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An Introduction To Cyber Performance

Virtual Showtime

The Internet is changing every facet of the music business — including live performance. There's never been a better time to take to the cyber-stage.

As we're all no doubt aware, the face of the music industry is changing. In a world where close contact between people on different continents is no strange thing, the way bands and musicians connect with their listeners is undergoing its own metamorphosis — and the ways in which musicians perform are changing too.

Cyber performance, for those not familiar with it, is the use of streaming technology to broadcast your shows live online. These performances can take place in a VR (virtual reality) such as Second Life or Avination, or using webcam-based platforms such as NuMuBu, Ustream, Livestream and Stageit. You can give a cyber performance from anywhere, including from the comfort of home, so there are almost no overheads: no travel costs, no print advertising expenses, and none of the hardships of touring, such as sleeping on couches or in rat-infested youth hostels for four hours before it's time to set off to the next place.

Free 'N Easy

For decades, live performance has been a key way for musicians to attract new and enthusiastic listeners.The author gigging from home, as seen through a webcam (inset); and as concertgoers in Second Life see her. Go to www.jordanreyne.com for more information.However, putting on traditional gigs and tours is becoming more and more difficult, thanks to an increasingly paranoid industry's fear of losing money, which in turn means that booking agents are reluctant to put on new bands, or anything not instantly profitable. Cyber performance, by contrast, is blossoming. Besides being cheap to free, cyber performance lets you reach a worldwide audience — instantly. The net isn't bound by the usual rules and gatekeepers. Cyber performance is a playing-field leveller: anyone and everyone can do it. What's more, success in the world of cyber performance is merit-driven. Super high-cost videos and grandiose stage choreography with lip-sync don't necessarily impress people. When it's just you, your webcam (or avatar) and your songs, it's all about the music and the connection the listeners form to it and you. You can't fake it, because people hear it.

The audiences for cyber performance attend shows almost every day. They love the fact that musicians from all over the world are playing where anyone can hear it. We, the musicians, love the fact that we can play to people from parts of the planet too expensive to get to on our limited budgets. And because everyone involved spends a lot of time online, a community grows up around it: around you, as a performer, and the people you attract and become friends with. Which brings me to the next important point about cyber gigs.

There is a really simple thing that makes cyber shows as personal as a gig in a traditional venue, albeit in a different way. It's the chat facility. Regardless of which platform you choose, there is always a chat feature, which lets you see exactly what everyone is saying. This is vital, on two levels. The more obvious use is that it's where you (or your assistant) posts links to your albums and newsletter sign-ups. But equally important, if not more so, is that you use the chat feature to build up a rapport with your listeners. You can respond verbally to what they say, have a laugh, and actually get to know them while they get to know your music. As I've already mentioned, audience members attend cyber shows far more frequently than they do traditional gigs. In the VRs, listeners will head to several of your shows a week, and in the webcam-style setup, once a week is usual. Your gig becomes a meeting place where people share an enjoyable experience.

Like any community, online communities support their own. This is key, because your listeners are your lifeblood. When you, as a performer, enter an online community, you also start to build up a community around what you do. It means you get that support, too. The more you connect to your listeners, the more personally involved they know they are in your successes. They are as keen to promote the music and musicians they love as you are — two of my own albums were funded almost exclusively by online communities. What's more, these things fed into music-industry measureables: likes on Facebook, YouTube views, Twitter followers. People from the online world will start turning up at conventional shows too, leading over time to bigger and better gigs. Having built up my own following online, I now make my living from combining traditional gigs with cyber gigs. I could quit my 'real' job thanks to the cyber gigs that provide my staple and stable income. Events in the cyber world have real-world effects — and they are effects that every indie musician can access.

The Eden House have become a popular Second Life attraction by the simple expedient of streaming their band practices. Photo: Taya Udin

First Steps In Cyber Performance

Getting online for most of us is easy. To do a gig, you'll need some barebones gear,but you'll be happy to know that SOS readers probably have most of it already. If you've done traditional gigs or you record at home, you may even have all you need: a PC, an audio interface and an Internet connection. A mixing desk is handy if you need to combine multiple sources, depending on how many inputs your audio interface has. If you're a band, you might need to think about whether you'll get better results using room mics plugged direct into the audio interface, or routing all instruments through a mixing desk then out into the audio interface in stereo. The Eden House, who stream their rehearsals live into the Idle Rogue in Second Life, opt for room mics as the rehearsal room is not a permanent setup. Getting a good balance in the room and miking it with a pair of room mics is a lot easier than miking up drums and amps each time you set up, but might not sound so polished.

Once you have connected your mics and/or instruments into the audio interface, the next step is beaming that sound out to the ears of your listeners, ie. broadcasting or streaming. It's surprisingly simple. Virtual realities are slightly more complicated than webcam broadcasts, so let's start with the webcam scenario. Taking this route involves the added cost of a webcam, but these are obtainable for around and under the £70 mark. I use a Logitech model, which works fine.

Webcam shows are hosted by actual web sites, so you don't need to do much to stream: the host site takes care of that for you. All you need to do is set up your webcam to point at you, go to the site itself (I'll use www.numubu.com as my example) and create an account there. Once you've set up a profile page in NuMuBu, you will notice it has a green button near the top right of your profile saying 'go live now'. If you click on it, the web site's software kicks in, picking up the images from your camera and thesounds from your audio interface. It will also ask you to allow the connection. Just hit 'allow'. Hopefully, you will see yourself on camera, but you may have to manually set your sound source, because sometimes the web site's software will select a webcam's mic as the audio input. Cameras have horrible mics, so you don't want this. On NuMuBu, you set your sound source by right-clicking, looking for the little mic icon at the bottom of the pop-up window, and then selecting the sound source you want from the drop-down list. It's as easy as that — you are broadcasting.

If you have even a basic home studio, the chances are you have everything you need to begin cyber performance already.

If you choose the VR route instead, you won't need a camera, but you will need an extra piece of shareware called 'butt' (https://butt.sourceforge.net) to handle the broadcasting, and you'll need to rent a stream. A stream is a dedicated web address that takes your audio signal and broadcasts it, in much the same way web radio stations are broadcast. When you buy one, you get a URL similar to any Internet address, a port number and a password. You need to enter these into butt via the Settings menu.

VRs such as Second Life have virtual shops that allow you to purchase streams at low cost, usually around £5 a month, and some venues within Second Life, such as The Idle Rogue, have their own streams you can use free for your gigs. When you are performing, you simply log into the VR and tell the virtual venue you are playing in what your stream address is, so they can route the broadcast into the venue. If you are using their stream, make sure you enter the address, port number and password into the Settings menu in butt. Then you hit the red Stream button on butt, and you are live!

Check One Two

As with traditional gigs, a soundcheck is always a good idea. Whether you begin by taking the webcam route or the VR option, I suggest not advertising your first attempt, and getting a friend or listener you trust to log on at the same time and listen and watch you while you set up. In the VR scenario, the venue owner will have to be there too to hook up the stream. For the webcam-style gigs, get a friend to head to your profile page. In NuMuBu, for example, your listener(s) would head to your page, and once you have started the broadcast your end, they would see a green button labelled 'live broadcast' on your profile page. Clicking that takes them to your show. If you are still having trouble, some of the webcam sites offer staff who help you set things up. NuMuBu is great for this, so if you are nervous about setting up a webcam show, I suggest you start with them. Stageit also offer help setting up, though the percentage of tips they take from artists is high (in my opinion, unreasonably so at over 33 percent; NuMuBu currently take around 19 percent).

Once you're up and running on the tech side, it's time to advertise. Unlike traditional gigs, this won't cost you a penny. Use your social networking sites for the webcam and VR gigs. You don't need to advertise months in advance either. A week beforehand is fairly standard for webcam gigs, and in the case of NuMuBu, you have the advantage of being able to promote your shows to an existing community — with most other webcam broadcasting platforms you'll have to build up your own community.The site owners are great at getting word out, so you will get attendees outside your existing group of friends or fans, which is great when you are starting out.

The four major players in the world of streaming live shows are, from top: NuMuBu, Stageit, Livestream and Ustream.

In the VRs, there are so many shows a day that you are relying on playing to whoever happens to be online at the time. This means advertisements go out, standardly, half an hour before the show. The key to success in VRs is to join and create 'groups'. These are like newsgroups within the VR that centre round a common interest, performer or music in general. When you sign up to a group, you can advertise your own gigs through it, but more important is building up your own group as people come to hear you. Some examples of existing groups from Second Life are 'live music in the AM', 'second life music' and 'The Second Life Arts Council'.

Bridging The Gap

Cyber gigs are a stark contrast to traditional shows in venues and clubs. The flip side of their low cost and high convenience is that there is little opportunity for pomp and glamour — which is actually a great leveller, bringing the focus back to the music and musicians. It also means there is a key difference in attitude. Before cyber gigs were possible, there was often a gap between performer and listener. This will sound quite ironic considering there can be an entire planet between you and your listener at a cyber gig, but it's not the physical proximity that is crucial. It's the sociological and psychological side. The rockstar-on-a-pedestal types that populate the history of rock music were on another level, set separate and apart from the crowd. The conventional music business too often sells us dreams and fictions instead of actual music.

The face of cyber performance, by contrast, is a face that's up close. It's a face you get to know intimately — for all the physical miles that might lie in between performer and audience — without the Auto Tune, soft-focus filters and video after-effects. Cyber gig listeners tune in regularly. They want authenticity. They want connection. They want a sense of community. It's part of being an indie musician gigging on the net to give that to them.

Building an online community is already a standard part of music-industry practice, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and so on. The difference is that cyber performance gives you an online anchor point around which to build your community. Bring your VR, webcam and traditional performance listeners together using social netw orking. Become part of existing social networks like NuMuBu where ideas are shared and music is supported. Treasure that support, because thepeople in the community you build around your own music like your music in a very genuine sense: they aren't blinded by a manufactured image, or beguiled by software-corrected vocals. They just like you and what you do. It's one of the best gifts anyone can give you, and one of the most rewarding experiences there is.  

Webcam Or Virtual Reality?

For those undecided as to which kind of cyber performance to start with, I've summarised the pros and cons of each below. All VR platforms have the same pros and cons, but Second Life is by far the most popular, and has the best-established music scene.

For anyone who wants to avoid the technical side of things, I suggest starting with webcam-based shows. Ideally, do both! I play in VRs, webcam sites and traditional venues and festivals. All feed into one another. My Second Life group head out to real-life shows. They come to NuMuBu. NuMuBu people head to the traditional gigs too. As stated in the main text, it's all about community, and creating one that's vibrant and fun to be part of. It's suprisingly intimate and you will make some great friends on the way!

The pros of webcam shows:

  • Ease of use.
  • Much smaller learning curve than VRs.
  • Many people enjoy the visual element of seeing you on camera.
  • Chat facility allows you to see exacty what people are saying and interact.
  • You can post links in the chat to information and shop pages.
  • It's easier to get less technologically savvy listeners to attend.
  • Advertising via social media means no advertising costs.

The cons of webcam shows:

  • Unlike VRs, at the time of writing, there is no possibility of getting a set fee for a webcam show as you can from physical venues.
  • Several of the bigger sites have no tipping facility and charge money for use.
  • The need to set up lights, apply make-up and dress for a show makes setting up more time-consuming than VR shows.
  • In the webcam gig world, people attend fewer gigs by the same artist per week. This contributes to making webcam shows less potentially profitable than VRs.

The pros of VR shows:

  • A huge potential existing audience (literally millions of users) and an established music scene.
  • Quick, easy and free advertising.
  • Many venues pay fees to established musicians.
  • The frequency with which listeners will attend your gigs (often several times a week) means that playing regularly can generate a real income.
  • Chat facility allows you to see exactly what people are saying and interact.
  • Second Life has its own radio, press and television. You can be interviewed, featured and promoted just as for traditional gigs — again, minus the cost and pomp.
  • You can also stream webcam broadcasts into Second Life.
  • Zero to low overheads. Basic accounts in Second Life are free, and you don't actually need a paid one.

The cons of VR shows:

  • Big learning curve for musicians.
  • Big learning curve for listeners who are not already familiar with VR interfaces.
  • Stream setup and rental isn't expensive but it is a cost.
  • Second Life in particular can be a tad temperamental. Every couple of dozen shows there will be a 'sim crash', a 'griefer', or stream issues. Don't let it faze you.

Which Webcam Site?

If you take the webcam route, you'll need a hosting site. At the time of writing there are four major options to choose from. Each has its pros and cons. Considered from the point of view of the band or unsigned artist, here's my take on the various positives and negatives — note that Livestream and Ustream are not specialised for music performances and host masses of other content too.

NuMuBu (www.numubu.com)

pros:

  • Simple to use.
  • Low latency.
  • High quality.
  • No forced user costs.
  • Take a minimal margin of your tips.
  • Have an existing community of musicians and music industry professionals and built-in social networking, so promoting yourself to the industry is easy.

cons:

  • The list of upcoming shows for the front page is still in development, but due for implementation soon.

Stageit (www.stageit.com)

pros:

  • Slick-looking interface.
  • High quality.
  • Easy to see what gigs are on what day, so casual viewers stand a good chance of coming across your show.

cons:

  • Higher learning curve for viewers, who must pay $5 to attend shows (though this can be used to tip artists).
  • Over 33 percent of viewer tips goes to the site itself.
  • Interfacing problems with several cameras.
  • No social networking within the site.

Ustream (www.ustream.tv)

pros:

  • Seems to have no issues with different camera and sound card types.
  • Low learning curve for both performers and viewers.
  • Allows you to archive your performances.
  • Doesn't require viewers to buy tickets in advance, so attendance is generally higher.

cons:

  • No tipping function, and expensive to use.
  • No social networking within the site.

Livestream (www.livestream.com)

pros:

  • Easy to see what broadcasts are coming up.
  • Low learning curve for both performers and viewers.
  • Doesn't require viewers to buy tickets in advance, so attendance is generally higher.
  • No adverts on the free account, though quality is lower.
  • Events and shows can be archived.

cons:

  • No tipping function.
  • Free account is limited to 50 viewers, and is lower quality.
  • Income is generated through adverts.
  • No social networking within the site.
  • Free account only allows you to archive events for a limited period of time.
Published February 2014