February 1, 2023

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The Metaverse Is Coming: Are You Ready?

(Reprinted from the MusicRow 2022 InCharge Print Issue, published April, 2022.)

One of my favorite articles from the MusicRow publication archives is an article written in 1983 by the magazine’s founder, David Ross, entitled “The Computer Is Coming.” I love thinking about how different the world and our music industry was back then and how people on Music Row must have felt reading that piece. The article gave a detailed account of personal computers, the benefits, and their pending arrival in the music industry while predicting disruption to the industry’s normal way of doing business. Perhaps 40 years from now, someone will also think back on this article in a similar serendipitous way, imagining a time before the world had fully immersed itself into the metaverse.

While most people have probably heard the term by now, let’s first discuss exactly what it means. The metaverse is simply a virtual reality world.

Yep, it’s that simple. While the technology is very complicated, the definition doesn’t have to be. In fact, many have already been exposed to fundamental elements of the metaverse by playing simulated three dimensional reality games using controllers. These online games display many of the components of the metaverse, such as detailed graphics, social communication, controlled movements, ecosystems, etc. We are so early in this new technology though, some would argue that the metaverse hasn’t arrived yet. I would argue that it has. But since we are in the early stages of its development, it can be hard to understand its usefulness.

Naysayers, I feel you. I know first hand how difficult new technology and its future utility can be to understand. Were you around when the internet first arrived? I was. And I remember the first time I experienced the internet.

The Computer Is Coming article, written by MusicRow magazine founder David Ross, was featured in the May, 1983 print issue of MusicRow.

In the late 1980s, I lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in Dallas, Texas where I worked for Arthur Andersen & Co. as a financial auditor. A friend of mine showed me how you could potentially use the internet to book a plane ticket. The world was buzzing about the internet, much like the world is buzzing about the metaverse today, and everyone was talking about how this new technology would change our lives. There were no websites yet and rudimentary computers could only display text, numbers and symbols in amber and green colors. At that time, the internet was basically just a “connection” to another computer, such as a company’s mainframe computer. You could use passwords and user credentials to log in, and if you knew all the alphanumeric codes and how to communicate with the other computer, you could book an airline ticket. It was an extremely complicated process.

Although I was somewhat tech savvy at the time, having paid for my college as a part-time computer programmer, it required both the knowledge of a travel agent who knew all the codes and a computer guru that could use the system. As my friend showed me how to use the internet, I vividly remember thinking, “This cyberspace thing is a joke. How is this better than calling the airline to book your flight? Why would anyone ever use this?”

Lesson learned.

I learned not to let my simple understanding of something’s usefulness today prevent me from understanding its potential usefulness tomorrow. A lesson I still use to this day. And that is perhaps why I’m so excited and optimistic about the metaverse. Unlike when I first saw the internet in the late 1980s and completely dismissed it, I can see what’s coming with the metaverse and I can hardly shut up about it.

One important thing to point out first is that there is not a single metaverse. Just like in the real world where there are many different places, buildings, cities, countries, etc., in the virtual world, there are many different metaverses. So when someone mentions “the metaverse,” it’s not just one virtual place. Facebook has a metaverse but there are also decentralized metaverses that are not owned by a company. Decentraland and The Sandbox are two of the most popular decentralized metaverses. Decentralized metaverses reside on the blockchain and what makes them attractive to many is that they are not controlled by a corporation.

In fact, it will be interesting to see if the term, “metaverse,” sticks around or if another term takes its place. Keep in mind, in the early days, the internet was referred to as “cyberspace.”

Now that you know that the metaverse is simply a virtual reality world, what can you do there?

Eventually, you will be able to do almost everything that you can do in the real world. That’s what makes it so intriguing and why I’m convinced that it will have a significant impact on our lives. I believe the metaverse will one day replace the internet and using the internet will be as outdated as sending a fax today. But I’m getting ahead of myself, I’ll save my predictions for the end.

First, let’s talk about what you can do today, because as I mentioned earlier, I believe the metaverse has already arrived. It’s just a bit clunky right now, kind of like booking an airline ticket using the internet in the late 1980s. But there are many things you can do in the metaverse today. You can select your avatar by choosing your gender, skin tone, hair color, body shape, etc. just like you do in an online video game. Your appearance more closely resembles a player in Nintendo Wii Sports than a real person, but remember this is the beginning. You can slowly move around or quickly transport your way from one location to another. Beyond playing games, you can gesture, speak and respond to others, and even dance. You can throw paper airplanes, touch other virtual objects and watch videos.

With many of the table games in Las Vegas already led by virtual dealers on display screens, it probably comes as no surprise that gambling has earned a strong foothold in the metaverse. The Decentral Games casino in Decentraland has reportedly earned $7.5 million in the last three months. The casino with up to 6,000 users every day, makes up more than 30 percent of Decentraland’s total daily users according to reports.

You can do all these things today in the metaverse and much more. But how exactly do you get there?

The single best way to enter the metaverse today is by using the Oculus Quest 2 VR headset. Some people will direct you to watching YouTube videos to see the metaverse, and while that may be educational, in my opinion, that does not qualify as entering the metaverse. Keep in mind that in 2014, Facebook, now known as Meta, purchased Oculus for $2 billion. Therefore, the Oculus Quest headset allows you to only enter the metaverses that Meta will allow you to access. Regardless, at this stage of development, their VR headset is the best “portal” to enter and experience the metaverse today, in my opinion.

The bulky VR headsets of today will quickly become no heavier than a pair of glasses. I remember when cell phones first came onto the market and they were very large, bulky and cumbersome. I also remember my first portable computer, the Compaq Portable. I slugged it around on planes in the 1980s on business trips. Admittedly, I thought I was cool as shit, man-handling that 50 pound block of plastic and steel up and down the tarmac. So don’t be deterred by the clunkiness of today’s VR headsets. They will improve very quickly until they are simply no more intrusive than a pair of sunglasses. You’ve seen The Matrix, right?

Almost everything you can do in real life, you will eventually be able to do in the metaverse. You can move around, communicate with others, and own land or digital property such as non-fungible tokens (NFTs). You can also use virtual currency in the metaverse to purchase things or experiences. In a video game, you can interact with others or objects, but in the metaverse, you are interacting in a life.

Whether attending concerts or A&R meetings, the music industry is primed for a significant spot in the metaverse. The use of Zoom calls during the pandemic accelerated our understanding of engaging remotely, but they didn’t adequately replace the benefits of in-person meetings. But in the metaverse, everyone’s face will not be restricted to a thumbnail box on a screen, but rather we will be sitting around a virtual conference room table, communicating with each other, sharing reports, and doing pretty much everything we do in real life. When we look back, I think we’ll see that nothing propelled the development of the metaverse more than the world being thrown into a global pandemic where remote working and living became, for a while, the common method of engagement. It’s also this experience of living through a pandemic that prepared us for accepting a future life in the metaverse whether we are ready to admit that or not.

Concerts and other entertainment experiences will change significantly in how they are produced and the metaverse will open up opportunities that just aren’t feasible in the real world. The metaverse will significantly expand the intersection of gaming and music. While gaming may be considered the “gateway” of this new world, once more of our lives move to it, the number of new opportunities for marketing and distribution of music is almost unfathomable. From gaming and sports to night clubs and concerts, the virtual world presents an endless opportunity for music interaction.

Music consumption will be an important factor. How will record labels and DSPs navigate the use of music in this new format? Hopefully the industry will learn from the mistakes it made when music first became digitized and will not only embrace this new frontier but help develop it. I recall in the ‘90s when the industry decided to fight the initial downloading of digital music rather than see it as a new method of music distribution and revenue streams. The industry is still catching up and having to fight for its fair share. I expect this time, our industry will claim its stake early.

In fact, earlier this year, The Sandbox announced it had partnered with Warner Music Group to create a music-themed world in the metaverse. Described as a combination of a music theme park and concert venue, the Warner Music Group LAND in The Sandbox will feature WMG’s leading roster of artists. This is The Sandbox’s first deal with a major music company and I expect there will be many more to follow.

Admittedly, my predictions are bold. It will be interesting to see how they age, but I have no doubt the metaverse will one day hold a very dominant position in our daily life. I believe the metaverse will eventually be indistinguishable from real life. It will replace much of what we do and make the internet obsolete.

Meta may have the first-mover advantage but there are many companies, some of which could be argued as better positioned, that are coming for the same space including Microsoft, Disney, Epic Games and other lesser known names. Major battles for space and dominance will play out amongst the large players in the metaverse. We’ll see a repeat of what happened to both the digital music and social media spaces. Previously dominant names such as Napster, Limewire, Myspace, Vine and many others are seldom mentioned today. The same thing will happen in the metaverse space.

I expect the VR headsets to one day resemble lightweight smart glasses and they will be the first of many wearable devices to enter the metaverse. If you’ve seen the movie Avatar, scientists were able to explore Pandora’s remote biosphere by using an interface to control and animate the avatar body from an enclosed capsule. While I don’t expect us to be climbing into capsules anytime soon, I do expect wearable technology to help advance the VR experience. In fact, a Sony-backed Japanese start-up company called H2L Technologies just released information about their work on creating real-life pain experiences for the metaverse. The wearable device, a metaverse wristband, will be used alongside a VR headset. While no one wants to willingly endure pain, it’s extremely valuable feedback we use to navigate and protect us in the real world. It will have a similar use in the metaverse. I expect there will be other wearable devices to offer other sensory experiences such as cold, heat, pleasure, etc. These types of wearables would allow you to feel coolness on your skin when skiing down the slopes of Aspen or the heat from pyrotechnics erupting from the stage of your favorite artist’s concert.

There will also be NFT wearables to dress one’s avatar. Selfridges, a London department store, just announced that it would be opening the “first meta department store” with its first virtual store being located in the Decentraland metaverse. And not unlike in the real world, recognizable brands such as Dolce & Gabbana and Tommy Hilfiger will have a presence and are already promoting their digital products for avatars to wear.

Admittedly, the metaverse isn’t ready for prime time today, but it’s coming very quickly. For the average person working in our music industry, there are two actionable items I encourage you to do. First, embrace that change is coming. If you think about it, we’ve already proven that we are willing to participate in it once it’s ready. Here is the case in point: how many social interactions with people have you made this week? Now, how many of those were virtual by either using social media, email, or text, compared to how many of those that were in person physically? It’s easy to see we are already on that path of virtual acceptability once the hardware and software are developed and ready.

Second, now is the best time to learn and understand the metaverse because we are so early in this new frontier. The metaverse will initially become very fragmented as major companies try to stake their claim in this new dimension giving us plenty of opportunities to experience, explore, and learn. There are definitely benefits to being first to market and an early adopter.

Massive amounts of money are already flowing into this space, making headlines with virtual property and NFT purchases in the millions. However, I believe many of these headline-grabbing endeavors may not result in fruitful investments. Technology moves so quickly in infancy. I remember when Infoseek was the dominant search engine on the internet. Everyone used it. And when Google first arrived, their guerrilla marketing street teams gave out tee shirts on Santa Monica Blvd in West Hollywood. I walked out of a restaurant one night in Los Angeles, took the tee shirt they handed me and thought, “That’s a funny name,” having no idea the impact Google would eventually have on my life. No one knows who is going to win in the long term so learn all you can now so you can make wise decisions for you and your team in the future. Using a VR headset is the best way to experience the metaverse. That’s when you really “get it” and are able to see the many opportunities ahead and the exciting path it will take us.

I definitely don’t have a crystal ball, but if you’re still skeptical, keep in mind that Mark Zuckerberg is betting his entire company on the metaverse. He changed his company’s name from Facebook to Meta, refers to his employees as Metamates, and has already invested $10 billion into the metaverse. Plus, he doesn’t need your permission to bring you along. You’re already logged in.

See you in the metaverse.

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