An Open Letter to My Weirdo Friends: I Made a Make-Believe Band
Chris and Mike,
You are two friends I’ve known for a long time. I’d like to introduce you to each other and then tell you about an idea I’ve been tinkering with for the last year. It involves music, playlists, statistics, and imagination.
Chris, I first met Mike on a houseboat in Seattle for a Fourth of July celebration nearly twenty years ago. We spent hours and hours deep in conversation, completely failing to mingle with others in the party. Mike was really good at thinking big, creative thoughts. He ended up running a poetry press, selling a music video to MTV for Minus the Bear, and a bunch of other cool stuff I’m gonna skip over for now. We don’t chat often, but when we do it’s a really fun brainstorm.
Mike, Chris was a good friend of Sarah’s when they were growing up. I met him in the late 90s and we immediately bonded on cool internet stuff, comics like Tank Girl, and indie music like Ani Difranco. Back then, the web hadn’t centralised much, so you could find strange (and buggy) new communities everywhere you looked. I remember we both really liked Hotline, a product sort of like the BBSes of the 90s and a precursor for things like Reddit. Chris is deeply into live music, the sort of person who sees shows whenever possible. We don’t chat often, but when we do it’s always deep and thoughtful.
I think you two would like each other a lot. Today I’d like to tell you about a strange idea I’ve been working on that’s hard to quantify but is bringing me a lot of joy.
Inspire a real fandom with a fake band, imaginary songs, and make-believe performances with real setlists. Create a live concert experience that is as compelling in real time as it is after the fact.
Wha? Here are some of the building blocks to get there.
Setlists can be an artform
Concerts are fun, even if you don’t know any of the songs. If the band is playing their heart out, and the audience is responding, you’re going to have a good time. It’s even better if you know some of the songs, because you might have a favourite one, and might get excited when they play it.
But when you get really deep into a group, and you know all their stuff, the b-sides, the rarities, the probabilities than one song might come after the other, things can click into a whole other gear. This is the appeal of bands like The Grateful Dead, because every night is a unique performance and experience. When your setlist is different every night, it can be an artform in its own right. When your fans follow you closely, they can follow along and understand why certain moments stand out.
Statistics are neat
Sites like FiveThirtyEight are amazing because they are able to tell stories about data by leaning heavily on visuals. They get a lot of well-deserved publicity for their politics section, but they have a impressive sports section as well. Their essay Lionel Messi is Impossible is full of easy-to-grasp visualisations like this:
I enjoy sports, but there’s something super cool about watching a game with additional layers of context on top of the game itself. For example, I was watching last year’s Superbowl in Wellington with a bunch of Americans and Brits, and I left the pub in the fourth quarter because it was clear the 49ers were going to win. Then something strange happened, as shown in this visual:
There’s nothing like watching the game live — and I’m sorry I missed it! — but having a visualisation of the experience like this is like putting the whole drama of a multi-hour story into a single frame. It works in real-time and it works as an artefect afterwards. I think that’s awesome.
Shared stories are great
Whether you’re playing something like Dungeons and Dragons, doing improv on stage, or doing design brainstorms, there’s something magical about building stories with someone else. You state a thing, the other person responds to it, and suddenly a new thing appears. I love it. I want more opportunities to do things like this online.
So here’s what I’ve been doing to combine collaborative storytelling, setlists, and statistics into a band experience.
Step one: make some imaginary songs
I named the band Enthusiastic Panther and made their first three songs. They had no lyrics or music, only song names. They were:
So the first challenge was figuring out how popular each song would be. Do people like these songs? If so, how would I determine that without a real audience? Are the songs inherently good or bad, or can a good performance shape how much the fandom likes each one?
I settled on performance-based scores. The songs would get better or worse based on the quality of how they were played on tour, in simulated shows.
Step two: make a make-believe show
I played the first concert in Wellington, New Zealand. It didn’t go well. Each song was graded on a random bell curve, so scoring a 50/100 was most likely, whereas getting something really high like 85/100 or really low like 15/100 was much less likely. Here’s how the show went:
- Blended Together (36)
- The Wave (26)
- Ticket (51)
People really didn’t like The Wave, which was disappointing. Blended Together was better, but still bad. And Ticket was middling, at best. It was not a good show.
Step three: go on a make-believe tour
The second concert was in Upper Hutt, New Zealand, and with it I was able to start seeing how each song was trending. Here’s what songs were played:
- The First Show (45 — debut)
- Blended Together (30 — dropped 6 points)
- The Wave (41 — increased 15 points)
- Ticket (63 — increased 12 points)
As of this writing, Ticket is still a huge favourite, averaging about 76 after being played 30 times. Blended Together never really took off. It’s been played 16 times around the world, and averages 31. (Although in Oslo it had a big breakout and reached 47 before turning in an abysmal 24 in Trondheim.)
Step four: start building a fandom
I put up a Wordpress site tracking each concert review, but also added statistics and lore. For example, the song “The Wave” has a dedicated community of fans called Wavers. Concerts where every single song is new are called Jessica Shows. Moonstrike is a fictional character that was introduced in the Halifax show. The fans call themselves Fanthers. The three favourite songs are called The Big Three and it’s special to catch all three in a single show. Building out the lore is one of my favourite parts of the project.
Next I started commissioning concert posters. I really like this one, and it happens to be for one of the most legendary shows in the concert chronology.
Around this time, I started going to reddit to tell cities that my fake band was going to be coming to town. It confused some people, but a lot of people got into it. Some wrote reviews and added their own bits of lore to our overall shared story.
At one point the guitarist from a real Canadian band named Bad Hoo contributed some ideas, which inspired me to have my (fake) band open for their (real) band in Calgary. It ended up being the best show Enthusiastic Panther has ever played, before or since. Here’s the concert poster for it.
Up next: live shows
I want to design an experience where you can go to the Enthusiastic Panther website and see a live concert. How would we do live? Well, let’s start with the easy part. If the show starts at 8pm, you could come to the site at 7:59pm and it would say:
“Welcome! The show starts in 1 minute!”
And then a minute later (or longer, if we decide that Enthusiastic Panther is the sort of band to start late) the site would say something like:
Now playing: Ticket
And then if the song lasts five minutes, that’s all that will show for five minutes. When the next song shows up, we just add a new line:
#1: Ticket (Score: 66)
Now playing: Duke’s Revenge
And you just repeat that until the end of the concert, when you’d have an entire setlist. So that’s the first step. But it’d be cool to be able to have a sense of the quality of the concert as it’s happening, right? So I was thinking of something like this:
First you show the name of the song, in this case Blue Orange. Next you show a little playback indicator, that’s the dark grey horizontal line. Finally, that little vertical notch at the end shows how good the song is, on average. So you can see right away “Oh, this is a good song! Awesome!” Then the little horizontal bar slowly animates to the right, like on YouTube or Netflix.
So what if the song is played particularly well? I was thinking I could do something like this:
The blue colour could show how much better the performance was than usual. And you could do the same for a song being played poorly by using a red line. A full concert might end up looking something like this:
And this way you could see the overall quality of the songs, but also how special each performance was. For example, Don’t Let the Air Out of My Tires was a fantastic performance of an already great song, whereas Lilliput is a song no one likes and yet the band managed to completely ruin it. Our 27th Song didn’t fare much better.
So this live bit is what I’m working on next. But the really fun idea comes next. Hold on to your hats, guys.
The grand vision: actual music from real bands
What if you could listen to an Enthusiastic Panther concert live and hear actual music happening? Here’s how I want to make this happen.
- Ask real musicians to “cover” Enthusiastic Panther songs
- These songs become the official versions of each song
- Each concert strams music from each real artist in real time
For example, Enthusiastic Panther has a song called Ticket. All I need is a real band to take one of their new songs, name it Ticket, and then I’ll link to it. Simple.
The key is the original band gets to write the lyrics, the music, own the rights, everything. I’ll I’m doing is linking to their SoundCloud song page from the official band website, and streaming it live when a show is played. I love this idea, because I can publicise indie bands and my concerts get real music. I just need to find some bands to submit songs, so let me know if you’re interested!
A call for weirdos
So that’s why I wrote this email, to share my weird idea with two friends I thought might appreciate it. And to anyone else reading, I’d love your help. If you know anyone who wants to get involved by submitting music or doing a crazy live concert webpage for a fake band, please let me know!
Mike and Chris, I hope you’re having a nice day, and I hope to chat soon!