Monday, May 9, 2011

Does dissemination trump virtual presence for artists?

Last week I read Thom Dowd's notice to the Early Music group with no surprise but with considerable sorrow and regret. The Second Life music pioneer was announcing the migration of his musical activities to Livestream & Livestream/Facebook. The rationale, he reported, was the ability to reach a larger audience. We will miss him in Second Life and at Music Island if this is--as it sounds--a final exit from virtual reality live concert events.

Almost two years ago I started to help Thom to research and develop video-streaming of his concerts into Second Life and I wondered how that might affect the magical feeling of "presence" that makes live SL concerts social occasions as opposed to the solitary experience of viewing a podcast on the web. Would it be possible to have that connection when the music was delivered via a flat screen in SL rather than avatar standins for real people? We found that having even one avatar (Thom) as MC at the video concerts connected the audience to the people on camera, and of course avatars were still gathered in one place sharing the concert in livetime, commenting and having their questions addressed. Actually the new format for sharing concerts worked better than I had imagined it would--in part because of Thom's engaging personality.

Recently I have been adding livestreaming to selected Music Island SL concerts as a way to give a keyhole into the virtual world for people without SL accounts. I use a second computer and an alt avi as "camera" and begin the broadcast live on as soon as the concert is set to begin. To me this is a way of drawing people into the magic of virtual reality, perhaps might help them choose to create an account and share a concert live, rather than taking the virtual presence out of the equation altogether.

At the root of the dissemination question are the limitations for attendance at SL concerts. Sim capacities are 30, 40 or 50 avatars in a sim (dependent upon server conditions and sim build & scripts). While musicians might hope to reach 100's or 1,000's via electronic dissemination, I know from coordinating live concerts that an audience of 50 or so for a new music or chamber concert by relatively unknown artists is par for the course. Research continually shows that people attend cultural events because people they know and trust recommend those events, and not because of advertising or hype. Star quality appeal is a rare and fragile phenomenon. This word-of-mouth dissemination is as true in Second Life as it is in meatspace. We tell our friends, our friends tell friends and the reputation of an artist and a musical series in Second Life grows. The commitment of those audience members to a series and the artists they follow in SL are very similar to RL subscribers. But because they are an international audience, the opportunities for new and valuable communication vectors for artists is substantial and proven by a number of international debuts and collaborations within the SL musician community.

Will the same connection and loyalties develop via Livestream only? At this point, I am a doubter. While the Livestream stations allow a chat feature during the broadcast, you need to be viewing the action on the station itself to enter text. Embedded livestream windows do not necessarily show chat and entering chat from the embedded windows did not work for me during my one attempt. Chat totally fails to engage me in the same way as SL. I have no sense of presence from knowing that others are in a chat space. Will others feel the same way? I'd like to know your thoughts.

How many online fans is enough for the purposes of the artists and music educators currently using? I know that will vary with individual goals. For the Oriscus Ensemble, it seemed enough to gaze out at 35 or 40 avatars from 15 or more nations around the globe.

What I'd like to see is parallel development of SL music with Livestream options. It is disappointing to hear some say that avatars are not necessary and an uneeded complication to offering a live musical experience. Am I just a dinosaur SL immersionist, or do others feel that there is a qualitative loss of audience experience to watching a Livestream concert on the flat web? I see it as scant improvement over live television.

One of the more difficult to tackle issues that hobbles the promotion of virtual concerts and mixed reality concerts, especially as education vehicles is the "gaming" and "adult content" reputations of Second Life. While Music Island is a PG area and our audience is very engaged and respectful, I have no ability to ensure that some avatar new to our content or new to SL will not behave or speak in an inappropriate manner before I can eject them. Just like a concert venue in RL, such disruptions happen. We toss the person and ban them in future. Why is the fear of such disruptions higher in virtual reality than in a downtown park concert where we know a crazy might disrupt with shouted obscenities? Those of us that are trying to raise the profile of Second Life artistic activity and engage RL arts organizations, sponsors and funders in supporting arts events in SL, really need the help of Linden Lab, starting with representing some of the creative uses of virtual reality on the front page. At one time the picture was balanced but now the dating and shopping aspect of SL predominates. Making new avatars aware that inappropriate behaviour in PG sims can get them ejected and banned should be an orientation station. Most avatars I eject and ban are surprised and shocked, often very angry, a situation that I expect does not aid in their retention. More education about sim appropriate behaviour would help.

Linden Lab have been keen to develop ties between Second Life and social media like Facebook. It appears that some SL musicians are saying that they can connect to social media without including the virtual audience at all. The virtual audience will be the losers in this and there will be fewer reasons to log in and stay in Second Life if this becomes a trend.

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