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Music in Virtual Worlds

July 27, 2007

Having not posted for a week I missed the two big pieces of news; World of Warcraft crossed the 9 million player threshold, putting to silence all the ‘is WoW going down?’ posts from last month. The other, less positive (for Linden Labs), news is that gambling has been banned in Second Life, surely one of the more popular and lucrative activities that took place there.

In other news, and perhaps more interesting in the evolution of real life/virtual world crossover, is the deal EMI have struck with Habbo Hotel which will see Now 67 (a[n awful] compilation of chart music) played at the specially opened Summer Beach Cafe.
Some will say it’s a sign of the music industry’s desperation, the only information I could find on compilation sales was from 2005 where there was a significant drop (15.7%) in sales, the BPI putting the blame on DIY compilations and, erm, piracy. Personally I think it could work, even though from my understanding little came of the launch of boyband 365(?) in Habbo last year (I think the problems with that one are fairly obvious).

I was planning on writing a post on the subject of music in virtual worlds anyway, so this is a good opportunity to elaborate. When I’m working I like to listen to music, but sometimes music with lyrics breaks my concentration, so I like to listen to soundtracks, the odd bit of classical music or electro/techno type stuff. Naturally the soundtracks to World of Warcraft and The Burning Crusade are albums I regularly turn to on these occasions.

As WoW players will know, most zones have music that is unique to them so unless you choose to turn it off, you’re hearing for however many hours you spend in that zone. So when you listen to the music on the soundtrack albums you find yourself having vivid flashbacks of the experiences of your time in that particular zone. As soon as I hear the opening notes of ‘Stranglethorn Vale’ my heartbeat speeds up as I recall the heightened excitement of being in a zone where I’m rubbing shoukders with enemy players. Of course this is no different from real life where you associate certain songs with people, places or a time of you life. My point is that these songs become more important because of this association.

The other factor is that people can spend a great deal of time in virtual worlds, so when it comes to music they’re potentially captive audiences and the more they hear a song the more they’ll associate it with the great time they’re presumably having in which ever virtual world they happen to be in.

What I think EMI have done right this time is to take music that many people will already be familiar with and that they are likely to hear in real life as well as in Habbo Hotel. The problem with music in virtual worlds, like the World of Warcraft soundtracks, is that it’s easy not to notice it’s impact, it becomes little more than background ambience. Hearing it in a different, real life context reminds listeners how significant that track is which hopefully translates into a purchase. The one problem is that with a compilcation album people might just download their favourite tracks…

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