The Songbirds take their stage, as they always do, on the white cobblestones of Limsa Lominsa. It's dusk in Final Fantasy XIV. Foot traffic around the city swells after the sun goes down, when students race home from school and grown-ups clock out from their day jobs. A faint, familiar MIDI melody leaves the band's violins and keyboards, and after a few bars I'm able to place it: "Kiss From A Rose," by Seal. A row of identically dressed bards — like a '60s Phil Specter girl group — weave together a miraculous harmony despite bandwidth and latency. Fans toss glow sticks in the air, warriors and mages lock into their dance animations on the periphery, it's Coachella with Chocobos. The Songbirds are the most famous band in MMO history, and their world tour of Hydaelyn is never going to end.
"It’s a surreal experience seeing our name out there," says Raven Ambree, a Canadian who serves as The Songbirds manager, and asks to be quoted by his in-game name. "Seeing our emotes being used in others' chats, seeing someone wear one of our T-shirts during a stream, or having other famous folks turn up at one of our concerts. It’s difficult to explain."
The Songbirds formed in 2018, and at its core, the band is a partnership between Ambree and MewsicalMiqo. Both of them are MMORPG veterans — they've played everything from Runescape to Eve Online — and fell in love with Final Fantasy XIV because of the ingenious ways Square Enix purged the onerous grind out of the genre. There is a liberty in Square's modern classic that allows the community to play however they'd like without fearing any punishing throttles on their progress. (You don't ever feel like you've fallen hopelessly behind the curve in Final Fantasy 14, even after taking a week-long break.) Perhaps the best example of that philosophy came in 2018, when Square introduced a performance mechanic to the bard class, letting players cue up a simple, 37-note scale for their in-game instruments. Instead of dungeoneering or martial combat, you could now spend your days in Hydaelyn fingerpicking the "Stairway to Heaven" guitar solo. The world was their oyster.
Both Ambree and Miqo were fascinated by the idea of starting a band using these new tools. If they could master the intricacies of the instruments — if they melded all of those MIDI tones together — perhaps they could achieve a rarefied notoriety in Final Fantasy XIV without any raiding, PvP, or auction house bartering. "[I was interested] in its limitations, merits, and really, just how far it could be pushed," says Ambree. They christened themselves The Songbirds, borrowing the same name given to a trio of NPC troubadours, and started translating their favorite pop songs into the musical language of an MMO. I've seen The Songbirds cover Coldplay, Europe, and Linkin Park, and they keep an expansive set list available on the internet for anyone interested in making special requests. (Want to hear "Funky Town?" Just say the word.) Sometimes Songbirds sets can become extremely meta; here they are playing Aerith's Theme, as if the multiversal borders of Final Fantasy are bleeding into each other.
Ambree and Miqo regularly stream their concerts on Twitch, and they keep a frequently updated touring schedule posted on their website so fans know when and where they can catch them live. Neither Ambree nor Miqo identify a specific moment when the band's fame took off, but they say their appearances in the broadcasts of a number of high-profile streamers — particularly World of Warcraft megastar Asmongold — helped introduce their craft to the community writ large. Today, anyone can purchase Songbirds-branded T-shirts and mugs from the band's merch store to further consecrate their fandom. The Songbirds are probably never going to scoop the same box office profits as Harry Styles summer stadium run, but Ambree tells me that a highly successful virtual rock band does pay some dividends.
"The Twitch streams are an IRL income — we do make enough to keep the channel afloat through subscriptions and bits to pay for new content; song transcriptions, midis, giveaways, art assets," he explains. "Commissioned performances are either paid in-game currency, six million gil per hour of performance, or $15 per hour for our time to set up and be there. There's no exchange rate."
You read that right. If you are so inclined, you can absolutely book The Songbirds for a private event in Hydaelyn. You name it, they've probably done it. "Housewarming parties, grand openings of clubs, free company events, birthday parties, holiday parties," lists Ambree. "For Valentine's Day, a patron had hired us to perform for a double date. Two couples and The Songbirds performing for them. They were blown away by the private performance, and we were able to customize the playlist to their tastes, making the night even more special for them. Certainly worth it."
If love is not locking eyes with your partner's avatar while a symphony cues up a squelching, MIDI interpretation of "Heaven Is A Place On Earth," then I'm not sure what it is.
I imagine The Songbirds will keep composing, and keep building their legacy, for as long as Square supports Final Fantasy XIV. There is still so much untapped potential in the game's songwriting system, and the company has already made some smart changes to allow for an honest-to-god music scene to emerge in the game. For instance, in 2019 Bards received an "ensemble mode," which added a metronome making it easier for characters to track their BPMs across spotty WiFi connections. "It's a system that offers more freedom compared to any game publicly available," says Ambree. Sure enough, The Songbirds are not the only band in Final Fantasy XIV. Check out Moogle Troupe or Mosh Mosh or the many others busking throughout the capital cities. Who knows? Maybe someday they'll come together and throw their own Woodstock. That's a metaverse I can believe in.
The thing I loved most about the MMO boom of the mid-2000s was how those games were able to create these incredible, unpredictable player-celebrities within the source code. That's the beauty of a mass gathering of players; beyond the boss fights and the bloodstained arenas, MMOs had a way of creating a strange, bespoke culture, where local legends transcended the mechanics and permeated through the General Chat. That philosophy has fallen by the wayside in 2022, as the vast majority of multiplayer games are gummed up with copious instancing, log-in bonuses, and mobile game-style itemization — I never feel like I truly know any of my fellow Guardians in Destiny, and I think that's the point. But The Songbirds are a relic of those golden years; they make a server blade feel like home. Square Enix handed off the tools, and Ambree and Miqo turned themselves into stars. It's a rock and roll success story as old as time. To think neither of them needed to leave the computer?
Luke Winkie is a freelance writer for IGN.