying that the promotional opportunity of exposing one's music to a worldwide audience has a great value. I would probably fit well in that second group, though there's more to my story, as I'll explain shortly.
• Many venues do not want to be told how to host shows. If they're happy with the way things have been rolling, or perhaps have a different business model that allows them to be profitable (or at least not lose money) in hosting live shows, why throw a wrench into that system? For example, I can think of several venues in SL that have corporate sponsorship from business outside of SL. Their job is to get as many people to the sim/venue to expose audiences to promotional messages from the sponsor. They don't need an added impediment to getting people to go there... quite the opposite, in fact. Other places enjoy the hippie-like aspect of free shows, free music, good times for all. Who am I to argue against that perspective?
• Audiences lose. They just do, in a number of ways.
a. Brand new residents in SL are automatically excluded from shows with a cover charge system... the majority of them don't start out in SL with any intention of putting real money into what they consider a video game. Getting those new people to become fans of your music is crucial for anyone interested in building a fan base in SL for their music.
b. It's a common activity for people to bounce around between various shows over a limited time period. Are they going to be able or willing to continue to do so once it costs money just to enter a venue? But wait, this gets better: how does one go about checking out a new artist to see if they're any good if it's going to cost them money? In turn, new artists in SL who have yet to develop a fan base will have a really hard time trying to do so.
c. What happens with tips? Many people seem to enjoy using tips as a way of personally expressing pleasure to the musician. I can tell you, though: if I paid for a ticket to see an artist, I would not feel in any way compelled to then tip the artist in addition to the ticket fee. When's the last time you threw extra money on a stage after buying a ticket (or paying a cover charge) to see a band in real life?
So, this is a really bad idea, right?
No, not at all. There are certain places and certain musicians for whom this might really work well. Granted, the first reports of the use of Mankind's cover charge system were pretty distasteful to me, since Mankind reportedly continued soliciting for tips despite the cover charge being enacted. Perhaps that was due to the fact that the initial show used only a L$1 fee to prove the concept; perhaps he'd have refrained from asking the audience for tips had the fee been in the L$500 range he originally suggested.
But the one thing I'm saying is that it's fine to have a cover charge system! However, please, for the love of all that is good and well in the world, do not try and evangelize such a system, or have any expectations that it's something that's going to work well for all venues and/or all musicians... and certainly not all audiences either. I think the inherent flaws in this plan are screamingly obvious.
But don't just listen to me.
There has been a ton of insightful commentary around the SL blogosphere and on forums related to the SL music scene with every possible opinion you can imagine stated, often with a ton of flowery prose that makes it seem as if this little idea was the end of the entire world as we know it. But there are some great points made, and some funny points as well, so feel free to dive into any of the following for some wider perspectives.
1. Crap Mariner sees the demo of Mankind Tracer's bouncerbot.
2. Salome Strangelove comments on this return of the SL live music drama llama.
3. Zorch Boomhauer gives Mankind some ideas of where to lodge a rabid badger.
So what IS your deal, Zak?
Nothing like listening to a person complain who won't offer any solutions, eh? Well, I have no solutions that work for the entire SL live music scene. Why? BECAUSE THERE ARE NONE. There are far too many individualized circumstances, different goals, different definitions of success in SL live music, that imposing ANY one solution is bound to be at the detriment of people who don't share the same views. Should some artists and venues adopt a cover charge system? Sure, if it works for them. But in no case should any artist or venue be made to feel like they are not supporting the live music scene by choosing NOT to implement such a system. The best bet is to do what we've always done: let people try different things and see what works and what doesn't, and do what they feel is right. That's all. No drama required.
I alluded above to my reasons and desires for performing in SL. I am indeed getting close to wrapping up an album of original music, and one of the things that's most important to me is simply being able to play my songs for people who might enjoy them, perchance for them to be interested enough to buy my album or purchase/download my songs once they're available for sale. But I also play in SL because I simply love playing live music... it's a great adrenaline rush, just like any stage in the world. That having been said, do I want to play in SL for free? No! I do quite a lot to prepare for and execute my shows in SL, and it takes quite a bit of time and money investment -- for my music gear, for my stream costs, and so on. So, I'm the person in the middle, neither trying to rely on SL to pay my bills, nor taking the "music should be free, maaaaaan" approach either. And in any case, I'm very happy to have the free will to do shows as I see fit, and to have my audience be able to easily access my shows and have a good time. That doesn't seem like too much to ask.
Last point in this needlessly long-winded diatribe: I do not know Mankind Tracer. I understand he's a nice guy and talented as well. But he is one of more than 300 people who play in SL on a regular basis (i.e. weekly or more). And that's just the artists; many more are involved in this little community... like the venue owners, managers, and the audience (let's not forget them, ya know). It's a tough thing to imagine that one person could come up with such a great plan that it would be immediately acceptable by a majority of the community. I have yet to find three people, much less three hundred, that can completely agree on one way to improve the SL live music scene.
So, best of luck to all... those trying to find new ways to make it work, and those happy with the current environment. It's the fact that this stuff is being discussed and raising attention which might have the greatest effect, rather than the implementation of any "one size fits all" policy or program for Second Life music.
Posted by Zak Claxton at 8:54 AM