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Following Is Boring: The Story Behind Umphrey’s McGee’s Headphones & Snowcones

[Words & Video by Julio Rausseo]

In the current music landscape, bands need to think outside the box, come up with creative ideas in order to build a following and of course make money. The music at the end of the day is what matters, but the task in the new digital age of music is to find new ways to get people talking about you and keep them coming back for more.

Over the years Umphrey’s McGee has found ways night after night to get people talking about them and come back wanting more. Their growth from playing local bars in South Bend and Chicago in 1998, to selling out the Beacon Theatre in New York City back in January of 2013 is due in part to them embracing new marketing strategies and offering creative & unique experiences to their fans.

To celebrate their 15th Anniversary, the band decided to give fans a one of a kind musical experience, an experiment called Headphones & Snowcones, which took just under a decade to come to fruition. To get more of an insight behind Headphones & Snowcones, (named after the rarely played gem from their second album Local Band Does OK) I flew out to Tahoe to experience this for myself and to speak with Kevin Browning, Umphrey’s McGee’s creative director and the mastermind behind this new musical experience.

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When asked how idea of Headphones & Snowcones came together, Browning recalled an exchange between a guest at an Umphrey’s concert, that lead to his Edison moment:  ”In about 2004, I remember turning around, and I put a pair of headphones on a guest that was at front of house (soundboard), while I was mixing. And I watched that persons eyes light up, and that face make a expression that really was very memorable to me. And it made me realizes that what a special thing that it really was, and most people don’t ever get to hear a live concert that way. And at that moment the seed was planted.”

Since 2004, Kevin decided gave a select few a “taste,” of what it sounds like to hear UM like never before. ”I would put the headphones on more and more people at front of house just to give them a taste, and almost without fail, everybody was marveled, just enamored at the quality, and the clarity, and the nuance that you were able to hear when you take out a lot of the reverberation and acoustics of a room.”

Although the idea seemed simple; giving fans their own personal patch into the bands soundboard by giving them a pair of headphones, Kevin admitted the construction of this idea needed time. “It took a long time to figure out; is this feasible, how would it work, what’s the technology going to be? And this is one of those things, I wouldn’t have had the ability to do had I still been on the road, it was one of these things that needed a little time to incubate.”

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By Spring of 2013, Kevin felt it was time for his idea to hatch, and introduced Headphones and Snowcones to the masses. Oakland’s Fox Theatre, and Tahoe’s Montbleu Resort, were picked for the trail runs of this new Umphrey’s concert experience and 32 lucky fans signed up in advance (16 in each city), and I was lucky enough to snag the final spot in this unexpected journey.

I’ve seen my share of Umphrey’s Mcgee shows, but I couldn’t recall being more excited at the unpredictability of what I was in store for, since my first UM show back on that fateful first night of their 2007 New years run at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom, when I came into that night only knowing one song (“In the Kitchen”).

After arriving at the Soundboard table in Tahoe, I picked up my gear for the evening: in-ear monitor pack, the same one the band uses on stage to be able to hear themselves perform, and of course a pair of headphones. As I looked around at the other 15 fans taking part in this, I noticed the excitement in their faces, everyone was excited to see where this concept was headed, how would basically an UM Live sound recording change our concert experience, “In the moment, as it happens.”

With monitor pack and headphones turned on, I right away tested the reach and capabilities of Sennheisser in-ear monitor wireless pack to see how far away from the soundboard I could be and still be able to hear without any interferences. Walking around the entire theatre floor, I noticed zero interference which was a great sign to things to come. As “JaJunk” opened I noticed instantly just how clear and crisp the audio came in, and did the old double take a few times; putting my headphones on and off to be able hear the sound difference, and it was night and day in the way my ears picked up the sound. As soon as the third song of night played (“Example 1″) I was hooked! I was in awe at what I was experiencing, and even pondering if it was even fair to hear the concert which such audio clarity while others weren’t.

Throughout the entire night I felt the need to give as many fans as possible at the Montbleu a chance to hear and experience the power of the headphones themselves. Seeing their reactions were priceless, and reaffirmed to what Kevin saw nine years earlier. Everything you wish you could hear at a concert is given to you and then some, you can even hear the banter on stage! One of the advantages of being able to hear a concert in such high quality audio is the ability to hear every note from every instrument on stage, a feature that is missed but the general audience or is masked by the echos at various venues. The more fans I placed the headphones on, the more smiles I saw, and the shock that what they were hearing through the headphones was in fact coming through the soundboard. My admiration for Headphones and Snowcones came during the highlight of the concert: “Syncopated Strangers.” Clocking in at almost 17 minutes long, the monster improvisation that song featured, and being able to hear it with precise audio clarity was an experience I would never forget, and at that moment I knew, Kevin Browning struck gold!

Since the 2 night trail run in March, Kevin and crew took the feedback, and were able to address the pros, cons, and needed improvements before taking Headphones & Snowcones on the road and featuring it during the April Southeast tour, the Summer Camp Music Festival, and at Red Rocks, with Browning admitting this is just at its inception. So don’t worry Umphrey’s fans, you will have your chance at an ear-gasm soon!

Of all the unique ideas and concepts Umphrey’s McGee have given to their fans over the years, Headphones & Snowcones, in the way it enhanced a concert, is one of their greatest concepts of them all. And once you experience it, you’ll understand why.

As the crowds grow larger, and more and more new faces see Umphrey’s for the first time, the band embraces and realizes, how important it is to evolve, not just musically, but on the business side as well.

“Things like the s2, things like the UMBowl, things like the Mantis Pre-Order campaign, and Headphones and Snowcones, is a natural evolution of that,” says Browning. “What’s next, what else can we do, what can we do to push the boundaries, its fun for us and its fun for the fans. We want to continue to provide experiences that enrich the experience of the music fan. Is everything we do for everybody? No. But its fun to push the boundaries, and for us, at the end of the day, following is boring.”

With Headphones and Snowcones now apart of Umphrey’s creative arsenal, what’s the next big idea fans can expect, coming from Kevin and team Umph? Possible a new look to the UMLive site? The potential of more streaming concerts? More DVD releases? Time will tell, but until, make sure to look out for Headphones & Snowcones to come to a city near you.

319 days ago by in Commentary , Concert Reviews , Live Music Coverage , Music Features , Umphrey's McGee | You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
About Frazier

Jeremy Frazier is the editor-in-chief of Soundfuse, an online magazine based in Chicago.