The Sound of Music

Not so long ago, I commented on the future of music distribution via virtual worlds like Second Life®. It is still my belief that we’re assisting at the end of an age where music distribution via records/tapes/CDs and earning an income from royalties is coming to an end. While “free information activists” have long since predicted the downfall of the RIAA and the end of “music piracy” as a crime, they usually just address one side of the issue: consumers, who currently have sidestepped the distribution model by essentially exchanging music for free. Initiatives like Apple’s iTunes tend to combine both models: easy music distribution for a very low price and making sure that the musician gets a cut from the profit.

But these models completely forget one major player in the music industry: the musicians and performers themselves.

How, indeed, shall they survive, if their music is freely copied?


Let’s step back a few centuries, back into the Renaissance and the 17th century. Back then, music as a cultural product thrived, next to all the other arts. And, like painting, sculptures, or architecture, it used the same model: patrons, who sponsored the musician, and had him perform for the patron, their family, and their friends. Needless to say that music was not a mainstream consumer product: only the very rich could afford to sponsor their own artist, but at least, while having a patron, the musician wouldn’t need to worry about getting an income. They would simply rely upon the patron to pay for their bills and expenses, and to provide them a room with a clean bed and some food — and then focus entirely on their art.

There was also “mainstream music” to a degree: Church concerts, at least in Europe. Here the “sponsor” was the Church itself — they had a budget, raised through donations and other forms of monetary contributions, which allowed the church to hire a permanent musician, who would perform for free every Sunday. All the big masters tried at some time to get a job as maestros at some church — a good paying job, and much more regular income than having a patron, although it also meant composing much more liturgical pieces. A further alternative was provided by universities and other music schools, also regular paying jobs.

It’s only much more recently — starting at the end of the 18th century, but mostly during the 19th century — when the model changed. When it started to be clear that there was a mainstream audience for non-liturgical music, musicians became hired artists for shows: the business model of the Opera was born. With forms both for the common people and the nobility, operas were usually ran as businesses (although many enjoyed sponsorship by princes and kings; however, later in the 18th century, many operas were ran by merchants and businessmen): the audience would pay an entrance fee to see the show, and the musicians, director, and composer would all get a cut from the proceedings. Great opera composers and scriptwriters were hired (and paid in advance) to create masterpieces that had instant commercial success; but sometimes they experimented with new composers (ironically, as my friend Lillie Yifu points out, the most known opera pieces nowadays, from composers we recognise as “grand masters”, were largely ignored in their time — the mainstream, as today, basically watched junk). Business prospered as music became entertainment (still to be had for free inside churches; but available for a small fee on opera houses).

An interesting side-effect that became commonplace in the Victorian Era, as more and more people started to learn how to play the piano, was that operas got “teasers” — bits and pieces of the most popular arias would get arranged (Mendelssohn became famous for his many arrangements) for the piano and played at home by amateurs. Now this started to spread “music” in a different way: instead of going to a special place — an opera house, a concert hall, a church — you could bring the music into your own home, for a small fee (paying for the music sheet).

Music is a strange art form: it is performed — ephemeral — but it can be written down — permanent. Nearing the end of the 19th century, a new way of distributing music appeared: records. And a further way of distribution appeared with radio a few decades later.

We thought this would be the end really, but up until now, there was something that tied the musician to the payment for their work. Be it by having a sponsor for private audiences; or a permanent job at the church or a university; or getting royalties from sheet music, records, or radio broadcasts — in all these cases, there was a clear way for the musician to earn some money for their work.

The Analogue Hole

This all started to change when music left the analogue stage and became digital — suddenly, a new, far more powerful means of distribution questioned the whole model: the Internet, and the so-easy-to-copy CD. Music was never so widely distributed as today, and more important than that, it’s so easy to copy music, like it never was before. You don’t need to be a masterful performer; you don’t need to leave your home; you don’t even need to go to a shop to pick it up. You can get it for free easily, anywhere on the Internet, or sometimes for a small fee (like through iTunes).

Clearly, the RIAA is fighting its last battles. You cannot prevent the flood of music being distributed. There is a finite amount of time that lawyers have to stop every one of the 2 billion Internet users to copy music for free. There is always a way.

The question is not really about the RIAA or any of the other organisations… at some point in time, they will have no choice but to give up. It can take a decade or so, but in the end, there will be no point to continue to fight battle after battle, when the war is practically lost.

No, the question is: how will the musicians be paid, if nobody will pay for their music any longer?

Sure, several musicians earn more these days from live performances than from royalties. Not everybody, however, will be so lucky — the labels did handle marketing, promotion, and raising world-wide awareness for musicians. They could afford all that because they earned an income from selling CDs 🙂 If that resource stream is cut, however, it will mean less promotion, less marketing, and people being less aware of the musicians.

So, while on one hand word-of-mouth and peer-to-peer transfer of music, as a viral tool, actually promotes the musician, the truth is that musicians will have a much harder fight to be known. In a sense, it’s like a journalist dropping her job to become a blogger. Only a tiny majority of bloggers earn an income from their writing — but there are millions and millions of them. The same might just happen to musicians as well.

RL music sponsors?

Ironically, some people have suggested that musicians fall back to the model used in the Renaissance: try to get a patron. These days it might also mean getting a corporate sponsor. These are valid alternatives, but it requires a big change of mentality — mostly from musicians, since the very same model is used by, say, athletes. Agents will probably handle the sponsoring, and the big record labels might just turn into marketing agencies — after all, they know the business, and they know the sponsors. So, under this model, the musician will fight to get a good agent that will bring them a nice sponsor, and be able to compose without worrying about their bills and expenses… while their music will be spread world-wide, for free, through the Internet.

Now, before I ever logged in to SL, I thought that there were few alternatives for the musicians. However, we have seen how strong the music scene is in Second Life. It grew absurdely. Just take a look at the Events list: over a hundred live performances every day. It’s astonishing! And that is not counting with the DJs, of course.

These musicians performing in SL are actually making a living. Some of them are charging 500 Euros for a show! Now, don’t get me wrong, I find this absolutely delightful — because it means that these high quality musicians are actually earning quite close to what they would earn if they’d be performing in bars and small concert rooms. But they’re saving the costs of equipment, travel, and hotel… SL is so much more convenient, all you need it to hook up your equipment to a computer, rent a streamer, and you’re set up.

In effect, this “near future” of agents promoting and advertising musicians and getting sponsors for them is happening right now in SL. You could view it as a “rehearsal” of what the future might bring.

Then again, it might be something else. I jokingly refer to SL as a Virtual Rennaisance because so many new things are happening in arts and architecture, inside SL, that would be impossible elsewhere. And perhaps this is something new which actually makes sense: if music became digital and is easily got everywhere, why shouldn’t performances become digital too, and as easy to find as the music itself?

I believe that actually it was the RIAA’s paranoid stance against “streaming” that unexpectedly launched the whole “live performances in SL” trend. DJs, since they use music copied from their computers into a stream, are technically in violation of the current legislation (unless, by chance, they are paying their royalties). But live performers aren’t! They’re just playing their music, and nobody can prevent them to perform their own music in any way they wish.

Whatever the reason, RL companies are taking an interest. Public radio is continuing to set themselves up in SL. We saw Sony BMG and AOL selling music (and video) in SL last year. They were not the only ones. And I’m still eagerly waiting Apple to open iTunes inside SL — if they don’t, someone will do it! And, of course, we have vSide, a small VW which was created only for people to listen music together.

So there is something in the air… or perhaps on the audio streams 🙂 Perhaps unplanned, SL is showing how musicians can continue to make a living from their work as easily as before — and not worry at all that people copy their music over and over again. The new business models of sponsors and agents are well in place in SL. And the musicians are happy, and every day, a new one joins SL for professional work, and they are not going to leave, because they know they can reach an audience here.

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About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I’m just a virtual girl in a virtual world…

  • And then there are companies like and, which distribute (and publicize) music and artists while splitting income. And Magnatune has a presence in SL, making streams of their artists available for use in SL.

  • Fantastic article. Really it is informative. Great to read the history of music.

  • Paisley Beebe

    An interesting blog Gwyneth, I’ve been trying to get a SL sponsor actually haven’t tried very hard..but its an idea Ive been toying with , as it costs me more money to play live music in SL than I get paid as I pay my band RL money..I play music in SL primarily to get a hearing as I usually come out in the Red…

    However its not really as rosy as you paint yet on SL, speaking as a performer. yes my mp3 sales have increased… as opposed to very little, its more than that, (just a little) as it has for a lot of SL musicians, but its still a struggle for most of us in these early days, I think it will improve somewhat as the general population of SL finds out that there is some really cool live music to be had here on SL, the numbers at most concerts in SL have been dropping, as the general population of SL doesn’t know about live music, but the influx of musicians grows, the problem is lack of publicity about Live music in SL, still only such a small population knows about live music in SL and with so many different countries logging into SL and most live acts booked in an U.S friendly time zone…(as they are the biggest population of users)…its hard to get to the other 80% of the SL population that don’t come to concerts. Also there is much debate over free concerts verses paid ones… Music is still one of the only services that the consumer does not have to pay for in SL most concerts are free for the audience the Venue either pay the Musician or the musician basically busks and hopes for tips…we have a long way to go before SL becomes a haven for underpaid and under-appreciated musicians. Don’t forget you may get paid 500 Euro’s for a gig but that might be only once a month…..its not comparable to a sucessfull buisness in SL yet….In my field of Jazz in Australia most musicians make most of their money from Live appearances in RL, their Albums are a way of getting publicity and gaining fans… not money…the live gigs pay their rent, if they are lucky, the Albums cost more to make usually than they make back…and I believe that this is the case for many musicians not just jazz musos these days. Thanks for giving us the history lesson 🙂 I think you are damn right, problem is that the skill to make incredible music is sooo undervalued these days that many people won’t pay for it…one wonders why its not valued as much as other great art is? its not because everyone can make music…every one can sorta, but then everyone can paint…but not all can paint pictures that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars…
    If one is to act as a Patron of a Musician one must get something for it, weather its Kudos, prestige or advertising, but like many other things, unless the population is there to see that advertising its not worth it…and the live music population is small, even if there are hundreds of gigs on a day, they are most likely the same 500 avis cruising around the grid to the same concerts…not a big population to advertise too…get more people to know about live music on SL and a lot of problems would be solved, the usual avenues to advertise live music are lacking in SL, RL advertising and publicity is still much more effective than SL publicity and Advertising. It will change but slowly.

  • One thing I like about this column is that it really asks the right question, which is so rarely asked. “How will musicians be able to get paid for what they do?”

    Too often the question devolves into “how do we protect copyright in the digital era?”, which is very much not the right question. Copyright is a means to an end, and the end is musicians (and, ultimately, other creators) getting paid.

    (Disclaimer: I’m also Prospero Linden, but this comment in no way should be represented as anything official associated with Second Life.)

  • Well, last year we saw many music releases (including two big names NIN and Radiohead) saying goodbye to copyright and turning to creative commons publishing. They just gave their albums for free download and placed their tip jars on the web. Some guesses (if anybody has accurate info on this, I would be grateful) that bands themselves are in profit comparing to former releases. Math is simple: if CD costs 17e less than 3 goes to the artist; average tip (donation) is 5e, and all of those goes to artists.

    Sure, one can argue that publishing under CC license is good for big names that already used recording companies to make them names so they can freely go and use the Internet to publish on their own and cut down prices. Other group of artists that can afford that are those that nobody but their friends have heard about and that doesn’t make their living out of music, so they just throw their music to the world hoping that somebody will catch it. Partly, that is true.

    But on the other side, we shouldn’t skip the momentum of web 2.0 and virality (I just made up the word, but you get the meaning). Your comparison with journalists and bloggers stands, but being both (blogger and journalist) I can witness that those two complements each other. While journalism is still a steady job, blogging is giving me additional exposure, more articles in more newspapers and some consulting gigs. And one more thing that is a big motive for me and many of my colegues that open their blogs: freedom.

    As a paid journalist I am not expected to write what comes to my mind and what I feel like writing at the given moment. As a blogger, I can do whatever I want. That is a huge thing for any journalist, and that is a huge thing for any musician. Which opens the question of sponsoring. Will corporate sponsors be willing to have their name near many of the bands? Who would sponsor Rage Against The Machine? Could Sex Pistols do their swindle with corporations as they did with music industry? Hardly so. We see that corporations are complaining that there are sex somewhere on the huge SL grid and that they think their interest is damaged by that. And then we expect them to give money to musicians who might end up in sex & drugs scandals? Some musicians will find that biz model successful (and actually using it already) but most won’t.

    Most will turn to what bloggers do when they start thinking about profit. Tip jars, payed jobs they got because of the fame they got from what they already done (in the case of musicians there is a film industry and theatre), live gigs… but most of all: networks. They will join into groups, presently known as indie labels and fight their way together. Sure, labels will take their part of the profit, but they will provide the value of organizing and marketing. There will be bigger labels over them to do the same on the bigger level.

    Actually, not many things are going to change except that somebody will have to realize that taking more than 10e per CD to feed the enormous machinery of recording company is not a good biz model. And sure, that playing music on the radio means providing value to the artist and recording company so the radio is not supposed to pay for that.

  • I really think that is not the Music industry big problem, because they win a lot of money and money can really buy good technology to prevent the Illegal download and broadcasting. The big problem can happens on the future, notice that companies like Itunes is buying music rights to sell at low cost. Results? Good for Itunes, bad for artists.

    The Otenth Paderborn said it right. Magmatune (that I know very well) has their presence on SL, as they still “helping” the new musicians, like other companies.

    I think the music industry still has a significant strength to hang their economy, just remembering that video clip still have their power, and music industry never stopped to invest huge money on productions, and why? Because still worth!

    That is my personal opinion.

    Cu, kisses

  • Richard Meiklejohn

    A very interesting topic and one close to many peoples hearts. But I fear that the article sets up the all important question – ‘How will musicians get paid?’ and really doesn’t answer it. If a venue is willing to pay a musician 500 Euro for a performance, where is that money utimately coming from? Is that a sustainable business? And what proportion of SL gigs command that kind of money? Whilst virtual economy money has toy value, and is designed around micropayments for items that might sell thousands, only those people willing to remember the exchange rate to ‘real money’ will tip reasonably and most gigs are attended by a maximum of about 50 people. So the best of the best in SL might make what an average performer could make playing in a small bar? Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of live music in SL, it’s one of the main reasons I come in world, and I’m hoping to perform myself at some point. But I don’t see that making a living from it will ever be an option.

  • naima, if music companies have money that can buy them protection of free downloading, broadcasting and sharing…. why the world is flooded with music that nobody ever payed for?

  • Matthew

    Interestingly, in a different way, the musicians in CHina have been the first to have to solve this problem because of the rampant piracy there. They make most of their money playing live, but as this article suggests, spnsorship is also a major source of funds. Really what’s the problem. Musicians need to notice how most of the big media businesses nowadays are not based on transaction/unit charges, but on a broadcast metaphor where ratings/clicks can be turned into income, through sponsoship/commercials etc. I dont think there is any problem is music going down that route….and mixing in with the Live Performance income that has made a lot in China v v prosperous. I know bands in Thailand, too, that gig 300 days of the year, Oz too, like a “real job” and they too suvive well. Great article, to spot the watershed.