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.

Flame On!
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.


dastardlybard said...

All this talk about Mankind's 'cover system' is really interesting. From what I've read about it, I would like to think MT has good intentions in integrating a system like this, and I agree with you Zak, as I have on other blogs, that this is not a 'fix-all' that will work everywhere in Second Life.

The music scene in SL is too niche-oriented and too many different versions of 'performances' exist for this to be a complete WIN.

Now, granted, I am one of those performers who has to look at what I do from the intersection of art and commerce, but I wouldn't stop playing in SL if I never got an occasional 'fee' or tips from my audience. Why? Because I also love playing music and the exposure cannot be beat!

Plus, my fans have been supporting my music for 3+ years, and for all they've given me I owe it to them to play no matter what!

So, ways will always be around to 'exploit' the system. But if this works for a few people, we shouldn't knock it as something bad.

It was funny reading Zorch's commentary.

Cheers Zak. Good post!

Heath Elvehjem

Zak Claxton said...

Thanks Heath! And yes, you got the point: condemning Mankind's idea as wrong for everyone is just as bad as thinking that there's any one solution that's right for everyone. It might not be right for you or me, but we're just these two guys, ya see. :)

Nostrum Forder said...

I've yet to see any explanation of why bouncerbot is superior to simply restricting parcel access to those who pay for it. Another reason venue owners won't get behind it is simply that it's a pain in the butt to charge; most venues exist to feed traffic to stores (either owned by the venue or rented in the area). Preventing the access control mechanism from keeping customers from the stores would be a headache.

Besides that, there's the simple fact that if I really want to hear a stream in SL, it's trivial to snag the URL for the stream - even if the parcel media panel doesn't show it - and paste it into itunes (which, btw, is virtually always what I do, since it means that I won't miss the music just because the viewer crashes frequently.)

Live performance could have been the "killer app" that LL once said it would be, but their failure to get behind it and deliver on what they need to make it work for artists has pretty much crap-canned that idea. As a performer in SL, I'd like to see things like:

- Have my SL profile provide buttons that can launch my myspace/facebook/twitter pages

- Provide a simple way for artists to sell digital recordings in SL, such that they can be played in and out of world on demand.

- Real promotion, including venues that can hold more than 70 people (and ones that don't make them have to take their hair off to keep the sim from crashing.)

Mister Crap said...


Use the web tab for a Google Profile set of links, or work up a micro-page with a list of links that people can use to go to those pages.

Just need a place to stick the HTML file, eh.

But, yes, it sucks compared to having a more expansive profile, more user-defined fields, etc.

You know, like a REAL social network provides.


Brad Reason / Doubledown Tandino said...

There's live music in Second Life?

Slimmie said...

Thank God! at last a sensible well thought out post!


Zak Claxton said...

It's funny (not in a ha-ha-way) that each time I think SL has been a boon for independent musicians, upon deeper analysis, it's so obvious where the deficiencies are. As to how fixable they are, well, you have to talk to someone smarter than me.

Ultimately, the platform was NOT developed as a dedicated music environment, and everything that's been done has been based on workarounds.

Putting on my Nostradamus hat, the way music could truly be the "killer app" that M Linden envisioned will be to pull it out of SL entirely, and perhaps integrating with something that is truly focused specifically on music and social networking, like ReverbNation. After all, I'm sure Linden Lab didn't envision having an eternal monopoly on 3D virtual environments.

Not that I'm suggesting this as a real possibility, but envision what the music performance scene would be like by now if it had been approached with the intent on music performance and audience participation from day one. But now we're in fantasyland, and back here in reality, there are still a bunch of things that aren't really satisfactory from any of the Big Three (venue, musician, audience) perspective.

Delinda said...

Zack I have to say this was the best blog I've read about the subject thus far. thank you

Alan Hargreaves said...

Very well thought out Zak.

I think many folks are forgetting also that with the current state of the economy people are simply not spending as much inside SL as well (ie not buying L$ with Real$).

There is no one solution.

Cover charging may work quite well for some folks and if it does, then wonderful. More power to them. For others it simply won't.

While it's nice to get the odd "for fee" gig (and it's a nice ego boost when they show up), most of the time I find myself playing for tips only. I don't have a problem with this. I'm kind of in the same boat as you. I get the buzz from actually doing the gig. I'm making enough to pay my rent, my LL fees and keep me in strings. Anything else is a bonus.

Alan/Tpenta Vanalten

Quinton Whitman said...

Well said Zak.

As performer, I play for the love of music and have found performing in SL has helped me develop as an artist and writer. A few Linden we get for performing aint gonna make any one the next millionaire.

I have played bars in RL that charge covers, some quiet high, and some that have never charged a cover. I have seem RL venues that give a percentage of the bar to the band, and i have been in rl bands that drank their pay on the tab. MMM , seems like the music goes on in RL, and I don't see lots of articles debating that , maybe not reading the right papers or watching the right news channels.

I perform for the love of music and my fans. As I think all of us do.

Zak Claxton said...

Quinton, good point. I too have played all of those real-life circumstances. Door covers, percentage of the bar's take, playing free at festivals and so on just for exposure. It's no surprise that every variable is also represented in SL, and perhaps there's a good reason for that. Some gigs are better, some are worse, but it's rarely dependent on how much money was in my pocket at the end of the night.

I think SL is big enough and varied enough to have a few different ways of doing what we do... just like those of us who play shows in real life are used to.

Dave said...

First off, I will say thank you for recognizing me, as a selfishly motivated person.

Why is Anek Fuchs playing live music in SL for money, and not for free?

Anek Fuchs is a 38 year old male with a BAD case of diabetes, he can hardly leave his house, and the money he makes, pays for him to live and breathe.

Why does Anek not go and get a job?
Anek spent most of his life, playing guitar, had many jobs, and many cool experiences, but it all adds up to squat when you have to stick needles in your arms, and cannot pay for medication, nor can you EVER get life insurance, or benefits of any kind, now that such a thing is on public record.

Does anyone here know how many folks in SL are handicapped? or shut ins, sure there is the bored housewife, or the people losing the house and loads of time on the hands, or even people going there from work, but go ahead ask yourselves this . . . a virtual reality community where HARDLY anyone is between the ages of 18-35 should tell you something.

see that article.

I was in on the initial beginnings of the concept MK was aiming for, and as I always said, all along, I support it as long as it works, I know it CAN work, but I also know that so far, it cant be something to take over completely, getting all us musicians to agree, just ISNT oging to happen, unless we agree to disagree.
Mankind has taken a lot of crap, and a lot less money to see it working, and the other model provided by Votslav, worked very well, and might even be possible for a weekly event IF the rotation was good, and it included top tier musicians, oh did I say that? there is the next problem, some musicians, will HATE the idea, because they are not among the upper echelon, and don't say it doesnt exist, lol it is running strong.

I fought long and hard to break the "you are new so you must pay your dues" bullcrap, and have helped others too, you know why? because WE HAVE. Now along the way I have found several disturbing secrets:

"well Anek, why dont you SAY you are getting paid when you are not, and everyone looks good"


Dave said...

"oh no Anek, I won't pay you 5k an hour because you are doing this tip show over there, why should I pay you, when I could see you for free?"

"you don't have the following that so and so has, so no you aren't worth that" - yet so and so makes 8,10,15,20-25 k.

I have NEVER charged more than 5-6k for an hour of my time, and I have purposely made that a firm rule, and also I have NEVER been deceptive to venues, I have told them, it doesnt matter if anyone brings you a crowd, they leave when the artist does, and I have personally stood around MANY shows long after its over, talking about this very thing.

Segregation of talent levels has also been talked about, and QUICKLY hushed in every corner, but lets face the facts here . . .

now here is the part where normally I would work hard to discredit Karaoke singers as opposed to live musicians, and someone would inevitably say, the voice is an instrument too, there i said it for you, and fine, it is, but how many artists could sing their way out of the bedroom or den they sit in.
We have all heard the artist that leaves us begging for the one to follow, or that left us wishing the previous one was still on.

I see a lot being said here, and I wanted to post thoughts, if it offends, well sorry at least I am honest, and nobody can argue that.
Another thing to realise, the sooner the better is the more organized we are, the more the lindens would notice, but they arent going to get involved with such a disturbed environment.
When I started having meetings, I had a much better result in mind, and I was warned heavily against doing it, but in some ways, I was glad I did, it shed a lot of light on things, and also brought me further into the scandalous world of SL music.
I know too much, and while Iwould hope for MK's or Votslav's idea to work, there are just too many wild forces against it, or any real progress, so I will stay in my position on the lineup, which btw I did not choose, but was held in, (like it was a segregation idea hmmmm?) and everyone can pretend that there are no equal musicians, or no defined order, which in turn, leaves only Chaos.

Anek Fuchs (fooks thx)