Liveness in a Virtual World

Nicholas Cook and Justin Gagen explore issues surrounding liveness in the virtual musical performances of Second Life, demonstrating the symbiotic relationship between the virtual and the real worlds in online music making.

Ever since it began in 2003, the virtual world Second Life has been full of live music, in styles that range from classical to experimental. But most of it draws on vernacular traditions of popular music—the sort of music you hear in small clubs and pubs across the developed world, predominantly consisting of a single performer with a guitar. According to a recent survey published in Gagen’s Masters Thesis (2012), many of these musicians play in both Second Life and the ‘real world’: live concerts in Second Life publicize materials that can be purchased through iTunes or other real-world vendors, and in this way performers have careers that span the virtual and the real worlds. Most present themselves in Second Life much as they do in the real world. As one performer said, “Me and my guitar in RL (Real Life)… so in SL (Second Life)!” As you can see from this clip of one of Second Life’s best known performers, Russell Eponym, avatars hold a guitar which they play by triggering looped animations and a whole Second Life industry has developed that supplies such essentials as instruments and microphones with built in animations for waiting to perform, singing, and bowing.

But what does it mean to perform live in Second Life? There are two ways of answering this question, of which the first is technical. While you are logged in and controlling your avatar in the same way as everyone else on Second Life, you are streaming in the music from the real world—from your studio or bedroom, for instance. Without going into unnecessary detail, the data flows involved in this are complex, and that translates into the ubiquitous element of the Second Life experience known as lag. It can take twenty seconds after you play something before it is heard by your audience in Second Life, and what is worse, different people in the audience will hear it at different times, depending on things like where they are in the real world. In one musician’s words, “You have to acknowledge applause you haven’t heard yet and trust it’s forthcoming.” In the chapter from which this article is condensed, we discuss ways in which lag becomes a determinant of musical style in Second Life.

Here, however, our concern is with the second way of answering the question: what could ‘live music’ possibly mean in a virtual environment, where everything you see and hear is technologically mediated, indeed where ‘you’ are a cluster of pixels? This has been a subject of intense controversy among Second Life residents, as recorded in the Second Life Forums Archive. But to grasp the nature of this controversy you need to understand something that every long-term resident of Second Life knows: Second Life is first and foremost a social experience. You may be stuck behind your laptop, but you are at the same time part of the crowd in a Second Life bar, a member of a real-time virtual community—and for most residents it is this social dimension that lies at the core of the Second Life experience.

Music is a prime illustration of this. In Gagen’s survey, audience members referred over and over again to the sense of community that Second Life engenders: “There is an intimacy and sharing with live performance in SL that I have never seen or felt in RL,” one respondent said. Another made a comparison with real-life concerts, where “Crowds can be uncomfortable and oppressive, and it’s harder to feel any sense of communal experience when it’s impossible—and rude—to communicate in any way.” In Second Life concerts audience members type in chat as they hear, addressing their remarks to the performer or other audience members, and in the technologically mediated world of Second Life, such real-time social interaction represents a performance of liveness. In this way, to borrow Philip Auslander’s (2008, 91) term, participants authenticate their presence, just as rock bands establish their authenticity through live performance.

As Auslander explains, such practices embody beliefs as to the nature and value of liveness that are generally tacit, becoming explicit only when they are breached. This is exemplified in the Ashlee Simpson scandal, which was prompted by the accidental playing, during what was presented as a live show, of a song different from the one that Simpson was lip-synching. But if it can be hard to tell the difference between live and recorded sound in real-life concerts, it is that much harder in Second Life. After all, the music the performer streams in might not be being performed live at all: it might just as well be pre-recorded, and you wouldn’t hear the difference. A blog by Delinda Dyrssen, entitled “Attention virtual musicians! Is it live or is it Memorex?”, recounted a supposedly live event at which “You could hear the musician mistakenly talk over their own recorded vocals,” so revealing that the vocals were recorded and not live.

Many contributors to the ensuing debate felt duped by such things, just as Simpson’s real-world audience did; they saw it as a betrayal of the authenticity that lies at the heart of the Second Life community. But others asked “What the heck? Why does it bother y’all so much?”, or complained about the “constant griping and whining from the SL ‘realos’.” A consensus eventually emerged, based on the realisation that—precisely because you can’t tell live from Memorex—the issue of liveness is one not of aesthetics but of ethics. The most eloquent expression of what became the generally accepted view again came from Dyrssen’s blog: “we can’t see your real face. Please please please…If you’re going to say you’re live, be live. Or just tell everyone you’re going to play a recording. It’s all good. There is no need to try and fool anyone.” In line with this, dedicated events were established where artists can play their MP3s “under honest conditions, not under false pretences.”

Auslander (2008, 60) argues that “the word ‘live’ is not used to define intrinsic, ontological properties of a performance … but rather is a historically contingent term.” In other words, to present music as live rather than recorded is to enter upon a kind of social contract, and its meaning has to be negotiated within each situation of technological mediation. In the development of radio and television, such negotiation proceeded over many years and has to be extrapolated from sparsely documented practices and discourses. By contrast the Second Life archives—from which we have extracted just a tiny sample—reveal the fine detail of a process of negotiation that lasted some two years (from 2008 to 2010), and it does so in the words of those who did the negotiating. In this, as in many other ways, virtual worlds tell us much about the real one.

Nicholas Cook is 1684 Professor of Music at the University of Cambridge. Justin Gagen, who co-founded the Second Life band Redzone, is a doctoral student at Goldsmiths, University of London.


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