Article by Liam Anthony
Also posted at Zerstor Creative
While being a musician in a band is indeed a form of artistic expression, it’s always important to consider the value the listener places in your output. What can set a good band from the rest of the pack is not just in their songs, but in the overall “experience” they can provide to the listeners through various touchpoints.
This approach is very similar User Experience design in web development or mobile app development, where the focus is in improving an app’s usability or interactivity for the end user. However in this case, the product is your band’s output, and the end user is the audience.
I have been an active member of my local music scene for over ten years now. I have played as a drummer in several bands that have toured the country, opened for major acts, had airplay on national radio, and played to packed venues including one of the biggest outdoor music festivals in Australia, not that I’m bragging or anything…
Often, I would get questioned by fellow musicians about our achievements, and I couldn’t blame them for asking as the Australian music scene is a tough one to make your mark in. Usually musicians would ask “We’ve been playing so many regular shows at our local venue, but we don’t feel like we’re progressing. What gives?” While some would probably answer “It’s not what you know but who you know in the industry”, as I’ve been studying the theories of user experience design and reflecting on my previous musical efforts, I can say there’s a lot more to it than that.
Despite the Australian metal scene being largely underground compared to the major centres overseas, we do have some amazing high-quality bands that are potentially world-class. One band that has particularly broken the mould is King Parrot, who have played their cards correctly and have ventured further than most metal bands in Australia usually go.
Unfortunately, a lot of local bands in Australia plummet before they get the chance to show their true potential. Some bands believe that merely playing the same set exclusively in the same town every week is the key to success, only to leave their audiences disinterested very quickly. Some bands fail to promote or sell themselves, relying on “support the local scene” and “support all local bands no matter what!” memes on their Facebook page to try and guilt-trip people when nobody shows up.
The harsh truth is, as much as you are an up and coming band and as much as you believe everyone should “give you a go”, nobody owes you their time. Earn it. While there should be an equality of opportunity for every artist, that does not mean an equality of outcome. While it is indeed “just art” that you have indeed put a lot of time and money into producing, to be a professional band you must create something of value to the end user: your audience.
What can set a good band from the rest of the pack is not just in playing music (yeah, it’s not all “just about the music”, sorry), but in the overall “experience” they can provide to the audience. This can be achieved through good experience design.
First, what is “Experience Design?” This is the practice of designing products or services with the focus placed heavily on the quality of the user experience.
For example, in Australia coffee has become such a cultural phenomenon. Buying a cup of coffee from a coffee store has become something more than just purchasing the product itself, but the overall experience within the realm of where it is purchased. There’s a distinct difference in the experience of buying an affordable express coffee from a modern-looking kiosk, to sitting down and enjoying a premium grade coffee at an expensive-looking store. The same goes with purchasing many other products from different retailers.
The fundamentals of experience design are driven by the modes of where a customer interacts with a business. These modes are called “touchpoints”. When applied to the coffee shop example mentioned earlier, the primary touchpoints can be situated in the coffee shop’s physical storefront, their website, and the packaging of their product. Whenever a customer encounters one of these touchpoints, it gives them the opportunity to form their own opinion of the business or service they are using, or compare previous experiences with it. Experience designers are often employed to identify existing touchpoints and build upon them, or create new ones for the brand. The result is always to produce the best possible user experience that ensures the return of a customer.
Nathan Shedroff’s theory of engagement is often looked to when observing experience design, which is broken down into five aspects: Identity, Adaptivity, Narrative, Immersion and Flow. A medium is engaging if it draws the individual in, surrounds their activities and stimulates their imagination (Benyon, 2010).
It really isn’t that different with playing in a band. You have your major touchpoints – the live show, the recorded output, internet presence, merchandise, advertising etc.
I mentioned the band King Parrot earlier – not only are they an excellent live band, they provide an “experience” to the end user through their major touchpoints, one of them being their music videos. King Parrot’s music videos serve as comedic short films. Their live shows are rife with larrikin Australian humour, often ending up with vocalist Matt Young being carried around on the shoulders of various audience members.
Another great example is the band Lagerstein, an Australian “pirate metal” band. Following Nathan Shedroff’s theory of engagement, a live show from this group is also something of a playful and engaging experience unto itself. In one of Lagerstein’s songs the band performs an act where they “lose” their guitarist Neil Rummy Rackers, and ask the audience to find him. In another one of their songs, an acoustic ballad, vocalist Gregarr walks into the audience and gets them to sit down on the floor with him, as if it were a campfire story.
This isn’t an overly new concept limited to local bands, as some major acts have been using new and creative methods to engage their audiences over the years. In 2000, Metallica were notorious for being against particular digital distribution avenues for their music, now they embrace digital media. For their recent album “Hardwired, to Self-Destruct”, Metallica produced music videos for each of the new album’s tracks, and created a program where people could type and share their own phrases in the Metallica logo typeface. In 2013, Canadian rockers Arcade Fire released an interactive music video for their single “Reflektor” that makes use of your location in Google Maps. In 2011, Bjork released the first “album app” in Biophilia, where the listener can play various games that interact with each song’s instrumental compositions.
A band I’m currently playing drums for did an amusing video promoting one of our shows at a folk metal festival.*
Does this mean that as a musician you absolutely must resort to methods beyond your live shows and recorded output if you want to start a band? No. Not necessarily, but good presentation will always yield a good result. Don’t just go out and play show after show with the hopes that the audience will one day “accept you for who you are”, give them a reason to care about you. Keep your audience engaged and create something of value to them. If your band can keep a growing audience interested enough to come back for more and more of your product, then you’ve won.
* – Of course, I have to make a disclaimer. In spite of the comedic nature of the video, I do not encourage irresponsible consumption of alcohol, nor do I condone fighting people for the last beer!
Shedroff, Nathan. 2001. Experience Design. 1st ed. New Riders Publishing
Benyon, David. 2010. Designing interactive systems: a comprehensive guide to HCI. 2nd ed. Addison Wesley.
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