Starter Pack: Music in virtual worlds
W&M STARTER PACKS is a free series unpacking essential foundational concepts for navigating music and tech.
Every two weeks, we’ll ground a timely music-tech topic in evergreen findings from our research projects. Hopefully, this format will give you more context on everything we’re doing as a community, and serve as a jumping-off point for further analysis as we collectively navigate the rapidly shifting music industry.
Music’s potential in virtual worlds is much more than just a game.
In a saturated digital music landscape, artists are continually looking for new ways to push their creative visions through the noise, diversify their revenue, and make deeper connections with fans. Virtual worlds — which comprise a critical pillar of the “metaverse” — provide an extensive canvas for global pop stars and underground collectives alike to address these industry challenges in novel ways.
The tools that make virtual worlds possible — particularly game engines and 3D design software — allow artists and fans to experiment with identity, self-expression, community-building, and co-creation at a scale that would otherwise not be possible within the confines of 2D artwork or an IRL concert stage.
Importantly, virtual worlds also offer new paths for artists to earn income outside of the typical grind of streaming, social media, and touring. The business models behind virtual music experiences start to look less like traditional licensing deals, and more like gaming-industry economics, including an emphasis on virtual merch and direct donations or tips to artists and creators.
At Water & Music, we’ve conducted extensive research on music’s role in virtual worlds, and have mapped how the technology now plays a critical role across almost every function of the music business — from music creation and collaboration to distribution, marketing, discovery, and monetization.
Simple, affordable live video and lighting playback
This Starter Pack is sponsored by 4CAST MVP.
Live music performance is becoming a more and more visual art form, but traditional solutions for time-synced video and lighting playback are expensive, complex, and out of reach for the vast majority of performers.
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How is music used in games and virtual worlds?
Ever since the advent of video games in the mid-20th century, music has played a critical role in driving game narratives and keeping players engaged.
Fast-forward to today, and the different functions that music can serve in games and virtual worlds have expanded dramatically — alongside the capabilities and target audiences of games themselves. Some examples of these use cases include:
- Background music. A tried-and-true method honed in the gaming industry is licensing music for general background use — whether as menu or action music in sports and racing games, or as soundtracks to drive specific narrative movements in role-playing games.
- In-game radio stations. Many open-world games now have their own radio stations centered around a specific artist, label, genre, or theme. Examples include Grand Theft Auto’s FlyLo FM (hosted by Flying Lotus) and Fortnite’s Radio Underground (curated with Bandcamp).
- Custom music kits. Some battle-arena and first-person shooter games allow players to purchase custom music “kits” or “packs,” to replace existing in-game music cues or complement existing player emotes for self-expression. Key examples include CS:GO, which has partnered with the likes of Denzel Curry and Amon Tobin on music kits, and DOTA 2, which hosts packs for sale from stars like deadmau5, JJ Lin, and AWOLNATION.
- Live-service content. “Live-service” games regularly update with new features and content post-release, as a way to keep players engaged and the overall gameplay fresh. For instance, Rocket League regularly releases new background music through content updates in partnership with labels like Monstercat.
- Marketing collateral. Licensed music is used in marketing materials for game launches, such as trailers and gameplay videos, to grab players’ attention and increase excitement. For example, the launch trailer for Just Cause 3 features a cover of The Prodigy’s “Firestarter.”
Can I upload my own music to virtual worlds?
Different virtual-world companies have vastly different levels of tolerance for user-uploaded music, especially if there is a risk of copyright infringement. This means there are only a few opportunities for independent artists to get their music into virtual worlds and games without preexisting industry relationships.
A rundown of some of the options:
- Roblox: Highly restricted. Even though Roblox has become a major music and gaming player, the company maintains a closed approach to music uploads. As the result of the fallout from a $200 million lawsuit from the National Music Publishers Association, unless you are signed to one of five labels (Monstercat, APM, Nettwerk Music Group, Pro Sound Effects, or Position Music), there is no way as an independent artist for you to distribute your music through Roblox.
- Fortnite: Highly restricted. The Epic Games property maintains a handful of in-game radio stations, many of which are curated in direct partnership with labels and other music-tech companies, including Monstercat and the recently acquired Bandcamp. That said, opportunities to get one’s music featured in these stations is still restricted to those artists with existing label or platform relationships, even in Fortnite’s budding Creative Mode.
- Self-serve platforms like Minecraft, Voxels, and Decentraland: No restrictions — but still tread carefully. Emerging artists have been able to stream their own audio into more decentralized open-world platformswithout direct takedowns. That said, these platforms largely offload the responsibility of copyright monitoring to third-party content providers like Twitch and YouTube, where creators still run the risk of facing copyright-related takedown requests.
What are the key visual branding opportunities for artists in virtual worlds?
Aside from licensing music, there are several other opportunities for artists to use virtual worlds to express themselves and share their stories, especially for those with a strong visual identity:
Avatars and wearables. In games and virtual worlds, avatars and their traits comprise the most fundamental expressions of character, and hence are often the first entry point of experimentation for artists across career stages. Digital avatars can be used to express personal style, as well as sell virtual versions of clothing and other merch (such as Lil Nas X’s signature cowboy hat in Roblox). Artists can either use self-serve design tools like Roblox Creator Studio and MagicaVoxel to build out their avatar aesthetics themselves, or partner with companies like Genies and Wavethat have the proper production infrastructure and expertise.
Dance moves. While this use case is still early-stage, animation and motion-capture technologies are advancing quickly, to the point where artists could soon be able to codify and monetize their own signature dances. Fortnite already helps larger artists monetize dance moves through custom-choreographed emotes, while independent projects like HEAT are working to build more interoperable tooling for capturing body movements that can plug into multiple different games and virtual worlds at once.
Virtual music venues. Self-serve virtual-world platforms are increasingly serving as hubs for music communities to design and run their own custom venues, usually focused on showcasing emerging acts. Key examples include the Shelter VR club in VRChat, the Forming concert series in Voxels, and the TRU Band Room in Decentraland. Interestingly, it’s rare for these venues to monetize through hard ticket sales. Instead, mirroring the gaming industry, DIY virtual venues tend to monetize through add-on items such as wearables, NFTs, and other digital goods — carving out a genuine alternative economic model to the IRL status quo.
Dive even deeper
Today’s Starter Pack was informed by the following suite of community-driven research reports at Water & Music: