"If I could get some bubbles, I'd be forever indebted," singer Craig Lyons tells the packed house at his Monday night gig. The crowd promptly complies, filling the room with bubbles while Lyons plays his tune "Under Water."
Two nights earlier, the audience made it snow as he strummed the chords to his song "Winter." Strangely enough, the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter has come to expect this type of supernatural behavior at his shows, which take place several times a week in Second Life, the virtual online world that allows users to interact with one another as avatars.
Despite declining media coverage after a few years of overexposure, Second Life lives on, and within its virtual borders a music scene has been thriving, with independent artists such as Lyons leading the charge. These artists are earning livings, promoting their music and supporting causes they believe in by performing in this virtual space, which has approximately 1 million users each month.
In addition to collecting fees from Second Life venues (there are more than 3,500 known to exist), musicians are often paid handsomely by fans who tip using the Second Life currency, Linden dollars, which is exchangeable for U.S. dollars via a number of websites. Users can buy and sell the currency at a fluctuating exchange rate that usually hovers around 265 Linden dollars to one U.S. dollar.
Lyons typically earns $100 to $200 per show, and he often plays as many as three gigs in one day for audiences logging into Second Life from different time zones. The 3-D virtual world was launched in 2003 by Linden Lab, a company founded by technology guru Philip Rosedale, who was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in 2007. In Linden Lab's alternate universe, people can interact with one another, teleport themselves to exotic virtual locales, buy houses, cars and clothing and amuse themselves with countless forms of virtual entertainment.
Lyons, who has released four albums of introspective pop-rock songs that have appeared on "So You Think You Can Dance," "The Real World" and other shows, believes Second Life provides an ideal platform for artists to broaden their fan bases by reaching people around the globe they wouldn't be able to connect with under normal touring circumstances.
"It feels really nice to reach people who wouldn't be able to see these shows otherwise — be it single parents, physically handicapped people who can't get out of the house, or people who can't afford a $15 cover charge and drinks at the bar," he says. The Ohio native's easy charm and charisma heighten his appeal in this interactive environment, as do his matinee-idol good looks, which incite swooning from several fans.
Second Life concertgoers attend gigs as avatars at virtual venues that often resemble "real-life" nightclubs or outdoor amphitheaters. The performances often include live streaming videos from the artists' own studios, while the performers' avatars play on the virtual stage below. During the show, fans mingle and use a local chat feature to applaud, comment on the tunes and even flirt with one another.
It doesn't faze Lyons that the fans filling the rooms are avatars. "Some people are selective about their fan bases. I think that's crazy," he says. "They don't connect the dots and see that they are real people having a real experience." A three-dimensional "widget" on the side of the stage connects fans to Lyons' music on iTunes, as well as his MySpace and Facebook pages — all of which have seen an increase in traffic since he started performing regularly in Second Life.
Helen Harbison, who regularly attends Lyons' virtual gigs, believes the interactive experience that the virtual platform provides can actually surpass that of traditional live gigs. "Gigs in Second Life are a special experience," says Harbison, who lives in Dublin, Ireland. "The interaction between musician and audience makes it special, something that you just don't get at a show in a packed-out venue or bar in real life."
Since Second Life's launch, a handful of major acts, including Duran Duran, Suzanne Vega and Ben Folds, have performed or held events in the virtual platform, but none has made a broad impact. "Over the years, Second Life didn't match the hype," says Nelson Gayton, executive director of the Center for Management of Enterprise in Media, Entertainment and Sports at UCLA. "The technology wasn't quite caught up with what people envisioned it to be."
But now, he says, "There's no reason to believe that this isn't a viable platform to experience or promote music. Why not perform in a virtual space instead of going through the challenges of performing in a live space? It's another platform to promote your talent and whatever it is you want to express so people can experience what you have to say."
Missouri indie rockers the Follow, who also perform regularly in Second Life, recognize the convenience these virtual gigs offer fans, and see it as the next logical step in the evolution of social networking. "It's so easy in Second Life — you can teleport your friends immediately, and you don't have to get dolled up," says bassist Amy Rickertsen.
Drummer Mat Matlack adds: "Once people experience Second Life, it will drive people there. The music scene will give them something to do and create an environment for social mixing. It's Facebook on steroids."
Lyons, a self-professed environmentalist, points out another beneficial aspect of this type of virtual gigging. "I legitimately think that it's the most sustainable method of performing for an artist these days, both environmentally — because you can reach the entire globe without burning gas — and financially." Lyons streams most of his Second Life gigs from his Santa Monica home studio using a basic Web cam and a microphone.
He also created an entire music video in Second Life for his ambitious, strings-laden cover of the Beatles' "Across the Universe." The 6-minute video features the avatars of friends, fans and musicians who volunteered their time and talents to create the video.
"Right now, [performing in Second Life] is kind of like the Wild West, but I don't think that will be the case soon," says Lyons. "I think it will be widely accepted and possibly even necessary for any kind of artist in the near future."