True Idoru: Meet Chouchou, A Metaverse-Only Music Group
The future of music can be glimpsed on an island floating high above Second Life. There, amid snowflakes and trees that grow from a shard of crystal is a performance space, and on show dates, that's where you'll find juliet Heberle, an avatar with girlish gestures and Audrey Hepburn fragility. She provides the vocals for Chouchou, a duo that's become quite popular in Second Life, especially among Japanese Residents who comprise their core audience. (The floating isle of Islamey that is their concert hall is in the HarajukuTakeshita region-- direct SLURL teleport at this link-- though juliet tells me they plan to relocate to a region of Chouchou's own, next month.)
Arabesque Choche composes and produces Chouchou's music, and it's jazzy and dreamy, spiked with synthetic nostalgia. Metaverse mavens Iris, Bettina, and Torley have long been smitten, but for good measure, I played their song "neverland" for Schlink Lardner, my household music expert. (In a previous first life, she was a producer at two top LA radio stations.) She listened to Chouchou with a critical ear, then gave a positive nod, favorably comparing them to Morcheeba or "a Japanese version of Supreme Beings of Leisure."
So the music stands on its own, but here is the thing: it only exists in Second Life, and is likely to never leave there. Though Japanese by birth, she tells me, Ms. Heberle has lived in New York City for the last decade; Arabesque is based in Tokyo, and the two have never met in real life. He transmits his music digitally, she records her vocals over them, and in Second Life, they perform live together while several thousand miles away. "He hears what I hear," says juliet, "so I easily know what he wants for each song without asking him. I think that's why we can grow our music together."
Their virtual performance space, with its winter forest and its satellite location, is just as essential to who they are as avatar-based performers. The same can be said of their machinima-based music videos (another here, and here), which creates an indelible visual context for the group in a way that MTV did for pop stars in the 20th century.
And while most SL-based musicians see their Second Life performances as promotion for their real life career, juliet tells me they have no plans to extend their performance into the material world, and is reluctant to share details of her real life. "We're kind of keeping how-we-met thing in secret," she tells me, "because sometimes not knowing RL works better for Chouchou." In that sense, they are most like the "Idoru" as imagined by William Gibson, a celebrity avatar that only exists in virtual form.
"So far," as juliet puts it to me, "I'm not thinking about singing in real life. SL has so many things that are not possible in RL. For Chouchou, SL is necessary to express our world."
And this is why I call Chouchou a model for the future of music, for consider these two vectors: the ease and power of digitization is making the Internet our primary means for distributing music. At the same time, that also means musicians are having to come up with new ways of earning a living. With copies of their music now so cheap (or entirely free) online, CD sales lose their importance as a revenue stream; instead, live performance-driven revenue becomes more key. But concert tours are costly and time-consuming, and here's another harsh reality: talent per se does not insure popularity in live performance. Many musicians do not have the charisma or stage presence to perform well in person. For those reasons and more, we are likely to see more bands adopting the Chouchou model, charging for live performances in fantastic, virtual world venues that complement their genre and individual style.
"[T]here may be some people who think of me as an idol or 'Idoru' in Japanese way," juliet says, "but I consider myself as a propagator of sounds and world of Chouchou... It doesn't even have to be a human body. Chouchou just need to be embodied in some ways."
She doesn't totally reject the idea of performing in person. "Maybe we will change our minds in future," she tells me. "We don't know, but for now we're not thinking about performing in real life."
In any case, she adds, "Chouchou wants to be like a dream that you can only see in SL. Something like....when you awake, it's all gone, but you remember sounds and voices that you heard in your dream."
Update, 8:24pm: Added a couple more background details above the fold. By the way, this is the group's MySpace page.