Social Media & Music Management | with Kevin Browning, Head of Creative/Business Development for Umphrey’s McGee

Kevin Browning is head of Creative and Business Development for the Chicago-based “improg” band Umphrey’s McGee. Kevin has been involved in key aspects of the band’s business since the beginning and worked as the band’s front of house engineer & producer for over a dozen years. He transitioned to his current role at the beginning of 2011, where he oversees marketing and distribution, as well as other social and digital media efforts. He also runs “The Floor,” the band’s popular and perpetually-updated blog.

By Chris Borchert

I want to start off talking about the UMBowl because I think it’s one of the most interesting things going in live music. So, what is it all about – and where did the idea come from?

The UMBowl is a uniquely interactive concert where the fans call the plays. The event consists of 4 musical quarters (sets), each with a different interactive theme. The idea was to bridge the gap between the fans and the band in an innovative way that no one has ever done. I remember going to shows as a kid thinking how neat it would be if I could have an impact on what was being played. We basically took the holding a poster board up with a song request concept to a whole new level.

The idea spawned out of conversations about trying to push the S2 concept to new heights. Syd Schwartz (founder of Linchpin Digital) has been our consigliere for a few years now and the event stemmed out of brainstorming sessions with myself, him and the band (Syd wrote a great piece about the S2 concept and the UMBowl – check it out here).

What aren’t bands doing? How do we utilize our ability to improvise and put fans in the driver seat? The UMBowl is the answer to those questions.

And specifically, fans participate in pre- and post-show polls, as well as send text messages to the band during the show – which are then broadcast on a screen for all to see.

Yes, that’s part of it. One quarter is an S2 where fans text themes/ideas/concepts they’d like to hear a musical representation of, composed on the spot. One quarter is Choose Your Own Adventure, like the books we used to read when we we’re kids. 3 or 4 choices appear on giant screens and fans vote in real time as to what they’d like to hear next. Another quarter is all request, where fans vote on a smattering of rare & fan favorite UM originals/covers ahead of time. And one quarter is Special Teams, where various incarnations of the band take the stage (instrument switches, trios, quartets, etc.). Nothing is off limits.

I know you guys have teamed up with iClips to offer Pay-Per-View webcasts. Are these shows available via purchasable streams?

Last year’s UMBowl is available on iClips. It was also streamed live as a pay-per-view.

So my next question is – can fans vote and interact while streaming at home? Or do they have to be at the show.

You have to be at the show. We wanted to reward the fans who support our outlandish ideas ;). This all said, nothing is ever set in stone. We are constantly evolving our concepts and tweaking our processes to ensure the most enjoyable and unique experience possible, for UMBowl and throughout our business. The knob goes both ways, so to speak.

With all the social and digital media resources out there, what do you find to be the biggest challenge – whether it’s in terms of distribution or promotion, or even striking the balance between retaining old fans and attracting new ones?

There is a lot of uncharted territory out there. There have never been more tools at the artist’s disposal than today, which is a blessing and a curse. It’s virtually impossible to try and manage all of them well so you have to figure out what works best for you and focus on those. At the end of the day, the absolute key is to be genuine. When folks follow any one of our social media profiles or outlets, what they get is who we are. My approach has always been to show people what we’re really like, not hide behind the shrouded veil of rock and roll mystery.

I think that’s a great way to put it – and it speaks to the fact that the music industry is increasingly becoming a DIY (do-it-yourself) industry. I’ve heard Vince Iwinski (UM’s Manager) talk about how UM is a DIY band.

What you see, is what you get…a bunch of humble midwest guys that don’t take themselves too seriously. We put an emphasis on creating quality music, engaging our (awesomely) loyal fan base, and entertaining ourselves along the way. If you can’t DIY, you won’t make it these days. There are rare exceptions but those people are usually fronts for an expensive machine behind them. We’ve built this entire organization from the ground up, from the inside. When something needed to be done, one of us learned how to do it.

And when you guys came up with the idea to start a blog – The Floor – you were the one to do it.

Yup. One more tool in the toolbox to show folks what goes on behind the scenes. I think that allows fans to connect to the band on a more personal and intimate level. We all want access, we all want to be in the know. The blog is a way we can give folks a genuine glimpse of all things UM.

I’d like to touch on some of the other ways you use new media. For example, you guys teamed up with Groupon for the Lincoln Hall show.

Sure, we are firm proponents of looking under every rock. Sometimes opportunities present themselves in places you’d least suspect. Not that Groupon is an unlikely place to look but it speaks to the greater point about our willingness to experiment with new models. They were launching a new Groupon Presents type of model and wanted to create a curve ball event to launch the series. Umphrey’s McGee has become known for their curve balls (alongside their fast balls of course)

Again, back to the bigger point, is every venture or idea we try with regards to social media/marketing/distribution going to work? Absolutely not. But does that mean we shouldn’t try? We run the business a lot like we create the music. Experiment, take chances, fall down, get up & dust yourself off, learn from mistakes, improve. Are we going to piss off a few fans here and there along the way? For sure. But I think you’d be hard pressed to find too many fans that don’t genuinely believe we have their best interest in mind when we make decisions.

I think you’re 100% right about that. Everything from UM Ticketing to the online webcasts shows you guys are all about the fans.

We recognize that we would be nowhere without the fans and do our best to reciprocate that support. There are an unbelievable amount of bands (and other entertainment options) that are vying for the same eyes and ear (and dollars) so  you have to separate yourself from the pack.

Antony Bruno of Billboard had this to say about Umphrey’s: “UM has become an unlikely role model for a music industry still struggling with conversion to digital distribution amid rampant piracy.”

Well I think Anthony is right :). But the reality is that piracy & new media hurts us too, but we’ve chosen to embrace the reality of the music business and try to forge new ground to stay ahead of the curve. It is disappointing how difficult it is to make money selling albums. We love playing live but it’s frustrating to spend a year or two crafting a record and make no money on it. Fans don’t necessarily realize the reality of that side of the business.

I can imagine. Bands pour their hearts and souls into records and to then see an unenthusiastic response (at least in terms of revenue) must be crushing.

It’s discouraging but what are our options? Moping around isn’t going to get you anywhere. We have to look for new streams of revenue to help offset that loss and plow forward.

Can you talk a little bit about where you see the music industry going, at least in terms of possibilities for monetization?

That’s the $64,000 question. Streaming services are here to stay which is awesome for music discovery & sharing. There has never been a more powerful service for that than Spotify. But it takes us 800 streams of individual tracks to make the same money as buying one album from iTunes. So it’s great for the music fan and a double edged sword for artists.

We are banking on the fact that streaming services will lead new ears to UM and they’ll in turn buy a ticket or t shirt next time we come through town. It’s a great way to discover UM but if that’s where those new ears stop, we ultimately lose money.

The reassuring part of that equation is that UM thrives on the live music experience.

That’s a reality bands are going to have to figure out how to deal with. The cream is going to rise to the top as quality usually wins out.  Word of mouth has never been more important and fans have never had so many tools to communicate with each other and the bands. Keep kicking ass and people will discover you. Keep sucking ass and people will discover that you suck and move on. Peer to peer recommendations are only going to continue to grow and drive all parts of this business from music sales to ticket sales. If you’re not working your ass off to succeed, somebody else is going to be. It’s all about the hustle.

Kickshuffle is an online publication dedicated to covering the impact of technology on music and music business. Like us on Facebook and Follow us on Twitter.

3 responses to “Social Media & Music Management | with Kevin Browning, Head of Creative/Business Development for Umphrey’s McGee

  1. Pingback: [Kickshuffle Exclusive] A Conversation with JamBase Founder and CEO Andy Gadiel | kickshuffle·

  2. Your disappointing sales on albums come from a disappointing approach to the album in Death By Stereo. Been a loyal fan since 06, but DBS almost knocked me off the bandwagon. Proud to say I did not purchase it. Umphrey’s is capable of far better, and that is what I will spend my hard earned cash for, not some over-produced generic pop.

    Great interview though, some nice questions asked about some unknown-by-the-masses details. I enjoyed Browning’s answers for the most part as well, but if this band wants to remain successful imo they will have to get back to “kicking some ass” by playing some original music.

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