By Christine Paluf With the popularity of pod-casts, online concerts and Pay-Per-View performances on the rise, a new breed of virtual experience is gaining...

By Christine Paluf

With the popularity of pod-casts, online concerts and Pay-Per-View performances on the rise, a new breed of virtual experience is gaining ground.

Meeting on sites such as SecondLife.com, fans and performers simulate a live concert experience … without any real visual cues.

“We view ourselves as a platform where people can come in and do whatever they want,” said Catherine Smith, media liason for Linden Labs, owners of Second Life.

“The music thing has been going on for years, with residents performing lounge acts, etc. on their own,” Smith said, “outside of anything we’ve done for them.”

Second Life is a site that offers a virtual experience that Smith compared to an Internet Service Provider. “It’s a 3-D Web space, where people buy land from us and build it up however they want,” Smith said. “That’s kind of how it works.”

Now real artists are getting in on the act. Susanne Vega recently performed a cyber-concert from the confines of a music studio, while her virtual representation shook it on a Second Life stage. It was one of the first major artists to interact with fans in a completely fabricated online situation.

“Some big names are coming in as we’ve gotten more popular, as we get more press,” said Smith. “We’re thrilled that it’s happening, but we’re not doing it.”

Both performer and audience meet in this simulated outdoor amphitheater, represented by their avatars, or 3D animated version of themselves. Attendees sat in the ‘audience’ with their own virtual representations, and ‘experienced’ the live performance by Vega’s depiction.

Duran Duran is the next band set to take the cyber-stage, following in the steps of 80s-era performer Vega.

“When the video revolution began we instantly saw the opportunity to experiment and explore a new form of expression to enhance the musical experience. Second Life is the future right now, offering endless possibilities for artists. Duran Duran are thrilled to be the first band to become citizens of Second Life and are rehearsing now for our first concert there in the coming months. I think I can safely say that it will be filled with surprises,” said Nick Rhodes, the keyboardist of Duran Duran, on the band’s Web site.

So what does this mean for the live concert industry? We’ve seen what downloading music has done to CDs, what home theaters have done to movie attendance.

Even with the close to real-life images on wide-screen plasma TVs and the authenticity of speakers, virtual concerts are at best, second best. But they’re rapidly becoming an acceptable alternative.

“I’m frightened that someday ‘live’ musical events will be reduced to humanoids in pods that never actually meet face-to-face,” said live-music fan, Tom Modelesky.

So what are these virtual performaces trying to replace? Music videos aren’t being played on MTV anymore, and the cyber-concert has a new edge because of the real-time aspect.

There’s something to be said of the shared concert experience, of hearing the roaring applause all around you, of sharing in a sing-along when the performer pauses to offer the crowd the mic.

But all of this can be done at home these days, and if you turn up the stereo loud enough, the crowd sound is all around. Watching live concerts at home isn’t new, but Pay-Per-View performances aren’t happening in front of you, they only represent a recording of a live show.

Taking the benefits of technology allows Web-savvy music fans to be part of a live experience, it’s actually happening in real time. It’s just that the people you see aren’t real.

Watching an avatar on a delay, with the live music coming out of your computer speakers is an isolating event. Regardless of the fact that you’re controlling the actions of your avatar that’s sitting in the ‘audience,’ in reality, you’re still alone. And so is the performer.

Virtual surroundings not withstanding, can viewers really trick themselves into forgetting that they may be hearing an artist in their sweat pants strumming a guitar in a basement somewhere?

More and more time is being spent in front of the computer screen. It’s a cost-effective way for fans to see their favorite artists. And it has its place, but when it replaces the real thing, there is a loss that can’t be measured in ticket-revenue alone.

We’re replacing the shared experience, removing ourselves more and more from actual human contact. We’re moving toward a life of simulation, away from relationships and real disclosure.

Pretty soon we’ll be happy to sit in the confines of our comfortable living rooms all the time, hooked up to the computer, removed from human interaction all together.

But at least we can paste a smile onto our virtual representative and dance the night away in cyber-space.