Create Your Woodstock: It is not about the star in the room
This is the first installment to the five-part series that helps you create an intentional mindset to experience the vibrancy of live events. Missed the intro to the series? Check it out before you continue.
At 13 years old, Taylor Swift was my first concert. I showed up to Allstate Arena with my dad, sister, and middle school buddies for one thing and one thing only…Taylor.
I idolized her country twang and pop stardom at a young age. I daydreamt in a few short years that I would make the leap from St. Francis Day School’s rickety gym stage to Allstate Arena and have a plethora of boy problems and love stories to sing about as I strummed the guitar.
I had never picked up a real guitar in my life, just this green, sparkly paper guitar I definitely spent way too long making.
What if Taylor hadn’t shown up that night?
Was that all the concert was about? A 19-year-old (at the time), curly-haired, blond chick and the songs she could sing? Sure, I was 13 years old and I didn’t appreciate music and experiences quite like I do now, but there have been many shows since that I have bought a ticket to only with one thing in mind…to see the main act in all their stardom. It’s natural to buy into the hype but in some ways, the meaning of being a fan at shows has become overpowered by the ploy to check another celebrity name off your bucket list and post the Instagram that proves you were there.
Live music is about much more than the star in the room.
In an interview with Billy Ferguson, a videographer out of Los Angeles, California, he challenges these “Taylor Swift” starstruck moments. “We realized that the music industry is really industry and not that much music,” said Billy.
He was on the fast track to success as a filmmaker, shooting videos for top-tier stars of the twenty-first century from Rihanna to Lil Yachty. Mingling with celebrities, Billy quickly learned these artists spent more time prepping for photoshoots and worrying about their social media than actually writing music. To be a musician suddenly seemed to mean being a model, a socialite, and a public figure. The meaning of being a musician was becoming diluted.
Billy and his co-worker and friend, Jimmy Jimes, grew to appreciate the lesser-known artists with whom they crossed paths. Equally as talented as some of the big acts, these artists were hungry for the music and art of it all.
Sitting on their golden ticket to stardom with portfolios and contact books rookie videographers would kill for, they traded in the industry status quo and dreamt up a national story to showcase these up-and-coming artists. They bought a 36-foot RV and named her Fanny. Fanny received an extreme makeover. She was pimped out in an orange and blue geometric pattern wrapping the exterior. The inside, a time capsule of Americana life on the road, was transformed into a hipper living space and recording studio.
“Making It” Might Not Be The “Big Break” Artist Crave
Billy and Jimmy needed a crew to tell their story on the road. They recruited Chris Watson, a Brooklyn singer songwriter living in LA, to be their music supervisor, Zack Djurich to be their musical engineer, and their music-loving buddy Mike Jaeger to be their tour manager and bus driver.
The five guys set out on the Unknown Tour, a 10-week 20-city run from Los Angeles to New York and back. They hit dive bars, the streets, and house parties in Chicago, Austin, Birmingham, and New Orleans, to name a few, in search of unknown, talented performers. In each city, they recorded footage of artists they met in bars, alleyways, and train stations. They invited the most talented back to the RV where, under the guidance of Chris, drummers, rappers, guitarists, and singers laid down a track that would ultimately become a collaborative album of sounds from across the country.
“Making it” is this loose term that seems to define an artist’s success. There are key milestones artist must hit to “make it” in the traditional sense. It starts with discovery and ends with sold-out arena tours and an invite to the set of Saturday Night Live. The Unknown Tour tested this theory.
They found that most artists just want to play good music and share their story with people, and that is how they define “making it.” That is exactly what the Unknown Tour is about — giving a voice and a platform to the unknown. Success for everyone is different.
On a Wednesday night in March, I found myself being cussed out by Taylor Meier, the lead singer of the band Caamp at the Beachland, an old-school ballroom and Cleveland music destination. He stood alone on stage with his guitar in hand; he had just sung a new song and poured his heart out.
He reminded us all how vulnerable he had just been saying, “How disrespectful that you would f**king talk while I am pouring my heart out up here. You can go f**king talk about work in the lobby.”
Taylor invited us into his story in that moment, in a very intimate way stripping himself of his support team, his band. He wanted his story to be heard. Many kids are told “your voice matters.” Yet it is the mumbling that rang through the small ballroom, overpowering Taylor’s ballad, that tells that little kid in Taylor, “Your voice doesn’t matter.”
Connection In Vegas
So how can artists share their stories in a way that they are heard? How can Taylor, or any artist for that matter, make it by playing good music and sharing their story if people are going to talk over them?
The Unknown Tour offers one way. First stop-the Vegas strip.
Fanny rolled into town and fit right in among the flashy colors and neon lights that illuminate the gambling capital. In this bold entertainment hub, the adventure was about to begin- but first, a trip to the Verizon Wireless store to pick up an internet plug was in order. Little did the crew know that their lack of internet would lead them to a fellow filmmaker whose brother was a rapper.
Ronny Richeze was the brother’s name, a beatboxed by trade and dancer by choice. Ronny was the lucky guest to break in Fanny’s recording booth and share stories with the Unknown Tour.
One of the pressing questions of the tour for Billy and the crew was, “Why do musicians do what they do, what lights their fire?”
Austin’s Musical Brains
Ronny says, “I do it for the connection with people. I feel like there is a deeper message. When they hear this or see me dancing they will remember it tomorrow. That is my idea for success.” Ronny recalls how integral dance circles and playing instruments were in Native American communities-a ritual. People are looking to connect, as they have done throughout time through dance and music.
Ronny says, “Let me connect them.”
Feeling the Beat in NYC
Unknown Tour blazed their trail to Austin. There they met Dr. Jim Rose, one of the top local neurosurgeons. Brains by day and trumpet by night — that’s how Dr. Rose rolls. He says, “For people to get together and express feelings in a unified fashion, it may be the glue that made civilization possible, maybe even evolution possible. Rhythm. Drums. Music.” That’s what makes Dr. Rose tick, similar to Ronny in Las Vegas.
Whaling away on the trumpet, Dr. Rose is doing his part to hold our society together as one can through music.
In New York, the Unknown Crew met a man that goes by Choclatt Jared, who defines himself as a “something from nothing kind of drummer.”
Notes from the Unknown Tour
He starts playing on buckets and says, “Equipment is great but if you feel the beat and make people feel it, it basically doesn’t matter.” He’s gone from buckets on the street to playing for Aretha Franklin, David Letterman, and Lauren Hill.
If you go to a show, “you buy a ticket and after you see the show, the show might be like ahhh,” Choclatt Jared sighed in disapproval. “But if you can get someone in their daily life to stop and they watch you and take their time to appreciate you and what you are doing that lets me and my art form know what I am doing is real.”
The Unknown Tour proved there is more to music than industry. Much more to live music than the celebrity in the room.
Billy said it best,
“Music is not all about how many records you sold, how many people come to your shows, how much money you are making off music. Music means more than that to people and the musicians that make the songs have stories to tell that are meaningful to them.”
Live events are a story in progress.
The “who” can be a driving factor to get us to a show, but we must not forget about the “where,” “what,” “when,” “how,” and arguably the most important part, “why?” Why do these musicians do what they do? What lights these stars on fire? The answer to this question captures the essence of the experience that many artists, performers, athletes, and speakers so carefully curate in live events.
A “Woodstock-esk” experience is not just about the celebrity in the room and their “why,” it’s about why the people gather. Maybe you show up because you are a diehard fan or your best friend dragged you along. Perhaps you got free tickets or were just looking for something to do. No matter the reason you attend an event, you and the people around you all have one thing in common — you showed up. Honor that and recognize that you are immersed in the main act. There are stories all around you waiting to be tapped into. Ask the person next to you, “what brought you here tonight?”
Sometimes that answer is simple, music. That was was why the Unknown Tour crew came together. Their motivation was about something simpler than the “who” or even the “why.” It was about the “what,” music. Whether at Allstate Arena or the local dive bar, this shared human experience causes an endorphin release. It is powerful to do something as simple as collectively listening, singing, and dancing to music.
So I ask 13-year-old self, what was the story of Taylor Swift in 2009 on the Fearless tour?
What was her “why?”
What was my “why?”
Why did everyone gather for that show?
Simply, what was that evening about? MUSIC.
Now is your chance to do some of your own self-reflection. Download the worksheet and think through the next live event you plan to attend. Let’s get to the root of why you gather beyond the star in the room.
This post is from a series of experts come from Live LIVE! Creating Community in Music Experiences. Over 5 installments, a guide to the way you experience live events emerges, putting the focus back on the people in the room. Missed the intro? Check it out here. If you like what you read and want to join me in this discussion, please feel free to email me at email@example.com or connect with me on social media (Instagram or LinkedIn). Looking for more ways to “Create Your Woodstock,” grab a copy of my book on Amazon.