Songbirds take their stage, as they always do, on the white cobblestones of Limsa Lominsa. It’s dusk in Final Fantasy XIV. Pedestrian traffic in the city increases after sunset, when students run home from school and adults leave their daily jobs. A faint, familiar MIDI melody leaves the band’s violins and keyboards, and after a few bars I’m able to place it: Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose.” A row of identically dressed bards – like a Phil Specter girl band from the 60s – weaves together a miraculous harmony despite the bandwidth and latency. Fans toss glow sticks through the air, warriors and mages lock in their dancing animations on the outskirts, it’s Coachella with Chocobos. The Songbirds are the most famous band in MMO history, and their world tour of Hydaelyn will never end.
“It’s a surreal experience to see our name there,” said Raven Ambree, a Canadian who is the Songbirds’ manager, and asks to be quoted by name in-game. “Seeing our emoticons used in chats other people, seeing someone wear one of our T-shirts while streaming or seeing other famous people show up at one of our concerts. It’s hard to explain.”
The Songbirds formed in 2018 and, at its core, the band is a partnership between Ambree and MewsicalMiqo. Both are MMORPG veterans – they’ve played everything from Runescape to Eve Online – and fell in love with Final Fantasy XIV due to the ingenious ways Square Enix purged the genre’s expensive grind. There’s a freedom to Square’s modern classic that allows the community to play the way they want without fear of punitive brakes on their progress. (You never feel like you’ve fallen hopelessly behind the curve of Final Fantasy 14, even after taking a week off.) Perhaps the best example of this philosophy came in 2018, when Square introduced a performance mechanic in the Bard class, allowing players to select a simple 37-note scale for their playing instruments. Instead of doing dungeons or martial combat, you could now spend your days in Hydaelyn finger-playing the guitar solo “Stairway to Heaven”. The world was their oyster.
Ambree and Miqo were both fascinated by the idea of creating a band using these new tools. If they could master the intricacies of the instruments – if they fused all those MIDI tones together – they might be able to achieve rarefied notoriety in Final Fantasy XIV without any raiding, PvP, or auction house bartering. “[I was interested] within its limits, its merits and, really, how far it could be taken,” says Ambree. They called 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 saw The Songbirds cover Coldplay, Europeand Linkin Park, and they keep an extensive list of games available on the internet for anyone interested to make special requests. (Want to hear “Funky Town?” Just say the word.) Sometimes Songbirds sets can get extremely meta; here they play aerith’s themeas if the multiversal boundaries of Final Fantasy bleed into each other.
Ambree and Miqo regularly stream their concerts on Twitch, and they keep a frequently updated tour schedule. posted on their site so fans know when and where they can see them live. Neither Ambree nor Miqo identify a specific time when the group’s fame took off, but they say their appearances on the shows of a number of high-profile streamers – especially World of Warcraft megastar Asmongold – helped introduce their craft to the community at large. Today, anyone can purchase Songbirds branded t-shirts and mugs from the band’s merchandise store to further enshrine their fandom. The Songbirds will probably never reap the same box office profits as Harry Styles’ Summer Stage, but Ambree tells me a highly successful virtual rock band pays dividends.
“Twitch streams are IRL income – we earn enough to keep the channel afloat through subscriptions and Bits to pay for new content; song transcriptions, midis, giveaways, art assets,” he explains. “Ordered performances are either paid in in-game currency, or six million gil per hour of performance, or $15 per hour for our time to set up and be there. There is no exchange rate .”
You read correctly. If you wish, you can absolutely book The Songbirds for a private event in Hydaelyn. You name it, they probably did. “Housewarming, club grand openings, free corporate events, birthday parties, end-of-year parties,” Ambree lists. “For Valentine’s Day, a patron had hired us for a double date. Two couples and The Songbirds were performing for them. They were blown away by the private performance and we were able to customize the playlist to their liking, making the even more special night for them. It is certainly worth it.
If love isn’t turning a blind eye to your partner’s avatar while a symphony signals a MIDI rendition of “Heaven Is A Place On Earth,” then I’m not sure what is.
I imagine The Songbirds will continue to compose and build their legacy 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 an honest-to-God music scene to emerge in the game. For example, in 2019, bards received a “together mode”, which added a metronome allowing characters to more easily track their BPMs over patchy WiFi connections. “It’s a system that offers more freedom than any publicly available game,” says Ambree. Indeed, The Songbirds are not the only band in Final Fantasy XIV. Check Moogle Troop Where MoshMosh or the many others who walk around the capitals. Who knows? Maybe one day they’ll get together and start their own Woodstock. It’s a metaverse I can believe in.
What I loved most about the MMO boom of the mid-2000s was how these games were able to create these incredible, unpredictable celebrities in source code. That’s the beauty of a mass gathering of players; beyond boss battles and bloodstained arenas, MMOs had a way of creating a weird, bespoke culture, where local legends transcended the mechanics and permeated the general chat. This ethos has fallen by the wayside in 2022, as the vast majority of multiplayer games are gummed up with copious instancing, login bonuses, and mobile game-style elements – I never feel like I’m really to 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 over the tools, and Ambree and Miqo turned into stars. It’s a rock and roll success story as old as time. To say that none of them needed to leave the computer?
Luke Winkie is a freelance writer for IGN.