As Live Music Industry Struggles, Underoath + Their Team Innovate
To say the coronavirus pandemic has upended the music industry doesn't even begin to describe the multi-level financial devastation that has stemmed from the virus’ outbreak. It has impacted every band and, for Underoath, that meant their summer Knotfest tour alongside Slipknot, A Day to Remember and Code Orange.
Any summer on the road with Slipknot has immense value — of course, merch sales at an outdoor arena venue have the potential to be quite bountiful and the level of exposure is almost unmatched in heavy music. It’s a lot to lose out on for a band who kicked off the second phase of their career in 2018 with their comeback album, Erase Me.
Opportunity and money were both lost. This can be said, in reality, for all bands at any level of success.
“When we started things with this livestream, nobody in the band ever thought they’d do livestreams.” That’s what Randy Nichols, (Force Media Management CEO, Tension Division (TNSN DVSN) creative partner and Underoath manager), was up against when the rug was unceremoniously ripped out from underneath not just him and his bands, but the entire live entertainment industry worldwide.
Nichols though — alongside Underoath guitarist Tim McTague and Tension Division creative director Joel Cook — may have just figured out not only a temporary solution that can spur the micro-economy of live music, but also move the live experience forward even when we get our beloved concerts back.
To be clear, this is about more than just livestreaming a concert. This is a complete reimagining of the concert experience as we’ve known it. It’s a retooled business model built on the back of the trio’s self-coined “edge theory” thought process, which includes a never-before-seen custom-built stage and the attitude that a rising tide lifts all boats.
Underoath have staged The Observatory, a groundbreaking concept in digital performance. Each Friday, for three weeks, Underoath are performing one classic record in full (We’re Only Chasing Safety, Lost in the Sound of Separation and Define the Great Line), with vinyl reissues of each to coincide with the concert series.
What’s even better is that this project put a total of 33 people to work, even down to local promoters who get a share of the tickets they help sell. For Underoath, The Observatory offset some of their expected losses from the pandemic as they’re on pace to eclipse $600,000 from this livestream concert series.
So, how did we get here?
After seeing early livestream performances by Code Orange (who scrambled to quickly put together an album release show) and Dropkicks Murphy’s (who played to an empty crowd for a live streamed St. Patrick’s Day event) in particular, the message was received. “That was the beginning where we realized, ‘Okay, you can do something,’’ Nichols attested.
“There’s a lot of missing pieces for us, the crowd being one of them and then the idea of the livestream experience basically being a reduced version of a live show — it’s weird,” added McTague of the uncertain new environment. “If you’re going to go to a new medium you have to approach the new medium as an actual new medium.” That’s where “edge theory” begins.
The team asked themselves what, at its core, is a livestream concert, as well as surveying the pros and cons of its current state and what gets fans excited about the digital event, other than the fact that it’s really all we’ve got right now. Looking to expand on the concept, Cook asked, “How do we take that and push it to the edge of what’s possible?”
Underoath Inside 'The Observatory'
“We started with the idea of a 360 degree video wall and there’s Zoom fans all around us,” said McTague, offering up the most extreme idea, eager to break down the line of thinking he picked up by watching a TED Talk on AirBNB. “Then you bring it back and usually you find the answer in between [the typical and the extreme] and you can break the wheel,” expressed Cook.
The first task was landing on a new stage design as Underoath sought to ditch the empty venue platform and abandon the traditional raised stage altogether. After all, if there’s nobody coming to your show, you can almost play anywhere, even in your own backyard, so to speak. For Underoath, that backyard is Tampa, Florida, their hometown where they’ve helped circulate money in their local community.
The stage? It's 50 feet in diameter and located in a nearby warehouse at the same place the band usually rents their sound and lights for tour. “We’re paying them a lump sum a week for the warehouse and their sound and lights that they can’t rent out to anybody right now,” said Nichols. When asked if the stage design was partly inspired by Metallica’s “in the round” stage, the manager laughed, “This might sound un-metal, but the stage is more inspired by Kanye West and Nine Inch Nails.”
Bands don’t need even need to seek out high-profile locations such as New York or Los Angeles to pull something like this off. “You have sound and light companies around the country that work local events. All these bands can do this locally and find people in their area. Now we’re keeping money in our community,” the manager continued, also noting that not every production crew member needs to be on-site.
“Our lighting designer [Andrew Nissley] designed the layout but wasn’t there in person [and worked remotely out of Philadelphia],” explained Nichols while also stressing the immense safety precautions that were taken, understanding any slight misstep could compromise the entirety of the project. “Our goal is no safety measure broken — ever.”
"For me it’s a respect thing," argued McTague, who explained, "I live with my wife’s grandmother in a detached apartment on our property. Are masks stupid? Absolutely not. Are they annoying? Yes. Is it worth being annoyed a little bit just to save someone’s life? How can you not say yes?"
The Observatory offers a unique perspective for fans, who first get an overhead view of the band, who perform inside a circle sealed by beams of light that dot the edge of this newly-constructed stage, as well as three other fixed cameras and an additional four camera operators roaming inside this bubble all during the performance.
Cook was struck with the idea for this new stage immediately after seeing the room Underoath would be performing in. “I drew a sketch and sent it to Tim and it was almost 99 percent exactly what we had in mind, which is very rare, confessed the creative director, elaborating, “The overhead camera shot was the first thing I thought of — this almost voyeuristic type idea. You never see a band from on top, at least not live.”
A View From the Top of 'The Observatory'
It was a new experience for Underoath, too, who had to be overwhelmingly aware of their surroundings. “The biggest hurdle was not being allowed to move the way you normally move with camera operators roaming and a fixed tripod in the middle,” McTague attested, highlighting one visual benefit in particular when he said, “We didn’t choreograph shots, but we couldn’t move outside of a certain area because you can knock a camera operator over that you don’t see. There’s cuts where a camera guy with a big mobilizer pack on with a big mask — it looked like warzone footage almost.”
This setting allows for an explosive impact fans are accustomed to getting at live shows, only now from the comfort of their own home. At this point, it’s clear that Underoath developed a live performance well-worth the $15 admission price, despite various artists who do not charge money for their livestreamed concerts. It’s a thorny subject, but a necessary one with so many people in the live events industry out of work at this time.
“If you provide something that someone feels as if they’re missing out, that dictates charging money for tickets,” Nichols relayed. McTague, too, grappled with where to price these digital tickets. “I had a manager tell me if you are doing something at this level and you sell tickets for under $25, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. I agree it’s worth $25,” he said, “but $15 allows everyone to participate. Three friends can pitch in $5 each and hang out — safely — together and at that point it’s almost free.”
Underoath Digital 'The Observatory' Concert Ticket
For a generation of fans that grew up in the thick of illegal downloading and even now where there’s unrestricted access to almost all of recorded music for $10 a month, “almost free” is more than a fair deal. Fans made that abundantly clear by flooding the live comments section with nothing but incessant praise for the quality of the livestream production.
Generating some income is, of course, great, especially during this strange downtime amid a global pandemic. The reality is we have no clue when traditional live concerts will return, at least in America, but bands, their teams and their crews aren’t the only ones hurting right now. Even when it’s safe to go to a concert again, the question remains — will there even be any venues left for bands to play?
Again, focusing on circulating money through as many pockets as possible through The Observatory concept, Nichols has spearheaded an idea that will hopefully result in cash trickling in for venues as he’s cut them into the ticket deal. “I thought about it at 6AM and woke up on fire and knew the answer to this was independent promoters who really need support right now,” the manager exclaimed, “and there’s nobody better at marketing live entertainment than independent promoters. We wanted to bring the promoter into the economic ecosystem and provide value for them and bring real money back to them.”
Underoath had originally intended to embark on a tour performing these three albums in full, returning to more intimate venues where they cut their teeth in the earlier phase of their career. Not only did the team pivot from this idea and turned it into a three-week digital event, but they kept the idea of these local promoters intact as well.
Underoath, 'The Observatory' Concert Flyer
Always looking forward, Nichols affirmed, “We wanted to set precedent and build a road map that can move forward in the future. Anyone who is doing livestreams and wants extra promotion can tap into the local promoters, who then activate fans in their market and get money just like if they did a live in-person show.” It may not be the complete answer to the financial woes of these venues, which the manager understood when adding, “I don’t want to say it’s going to keep them in business, but it may keep one or two people employed.
Nichols admitted the promoter tie-in is still a work in progress as it’s one piece of a quickly-moving project, but it does establish potential for future endeavors. Local promoters have accounted for less than 1,000 of the 15,000 tickets sold (these figures are not final at press time), but roughly $5,000 will be their benefit.
“To be honest, this may be the equivalent of giving the opening band money for gas, but that opening band got to the next city,” Nichols affirmed. “It’s not changing the world, but if it can get promoters through to the next day, that’s a win.”
It’s tough to find a downside to this Observatory experiment. What it’s really about is how many times can one band perform digitally within perhaps a year-long timeframe? Even a team as creative as Nichols, Cook and McTague is asking themselves the same thing.
“What it’s really going to come down to for Underoath is what unique content we can create. Ideas need to draw demand, otherwise you’ll bore people,” Nichols argued. “We don’t want to oversaturate Underoath fans,” agreed Cook, who theorized that more full album plays could be on the horizon.
McTague though, is wholly energized by The Observatory and views this as just the beginning. “What if we change our time schedule for a week and jet lagged ourselves and played 8PM Australian time? All we have to do is stay up late. There’s so many ways to crack the code,” he beamed, excited for the opportunity to take a fully-produced Underoath show to fans in parts of the world Underoath don’t often visit or never have before.
The guitarist wants to turn this concert experience into something more traditional, which involved building out a multi-band roster. "I want a three-band bill at $25 or $30 and your whole Friday night will be amazing like a UFC Pay-Per-View," he said, also expressing uncertainty as to how something like this can be done.
“What happens when The Observatory goes on the road? We’re back to ‘edge theory’ now.”
It’s this tenacity that is at the forefront of success. “Me, Randy and Joel thrive on being in a deep end that we’ve never been, and we don’t know how deep it is,” an unflappable McTague relayed. “We don’t panic — we put on a scuba mask and go explore because there’s probably something at the bottom of this new deep end. I love that.”
Thanks to Randy Nichols, Tim McTague and Joel Cook for the interviews. Even if you didn't catch one of the livestream performances from Underoath, each will be accessible to watch as a "re-broadcast" for a limited time. Look for these live recordings to be released at a later date as well as Nichols suggested they will eventually make their way to streaming platforms. Follow Underoath on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. For more on The Observatory, head here.
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