SUZANNE VEGA AND THE SECOND LIFE OF LIVE MUSIC
Suzanne Vega is "the mother of MP3", but a decade later, we forget how hard that birthing process really was. It didn't just involve a German engineer referencing her a capella version of "Tom's Diner" to perfect a revolutionary new audio file format. In the mid-90s when MP3s first appeared, most people still used dial-up modems to access the Internet (if they did at all), so broadcasting music through them was a sputtering, cumbersome deal-- if you could even find the songs you were looking for. It took years for MP3s to reach this ITunes era of seamless user interfaces and instant downloads. (And now that we have, it's difficult to remember what music was even like before the Internet.)
All worth keeping in mind, while watching Suzanne Vega's avatar singing her a capella version of "Tom's Diner" in an online world (whipped up with my rudimentary editing skills) from last night. It's fitting that the first song she performed was the one that helped make Internet-based music viable to a mass audience, because her appearance may be the thing that makes metaverse-based live music viable for them, too. At the same time, it also shows just how far there is to go.
Here's Ms. Vega singing "The Queen and the Soldier", her wistfully beautiful fable set in a mythical kingdom, performed for an audience in an alternate world of their own. (After, that is, Vega and the show producers manage to get her custom-made guitar properly displayed.)
You have Vega's dulcet voice streamed from the East Coast recording studio into the world (along with public radio's "Infinite Mind" host John Hockenberry); you have an avatar that looks eerily like her; you have an audience of 80 to 90. And for several moments, here and there, you have what feels like a new kind of live music venue, one that's more intimate than a radio broadcast or an in-person live performance (since you're usually lucky to get even twenty feet close to the crowded stage), and more convenient than a drive to the nearest concert hall.
Then again, you also have an artist who's stuck, expressionless, to her chair, a simulated guitar that refuses to properly attach, and an audience that's uniformly bald. (Attendees were required to remove all attachments, including hair pieces, to curb the lag that so many residents on a single server would inevitably cause.)
So a lot of
potential rubbing up against so many unstable elements.
In future live performances in-world, you have to think major artists and
personalities would be best served by "puppeteers" who can control the
avatar, firing off a series of animations (playing music, dancing, and
so on), when appropriate, leaving the musicians free to perform. (A
HUD driven system with a number of pre-loaded animations and gestures
that can be called up at a single click would work almost as well.) Speech animations would be an enormous advance in this regard, though it's unclear when (if?) Linden Lab will implement those anytime soon.
But all that aside for now. With Julian Dibbell, Kurt Vonnegut, and now Suzanne Vega, this week's an enormous milestone in Second Life's history: the moment, perhaps, when the virtualization of all culture into an ever-expanding metaverse began to seem like our inevitable future.