May 22, 2006

Net Nightclubs, Virtual Venues Generate Real Dollars

By Antony Bruno

SAN FRANCISC -- As the Pussycat Dolls' star continues to rise, Interscope Records wanted a promotional campaign that would take the all-female song-and-dance pop ensemble out of this world.


On May 15, the label partnered with Web community startup Doppelganger to launch a virtual nightclub called the Pussycat Dolls Lounge. Visitors create customized digital images of themselves -- called avatars -- to navigate the various rooms of the nightclub.

Visitors also interact with other guests via their respective avatar, using the integrated AOL Instant Messenger application to chat, punctuated with preprogrammed gestures and dance moves.

Plastered on the walls are billboards for the Pussycat Dolls and other such Interscope acts as Beck, Gwen Stefani and Keane. Members of the Pussycat Dolls occasionally will log on with their own avatars and conduct live chats with fans from their VIP room.


With online social networking at an all-time high, the music industry increasingly is turning to the next stage of the user-generated content phenomenon -- the virtual world.

"MySpace is about promoting who you are to a broad community to find people with similar interests," says Courtney Holt, head of new media and strategic marketing for Interscope Records, who greenlighted the Pussycat Dolls Lounge. "This is the next step -- take those people that have found that common interest and give them another level of communication. Once you've committed to being a fan, how much deeper are you going to go?"

Holt and others in the music industry hope it will be deep enough to buy products. The lounge features a storefront where visitors will soon be able to spend real cash to buy artist T-shirts to add to their avatar or link to bandmerch.com to buy the actual shirt.

And then there's the music. Doppelganger music director DJ Lars spins two-hour, preprogrammed sets, featuring mainly Interscope artists, and takes requests when logged on.

Each song is displayed onscreen, and users may click a link to buy.com to purchase the CD. Digital download capability is in the works.

Interscope and Doppelganger share in any revenue made through such sales and also in any ad revenue collected by renting billboard space to other businesses.


The lounge is not alone in the virtual world. Last year, a similar community called the Habbo Hotel began hosting virtual visits by such acts as Gorillaz, Ashlee Simpson and Bow Wow.

The weekend before the lounge's grand opening, BBC Radio One webcast its One Big Weekend music festival to members of the virtual world Second Life. Far more vast in scale than the lounge, Second Life has roughly 200,000 members who travel around more than 20,000 acres of virtual space, mostly consisting of small islands where users interact with other members or attend events.

Another virtual world, Project Entropia, made headlines earlier this year when one resident paid $100,000 to develop a virtual space station. He now makes $12,000 per month renting virtual apartments and retail space and plans to open a nightclub as well.

Doppleganger executives say the company's deal with Interscope is just a beta test for their technology. They plan to create similar virtual environments for other brands soon, with several discussions reportedly under way.

These environments may be interoperable, so visitors can "walk" from the Pussycat Dolls Lounge to another lounge branded by another partner, similar to bar hopping. Production costs run from $25,000 for a simple storefront to $3 million for an entire city.