Umphrey's McGee and musical innovation
I love innovation. Today we are going to talk about some terrific innovation. In music, I see generally see VERY little innovation. When I do, though, I celebrate it, and so should you.
Allow me some examples before we get into our story. Years ago, Radiohead tried something cool. They just gave away an album. This is brilliant. It was in a time when people were so rampantly stealing music, it was a revolution. I am going to posit that the average Radiohead fan is much smarter than the average Judas Priest fan. I say that because the average Radiohead fan has more resources and abilities to pirate an album. The band knows their release is going to get pirated. They also know that some fans will pay for the album as collectors and earnest fans.
So, they took this concept and generated millions of pages of free publicity. Maybe it was Coldplay, not sure. I used to be fans of both, but they both bore me to tears now. Both bands seemed to have a meeting around the time of their third album and said “we are done growing. Let’s spend the next 15 years making the EXACT same album over and over. Still, kudos to them for breaking the mold.
It said “well, you are going to steal it anyway, so just take it already. We don’t make dick off these albums anyway”. It’s fan friendly and its good business.
Kid Rock is in the middle of a tour where he made all seats $20. In an era where the average ticket price after fees is $75, Kid Rock charged $20… AFTER fees. He explained that he wants to change the business model. TONS of bands have talked about ticket prices and how they have spiraled out of control. Pearl Jam 20 years ago took a stand and took Ticketbastard to the Justice Department. They lost. It was an epic and public and humiliating loss. Since then, no one has dared fuck with the business model of touring. Kid Rock peeled back the business curtain and explained “generally, it is a $25,000 fee for me to show up somewhere and do a show. It costs another $25,000 in gear and salaries and transportation costs. I am going to eat my $25,000 fee. Maybe I make my money back, maybe I don’t. I can afford to take the hit.” I am paraphrasing on the financials, but I know I am dead close.
That is great. Really great, and really groundbreaking. God bless Kid Rock. Then, he had an even bigger stroke of genius - $4 beers. Now, this is true innovation, because concessions is separate from the artists money. Here is how it works. Generally, if you pay $50 to see Butchie… Butchie gets every penny of those $50 ticket sales. So, how does the venue make money? Beer sales. Those beers cost about 50 cents each, and they sell for $8. So, Kid says “nope, $4 beer”. I can tell you how that conversation went with almost complete certainty. Kid Rock said to Aramark (Aramark is a concessions company that runs everything in America. They are the beer and hot dog provider in nearly every stadium in America) – he said “Hey Aramark, I wanna do $4 beers”. They said nuts to that. Arstist have traditionally never got a cut of the beer and hot dog money. Correspondingly, Aramark never got a cut of the ticket prices. So, I bet Kid Rock said this then “ok, well then there will be NO beer sales at my concerts. It will not be allowed.”
Then, I imagine Aramark freaked. Lets look at some numbers. Our local ‘shed’ here in Denver holds about 16,000 people. Now, imagine if each person buys 2 beers. That is a low ball estimate. That is 36,000 beers sold. At $10 each, that is $360,000… just in beers sales. Nearly half a million bucks in 3 hours. They can’t afford for there not to be beer sales. Football stadiums make a million bucks in beer each football game. So, Kid says “$4 beers or we walk!” Again, knowing that the cost of a beer at that scale is about 25 cents each… $4 is still a VERY strong profit margin.
I stopped going to concerts because of insane ticket prices, and service fees that were not routinely hitting 150% of ticket price. Kid put a stop to that. I bought two tickets to his show, even though I couldn't go because of work. Why? It was an investment in the future of concerts and ticket prices. In an otherwise slow summer sales season, I want Kid to sell out. I want other bands to have stop and take notice of what Kid Rock did. Btw, it worked. The show sold out.
That is bad ass innovation, and god bless Kid Rock.
Next cool chunk of recent innovation and all around baddassery is Beck. Beck did something that has never been done. Never been tried. Never even been conceived of by stoned teenagers listening to Pink Floyd records. He released a new album. Well, kinda. He didn’t record the album. He just released the sheet music. So, you have to make the album yourself, like a recipe. I wrote about that here, so no need to retread. Beck's a weird dude. I mean, seriously fucked up ate too much acid weird dude. He is a Scientologist.
but that's ok, because he is a bad ass and an innovator. Xenu bless Beck!
This brings is to my newest heroes. Umphrey's MaGoo. Did I spell that right? I have no idea, because it’s a goddamn stupid name. A few weeks ago, I was trolling through the channels and came across them on Palladia. Both the wife and I were instantly really impressed. They are a jam band, and the wifey and are Deadheads. So, it was a natural fit. A better question is how come we have not heard of them yet. So, I DVRd the rest of the show and have been watching it on and off. These guys are the bomb.
I can tell you that I could go to a show of theirs and not know a single song and still have the best night ever. That is what happened to me at a Radiohead show at Red Rocks about ten years ago. I wasn’t really a fan, but went to appease the wifey. They fucking killed that night. One of the great shows of all time, anywhere. Now, I like Radiohead even less. Thom Yorke seems like a pretentious asshole. However, that doesn't take away from one of the great rock shows of all time. Hell, most rock stars are assholes. Something about him just really bothers me.
So, naturally I went to google my new friends, Humpty McGeevin. On their site, I found something new and incredible and rad. It’s the reason for this monstrosity of a rambling post. On their upcoming tour, you can rent headphones for the show. Through these headphones, you get a direct mix from the soundboard directly in to your earholes. Concert sound sucks, that is a universal fact of science. Sound doesn’t travel well through air. Too many variables. Also, too many wasted idiots sitting next to you talking about how high they got in the parking lot.
But imagine hearing a live concert in studio quality, live in person. You can’t imagine it because it has never been done. This is something only the great Owsley would have done.
Tangent alarm >
Know who Owsley is? He is the guy who made all the acid in the 60’s in San Francisco. He was also the sound guy for the Grateful Dead. He invented stereo recording. He invented pretty much everything you know about live music distribution and capture. For example, when you see Pearl Jam… you know that Mike McCready will always be to your left on stage. Always. Stone will be on the right. When the music comes through the speakers, you will near Mike McCready louder on the right… so that what you hear matches what you see. When you listen to a live Pearl Jam show… you will hear Mike McCready come out of your left speaker, and Stone will be mixed to your right. So, even as you sit in your car and listen… the experience is set to match your brain to what is happening in person. Owsley invented ALL of that. 50 years ago, to boot. We simply can not, and will not, talk about live music and recording without mentioning him.
Between what he did with live sound recording and concert sound, and all the drugs he produced, he could be the most important guy in rock who never played a note. I mean, it was Owsley's acid that changed the course of the Beatles.
Ok, back to Humpdy Magoo. These guys have figured out how to pipe live music wirelessly to you head. It’s not so simple as just making it a radio broadcast, either. There are limited frequencies available, plus anyone could pick them up, and you have to go through the FCC even if you want to beam a signal from your kitchen to your basement. Maybe it’s Bluetooth they are using. Maybe its zombie cosmic rays. I don’t care how its done. I just care that they were creative and fun enough to come up with something like that, and to share it with us.
Join us for a live experience like no other as you listen to Umphrey’s McGee AND STS9 via a pristine soundboard mix piped wirelessly to your ears through audiophile quality headphones. Rent one pair & get both bands for the entire night.
That is bad ass innovation. God Bless Umpteen McGyvers.
* oh, and I accidentally left out Frank Zappa. One should not be surprised to hear about innovation and Frank Zappa in the same sentence. But, this piece has already run way too long, so read about it here.