co-written with Johnvon
Music has always been a social art form, created and enjoyed by people in groups. Some argue that music was one of the primary means by which early groups of humans communicated and maintained the social bonds that held their communities together.
Since the invention of music recording however, about a century ago, technological developments have made the experience of music a more and more private activity. Once music could be purchased for listening at home, the possibility of enjoying music in private by yourself became a more and more popular alternative to attending performances. This has led to our current iPod era, where the most iconic image of a music listener is of a solitary individual dancing with mp3 player and earphones attached, rather than the more social concert or club audiences of earlier periods.
More recently, networking and new online media technologies have reversed this trend to some extent, giving us new ways to form communities around music. Napster showed us all how badly we want to share our music, and in spite of the dogged resistance of the 'mainstream' music industry, technologies for sharing music and other media online continue to grow in sophistication.
Most recently, virtual world environments such as Second Life have introduced a significant new development, creating a virtual 3d space in which groups of fans can listen to and experience music together in real-time. Of course virtual reality tech like this has been around since the early 90s, but the last couple years mark the first time that they have been easily accessible by a large simultaneous user base.
We anticipate that virtual world technologies are likely to have a major impact on the world of music in the near future. We will focus on Second Life here as it currently has the most sophisticated in-world music scene.
Sharing the Experience of Music
People want to share music. This doesn't only mean passing mp3 files back and forth, it means sharing the experience of music. It means sharing feelings about it, sharing opinions and reactions, and talking about it in real time. For example, we all spent time as teenagers lying on the floor listening to new music and talking about it, and for many of us our musical tastes were one of the main ways we identified with our friends.
While Internetworking technologies have revolutionized the modern music scene, they have fallen short of replicating this one key element of musical experience: shared reception, whether of one's own recent music purchases or of a live concert.
The Internet, the Web and related networking technologies have brought great change to the music world in the past decade, from mp3 music distribution to the profusion of indie bands and producers promoting themselves on a MySpace page or through their own websites.
Last.fm is a great example of how Web 2.0 technologies such as tagging, folksonomies, ratings and recommendations from users with similar tastes can be used to help listeners find new music they will enjoy.
However, although Last.fm bills itself as the 'social music revolution' and tries its best to connect you with other listeners, even going so far as to show you a page of images of other users whose tastes are similar to your own...
...yet just seeing some names of people who like the same music you do is not the same thing as actually being with them and hearing the music together. The 2d asynchronous nature of the Web does not allow for this level of interaction with others. Until now none of these online technologies could replicate the experience of going to see and hear a live musical performance in the company of other listeners.
Second Life provides an interesting and exciting extension to this. Through avatars, users can seek out not only social experiences to listen to new music in a shared context, but they can also search worldwide for the musical subculture that best meets their tastes. A Second Life user can experience a live performance from their dorm room in Ames, Iowa while the performer may be in Berlin and other listeners/clubgoers scattered around the world.
While the user's avatar is dancing, the user can be speaking to fellow attendees from all over the world. Casual conversations can easily happen, even more easily than they could in a real life club.
Add to this one very un-real element of Second Life -- distance is never a barrier. Users can teleport from one club to another merely by using the search utility, finding another club with music they like, and clicking the teleport button. The barrier of time and space is utterly nullified. The only barrier to leaving would be social.
But, regardless of where the user ends up, she'll be there with other people. They will experience the music at the same time, they will "share" the experience of the music in the truest sense of the word.
Are We Not (walk)Men? No!
Until the advent of Second Life and similar virtual world technologies, the Internet had really only extended pre-existing trends towards music listening as an asocial private activity. As with iPods and the Walkmen before them, listening to music online has been largely a solo activity so far. The iPod advertisements were somewhat foreboding in this respect, the individual reduced to lone dancing silhouette -- action without social interaction. In so many situations, we listen alone.
However, Second Life is re-creating music online as a truly social event. The music played live and streamed through Second Life is simultaneously experienced by those gathered. This is a fundamental shift -- with Second Life broadcast media and experiential media coalesce.
In Second Life, individuals gather to listen to live music and DJ mixes from unknowns and mega-stars -- all from their own homes. Clubs in Second Life are often hosts for after-hours parties. After clubbing in their home cities, people will log in to Second Life to wind down before bed, visiting their favorite virtual clubs and seeing their SL friends. As an artist is performing, so is the audience receiving, experiencing and sharing his performance together. The artist can also communicate easily with the audience via text chat. During a performance, the audience will frequently react to a particularly impressive part of a song in group chat. Concerts and other performances become interactive, they become participatory.
In upcoming days Johnvon and I will examine Second Life and Music more closely. Articles will include:
- Culture, Networking and Music
- Monetization and Sales of Music heard in Second Life
- The flow of music from real life to second life and back again
- Music Production in Second Life
- Leveraging of External Networks in Second Life