Wednesday, August 15, 2012

How do you play live music in Second Life?

My Facebook friend list is pretty diverse. It combines folks from all different areas of my life. Some are old friends I've known since childhood. Some are business colleagues with whom I've grown close. But the majority of them are people who are involved in Second Life, the often-maligned 3D virtual environment that's been around since 2003 and that I discovered in 2006. It's no wonder that from time to time, I have people who don't know about Second Life (or SL, as we tend to abbreviate) asking what this thing is all about, and how they can get involved in its live music scene.

It would be nice if there was a reference point online so I could just send over a link that would explain everything, but as far as I can tell, there's not. In fact, there's probably more misinformation and outdated information than there is accurate stuff. I've done my best by writing published magazines articles in Electronic Musician (2008) and Live2Play (earlier this year) magazines, but those are simple overviews. Most people need specific info. Therefore, I'm happy to offer this little guide that will answer many of the questions.

1. What Is Second Life?
It's an online world, a 3D Internet environment that's been built by its users over the last 9+ years. What's there? Lots of stuff, some which may be interesting to you and some which may not. What interests me there is the ability to perform live music for fans around the world.

2. Why play live music there?
This could be an article of its own, but the short story: you can expose your original music to people with a much further reach than you can by playing locally. You can count on appreciative crowds for every genre of music. And yes, you can make a little money via performance fees and tips. SL has its own virtual economy, and you can convert that into your local currency in a couple of ways. More on that later.

You can see me in the foreground of this image from Second Life performing on a virtual stage in a beach-like setting, in front of a nice-sized crowd. One of the neat things about SL is that there are no physical limitations to the types of places you can play. Chances are that you'll be awed by the creativity that goes into the creation of virtual live music venues.

3. How do I get my music into SL?
Pretty simple. You need three things: an audio interface to get your audio into a computer, some software that allows you to broadcast (like Nicecast for the Mac or SAM Cast for Windows), and a connection to a ShoutCast server to get your audio out to the people. What you do, essentially, is the same as an Internet radio station: you stream your audio out on a specific web address, which can be plugged into a parcel of land in SL and heard by those in attendance.

Nicecast running on my MacBook Pro. You can choose many settings for the source and quality of the audio you're broadcasting.

4. How do I book shows?
Getting started as a live performer in SL is much like real life: if no one knows you, it's unlikely you'll have audiences or be able to be booked in the more popular spots. Regardless of your background and talent, you'll need to establish yourself, which takes time. My best advice: start by attending tons of other peoples' shows. To find a show, simply search for live music in Second Life's event listings. This will not only familiarize yourself with the expectations of performance quality, but also allow you to get to know the different venues (there are hundreds) and the people who run them. Also like real life, your best bet is to start by playing some "open mic" kind of gigs. When you attend one, ask who runs the place, and see if they have an open slot for a show.

5. Do I need a "premium membership" to play live music?
Absolutely not. SL is free to join. The only reason to have a premium membership is to be able to purchase "land" (similar to renting server space from a web host).

There are all kinds of venues in SL. Some attract larger crowds, some get more intimate audiences. I've played entire shows for 10 people, and shows for 100 people. As you build a base of fans, you'll see familiar names popping up at shows no matter where you play.

6. Can I make any money?
Sure, but most musical artists don't make much. Keep in mind that SL uses its own virtual currency called the Linden Dollar (L$) in a micro-economy where about $L270 equals $1 USD. New artists rarely are able to charge fees to venues for their appearances, since they don't bring in crowds and offer little benefit to the venue. I won't say what artists get paid in SL, simply because the range is ridiculous. Some people play 3-4 times a day; some (like me) play a couple times a week; some play less. Some choose to play for free; some demand high fees. There really are no standards, so whatever you work out is between you and the venue who hires you. Tip payment is also all over the map. In any case, I would not advise a musician to get into SL for the money... you should play there for the love of performing, and possibly for the exposure to a global audience. Very few make enough there to consider it their primary income source. In my case, a decent show has me making about $20-$25 for an hour-long performance, counting audience tips and venue fees. Keep in mind, though: no loading gear in trucks and onto stages. No travel time to and from shows. It's a trade-off that I find worthwhile. And really, if I perform in real life for an hour at a local coffee house or book store, I really don't expect to make more than I make at an SL show.

On a specific note, to be paid, you can either have the makers of Second Life send you a check for a fee, or (highly preferable) you set up a PayPal account and deposit your SL currency into it every so often.

7. I'm an experienced musician in real life, so I should have an advantage over most of these SL performers, right?
Wrong! First, don't assume that the rest of the SL musician community are there because they're not good enough to be hired in real life musical situations. I've heard many very, very good performers there, including many folks like myself who have decades of RL experience on stages and in studios. But even so, there are particular idiosyncrasies to putting on a good show in SL that you don't get in real life. First, you don't have direct contact with your crowd. You finish each song to silence, not applause (though you do get your positive feedback in text). Also, the audio stream is delayed, so the audience might not hear that last strum for 30-45 seconds anyway. You might get distracted by trying to see what your audience is writing to you while you play. Your best bet is, no matter how experienced you are, go into playing in SL like any new situation where you're humble and willing to learn, and you should be fine. Your real life experiences, of course, will help you do confident musical performances, and that's as important as anything.

8. What are the benefits of playing live in SL?
• Connect with fans from all over the world.
• Make friends and develop a base of fans whose company you enjoy.
• Make a little cash... getting paid to play from your home is pretty cool!
• Find other musicians for collaboration.
• Promote your real life music to your SL fans.
• No travel time to and from gigs.
• No lifting heavy amps and gear for each show.
• Enjoy the receptiveness of fans for all kinds of music, not just the flavor of the moment.
• Perform at fundraisers for established charities.
• Be involved in a community that goes far beyond music performance.

If you're lucky, your Second Life musical relationships can cross over to the real world as well. Here I am at an SL live jam (in San Diego, 2011) with fellow SL musicians Eva Moon, Raspbury Rearwin, Max Kleene, and Lyndon Heart.

9. What kinds of music can I play in SL?
I'll not lie to you; most SL musicians, including myself, tend to play acoustic guitar and sing pop and rock songs. However, there are scenes within SL for every possible genre of music. There are virtuoso lead guitarists. Reggae artists. Jazz players. Electronic/dance musicians and DJs. Avante-garde music. If you can play it, you'll find an audience for it in SL.

10. Do I need a manager in SL?
No. I spent from 2006-2011 managing myself the entire time. That means I was booking my own shows and doing all the promotion for myself. However, I will say that working with a manager in SL, as I have since early 2011, has been terrific for me. She handles all of my bookings and much of the promotion so I can focus on performing. It's great. I love it. That having been said, finding a manager probably shouldn't be anywhere near the top of your priority list when starting out.

11. What are some downsides to Second Life and live music in SL?
• It's a bear on your computer's processor and graphics card. Between rendering the virtual world and working to broadcast live audio, you really need a pretty damn nice computer to do it well.

• Just like real-life hecklers, there are people in SL who like to disrupt events and gatherings, including music shows. We call them "griefers", and you can waste a lot of time trying to fight them... or do what I do, and realize that you can't control everything and deal with each situation as it comes.

• The process of building an audience is time consuming, and the benefits might not be immediately apparent.

• You might feel silly playing dress-up with a little cartoon version of yourself. Keep in mind, it's all part of providing an entertaining experience for your fans.

• Like any online environment, you'll find that people can misrepresent themselves in SL. You really don't know who is behind the avatar. That pretty girl dancing in front of the stage might be a fat guy in front of his computer in his boxer shorts.

• There's a limit to the number of people who can attend any particular event. In almost all cases, the most you can play for at once -- due to the limitations of the servers -- ranges from 40-100 people.

• With a limited number of people in SL at any given time, and a lot of performers at particular time slots, it can be a challenge to attract crowds, even for established long-term performers. In my case, a really good show in SL at a premium time slot might have 30-35 people there to see me.

12. Are there other ways to enjoy and be successful in SL music than what you've written here?
Absolutely. This is only my perspective based on a relatively successful run over the past 5-1/2 years of performing in SL. Yours may seem much different. The only real advice I can offer is to jump in and see what it's all about for yourself. Sign up for SL, and start going to shows. See what it's all about. You're always welcome to add comments here and I'll try and answer specific questions you probably have. In any case, despite any shortcomings, I find playing live music in SL highly rewarding in ways that aren't always easy to describe. I hope you are able to find out what I mean by experiencing SL music for yourself.


Orion and Lisa said...

This is a great post, Zak! Thanks for sharing!!! Love it...

Zak Claxton said...

Orion/Lisa, if I was getting into further detail, I'd let people know that getting a good-looking instrument with good animations to use on virtual stages is an important step too!

Anastasia said...

Wonderful Zak! Thanks for sharing. Will send to people I know are closet artist.

Senjata said...

Brilliant, Zak- well said! Musicians in SL have a lot of very different reasons for choosing to play in that environment. Some see it as a way to help further their RL careers, (it's very good for that!) some like me use it as an alternative way of presenting themselves. I actually strive to keep my SL persona separated from my RL self.

As for benefits- there are countless obstacles to live RL performances, such as handicaps and health issues, for example. My health doesn't handle the stresses of live performance the way it once did, and SL allows me to continue to play when otherwise I might not be able to!

Rapture said...

Great Informative Post Zak! Lots of folks don't understand what it means to play sets online in sl..good stuff man

Zak Claxton said...

I'm glad you all are enjoying this. I've actually thought about writing a longer-format piece... let's not call it a book, since that's scary, but a guide of some kind, and I'd use multiple perspectives across the SL music community. We'll see. :)