Expanding your gigs to the online universe could get you exposure and maybe a little cash.
By Jeff Klopmeyer
Love it or hate it, we live in a visually-oriented world. One of the benefits of doing live performance is giving the audience the chance to see you emote your way through your new ballad, or grimace while digging into a challenging solo. Formerly an exclusive aspect of live shows, the realm of high-bandwidth Internet and streaming video has progressed to the point that you can now make your own live video show that fans can access online. Like many Internet-based services in today’s crazy tech-savvy world, it’s also absolutely free.
Ustream allows you to broadcast audio and video from anywhere that you have high-speed Internet. As a performing musician, this is another way of playing for fans who wouldn’t be frequenting your local coffee shop; the audience is global, and is limited only by your own abilities to promote your show. Since I spent a few years playing in Second Life, Ustream allowed all of those people who had only seen me in avatar form to get a better idea of who I was in reality.
My shows on Ustream are pretty simple. As a singer-songwriter, I spend an hour per show playing my songs and talking to fans about the “behind the music” aspects of my tunes. It’s very similar to what I do as a solo performer in live circumstances, but instead of dragging my guitar, mics, and PA to a college or book store, I can do my show remotely from my living room. Doing the shows from my home returns some of the intimacy that you lose by not being there in person, much like inviting friends over for jamming and fun. They’ll need to provide their own snacks and beverages, of course.
Unlike Second Life, Ustream is not monetized (and runs ads at the bottom of your broadcast screen for their own revenue), so you won’t get any direct compensation for your shows there. However, as illustrated above, it’s a terrific tool for exposure of your music and your talent.
StreamJam: Invite Facebook to your Gig
Once you get used to doing Ustream shows, there’s an application that will make it a lot easier to promote your show to about 500 million people. StreamJam is a new service that has some exciting potential. StreamJam combines two elements of Second Life and Ustream -- virtual social networking and live audio/video -- and puts them together in a easy-to-use interface that’s accessible on Facebook. What users see is a virtual stage with a video screen at one end. Your Ustream broadcast feeds this video interface, and your fans appear as cute little cartoons who can socialize with each other, and with you.
StreamJam is offering a few methods of artist compensation. Their current main tool to get money from your shows is via the sales of virtual merchandise, such as little digital t-shirts with your logo. However, I’d say the main advantage of StreamJam is similar to the other services listed here, in that it’s another way of gaining awareness and promoting your music to a wider fan base. With StreamJam, you can draw upon your Facebook friend lists to send invites to shows, and getting them there takes no more than a mouse click. Both Ustream and StreamJam can also be embedded on your own web site or blog, so visitors can see the live show in an online atmosphere that you control.
An important caveat to all of these virtual and remote performance opportunities: while in real life, the venue is responsible for paying licensing fees to performing rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI, the onus of responsibility falls on you in these cases. In essence, you act like a broadcaster in these situations, so if you intend on playing cover songs, it would be wise to do the right thing and make sure you are permitted to play the songs of other artists.
The Tech Side of Virtual and Remote Shows
Many performing musicians I talk to get derailed from doing virtual shows because they think the learning curve will be beyond them. I’m here to tell you that if you can get audio into a computer, you can probably stream it live with less effort and tech know-how than you’d imagine.
A basic setup for Second Life has me routing my mics into an audio interface (in my case, an old Digidesign Mbox), and then into my computer. At that point, you’ll need some software that allows for streaming of the audio. I use Nicecast on my Mac (Rouge Amoeba, $40 for the full licensed version), and for Windows, I recommend SimpleCast (Spacial Audio, $139 for the full version). There are also free software tools for audio streaming, but as in most things in life, you tend to get the performance you pay for.
At that point, you’ll become aware of one more necessary item, if you intend to broadcast to more than a few people. Since your own computer can’t serve the audio to hundreds of people, you need to rent a Shoutcast server, which typically can stream to 100 listeners at 128 Kbps, which is similar in audio quality to a standard MP3. My recommendation in that regard for Second Life performers is simply to rent the stream from an SL resident who offers this service... there are many to choose from. However, most venues have their own stream, so you can skip the cost of this in many cases, and simply plug the stream URL and password into your broadcast software, then start rocking.
For Ustream and StreamJam, it’s even easier. I just run the main output of my small Mackie mixer into the audio input of my laptop. Just tell Ustream to grab the audio from there (as opposed to the built-in mic on your computer), and you’re ready to play.
As with any new performance setup, I recommend you test your systems with some friends and make sure that you can be heard cleanly before unleashing your sound on the world. Also, keep in mind that no matter what type of virtual/remote platform you’re using, there’s going to be inherent latency between what you play and what your listeners hear, much like a tape-delay for live television. As a result, you’ll want to monitor your input signal, and you’ll have to get used to your audience cheering 30-40 seconds after you finish your tune in some cases. However, give it some time and let the vibe sink in, and soon enough, you’ll be rocking the virtual world like you’d done it all your life.