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VOL. 35 | NO. 36 | Friday, September 09, 2011

One on one with the world

Intimate, live Internet concerts connect musicians, fans

By Tim Ghianni

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Evening meal eaten, kitchen cleaned up, shower taken, PJs on. It’s a good time to catch a live concert, one even more intimate than at the Bluebird or other listening rooms.

On this evening it’s Don Schlitz, prolific songwriter – The Gambler, Forever and Ever, Amen are two of a seemingly countless number cramming his satchel – who is welcoming all guests into his office and writing room in the hills of Williamson County.

Stageit, a new interactive, Web-based concert experience, not only allows pajama-clad concertgoers to enjoy the intimate experience from their homes, it also allows this guitar-slinging, self-described “country boy” to stay home with his wife and still touch the hearts of his fans – and even add a little cash to his pocketbook.

The buildup to this concert isn’t like the hum in a large arena the hours before show time. Instead, it begins for concertgoers who go to the Stageit.com website, check out the “Box Office” for the menu of the evening’s shows and purchase a ticket from the bank of 10 cents apiece “notes” purchased through the web site.

Schlitz’s show is set to begin at 8 p.m. and, since he calls it “Don4A$ (Don for a Dollar),” the tickets cost 10 notes.

Concertgoers can add to the box office till by clicking on the “tip” box during the show and tossing extra “notes” in the tip jar.

For this particular show, an email arrives at 7:41 p.m., perhaps to make sure fans finish warming their milk or get ready to put their popcorn in the microwave: “Hey there, you currently hold a ticket to see Don Schlitz at 08:00 PM CDT on August 29. Don Schlitz is sending this to you as a friendly reminder.”

A countdown to show time ends when the famously affable wordsmith, a regular at Bluebird and related Nashville guitar pulls, smiles directly at each fan and jokes that he sees what everyone is doing.

For the next 50 minutes, Schlitz sings and talks into each fan’s computer monitor, his every smile and gaze directed as if to a single person, but in reality reaching out to everyone who is tuned in.

“The best thing about Stageit is you can be anywhere and everywhere,” Schlitz explains while he’s prepping his office for one of about a dozen full-blown Stageit shows he’s played since he was won over by the technology.

Stageit was born by and for music lovers, the brainchild of L.A.-based performer and entrepreneur Evan Lowenstein, who hit the big-time with his identical twin brother Jaron (Evan and Jaron) in the early part of this century.

The basic premise is that performers can use the Internet to stage scheduled, live concerts for their fans. The inexpensive nature – the notes plus tips – makes it a minor investment for the music consumer and allows the performers to stay in touch with their most devout fans and, it is hoped, reaching new ones.

Lowenstein says that’s the eventual goal: Fans will come to Stageit to see their favorite, in this case Schlitz, and while looking at the menu of offerings take note of other shows scheduled.

Perhaps those fans will invest a few dimes trying out someone else, in addition to their favorites.

“We hope eventually to be like a music mall,” says Lowenstein, drawing a comparison to customers who may visit the Gap and see Old Navy across the corridor, then deciding it’s worth it to cross the hall to see if there’s something interesting there.

The more frequent the visitors to this mall of live concert experiences, the more notes are sold and the more full tip jars become. Most of that money goes to the performer.

“We aren’t in it to make a lot of money,” says Lowenstein, noting that the artist keeps 60 percent of the take (tips and tickets), 30 percent goes into maintaining the platform and other business costs and 10 percent goes back to Stageit.

Schlitz is a good example of a regular on the Stageit roster, having become enamored with the technology not long after its soft launch this spring and helping spread the word to other music-making pals.

It only took a single demonstration to win Schlitz over.

“It was like: ‘Whoa, this is fun,’” he says in a generously laugh-filled interview in which he describes his initial reaction and his commitment to this new form of selling music and reaching hearts.

“This is way too much fun. This is the TV show you always wanted to have.

Singer/songwriter Don Schlitz’ home stage: Computer, webcam, microphone and two desk lamps.

-- Photo: Tim Ghianni

“You make a little money, and there are going to be some people down the line who are going to make a lot of money doing this. I mean, wouldn’t you just love to see Dolly Parton doing this? I’d pay for that, wouldn’t you?

“It’s a useful engine. It’s super exciting to see technology take off.”

Schlitz, who even celebrated his 59th birthday with his Stageit fans, was immediately captivated by how simple this process was and how easily he can bring people virtually into his home.

“There are different people who do them different ways,” he says. “Some are more interactive, some spend time talking to people doing questions and comments.”

While the show is ongoing, those who have purchased tickets are allowed into a chat room where they can share thoughts about songs, type in “clap clap clap,” ask for a particular song or even engage in personal conversation. For example, Schlitz’s birthday show was designed as a fundraiser for Stand Up to Cancer, and audience members not only “talked” about songs, they swapped tales of cancer loss, cancer defeated and the “pleasure” of mammograms.

Some performers take the chat into account while they are performing, following up with the song requested or contributing verbally to the conversation.

Schlitz warns people in advance that he’s not going to be able to do this. “My eyes are such that I can’t see the chat that’s going on,” he says. He does go back after the show to look at the comments made by his fans.

“I just talk and sing. I plan out the show. I have a pretty good little following,” he says.

That following enthusiastically reacts to each song Schlitz performs during his set. For example, while he’s singing The Greatest – a hit for Kenny Rogers – fans compete for how much love they can ladle on the tune and artist with comments like “I love this one, too,” “one of the best” and “not bad for an old dude.”

This is not a technology for the big stage show, but rather for the low-key solo acoustic, offering up the intimate “welcome into my home” show for fans. And while fans watch and comment and chat, they also have the chance to purchase Schlitz’s albums and have them directly delivered to their iTunes accounts.

Schlitz demonstrates the setup for the show is pretty simple. Some artists simply use the built-in cameras and microphones on their computers. Others can get a bit more elaborate.

“This is not rocket science,” Schlitz says. “I use my iMac and a little snowball microphone and it works great. Even a songwriter can do it.”

His lighting: Two desk lamps with fluorescent energy-saver bulbs, shining into his face. He switches on a neon Schlitz beer sign, an office decoration, for his elaborate background.

A benefit to him is that folks from all around the world can watch online and even interact with each other, building a little “Don Schlitz” community.

“I have people as far away as Australia, Denmark and California,” he says. “It makes the world a nice, small place.”

Schlitz’s high-tech show in low-tech home surroundings –his “teleprompter” includes his weathered songbook and a sheet of family-friendly jokes kept just out of camera range – takes place in his office. But it could be quite portable, if for example he wanted to pull out his guitar while on vacation or at a corporate gig.

“You can do this from anywhere on the road,” he says. All a person really needs is a laptop computer and a song to sing.

It was that “reaching everyone” idea that first got Lowenstein so interested in the process that he spent time investigating it and formulating a plan, even spending time at Harvard Business School to see how this could possibly work.

Among those who have jumped on board as investors is Jimmy Buffett, who has parlayed a few anti-establishment songs about pirates, frosty rum drinks and sun-drenched, buxom mermaids into a business empire.

“We have been fortunate to have some good people advise us,” Lowenstein says.

While there are others on the board, Lowenstein says a lot of what is Stageit came from his own passion as a performer and as something of a techno-geek.

“I’ve always been into the internet,” Lowenstein says. “So I developed a real fascination with finding ways to connect with my fans online.”

He studied what was out there – there are other platforms – “and I was real upset with the technology.”

“I found there was no way for me to tour the world from my living room. It didn’t make sense. It didn’t seem that difficult since people have been live-streaming for 10 years.

“It was a personal pursuit,” he says. “I was trying to solve my own problem. I had fans all over the world.”

No they weren’t the screaming millions who pay hundreds to see U2 or Lady Gaga. But they are fans who like his music.

“It didn’t make sense for me to actually go out and see them,” says Lowenstein.

So this platform was developed and launched in March, and slowly it is gaining popularity not just in music towns like Nashville, Austin and L.A., but from anywhere a person may make music.

“What we have created is so valuable. The ability to make money, to bring in revenue at zero cost to the artist.”

While Schlitz’s literally down-home performance is perhaps the norm, there have been Stageit shows from amphitheaters and hotel rooms.

“What we’ve enabled you to do as an artist is to perform wherever you are,” Lowenstein says. “For example, you could be in the back of a bus going from one place to another. It would be cool if our fans could see that.”

While it is a technology open to anyone, Schlitz cautions it is neither for the timid nor the greenhorn.

Yes, the artist is playing alone in a room. But he or she also is selling tickets and entertainment to people he or she can’t see. The goal is to get them to leave tips, buy albums and come back for more.

If anything, he demonstrates while plotting out the night’s broadcast from his office desk, the direct eye contact the performer has with each consumer makes this even more intimate than a club show.

“There are people who are very nervous,” Schlitz says. “And that isn’t very good. They weren’t seasoned performers.”

Schlitz does not see this as a first step for artists, a place for them to hone their chops.

In fact, he says performers must work the small rooms, learning comfortable stage patter and presentation, before bringing fans into their own living rooms.

“Once you play the Bluebird, you can play anywhere.” Even from an office, strewn with his own as well as Beatles CDs, scraps of paper with random and rhyming words and song ideas and an army of guitars.

He views the fans who are looking through the Internet window as a crowd even more demanding and attentive than at that world-famous listening room on Hillsboro Road.

“Stageit’s an intimate club setting. It’s a very fun way for me to share what I’m doing. I’ll play some hits or I might play some new songs or a song I wrote that day.

“People are very kind. It’s an outlet. It’s a good outlet.”

He limits his attendance to between 30 and 50 to maintain that intimate feel, something that is easily translated by the folks who are viewing the show and typing “woohoo” or “clap clap clap” in the chat room.

“I’m not a techie. I’m not a nerd. I’m a slow learner. It’s user friendly,” he says. A part of the appeal is that, if the spirit moves him, he can just set up and perform for his fans, announcing the unscheduled, impromptu Stageit gig on his Facebook or Twitter (don4adollar) pages as well as his own website.

Last week, for example, he decided to add a “casual Friday” show that turned out to be one of his “best and most relaxed” yet. “It’s a date night show for those who are home,” he says.

“It’s a very interesting process. The technology being really quite democratic, or at least verging toward democratic, there’s going to be a lot of opportunities.

“It doesn’t mean that everybody is going to be a big star. I’m not going to be a guest on late-night television.”

It also is not taped or recorded in any fashion. There is no archiving of shows. It is completely live, once and done.

“It’s the warts-and-all version,” Schlitz says.

The fact it isn’t recorded for posterity helps sidestep piracy and other issues.

Just as in the case of a concert at the Bluebird or even at a big arena, every performance is different. “Every show is live,” says Lowenstein. “You can’t pirate intimacy and you can’t pirate an experience.”

He sees Stageit as an ideal venue in a time when – thanks to YouTube, Facebook and other web destinations – artists are peddling their own work, driving their own careers. Those other platforms don’t bring in ticket revenue, while Stageit does.

“You can make money from this, but to me that’s not important,” says Schlitz, admitting that even if just one has bought a ticket, he’d still focus squarely on the iMac “eye” and put on the same intensely intimate show.

“I love it,” he says. “To me it’s a hobby. … It’s an addiction.”

Freelance writer Tim Ghianni spent about 3½ decades as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in Nashville and Middle Tennessee. Also journalist-in-residence at Lipscomb University, he and his family live in Nashville’s Crieve Hall neighborhood.

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