ZAP: the Zero Audience Problem

I am writing this as a personal exploration of how things are in terms of my creative endeavours generally and, in particular, my music shows in Second Life (SL). Readers unfamiliar with SL may wish to skip this entry of the blog.

Three weeks ago I played my 1000th show in SL since January 2008. I have to say that I luxuriated somewhat in this achievement. It felt like something of which I could be proud. Lest I should vainly rest upon my laurels, I was brought down to earth with a bump yesterday. I turned up for a scheduled gig at my little Terra Fyrmusica venue. I had put out all the usual notices; the show was listed in SL Search. I had my studio set up nicely: the USB mixer settings were just right, the sound of my guitar was excellent as far as tone and reverb were concerned (not too much of the latter but the strings were ringing sweetly). The minutes ticked by and the hour chimed in, as it were, for the start of the gig. I waited and noodled on guitar, concocting a loose improvisation in the key of the first number on my song list. Time passed. I glanced at the clock; it was 1.15 p.m. SLT (the gig was due to start at 1.00 p.m.). Not one single avatar had turned up to listen to my show.

Although very unusual, this had happened once before some years ago. I vaguely remembered that I had made a notice to put up, saying that the show would not go on. I therefore typed ‘cancellation’ into the search box of my inventory, found the board, and rezzed it outside the entrance to Terra Fyrmusica. I unplugged my guitar, switched off my digital piano and, sadly, logged out of SL.

Later in the evening, I wondered whether perhaps this sort of thing was happening to other performers. I logged back in and went to a show by the excellent Canadian singer/guitarist, Max Kleene. The venue was heaving with avatars. Max was still doing well, there was no doubt about that. I then moved on and caught a show by my favourite computer-music composer in SL, Torben Asp. He has never pulled the large crowds that Max gets, but he does have a strong following. And when I got to his show, I saw that around 10-15 other avatars were already there, enjoying the music. I had thus collected proof from two very different sources, that there was nothing wrong with Second Life music audiences in general. I have now to accept that the explanation for zero attendance at my show cannot lie externally in Second Life; the attribution has to lie at my feet.

I do have an extremely loyal group of about half-a-dozen fans who come to my shows time after time. But, obviously, they have their own lives to lead and they cannot be expected always to be online just to hear me. Yesterday, by coincidence, none of my regulars were around to come to the gig (or were busy). Rationally, such a situation has to be accepted as a logical possibility; I want to make it VERY clear to my virtual fans that I am in no way feeling that they somehow ‘ought’ to have been there. I accept that this may sometimes happen.

The question I have to address is why I have such a small core group of fans, and why I do not have a much larger group of fans who pop along to my shows from time to time. If I did have a bigger fan base, comprised of those two categories of people (plus a few one-off visitors to each gig), the probability of a zero audience would dwindle to almost nothing. The reason that I do not have a larger fan base such as this has to come back to me, my repertoire, the style and quality of my instrument playing, and my singing. There is no other way around this issue. And this is what I shall think about now.

Freda from the Utopia venue raised the issue of my audience size a couple of weeks ago. I was rather defensive about it then but, looking back, she was quite right to do this. Maybe, as a venue organiser, she could see what I was wilfully blind to. We exchanged some fairly lengthy notes about this issue in order to develop a better understanding of it, and I shall draw upon some of the things we discussed, here.

Singing to backing tracks of chart hit material (past and present) tends to go down well with SL audiences. However, I dismiss this (almost contemptuously) as mere karaoke.

Turning to those who both sing and play instrument(s), many (especially those from the States) play rock ‘n’ roll of one sort or another. I would not say my repertoire fits snuggly into that category. Indeed, perhaps part of the problem is that I offer something of an unusual variety. I don’t think the problem is the standard to which I play piano, guitar or even mandolin; I would argue I was reasonably competent when compared to other  SL players in this regard.

My original songs can sometimes be capricious and are perhaps an acquired taste. My covers do tend to be rather dated, often going back to the contemporary acoustic popular or folk music of the 1970s. For the past year or two, I have been keen to learn pre-rock-n-roll items such as ‘A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’, ‘April in Portugal’, ‘La Mer’, and so forth. In part, this has been inspired by the way Rod Stewart explored the standards of the American songbook, over the past few years. If only I could improve my piano playing, I would love to cover a few of Frank Sinatra’s famous songs (my guitar can just about manage some of them, but I think they suit piano better).

I have in the past tried to learn more covers from the 1980s, 90s, and the ‘naughties’ but for some reason I never seem to get very far. Maybe my heart is just not in it. I do think I could write more original songs than I do currently. Last year I produced a crop of about five, using a rather elementary piano boogie style for the accompaniment. In the past, I always felt that my main composing instrument was the acoustic guitar and maybe it is time to return to that way of doing things in future.

Apart from spending time on piano and guitar, I have been devoting more attention to my sketching and drawing recently. I have been trying to edge towards making cartoons and caricatures or portraits of celebrities/politicians. Some of my first steps can be seen on my website at this address:

When I choose a topic for a cartoon, I usually do some preliminary research on the subject, and maybe I could marry this to song development. This would certainly be an exciting development for me but I doubt it would solve the Zero Audience Problem (ZAP).

I don’t think there is very much I can do about ZAP. I can’t see any ways to change my repertoire in order to attract more people. I  know I want to write more music, but I cannot imagine that anything I do write will appeal widely to SL audiences. So, I have to come to terms with it. I have to learn to accept that I am not a popular performer and that I will never be so. At the end of the day, I have to enjoy playing for itself. It is the music that counts, not the fame or adulation.

This leads me to consider whether the issue might be that I am conceited. It is very easy to use the size of the audience as an indicator for quality of performance/performer. If that is the case, then the inescapable conclusion is that I perform badly. My conceit is that I think I am good. So that is why I get upset when nobody comes to see me.

However, I don’t feel comfortable with this  analysis. I refuse to accept the negative self-image that would necessarily flow from it. I therefore reject the view that the size of my audience bears a close relation to the quality of my performance and/or my skill as a musician/singer. Ergo, I must stop worrying about small audiences. I must zap ZAP. Last night, I should not have shut up shop and logged out; I should have played on and enjoyed making the music for its own sake.

Speak to you later, my dear blogophiles.  



4 Responses to “ZAP: the Zero Audience Problem”

  1. James Corachea Says:

    Firstly, well done for making it to 1000 gigs! That’s quite an achievement. Sorry that the important milestone gig was empty. I do need to make it out to hear you again. I heard you once what seems like a long time ago when you were playing at the Germelshausen.

    I’ve been performing on Second Life for just over two years and am losing interest in it. It would be good if I could stay in there for as long as you’ve been.

    A few weeks ago, I had what can only be described as the worst week of shows in Second Life since I started. All four of them were empty expect for the venue owners. There’d be the odd fleeting single audience member who then teleported out. One of the shows was at a very highly regarded full sim venue that pays performers so I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t bring an audience to tip the venue and give the venue owner a return of investment. I accept that empty shows will happen which I am ok with if the next show goes well, but four in a row and it starts to get soul crushing and I begin to question myself as a musician. My partner, who unfortunately can’t be at many of my weekday shows due to living in a different part of the world, put that week probably down to the daylight savings change. There could have been other factors at play but like you, I thought I was the problem and maybe to an extent I am. I think if I am going to be a more ‘popular’ musician and one where playing in SL is still worth my time, I need to drastically change my musical style from an instrumental musician to one that sings as well. However, that will take some work before my voice is at a standard that I feel is worthy for the venues who currently have me.

    I once owned a venue which was more of a personal performance space for when I wanted to play a show without booking with someone. However, I found that I couldn’t just start playing to an empty venue like that. That would take some motivation. I soon realised that I can only commit to performing in SL (as opposed to practising chunks of something) when there’s someone else checking that I do it in the form of the venue owner or host.

    Finally, just in case you missed it. This June there will be a real life meetup of Second Life musicians in London. This might be far for you but if you’re interested and available there is a group on facebook for more information on it.


  2. enigmaticpencil Says:

    You make some really good points here, James. I am finding that I still manage to get a pleasant surprise and have some really good gigs in between the ones where hardly anyone appears. I think psychologists might describe that as being similar to a schedule of intermittent reinforcement, and that is a very powerful way to hook a performer into perpetual performance! For now, I am carrying on and looking for ways to introduce more musical variety within the bounds of my 60 minute shows. Anyway, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment.

  3. Rama Lionheart Says:

    Hi Fyrm – I have given this some thought and my first realisation (being an audience member on SL) is that talent does not necessarily draw the fullest audiences. A parallel can be found in RL within music and art. Over the years I have enjoyed ‘cult’ performers who draw very small interest which puzzles me as there is clearly talent. Art introduced me to your shows and I am grateful for that as it allows me to be a fly on the wall during your musical practice and growth. Sometimes a song sails along perfectly and another time imperfections are clear and both aspects keep things fresh and interesting. You, dear Fyrm, are The Old Grey Whistle Test over Top of the Pops and SL is mostly a poor platform for the more discerning consumer. Now, if you wish to draw a larger audience you could do as other do – get a management team to keep pushing membership to your group, or find a sometimes less sincere persona to draw the ladies. You are an artist in your own right and – if I may be frank – most SL members would not know good music if it slapped them round the face with a wet haddock.

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