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Umphrey's McGee: Using Tech To Empower Fans To Shape Music & Business

Umphreys-mcgeeChicago based improvisational rock band Umphrey's McGee has long emphasized building a strong relationship with fans. This relationship includes finding ways to encourage fans to affect the music played at their UMBowl, an annual event in Chicago. that is already sold out.

Though their promotional material often plays off of Super Bowl and related football references, the interaction with the fans is focused on their music and relies on communication tech to affect the evening's playlist.

Umphrey's McGee formed in 1997 at the University of Notre Dame. As they began to tour beyond the Midwest, the "underground network of tapers helped spread the word," an early example of their fanbase building through accessible technology. They eventually set up their own Live Recordings Archive and also introduced a regular music podcast.

Umphrey's McGee Commercial: The Force

With the creation of the UMBowl, broken up into four sets or "quarters", they institutionalized an ongoing experiment in fan direction of the evening's playlist. Though promo material like the above video parodying a 2011 Super Bowl ad features football references, the show itself is an improvisational music experience based on fan input.

I spoke with Kevin Browning, who describes himself as managing "creative & business development" for Umphrey's McGee as well as mixing and producing the band for almost 13 years up till a year or so ago. He says the idea for the UMBowl came out of collective brainstorming including himself and Syd Schwartz of Linchpin Digital.

For his part, he remembers seeing fans at concerts he attended as a youngster holding up signs or banner requesting songs and thought there should be a better way to make their preferences known.

Browning explained the process behind this year's UMBowl which starts with an "All Request Quarter" (see  UMBowl site). Ticketed fans vote ahead of time for specific songs from a list with the option to write in an additional request.

The Fourth Quarter, designated "Raw Stewage," features "Jimmy Stewart" improvisations that are also voted on ahead of time. These improvisations tend to involve more structure than typical jam band jams and voters can stream snippets of each musical theme.

In an example of how fan interaction can also lead to business opportunities, requests for more than snippets led to the release of Raw Stewage (Unfiltered), a 7 hour bundle of 33 live tracks available as a paid download priced like a more typical album.

The Second and Third Quarters are where the fan input process gets a bit more interesting. The band employs the Mozes platform to facilitate attendees texting their desires during the show based on specific parameters.

For the Second Quarter, a "Stew Art Event," fans text concepts that Umphrey's McGee uses as the basis for improvisations. "Afternoon bus ride in Jamaica" might result in a reggae-themed excursion while "skydiving without a parachute" would take the music in another direction entirely.

Browning will facilitate this process from the sound board where he filters through the text messages and picks out the best ones for the band to consider. Using talkback microphones, he'll relay two selections to the band while they're playing, they'll confer onstage and pick one, he'll put it on the screen behind the band and they'll immediately segue into the next tune inspired by the chosen theme.

The Third Quarter features a "Choose Your Own Adventure" approach. Songs are chosen via preplanned polls of three options, including songs, jams and themes, which are shown on the screen. Fans text in their votes which are automatically tallied and displayed beside the poll options. The opening song is chosen before the set starts and the rest occur while the band is playing. Browning said that, though they organize the polls beforehand, the band's improvisational approach may introduce unplanned additions or selections that would appear in later polls so he may have to do a bit of improvising himself during the set.

The approach Umphrey's McGee is taking offers a rare example of a band going beyond social media as a form of interaction with fans to an opportunity for fans to help guide the course of musical events. Though it stops short of involving fans in the actual creation of music, it's definitely a step forward in the use of technology for communication between band and fans.

Note: Umphrey's McGee is currently touring the nation.

Live Performance Photo Credit: Chad Smith.

Hypebot Features Writer Clyde Smith maintains his business writing hub at Flux Research and blogs about dance at All World Dance. To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.