The fan invasion

The collapse of the fourth wall and the taking of the stage

Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes breaking the fourth wall and mingling with the audience during a show in Rio photo: Eduardo Magalhães

From the bandstand days to the giant arenas of today, the fundamentals of a live show have been the same for ages.

The future of live music is right here, right now. And it’s the same as it ever has been: a great talent, with strong songs putting on an amazing performance. And that won’t ever change.

What’s new is that the fan interaction era has begun. What can change from now on is how the fans take part.

Perhaps, they shouldn’t simply stand and watch a show. Maybe, fans should take the stage with their idols.

Woodstock 1969: scaffolding and speakers in an open area, not too far from today’s festivals set up look

There is plenty of room for improvement for fan interaction in the live music space. Of course, as the years went by, the offering got more sophisticated. Light equipment, more powerful speakers, jumbo screens, pyrotechnics and all that were introduced.

These are add-ons, adornments that enrich the experience (some could argue exactly the opposite). But going to a show is still almost like watching a regular 2D TV: the audience faces a band “against a wall” on a stage.

Changes could be made. Instead of passively watching a show, they could become more active and participatory. Stop looking up at a stage and walk in the band’s shoes.

Fan participation is evolving. First came stage developments, then fan participation. Now it could be headed to a future where fans will actually get on stage and play the songs.

Part 1: stage developments

Always ahead of their time, The Beatles are surrounded by fans at their first US show at theWashington Coliseum, 1964 photo: couldn’t find the credit…

There have been experiments to challenge those aspects. U2 first played around with depth perception on their 2007 3D tour. Later they turned things around on their 2009 360° Tour.

U2’s 360° Tour mini doc

Taking advantage of the arena configuration, it gave fans a chance to surround the band and watch the show from different an unusual angles.

Essentially, the end result was similar to what The Beatles did in the 60s (even if not intended that way). Since the late 80s, Def Leppard, Metallica (who also debuted the snake pit), Spice Girls, Britney Spears, Dixie Chicks and others made use of the theater in the round concept.

Arcade Fire synchronized light balls at Coachella 2011

Back in 2007, Foo Fighters used a revolving stage, spinning the band to pretty much the same effect. Flaming Lips have been bringing fans on stage as human dressed up props for years. Other landmarks were Arcade Fire’s synchronized LED balls in 2011 and Tupac Shakur’s hologram in 2012, both at Coachella. A Tupac hologram tour was even considered at the time, but it never happened.

Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros often breaks the fourth wall and bring fans on stage to perform and tell stories, and so does Girl Talk, who leaves the stage open to pretty much anyone.

Boiler Room’s early VR experience

Electronic music channel Boiler Room has done some 360 transmissions. Now are planning to open a VR-dedicated-and-customized music venue.

LCD Soundsystem’s “final” show in 2011 generated many live streaming events across the globe.

Although a step towards getting closer to their fans around the world, this still was a one-way street. It focused on broadening the attendance, with no way for the fans to interact.
Weezer’s Pat Wilson present the 2011 cruise program

Cruise shows, such as The Weezer Cruise or Coachella SS, also provide the fans with the opportunities to get up and close with the artists. Besides the chance of hanging around with the musicians, it also gives the fans a glimpse of their favorite artist being themselves. As the ship crosses the sea, you can see them ​serving fruits to the audience, relaxed, playing intimate gigs, without all the noise that usually goes around it.

In an age where “fan first” has finally become synonymous with all things music, it’s a surprise little has been done in the live space. Fans are still being offered the same thing, with few changes.

Meet & greets and private soundcheck opportunities (that at times can come off as plain greedy from the artist) aren’t enough. Get the fans to help decide the setlist has been done many times, including with some improvements, such as 2010 Yo La Tengo’s Wheel of Fortune tour.

And, as far as new developments go… that’s about it. It’s worth noting that all these experiments still treat the fans as mere spectators.

Part 2: fan interaction

Go to a rock show and you will likely see a fan front stage, holding a sign that reads: “let me play/sing _name a song here_ with you”. What else could create a greater bond with your favorite band than being on stage with them?

Sometimes it works. A fan is chosen by the band, get’s invited to fulfill their dream and it’s magical. Even those other fans, left standing in the crowd, feel good, as if represented. Probably feeling that “one of us” made it there. But that can’t happen on every show, let alone to everyone.

For those who don’t make it, there’s the good old karaoke. Or the opportunity to play or record a cover version with your friends. That’s all fun, only usually there’s no audience to applaud you or many peers to share that moment with.

Slowly fans are being given the control. In 2006, the Beastie Boys handed the camera to the audience for their live DVD “Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!”, made up entirely of fan-generated images.

In 2012, Beck published “Song Reader”. Instead of a regular album format, the compositions came in a book format. All 20 songs’ music sheets printed, leaving it to the fans to actually get them played out loud. The ukulele ballad “Old Shanghai” became a YouTube hit.

Fan love: Marilyn Mason fans at Mazda Palace show (Milan, 2005) / photo by James Mollison, taken book “Disciples”

And in comes YouTube, allowing fans to turn into idols by chance or by merit. One way to rub off an idol’s fame is to put on videos playing along with their hits.

By showing off their music skills and sharing their knowledge, these fans gain status in the community, perceived as experts.

Drum cover channels, for instance, have large followings. They turn a complex instrument into a visual and audible learning experience. It both feeds fan’s curiosity and fills in the blanks for other drummers.

Meytal Cohen (1 million subscribers) and Matt McGuire (360k subscribers) are two good examples. Their videos for Tool’s “Forty Six & 2” and The Chainsmoker’s “Don’t Let Me Down (Illenium Remix)” reached 3 and 5 million views, respectively.

Besides the flattering number of views, who knows, maybe your idols catches up to it, notices you and you get a nod from them.

In 2015, 1,000 Italian Foo Fighter’s fans got together to perform one of their hits, “Learn to Fly”, in the hopes to convince them to play their city. And they did. Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, they used their guitars to lure the band to Cesena, having their voice heard.

In 2015, internet sensation Jack & Jack toured South America based only on their fans demand
Direct-to-fan already is a reality. Demanding an artist to come to your city, interfering in the routing process, seems to be becoming more and more common.

Companies such as WeDemand, SoFar Sounds and MyMusicTaste focus on helping artists connect with their fans. By giving fans a voice, they help bands route tours and find new markets.

Artists — especially up and coming ones — listen to their fans. By playing in different settings they re-define live shows, reconfiguring they way they come together.

YouTube gamer PewDiePie has 49 million subscribers, generating dozens of millions of views per video

The gaming industry is usually ahead of the curve when it comes to fan engagement. High tech is central to what they do, making it a super connected community. Interaction is what drives these games. It’s what they are all about.

If you exceed on one of those games, your videos sharing tips and tricks can turn you into an online star. It’s not a coincidence Amazon bought live video-game-streaming site Twitch for U$ 970 million cash. Gaming channels boast the largest followings online.

Guitar Hero Live offered the player a first-person view from the stage

A top of mind example of gaming and music worlds merging, Guitar Hero (and also Rock Band) bridges the gap between fans and the music they love in a unique way. Allowing the player to “jam” with your favourite band though a controller, it generated profits to the music industry through recorded music sales — already a hard sell at that time.

Between 2006 and 2009 the game had its peak. 2015 saw the release of Guitar Hero Live, with some tweaks on the controller and the graphics. Live footage from the lead guitar stand point, gave it a better feel of playing along with the band.

Part 3: fans on stage

Artwork by: Tine Stiller (“Mando Diao dress up doll”)

Looking back, it’s clear that the physical space can be rethought. The way a fan watches and interacts with a show can also be expanded.

Fans want to be a part of the show. The flat experience of watching a gig, as good as it is, can be enhanced. The full depth of a venue, with all difficulties that would come with it, is yet to be fully explored.

Take game simulations, VR immersions or quasi-closeness via fancy stages up a notch. Fans can get hands on action on a show. There are many ways to go about it.

Unlike music files specifically developed for the Guitar Hero experience, a live show has only so many channels for each instrument. And those can be muted out on a headphone or PA system with a touch of a button.

Here come the fans! (artwork by Patrick Ackmann and Illustr. LTd — “MTV Download Bar”)

A fan could watch a show in a dedicated room while playing the guitar, bass, drums or singing as if he or she were part of the band.

Mute a channel, play along with the remaining ones and you can be Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Ron Woods or Charlie Watts (no, you can’t, but you get the point).

This can be done without disturbing anyone else (band members or other fans). The band doesn’t have to do anything different to what they already do. They play their songs and fans jam along.

It could be one single room where fans can line up to play while the artists perform on stage right in front of them. Or it could be multiple rooms, with different people having the same type of experience at the same time, without interfering with each other.

Go a step further and these rooms can be part of the stage. The bands could have special arrangements to include the fans participation on specific parts. Create a special moment where all those extra fans’ guitars, bass or whatever else, are released onto the audience.

A similar experience could happen at home as well, though VR equipment.

Bjork’s app album, “Biophilia”

In such a format, the barrier is actually being able to play an instrument or a turntable. That too could be mended with technology. Bjork’s “Biophilia” app album offered the listener a chance to touch and interfere with the music even if you didn’t know the first thing about playing an instrument.

There is a new generation of artists already aligned with the different dynamics between their fans, their work and themselves. Online talents that come up through their interactions with their fans.

For them, engaging with their fans and letting them have an active voice is just their everyday way of promoting their work. By coming to where their fans are and playing in different kinds of spaces they are re-defining the way live shows take place.

Forget the stage. Changes can go beyond that. Up and coming artists are reinventing the role of the fan.

In music, this amount of interactivity may still feel far fetched. However, it’s possible to look out of the music space and find parallels. Take surf, for example. It is one of the few sports where anyone can enjoy the exact same space as the pros and, not rarely, share it along with them. That doesn’t happen in football or tennis.

Anyone can surf Pipeline (given they have the ability) and paddle out, side by side with Kelly Slater. It’s part of the sport’s mystique. The same way some random surfer takes his board to Hawaii, a music fan could take his own instrument to a show.

As fans want to have hands on participation, venue space should be rethought and technical solutions to enable that must be provided.

The era of fan participation is upon us. The more they get, the more they want. And they might as well want to take the stage.


Bruno Natal is a documentary filmmaker, music writer and co-founder of WeDemand, a digital platform that powers fan driven live events across the world.