The secret of their success: Staying close to their fans
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Before social media interaction defined what fan service means, the members of Umphrey’s McGee gave their fans atypical access.
“Before we did it on social media, we did it in real life,” said Joel Cummins, the keyboardist for Umphrey’s McGee. “As people, we’re mostly just six average guys who are in a band and who feel pretty lucky that we get to do that. So we have always made ourselves accessible to people.”
Umphrey’s McGee will make themselves accessible to Fort Wayne fans on Feb. 21 at The Clyde.
Indiana born and bred
The band formed 21 years ago at the University of Notre Dame, and despite the near-total absence of a South Bend music scene, Umphrey’s McGee managed to develop a sound and build a following.
The band is unusual in that it manages to combine the joy and looseness of the jam band with the rigor and gravity of prog rock.
“We have people who come to shows who really like the compositions, we have people who come to shows who really like the improv, and we have people who come to shows who really like both,” Cummins said. “I think that’s an important part of who we are. It’s not just about us improvising all night. We’ve put a lot of thought into our compositions.”
During any given performance, the band has 200 original songs to choose from and 500 potential cover tunes. Needless to say, one performance is typically very different from the next.
Set lists tend to be assembled the day of each show. The band tries to arrive as early as possible so it can spend as much time as possible rehearsing and loosening up.
The goal, Cummins said, is to play the first song of the night as if the band has already been on stage for a while. Which it has.
The band’s current stature and level of success was hard-won, Cummins wants to stress. It took a while for a band to find the right members and to learn how best to meld the disparate ideas and personalities of those members.
Writing the book on music success
Cummins knows so much about building a successful career in music that he wrote a book about it. The book is called The Realist’s Guide to a Successful Music Career and it comes out this summer.
“It’s half music and half music business advice,” he said. “It’s intended for somebody who is trying to make a career and navigate how to do that in this climate. There are a lot of opportunities because independence is more widespread than ever before. But there are a lot of challenges that come with that as well.
“A lot of the book is, ‘Here’s what we did wrong. Never do this,’” Cummins said, laughing.
The Realist’s Guide to a Successful Music Career doesn’t just feature Cummins’ expertise. It is fortified with advice from music industry vets like Huey Lewis, Susan Tedeschi, Ivan Neville, and Victor Wooten.
The book is just another form of fan service. Many of the band’s fans are themselves serious musicians and their intimacy with the band’s members makes them feel, perhaps, that success is within their own grasps.
Staying close to the fans
It is in that closeness with fans where Cummins is best able to measure the band’s success.
“We hear these stories,” he said. “People are like, ‘Oh yeah. I met my wife at your show. We have been to 50 shows together.’ It really kind of makes you feel like, ‘This is cool. We have genuinely affected people’s lives, hopefully for the better.’”
Unlike the fans of many bands, the fans of Umphrey’s McGee expect the band to experiment and create new music that sounds very different from the old.
“It’s liberating and challenging at the same time,” Cummins said. “Overall, it’s a good thing. You know, we have people who will travel 100 miles in any direction to see a show. They’ll see three or four shows on a tour. There are people who will see us in Cincinnati and Milwaukee and Fort Wayne.”
“So we want to make full use of our catalog options,” he said. “We have to keep it fresh for them. If we keep it fresh for them, we keep it fresh for us as well.”