If you ask Zipf about what it means to be a musician, his philosophy is simple: “As a musician, you are building a story. You are worth more than a few terabytes of information. Go be with people.” For many artists, technology gives them a chance to be close to their fans without actually being close physically; for Zipf it provides the opposite experience.
On his most recent tour across the Midwest, Zipf decided to make his solo shows much less…solo. His “Participate Tour” poster displayed four smartphones with the phrase “We’re all in this together” written on the bottom. The idea of the tour, which ran from March 3–21, was that fans were not going to just another ordinary concert, but a jam session with “the gang.” The two ingredients that brought the fans and the musicians together were something most people would never think could or should make it into a live setting: SoundCloud and YouTube.
“I’ve been getting folks to sing, clap and stomp along to my tunes for a few years now. This is not a new thing,” says Zipf when asked where his inspiration for this idea came from. “Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger set the tone in the ‘30s and ‘40s, then Bob Dylan came along, then multitudes of singer-songwriters…I’m just one of many trying to keep that tradition alive.”
So why use cell phones? “We are attached to our mobile devices, constantly sharing,” he says. “It’s great to be able to connect with so many people in an instant, but we are not truly together. So when I went out in March, I hoped to encourage participation in the music, using a little bit of the old tradition and some of the new.”
Prior to the concert, Zipf met with several of the music business classes at Greenville College to talk about his experience in the music industry, his history with touring, and his innovation as a live performer. The classes asked him how the SoundCloud and YouTube ideas had been working out for him; he said it was one of the most unique and exciting things he had ever done in a live setting. “It’s great because it’s entirely unpredictable. Each night has been different, based on the choices people made. We created something together,” said Zipf.
During his opening song “Reach Is Wide,” Zipf recorded the voices of the audience to create a vocal loop that sang along with him. On “Gracious Woman,” Zipf had the audience choose via QR code from a selection of tracks hosted on SoundCloud, but did not assign a track to anyone; instead he let them choose how it would sound which provided a different feel for every single show. This allowed the audience members to just hit play, raise their phones, and be a member of the band from the crowd.
Later in the set, Zipf asked the audience to scan the other QR code which would take them to a YouTube video that accompanied the song “Taking Risk.” The song started with the house lights completely off, and then all at different times, people began to raise their phones and participate in the handheld light show.
The idea of combining the types of technology that artists use to promote their music to the masses online down to the live stage is a pretty bold idea, but Zipf shows us that this has a huge amount of potential to be a pretty powerful way to make fans not just spectators but co-creators. In a day and age where artists like Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and Taylor Swift are putting on performances that are borderline Broadway musicals, it can sometimes seem that they are taking away from the roots of the original concert experience. While there may be some concertgoers who really enjoy this style of performance, there are many who prefer to see the personal touch that each and every show is given at each location. An easy way to give that personal touch at each show is to allow the audience to help dictate their concert experience.
For an artist to successfully implement these new forms of technology into live performance, they must provide easy access for audience involvement and allow for the unexpected. Zipf’s performances encouraged guests to be co-creators at the concerts by providing programs with easy instructions, and his adaptability on stage provided for any and every unexpected moment.
On a large scale, it may not be practical to have everyone in the audience pull out his or her smartphone and try and play from a choice of tracks. But as interactive technology and mobile devices permeate our culture more and more each day, it’s only a matter of time until more artists use this approach to reach their audiences on a more personal level.