RFK parking lot, 6/24/95. I’m the freak on the right.

I’m embarrassed to admit that the last show I caught live was on Friday, November 22 of last year: a local tribute to The Last Waltz. The show was amazing, but I’ve kicked myself countless times for all of the chances I had between November 22 and March 11 of this year to see a show. Work was incredibly hectic, the holidays…so many reasons…but I couldn’t have possibly imagined that “The Last Waltz” would be the last concert I’d attend for an unbearably long time.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first concert I ever attended without my parents: the 1990 Earth Day concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion. While that was an amazing experience, it paled in comparison to my first Dead show the following year. From strolling Shakedown Street for the first time, to the opening notes of Mississippi Half-Step, to the indescribable feeling of singing “No our love will not fade away!” at the top of my lungs with thousands of my sisters, brothers, and others, I’ll never forget my first show, thanks to my “Deadhead-Buddhist-Godfather-Uncle” Lee.

I have no idea how many shows I’ve been to in the past 30 years. The number is irrelevant, compared to the way live music has shaped the person I’ve become. I could try to put what live music means to me into words, but fortunately Trey Anastasio captured my thoughts so much more eloquently than I ever could in this Relix interview. Suffice it to say that I consider live music, whether in-person, on a screen, or through my earbuds, to be an essential part of my life.

2020 has forced us to try to process the unimaginable on a near-daily basis, and the inability to go to a concert is by no means the biggest concern in my life at the moment. Living in Richmond, VA, I’m witnessing the future being written in real-time and the profundity of this time in human history is absolutely not lost on me.

That said, for Deadheads, Phish-heads, moe.rons, and fellow members of the PPPP Flock like myself, not to mention lovers of every other kind of live music around the world, it’s been a huge bummer to lack one of the most powerful sources of joy, healing, and love we’ve come to rely on, in a time when so many of us are hurting. For those who rely on the live music industry as a way to make a living — from headliners to backstage security guards, venue owners to concession stand workers, merch designers to parking lot grilled cheese entrepreneurs — no live music means no paycheck and everything that comes with a loss of income.

I’m one of those people who chuckles and responds, “how long do you have?” whenever somebody asks what I do for a living. Spending my days applying Design Thinking techniques to better understand human, often consumer and sometimes employee, behavior in order to help organizations find innovative ways to improve experiences sounds as fluffy as it gets, but since March 11, the way my Innovation Lab colleagues and I look at the world has been more important than ever. The past four months have been a blur of research, surveys, virtual workshops, endless Microsoft Teams meetings, and a “Coronacoaster” of emotions. I consider myself incredibly lucky to not only be gainfully employed right now, but also to work for my employer, doing what I do. Part of that gratitude stems from the fact that I was able to take a few, much needed days off over the past couple of weeks. No surprise: my days off have been filled with streams, audio and video, of some of my favorite bands. And while I’ve tried to disconnect from thoughts of work as much as possible, I’ve been able to spend some time thinking about how we might create new ways to enjoy live music during this whole, insane situation (I haven’t been able to come up with a decent descriptor of the simultaneous Health, Economic, and Social crises we’re living through just yet…feel free to read some of my musings on that front here).

So much of the work I do revolves around asking “What if…?” The concept has become so central to both my work and personal ethos that it’s my vanity plate.

Yeah, I’m really that guy.

We’ve all been plagued with thoughts of “What if…?” for months. We’re living through a time of unprecedented uncertainty, ambiguity, and unknowns. Humans are hardwired with a fear of the unknown. But, as anyone who’s worked with me in any way over the past few years has heard me say, Design Thinking is an ideal approach to problems with “more unknowns than knowns.”

I think it’s safe to say we’re living in a time with more unknowns than most of us have ever experienced in our lifetime.

When faced with the kinds of complex, “wicked,” problems like those that have been created by the pandemic, one of the most important things to do is to resist the natural tendency to immediately come up with solutions, take a step back and ask a lot of questions. I’ve been doing that a lot lately, and true to my vanity plate, a lot of those questions have started with “What if…?”

The question I asked myself earlier today sent me down quite a rabbit hole: What if you could play a show anywhere?

Right now, most traditional venues are shuttered. Countless concerts have been “rescheduled,” tours scrapped, and festivals canceled. Thankfully reliable sources of the live music I love most have stepped up to fill some of the need for fresh, live jams. But it occurred to me that so much of the recent “innovations” in live-streaming have been examples of using new technologies in old ways. In other words, we’ve been trying to recreate the “normal” live music experience in a time that’s anything but normal, with technologies that free us from the constraints of pre-COVID life.

If you really pare it down to the bare essentials, what do you really need to put on a show?

I humbly suggest that you only really need two things: to have the musicians in the same physical space — because of current technological limitations — and power. That’s it. Admittedly, you can play a show without power, but it really helps.

You don’t need a live audience. Of course shows are way better when the two-way exchange of energy is happening, but it’s kinda tricky right now.

You don’t need a traditional venue. Sure, the acoustics are better…for a live audience. But if all you need is a great board mix, you can remove the constraints of an acoustically optimized venue.

You don’t need wifi. To stream a show, obviously you need wifi. To stream a multi-cam show, you need some serious bandwidth…but even in Corona times, access to bandwidth is not an issue in a lot of places. But you don’t need wifi to play a show.

To play a show, all you need is to have the musicians in the same physical space, and power.

So where would you want to play if all you needed was power? The possibilities are endless.

This idea came from a conversation I had earlier today with one of my favorite colleagues. Through her Australian fiancée, she’s friends with the guys in RÜFÜS DU SOL who, sometime pre-’Rona, shot this gorgeous, audience-less “concert” in the middle of Joshua Tree National Park. I assume they had to deal with some permits and stuff, but I’m guessing it was a lot less of a hassle than actually trying to stage a show. Prolly cost a lot less too.

Think about what a professional lighting designer like Chris Koruda or Preston Hoffman could do without the constraints of lighting a stage. I get chills just imagining the possibilities.

We’ve entered a time when more people than ever before are able to “work from anywhere,” so why can’t we have “concerts anywhere”? I’ve got plenty of thoughts about how we might reimagine the live music experience in the age of COVID, but to begin with I’d love to see more bands experiment with the possibilities.

This may well be the first year I’m not able to see live music in-person in 30 years, but I believe that the innovations and experiments taking place now will create unimaginably amazing live music experiences in the near future. I know I’m not the only one with ideas to share, so please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments.

As Alan Kay famously quipped, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Let’s invent the future of live music together, because live music is always better when we’re “sharing in the groove.”

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Driven by love and curiosity, in a never-ending search for laughs, great music, and better mental models. Waynesville, NC. Opinions expressed are my own.

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Scott Wolfson

Scott Wolfson

Driven by love and curiosity, in a never-ending search for laughs, great music, and better mental models. Waynesville, NC. Opinions expressed are my own.

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