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Music in the metaverse: ‘Moving away from audiences and toward communities’

With Meta’s Fred Beteille having set the scene for NY:LON Connect’s fourth day with a keynote about music and the metaverse, a panel moderated by CrossBorderWorks’ Vickie Nauman continued the thread.

She was joined by Jillian Rothman, new business & ventures, interactive & gaming partnerships at Warner Music Group; Gemma Coffee, commercial director at AudioMob; Josh Neuman, president of Melon; and Geoff Sawyer, agent, video games at UTA.

“I don’t think that artists really have a better option for a scalable community play than getting involved in the gaming space,” said Sawyer, on the potential for musicians.

“Gamers are the most digitally sophisticated, they are incredibly savvy, they are an incredibly loyal community, three billion strong worldwide or something like that.”

“And beyond that, now it’s cool! 15 years ago, if you had a PlayStation and you were a grown-up, it was sort of your dirty weekend secret. Now, if you don’t at least dabble in mobile games, then you’re the weirdo!” he continued.

“There’s just no downside, as long as your integrations are authentic, so that you don’t get swiftly and severely roasted by the community to which you are trying to pander… Games are THE place for community plays.”

Coffee later came back to this idea, pointing out that “gaming is bigger than Instagram or TikTok, when you think about the numbers”, before citing research showing that 61% of people listen to music while gaming, enhancing the cultural fit.

Neuman’s company, Melon, creates music experiences on platforms like Roblox, and he agreed that artists will get called out if their partnerships in the gaming world don’t feel authentic. He also talked about scale, in relation to Roblox.

“There is currently 43 million daily active users on there, and 67% of them are under the age of 16. The opportunity to activate that particular fanbase, and the ease of reaching them… The barrier to entry is incredibly low, and the opportunity to get millions and millions of people to be able to engage with your experiences is there.”

‘If it’s something that doesn’t need to be built on a blockchain, well, don’t!’
Rothman reiterated the point about authenticity, noting that there are three different components to this issue.

“You have to be authentic to yourself, so the artist or the music that’s being put into something. Is that the right game, is that the right audience, and is that something you would play yourself or you would want to be involved in?” she said.

“Then you have to be authentic to the community. In all the activations we’ve done, we have paid really close attention and been really critical of ourselves down to every last detail, because depending on the game, some of these users… they’re all digital natives, and they’re really going to point out if something doesn’t fit or if something’s been copied.”

And third? “This comes up a little bit more in the web3 world. I want to be authentic to the technology too,” said Rothman.

“If it’s something that doesn’t need to be built on a blockchain, well, don’t built it on a blockchain! I think we also want to make sure that we’re utilising the tools and technology that we have appropriately and actually taking advantage of it, but not doing things just because it seems trendy or it seems sexy at the time.”

Rothman also stressed that when creating any kind of music experience in a game or virtual world, it’s crucial to promote it both on that platform, but also off it, to ensure that fans know what to expect, and why they should come.

“The only thing that’s scarce these days – besides NFTs! – is time. We want to tell people: why should you tune into this? So having a really good promotional plan, and I don’t mean that in the sense of spending so much money on it, but I mean explaining to people what they can expect: why this is different, what’s special?”

This was just the first mention of NFTs, a topic that is increasingly intertwined with the metaverse in the strategies of tech, games and music companies alike.

‘Insane secondary-market value for JPEGs is a bubble’
Sawyer outlined his excitement about virtual music experiences – “These things, what Josh does specifically, are going to replace music videos. This is the next generation of that way where you’ve got the opportunity to aesthetically demonstrate what you do to your fanbase, and let them see and feel it” – before picking up on the NFTs thread.

“That’s also in its early, early stage. I think that insane secondary-market value for JPEGs is a bubble that is going to pop. Sorry to any of you guys who just spent $300,000 on a picture of a gorilla!” he said.

“I do think there’ll be a massive correction in that space, but I also believe very deeply in the technology, and I think that probably the way you’re going to see it being leveraged the most is in a fan-club way.”

“The communities that are doing the best with NFTs, the value proposition is just nuts. They reward early adopters, create exclusivity, continually give to the community,” he continued.

“It’s just such an obvious solution to treat your 10,000 most insanely loyal fans in exactly that way. And now you’ve got a technological tool that helps you do it very easily.”

The conversation moved back to metaverse experiences, and the sense that they should be talked about not just as a commercial opportunity, but as a creative one – particularly for artists.

Neuman predicted “an explosion in creative output… with artists that really want to get their hands dirty and get involved in what can be done”, while Rothman picked up on the idea of these experiences as an evolutionary step on from music videos.

“It’s a new way to engage with fans, and it also opens up new revenue streams, and on top of that it opens up a new way to tell stories, and to share music, and to create new and exciting content,” she said.

“The metaverse is not a music video. It can be just as artistically creative, it can be just as exciting, it can be just as detail-oriented – maybe even more intricate if it’s built in the new Unity engine or whatever – but it’s not a music video. It’s not Netflix. It’s social.”

“And it’s not even social in the way that we experience social media today. It’s not just Instagram or whatever, because it’s actually interactive. It’s not like: ‘wait a second, let me pause my life for a minute to document what I just did, on social media'” she continued.

“You’re living in it… As these evolve more, the metaverse will actually be an extension of the real world itself. It won’t be ‘let me pause what I’m doing to share this experience’. You will actually be having that experience.”

‘There’s much more being built around communities’
Nauman suggested that one of the key points about web3, NFTs and the metaverse is that “we are really moving away from audiences and much more toward communities”.

“If you think about the big social platforms. You’re on Instagram, you have followers, and people can like and they can comment, but it really is very much about you having an audience,” she elaborated.

“Same thing with YouTube, where you’ve got people who are receiving. Whereas in the metaverse, there’s much more being built around communities. And not only being able to allow fans to be closer to the artist, but having the fans really engage authentically with each other.”

“And maybe it won’t be the same kind of numbers that are in Instagram, but there’s going to be a lot more meaningful connections and communities that are built around these experiences and artists.”

The panel talked about some of the challenges around all this, including the backlash to the NFT hype, and concerns that too many NFTs are about fleecing fans rather than the kind of positive community-building discussed earlier.

“The nature of any new technology [is] you will hear success stories, and you will hear failures as well. We will hear positives and we will hear negatives, and that’s the nature of any new technology we think about,” said Coffee.

What problems need to be solved? Interoperability was on the minds of both Neuman and Sawyer: in terms of being able to take NFTs and other virtual items between different virtual worlds and games.

“The other thing we’re really struggling with as a community in centralised and decentralised platforms right now is interoperability,” said Neuman.

“It’s kind of crazy that you don’t have the ability to, let’s say, buy an avatar skin for yourself that maybe was inspired by something you saw an artist wear or something you wanted to have yourself. You can’t take that and bounce from platform to platform right now.”

“It’s like, here I am! I bought it! And this is what I look like here, and this is what I look like in the next place, and this is my soundtrack that comes with me, and this is my identity. You kinda have to redo it in every stop that you go right now. I look forward to people being able to have a much smoother experience… and having your identity roll with you.”

‘Gaming will be the largest discovery channel for music’
“That’s the point at which this whole thing really, truly becomes more real,” agreed Sawyer, while warning that some barriers lay in wait for this vision of interoperability.

“That’s going to be really tough. There are certain platforms like Facebook that don’t have the impetus to get along, really with other platforms. That’s an advertising business: they need to keep people where they are,” he said.

However, he had a more optimistic prediction. “There will be big groups, probably in the form of DAOs, that raise previously incomprehensible amounts of money to do things in this space, to build things in this space, that are truly intended to be interoperable,” he said.

“That are not profit-motivated in the way that something like a Facebook’s existing business model has to be. I think that will probably be where the biggest and best changes come from.”

As for other predictions, Coffee suggested that “gaming will be the largest discovery channel for music, and certainly the most effective”, while Rothman said that alongside interoperability, user-generated content is a key challenge to tackle.

“No matter which metaverse definition you go to, whether it’s Matthew Ball’s, or the one from Neal Stephenson, the metaverse is always something that’s persistent, it’s always-on, it’s interactive, it’s alive,” said Rothman.

“But in order for it to maintain and to have value, it needs to have high-quality content to sustain it. So how do we have enough people and resources to continue to create high-quality content?”

“A real metaverse will empower anyone and everyone to participate through user-generated and shared content. But that further begs the question of how do we make sure users are able to create that content, and then how do we make sure that content is quality content?”

What’s the answer to that question? “Likely things like AI, open-source code, new low-code / no-code game engines, and that’s all going to supplement the user-generated content, and democratise it.”

Rothman pointed to the way that this has already been a key ingredient in Roblox’s platform, in Fortnite’s Creative Mode, and in the long history of modding, derivative works and gameplay-sharing in gaming culture.

This is what’s guiding Warner Music Group’s investments in startups like modding platform Overwolf and creativity startup Anything World, as well as B2B licensing platforms like Adaptr and SongClip.

“We’re really focused on how user-generated content is going to help spawn the next stage of the metaverse, and we’re interested in figuring out where music can be part of that… how we can get music in the hands of these developers.”

Rothman also came back to the question of NFTs, and how they can be a good thing for artists and their fans, rather than just a cash-grab.

“I think as we progress further and further, whatever NFT project or web3 project you embark on has to have some sort of purpose, whether it’s to provide utility, to connect people, to provide access, to share something,” she said.

“We are being very decidedly careful about the ways we introduce music and musicians into it. We’re trying really hard to make sure that artists who are interested [in NFTs] are educated, have a roadmap.”

Rothman also said that WMG’s team is also very self-aware in their efforts to work on projects with artists in this space.

“We’re not deaf to the conversation about what a record label’s role should be. A lot of the conversations going around in web3 is about getting rid of middlemen!” she said.

“If an artist wants to go do something, go do it. Our job is to make sure that we are adding value to those conversations, to those projects, to the relationships between artists and their fans. And that’s why we’re trying to help create these broader partnerships that artists can tap into.”

“So that’s the trend I think we’re going to see in this space. I think there’s going to be less and less one-off drops, and more and more micro-communities built around projects or around music or musicians.”