When I was first introduced to online performance, I was actually sceptical too about the option of playing gigs in my kitchen, next to my rubbish (the only place I could play without upsetting the neighbours). After having played gigs like Glastonbury, Wave Gothic Treffen, the Big Day Out and the New Zealand Festival of the Arts, I held this question in my head too – was this really a good supplement for the traditional shows I was doing? Didn’t it just make me look – well, amateurish?
Though I hate to admit it, my thinking like that was just plain old snobbery. Despite how much I have always loved computers and what they have done for indie musicians, I had failed to recognise that, just like the recording side of music, the face of live music had also changed, very very quickly, without me really being aware. I was sticking to what I knew, as human beings are inclined to do. I thought that because music had been done a certain way for the as long as I could remember, that it had to be done that way.
Professionals, true beginners and everything in between
That classic mistake in logic has let us down repeatedly in human history. Conflating “what we have always done” with “that which is good” is something anyone would get graded down for in a first year philosophy class. Thinking like that can also mean we hold onto mediocre ideas for a long time, just because at the time we don’t see any better ones. Once we get into the habit of doing things in those mediocre ways, we fail to see when a different way might be better by the time it actually presents itself - even when once it is clear that the traditional ways are starting to break down and, in the case of music, becoming a serious barrier to ideas getting out there.
I have met a number of online performers in the flesh – from performers who have played with the greats and toured the world, to performers who cannot and will not stand up in front of an audience of people in the flesh because it terrifies them. All of them are real musicians - made of flesh and blood, in love with music, and playing regularly. There are professionals, true beginners and everything in between. There are what I consider truly gifted musicians, and what I consider truly unbearable musicians and everything in between. The traditional music world has just as much of both as the online world. There is a place and an audience for all of them (and besides that, opinion is just that: opinion. Who I think is great you may think is unbearable and vice versa!). There is room for people starting out, and for those who have done the hard yard and built up an audience. Just like there was in the traditional venue world before everyone became extra cautious about anyone not selling out stadiums from the outset.
Playing online opens doors
The perception that playing online is only for beginners is as far from the truth as is the idea that playing online won’t get you anywhere. In Numubu.com for example, there are players who have had decades of fame in sold out stadium shows. Many of us have toured continents, or the world. We’ve been on major labels or supported major label acts, defected from major labels, released albums, won awards and so on.
My last album was 85% funded by people who have only seen me online
The audience are just as real – in fact, my last album would not have been made without them. And as for the idea that it won’t get you anywhere - my last release was 85% funded by people who have only ever seen me play online. They promoted me online, bought CDs, books, t-shirts. They also come to my traditional venue gigs if I happen to play in their country. It’s hard to get much more real than that without actually sharing a tent in a field with someone.
So, after braving the challenge of that first online show; playing next to my garbage bin full of fruit flies in the high summer, it became obvious to me that playing online opened up doors that have been almost shut to indie musicians for years now – international audiences, record sales where you the full percentage, zero cost advertising, no cost travel, gigs that only take 2 hours out of your day instead of two days out of your week. I discovered that playing online had plusses just as real, if not more so, than offline shows. Playing online meant I could build a supportive, financially viable, international audience, from countries so diverse I will probably never set foot in them all. There is no way I could have done that by touring – unless I had married an incredibly indulgent millionaire, or sold my soul and autonomy to Sony-BMG.
Cyber performance is just as good as a traditional show
I’ve been asked my musicians who haven’t tried cyber performance - “Isn’t playing in front of your computer just less of a good vibe?”. For me, a less than good vibe is more along these lines: being reliant on a sound technician who doesn’t know your sound and is more likely to get it wrong than not. A less than good vibe is having 5 minutes to set up your gear, and no sound check at all because you are in a multi-band line-up and knowing that if your levels are wrong in any way, you will sound terrible regardless of how well you perform.
A less than good vibe is playing in a room full of festival goers who just want to hear good time music as a backdrop to their drinking, when what you actually play is bloodthirsty celtic Goth that people can’t sing along to. A less than good vibe is having forked out for a hired van, train, bus, tent, bed and breakfast, sleeping bag in a cardboard box, or whatever, to play for less than you spent on expenses. A less than good vibe is a show that takes two days out of your schedule to travel to a place where the venue hasn’t done any promotion at all and blames you that only 50 people show up.
NONE of this happens online. Sure, you can screw up your own sound (I do this every time I get a new gadget, or miss the start/stop button on my looper) but you will always know exactly how you sound during the entire show. You or the venue may also forget to advertise, but that can be remedied inside 10 minutes and the loss of audience will be low to none.
It is just as personal playing online, if not more
Sceptical comment number whatever is generally this: “Isn’t it just kind of weird and impersonal when you are there in your room and they are just behind some computer on the other side of the world?”
Ironically it’s just the opposite. If you’ve played in venues and clubs, you know what it’s like when you are on stage and people yell stuff out to you. It might be something nice, or funny, or encouraging, but you aren’t always entirely sure what they said, and you still have to come up with something nice, clever or amusing in reply, even though the intricacies of what they actually said may have escaped you. You only ever really get to hear what the few people say who come up to you after a show, and even then you are distracted because you are doing merch, or packing down. You can still engage, of course, but online it’s one hell of a lot easier – you can see everything people say in the chat box. It doesn’t matter if they are at the back of the “room” or the front. You see it typed in there and can respond accordingly.
You can actually converse directly with the crowd on a detailed level. In fact, it’s a great way to get to know your audience and what sort of humour they have, where they are from, how they react, what things they are into besides music and more. Playing online actually enables you to get closer to your audience, despite the often globe-spanning distance.
They sing along
This might make you smile too: they sing along. Chat singing is where they type in the lyrics to your songs as you sing. In the VRs there are sampled cheers and crowd noises. Over time, most of the people you play to have been to dozens and even hundreds of your shows. You get to know them so well that you may end up crashing at their places after an offshore or out of town gig when you next do a traditional venue show. Incidentally, that reduces the costs of traditional venue tours too, so playing online helps your offline musical life directly. It’s hard to get more personal than that without actually sharing a tent in a field with someone!
The old model of doing things is becoming less tenable
There is always more to say on the why of playing online. Different platforms offer still more pros, and the odd con, but playing online is something that should be a key element in getting your music heard by a wider audience. It can be done at any level – experienced or not - for love, money, or both. Online performance is different from offline performance, yes, but that is the opposite of meaning it is deficient. All too often we imagine that “how it’s always been done” means “how it is best done”: Sometimes ideas DO come along and show us we have been repeating a pattern that was horribly flawed, without questioning its validity.
Playing online is lucrative, enjoyable, effective
Cyber performance is exactly one of those things. The old model of playing in venues, being picked up by a label, touring, having a label invest in you and develop you, is becoming less and less tenable, and more and more poisonous. The opportunities offered by industry and the offline world are shrinking in terms of what the artist gets, whilst the opportunities online continue to grow. As old doors rust and close, new ones have opened – but they’ve opened quietly. Playing online is a far more impactive, lucrative, enjoyable and effective way to get your music out there whilst retaining all the power over your music, integrity, space, time and sanity.
Next time I’ll look at some of the platforms available to musicians performing online. First off, the webcam platforms, as there are many, and the pros and cons of each very. If you want to cut ahead, point your browser at NuMuBu which comes out top of the webcam platforms. After that we will look at Virtual Realities and brave the learning curve of Second Life.
Last but not least, if you would like to grab a copy of the book “Gigs In Space” which goes through all of this in more detail, including the nuts and bolts of setting up and diagrams to help, head to Gigs In Space or my Jordan Reyne Bandcamp page. Pre-orders are now open.
Gigs In Space - your guide to performing online for love or profit
- A step by step guide on what you need to perform online and how to set up.
- Detailed guides and comparisons of the top online performance platforms.
- Learn how online performance feeds into offline success as a musician.
- Learn how you can become a full-time musician via online performance.
- Described by Radio New Zealand as the pioneer of a new sound, Jordan Reyne is an award nominated musician with seven internationally acclaimed albums to her credit. A qualified embedded systems engineer and web developer, Jordan became a full time musician after discovering online performance. She currently performs both online and offline, touring Europe annually and playing major festivals. Her appearances have included Glastonbury, Wave Gothic Treffen, NAMM, Frankfurt Music Messe, Whitby Gothic Weekend, The New Zealand International Festival of the Arts and many more. When not on tour, Jordan plays between 4 and 6 shows a week online.
“One of this countries most gifted, probing, and intelligent writers” - Graham Reid, Elsewhere magazine (New Zealand).