Syd Schwartz Guest Post: How Umphrey's McGee Uses Technology To Blow Their Fans' Minds

Syd Schwartz Guest Post: How Umphrey's McGee Uses Technology To Blow Their Fans' Minds

Syd Schwartz Guest Post: How Umphrey's McGee Uses Technology To Blow Their Fans' Minds

(Syd Schwartz is the former North America's SVP of digital strategy at EMI, founded Linchpin Digital in 2010 and proudly serves a variety of clients including Current TV, EMI Recorded Music, Red Light Management, The Orchard, Umphrey's McGee and Wind-up Records.)

Umphrey's McGee: Getting Fans in the Game

By Syd Schwartz

Guiding Lights: Lighting Director Jefferson Waful paints the Park West at the 2011 UMBowl (Photo: (c) 2011 Abby Fox Photography)

Technology disruption has enabled (or depending on your point-of-view, forced) managers, labels and artists to rethink the entire ecosystem of music products and experiences. Furthermore, it has redrawn the barriers between artists and fans, and enabled fans to participate in music like never before. Concert experiences have always been social, and for Chicago based sextet Umphrey's McGee, the social aspect of a live show combined with the right tech platforms has taken band and audience interactivity to an entirely new level.

Umphrey's McGee have played over 1500 concerts to over 1.5 million people. Over the last 13 years they've developed a communication methodology that leverages their individual instrumental virtuosity with a seemingly telepathic interplay resulting from countless hours on the road playing and practicing together. This communication methodology is an outgrowth of an ongoing series of improvisational workouts called "Jimmy Stewarts" (referred to by fans as "Stews") and named for the Jimmy Stewart Ballroom of a Pittsburgh hotel where the idea was first discussed. The goal was to provide a framework for during-show communication between band members that could steer the overall musical direction with a minimum of friction. To achieve this, the band developed a series of hand signals, body language, and use of onstage talkback mics to help direct improvisational excursions, allowing maximum risk-taking while providing a mechanism to avoid noodling, aimless jamming, or grandstanding solos in lieu of collective improvisations.

While the "Jimmy Stewart" framework seems like it would be the antithesis of the improvisational spirit, in fact it's quite the opposite. Some Stews erupt organically during a show without any preconceived notion of where they might go. In other instances, the band may have a conversation in advance that they'd like to use a Stew to explore a particular riff, groove or style. As the jam develops, the various Stew communications allow the band to create, develop and kill ideas on-the-fly without interrupting the flow of music. The band engages in regular playback of Stews, occasionally taking elements that they believe are worthy of further development and editing, changing, adding and deleting elements as they see fit. On several occasions, this has resulted in the creation of new Umphrey's McGee songs.

Guitarist Jake Cinninger (left) using hand signals during a "Jimmy Stewart" performed at the 2011 UMBowl. (Photo: (c) 2011 Abby Fox Photography)

The Stews provide plenty of opportunity for musical invention, and they've also been a key element in Umphrey's McGee marketing innovation. Umphrey's McGee has a track record in this area-their most recent studio album "Mantis" was the subject of a groundbreaking pre-order campaign that included several levels of "unlockable" bonus content. Billboard's own @AntonyNBruno subsequently reported "Umphrey's McGee has become an unlikely role model for a music industry still struggling with the conversion to digital distribution amid rampant piracy." This was a strong marketing effort on the recorded music side-the album debuted at #62 on the Billboard Top 200, more than doubling street week sales of their previous studio album. While the "Mantis" initiative was being executed, plans were already underway to bring some innovation to the stage.

Shortly after the release of "Mantis" in 2009, the band announced the first Stew Art Series (aka S2) which are afternoon concert events preceding an evening show. A limited number of tickets (50) are sold at a price of $99, and those 50 fans enter the venue in the afternoon to see a show of NOTHING but Stews, but with a participatory twist. Umphrey's partnered with mobile solutions provider Mozes to create a platform that allows fans to text musical ideas to a shortcode which is curated by a member of the Umphrey's crew. The most noteworthy ideas are transmitted to a large screen on the stage where they are presented to band and crowd alike, challenging Umphrey's to create music on-the-fly based on these fan-texted ideas. The band will do this in blocks of 15-20 minutes, followed by audience Q&A, and then wrapping up the event with a pizza & beer "meet & greet" with the fans. The lucky attendees receive an autographed audio recording of the event as well as a custom laminate, but it's the opportunity to "conduct" the music and have a chance to hobnob with the band that provides the greatest value.

The S2 provided the foundation for the latest innovation from Umphrey's McGee-2nd in what is becoming an annual tradition-the UMBowl. The UMBowl is a concert presented with a sporting event spin. Instead of their usual two-set show, Umphrey's McGee presents the UMBowl as 4 "quarters" of music, each with a different theme, and several options for fan participation. The UMBowl features additional sports themes such as a pre-show tailgate party.

The first UMBowl was held last year at Chicago's Lincoln Hall, an intimate venue well below the UM threshold for ticket sales in their hometown (Lincoln hall holds 450, Umphreys usually plays the Aragon Theater which holds 4500) and after listening to fan feedback from last year's event, the band decided to move to the more spacious Park West, though they made a decision to undersell the event (750 tickets instead of the Park West's capacity of 1,000) to give everyone room to enjoy themselves.

Fans participate in the UMBowl by calling the musical "plays" via pre-show voting ballots and during-show SMS messages which were projected on several screens flanking the stage.

Fans were able to submit ideas and votes to the Mozes created system which were fielded and curated to the band by Offensive Coordinator (and Umphrey's McGee's Sound Caresser) Kevin Browning. Chosen results were then projected onto the screen, and the band created music on-the-fly.

Mission Control: Offensive Coordinator Kevin Browning fields fan texted suggestions during the UMBowl. (Photo: (c) 2011 Abby Fox Photography)

For this year's 2nd annual UMBowl, the breakdown was as follows:

Q1: The first quarter was something attempted at the first UMBowl in 2010, and brought back this year with a few tweaks…this was the "Choose Your Own Adventure" quarter. Remember those interactive books you read as a kid? You know, "If you want to chase the dragon into the cave turn to page 37, if you want to rescue the princess turn to page 51″. This quarter was the musical equivalent. A series of choices on musical direction were presented on the screens on all of the networked projection screens. Using a submission and real-time voting system powered by Mozes, fans reviewed the choices and texted their votes to a shortcode created for the UMBowl. The voting was tabulated and updated in real-time on the screens, and the winning choice was then acted upon by the band. Fans were able to choose from a wide variety of UM originals, improvisational styles and cover songs.

Q2: The second quarter was an S2 event (as described previously) which featured such fan texted suggestions to the Mozes created platform which were fielded and curated to the band by Offensive Coordinator (and Umphrey's McGee's Sound Caresser) Kevin Browning. Chosen results were then projected onto the screen, and the band created music on-the-fly. Some of this year's fan suggestions were "Heavy Metal Dance Party", "Moog Cocktail", and "NFL Lockout Jam".

Q3: The third quarter was new to the UMBowl this year. The band thought it would be an interesting experience to "fractalize" the band, taking them out of their usual configuration and primary instruments. So instead of performing as their usual sextet, Umphrey's took the stage in a series of solo acts, duos, trios and quartets, with a variety of instrument switches. From keyboardist Joel Cummin's solo take on Muse's "Ruled By Secrecy" to the entire band covering Spinal Tap's "Big Bottom" (arranged for 4 members on bass, one on drums and one on keytar) and a host of other originals and covers, fans were presented with an entire quarter of new music experiences.

Q4: The fourth quarter was the quarter that attendees of last year's UMBowl liked best based on their responses to a post-show survey. This quarter was all about fan voted favorites. Ballots were submitted to ticket holders a couple of weeks before the UMBowl, giving fans the opportunity to choose from a list of old favorites, rarely played originals, and a variety of new and old. Cover choices ran the gamut from The Clash's "Train in Vain" to Pink Floyd's epic "Echoes" and a whole range of classics and obscurities in-between. Winning songs included Umphrey's McGee originals such as the epic "Divisions" and a bluegrass rendition of "Nothing Too Fancy", a first-time-played cover of Rush's "Tom Sawyer" and a funk fusion take on the Walter Murphy's "A Fifth of Beethoven".

Hitting a Peak: Performing fan-voted favorite "Divisions" at the UMBowl. (Photo: (c) 2011 Abby Fox Photography)

The band had been playing for over 4 hours when they went into "overtime" which featured a live mashup of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" weaved seamlessly with Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2″.

Pricing for this "full contact" show was tiered, with standard UMBowl tickets priced at $99, a "QB Sneak Peak" package priced at $249 (which included admission, food and drinks at the pre-show tailgate party, early entry to the venue and a collectible UMBowl poster and mini-helmet), and a "Hail Mary VIP" package which included all of the above plus a signed poster, a post-show photo with the band, and access to the VIP balcony at Park West including drink tickets and food for $379. Additional travel packages including transportation to and from the venue and accommodations at Chicago's Hotel Palomar were available through music event travel specialists CID. As was true last year, the UMBowl sold out very quickly after tickets went on sale.

For those unable to score tickets or make the trip, the UMBowl was webcast live via iClips where it is now available for on-demand play. And those who wish to relive the experience can do so easily-Umphrey's McGee records every show they play to multitrack, and make those recordings available shortly after the show is played. The UMBowl joins that archive of nearly 700 concerts, and is also available in audiophile HD-FLAC recordings for fans who want the ultimate in sound quality.

As with the first UMBowl, a post-show survey has been distributed to all UMBowl attendees, prompting feedback on what worked, what didn't and what fans would like to see at next year's UMBowl III. But in the meantime, with summer tour in full swing and the band recently completing their first new studio recordings in two years, the Umphrey's McGee innovation machine is turning thoughts towards how to release this new album. They're historically tight-lipped about such plans, but based on their history it's reasonable to expect that the innovation bar will be raised once again…