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Linden Lab: Virtual worlds will make Madison Square Garden look small

The Second Life developer is courting the music biz with its new platform, Sansar. Here, its creators explain why CGI DJs and virtual merch are the future of the industry

By Jon Chapple on 23 Oct 2019

Blasterjaxx’s Sansar show was seen in 100 cities on six continents

Blasterjaxx’s Sansar show was seen in 600 cities on six continents

Online video games will form an important part of the live music ecosystem in the years ahead – with major artists playing to virtual audiences that dwarf even the world’s largest arenas in size, according to Linden Lab, the company behind pioneering virtual world Second Life.

Speaking to IQ, Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg says the company’s unofficial Second Life successor, Sansar, and games like it provide the industry with an unparallelled opportunity to boost earnings, increase engagement and grow artists’ fanbases.

“We learnt from Second Life,” says Sweden-born Altberg, who joined the company in 2014. “We realised there were a few things we could do different to tackle a different set of opportunities than Second Life couldn’t really crack. One of those was scalability: the ability to have these massive online worlds with huge attendances. We also wanted to support VR, with the high performance and frame rates you need for virtual reality.”

At its height, Second Life – launched by San Francisco-based Linden in 2003, and one of the first online virtual worlds – had around a million regular users, including major businesses, brands, universities, religious institutions and even countries (in 2007, the Maldives became the first nation to open an embassy; Sweden followed suit shortly after).

It also hosted a number of virtual performances by major artists, including Duran Duran, Suzanne Vega and, perhaps most famously, U2, in the late 2000s.

Second Life, says Altberg, was “way ahead of its time”; while it still has a devoted user base of tens of thousands of players, many bands and brands have “stepped away because the scale didn’t make sense for them. Why would a huge band play in a tiny club in front of 50 people?”

Sansar, by contrast, is able to host “huge events” attended by thousands of players at once, he continues: “Modern game technologies allow you to ‘instance’ a world, creating a copy of it on the fly. No game allows you to have 10,000 people playing all at the same time – but with instancing, when one world is full you create a copy and people play in parallel universes.”

“You have all these people, and they’re all able to come together to share this experience. It’s quite wonderful”

When combined with Sansar’s ‘avatar broadcasting’ technology (which allows avatars, players’ in-game characters, to be cloned across multiple instances), what this means in practice is that artists are able perform to thousands of fans across the globe.

“It’s unique in the industry,” explains Altberg. “With broadcasting, we can set up a stage and have performers exist simultaneously in every instance. One instance might only have 60 people in, but all instances will see the same performance at the same time.”

Virtual concerts were thrust into the mainstream earlier this year when Marshmello performed inside Fortnite, which reportedly became the most-attended ‘concert’ in history, with more than ten million people tuning in. Similar subsequent events include Korn’s show in online RPG AdventureQuest and the Offspring’s slightly bemusing appearance in World of Tanks.

With Sansar – technically a ‘virtual world’ rather than a video game – “we started out about a year ago with stand-up comedy, just to try and figure out how it would work with live performances,” recalls Sheri Bryant, Linden Lab’s vice-president of business development and marketing. “The broadcasting system worked really well, so after those three months of doing just stand-up, we began to branch out into music.”

Sansar’s first major show was in April, when musician and comedian Reggie Watts played a live DJ set, and in July it unveiled its first industry partner: influential dance music label Monstercat. Since then, Monstercat artists have played multiple in-game concerts, and hosted meet and greets and giveaways, in their own Sansar world, the Monstercat Call of the Wild Experience.

Linden is also working with Spinnin’ Records, whose artist Blasterjaxx played at the ‘Nexus’, Sansar’s central hub, in September.

The Blasterjaxx show – the first as part of an ongoing partnership with the label – attracted viewers on “six continents and [in] 600 cities”, says Bryant. “It’s mindblowing, really, when you think that it’s such early days. You have all these people – some of whom might have never been able to leave their city to see a live show – and they’re all able to come together to share this experience. It’s quite wonderful.”

Bryant says the music side of Sansar (the platform also has corporate partnerships with Levi’s, esports brand Fnatic and Hello Kitty creator Sanrio) is “getting bigger and bigger”, spurred by its success with Monstercat and Spinnin’ Records: “We’re talking to all the labels, all the agencies – everyone is keenly interested in this, and the potential for their artists.”

“You can have ticketing, VIP and green-room experiences, merchandise stands where people can go and buy shirts and caps…”

“There are competitors that have popped up,” she adds, “but we have years of experience in world-building [with Second Life], so we’re pretty far ahead of where they are.”

That potential, explains Altberg, includes the ability for labels and artists to monetise their involvement with the game beyond the simple revenue-sharing system that’s currently in place. (There are “some things coming up next year that are subscription-based,” according to Bryant, “but right now it’s just a rev-share model.”)

Like Second Life, which has its own currency (the Linden dollar), denizens of Sansar may also make virtual purchases with Sansar dollars (S$), which can be bought using real currency or earned by selling items in game.

In a concert setting, those S$ can spent on virtual merch (‘verch’) for players’ avatars – for example, virtual tour T-shirts or Monstercat-branded headwear – and much more besides, says Altberg. “In the worlds we can build with our partners, they have a tremendous amount of control,” he continues. “You can have ticketing, VIP and green-room experiences, merchandise stands where people can go and buy shirts and caps – and we can share those ticketing and merch revenues with performers and labels.”

“The cultural shift here is that people can make money on our platform,” adds Bryant, who also identifies the tipping culture prevalent in gaming (where viewers reward their favourite streamers monetarily) as another potential revenue stream for musicians.

For several reasons, musical performances in Sansar are so far dominated by electronic music acts, although that could change in future, say Altberg and Bryant.

“It’s easier to hook up EDM artists to the system because DJs basically have an electronic output,” explains Altberg. “So they stand there in their VR gear and we give them all kinds of in-game tools – fireballs, lasers, the ability to change the gravity so everyone can jump really high…

“It’s only a matter of time before a venue like Madison Square Garden will seem small”

“You can tell how much fun they’re having controlling the environment. They can change the way the world looks and functions by pressing buttons and turning dials – so they’re not just tweaking the music but creating a whole experience for people.”

Additionally, says Bryant, videogamers are more inclined towards electronic music: “Gamers love it. They play it on the streams, they play it in real life… There’s a strong connection between the gamer audience and the EDM genre.”

“It’s harder, for example, for a five-person band to do,” adds Altberg, noting that “it takes a little longer to replicate guitarists, keyboardists and drummers” in game. (Rock acts, of course, would also have to multitask in a way DJs don’t, setting off pyrotechnics while simultaneously trying to play their instruments.)

Despite this, Bryant says Linden is “definitely talking to people in other genres” about participating in Sansar.

On the back of the existing partnerships, she explains, “we’re partnering with more and more labels – there’ll be a few more announced this year, and several more next year.”

The company is also targeting individual artists, who she says could utilise the platform throughout the year for meet and greets, or to promote their music or other products. “We’re just getting started out in this space,” Bryant says.

According to Altberg, Sansar is becoming increasingly “interesting to labels and artists, as they can reach really large audiences” all over the world.

“It’s only a matter of time before a venue like Madison Square Garden will seem small,” he comments. “Artists can now reach a global audience without fans ever leaving their houses.”


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