I read about Second Life in a magazine article back in August 2006. I asked around at work to see if anyone had tried it. Nobody knew what I was talking about. I remember downloading the viewer and taking my first tentative steps on Orientation Island, thinking “I’m not going to do this if it’s going to cost me money.” I had no idea that Second Life was going to provide me with a modest, but steady and regular income. In the first few weeks I became a frequent visitor to the money tree on the roof of The Refuge.
Most of the income I’ve received as a performing musician has been ploughed back into the business (and I do see it as a business) with the incremental addition of two semi-acoustic guitars, a mixer, professional voice microphone and so on in order to steadily improve the quality of my performance. I’ve also donated back rather more than I took from the money trees!
After a few weeks in Second Life I stumbled across the live music scene and began to regularly listen to those pioneering musicians who gave of their best when broadband, streaming and Second Life itself were in the early stages of development. I realised that I was as good as some (but by no means all) of the performers I listened to. One venue owner encouraged me to book a gig with her and advertised and posted it in the diary of events without telling me, which gave me a very short deadline to get the hang of the software. A classical violinist from Paris generously gave of his time and talked me through what was then a very complicated connection process.
I first began by simply plugging a head set into the sound card. I rested the headset around my neck and tried to make sure that the microphone was about halfway between my mouth and the guitar. If somebody said that I was sounding faint I had to sing and play louder. The arrangement had a habit of sliding around my neck during a song, which must have had the audience constantly adjusting their volume control and wondering what was going on.
For me, Second Life performances have been a blessing for several reasons:
- They’ve kept me up to performance pitch. When I didn’t have a gig on the horizon, I could often leave my guitar untouched for weeks. Suddenly, I had ten one hour performances every week. That kept my fingers nimble! These days I’ve cut back to two or three performances a week, but still reap the same benefits with an increase in off-air practice between performances. Over time, because of my diligent attention to professional development, I think I’ve gone from presenting shows that hover between poor to fair, to presenting shows that hover between good and great. I’m conscious that if I stop performing, I’ll slip back to being consistently poor!
- Over the years I’ve developed and expanded my repertoire from a couple of dozen songs to around seventy that suit my style and vocal range. When somebody in the audience throws out a suggestion for a song that I don’t know, I always listen to it on YouTube to see if I like the song and to confirm that the lyrics speak to me. If I do like it, am I sufficiently skilled to play and/or sing it? If that’s a yes, then I rehearse a new song at least a dozen times before I perform it in public. I don’t improvise and I don’t wing it. If your request isn’t in my published playlist, you won’t be hearing it from me today, but watch this space.
- I’ve come to learn that what I say between the songs is as much part of the performance as the songs are. I try to keep it amusing and light. I have no idea what the cultural background or political or religious preferences of my audience is, so I stay away from making comments that might be construed as disrespectful or inflammatory. That takes some practice if I want to avoid coming across as shallow and superficial. If I make a joke, it tends to be at my own expense. If I take a stance, it tends to be against war and violence and nobody seems to object to that.
- I get very discouraged if I find myself playing to an empty venue, so I take my professionalism seriously. I want to be certain that if there is nobody other than staff there, it isn’t because I’m a rubbish performer. So I now practice, practice, practice.
I’m delighted to have stumbled across Second Life. I can claim a genuinely global audience. A modest following, but definitely global. Thirty years ago, none of what I do today was remotely on the horizon. When I first started performing in Second Life, I found it hard to reconcile the man who trotted off to work in the local library every morning with the virtual superstar that I thought I was becoming. For a while, the walk through the local park on the way home was my equivalent to Superman stepping into the telephone booth. I gradually became grounded with the whole concept, but I still find the virtual world thing enchanting and amazing.
When I first encountered Second Life I understood that I could be anyone I choose to be. Fluidity around gender and cultural attributions became possible. Fortunately, I’m happy being me because when I started livestreaming I realised that nothing but authenticity works. I can’t possibly be anything other than who I am. If I’m angry, tired, bored or upset, that will tend to colour the performance. And things like experimenting around gender are simply out of the question. I try to be a real person in a virtual world and with some practice that begins to come naturally.