Call it “Youtube Live”. The inaugural Digitour combines approximately half a dozen of the most popular acts the video-sharing site has to offer, and takes them on the road to meet their millions of subscribers in person. I met up with the show at its 4th stop, at the New Parrish theater in Oakland’s Historic Downtown district, to see if the talent worked just as well without the ability to disable comments.
The show’s 2011 lineup manages decent diversity, ranging from the freestyle rap vocals of DeStorm to the crowd pleasing not-so-auto-tuned quartet of the Gregory Brothers. For a $10 ticket, Digitour aims for a multimedia experience spanning on-stage acts buffered by video submissions from other famous net-celebs like the crew behind Annoying Orange and Michael Buckley, the host of “What the Buck?”. Depending on the size of your venue, however, many of the video features will fall victim to a lack of space and not be included.
The effect this has on the show depends on just how much you’ll want to see miniature celebrity roasts of the acts on-stage, roasts that run half the length of most of the content already on the internet. My conversations with the producers of the program suggest that more can be made of this trans-media portion should the theater allow, but what has been shown off so far amounts to little more than having multiple emcees come on for awards-show style fluff humor.
Not that you came to a live show for any of that. As the acts later told me, most of them came from a live background before hitting it big on the interwebs, so crowd-riling and set-making come more naturally than one would expect when envisioning the word “internet musician”. The show’s hosting talent, seperate from the show proper, runs on a sponsor-based cycle, so depending on the particular night, you’ll be treated to a mix of between 1-3 local Youtube talent leading off the show and introducing the acts.
Our headlining host was Jumoke TV, leading the show off with “Before its Too Late”, a syrupy ballad that managed just enough earnest to counter the smaltz. The show itself is slightly longer than two hours, divided into six main acts, with other Youtube performers taking general band duty throughout, Ricky Ficarelli on drums and Mysteryguitarman covering guitar for other sets in addition to his own short bits. Other Youtube celebs join the show periodically throughout the 27-city run, including David Choi, so double-check area listings for the up-to-date setlist.
The show proper started off with a 4-song setlist by Nice Peter, including his hit most demanded by fans present, the “Like a G6” parody “Like it’s Quidditch”. It’s not quite the tune to break Weird Al’s monopoly on stretching the music industry’s fair use policies, but it has its own kind of self-aware magic. Peter got most into his element with his centerpiece improvisation, singing about random events happening around the stage that night. Surprisingly, it managed a Stephen Lynch level of lyrical complexity while somehow managing to adhere to the event’s unspoken PG-13 rating.
DeStorm and Mysteryguitarman’s sets bled into one another, with the latter teleporting on and off stage at the backing tracks’ behest. Despite being known primarily for his beatbox remixes of popular tunes, DeStorm kept mostly to a string of original hits and a freestyle section. While his original tunes make for a pretty middle-of-the-road set, the guy’s got major heart to throw between beats, evident in a freestyle in which the audience offered jarring topics like “alien” “subway sandwich” and “Wal-Mart” (“They tried to take me down,” DeStorm joked after the show to me, “But I’m not going to allow it to happen, I practice for words like that”.) Mysteryguitarman may lack much of the stage presence compared to others in the show, but plays a reliably solid guitar across a diverse genre portfolio, often becoming the most absorbing part of sets he’s not even leading.
The show’s tail-end is where the most viewed acts come to play. The Gregory Brothers provided the evening’s most conventional set structure with the least conventional tunes. Despite being incapable of reproducing the advanced auto-tuned layers they have become associated with, this comparatively stripped setup proves that, above all things, The Gregory Brothers have a fantastic harmony and can play a wide range of instruments not plugged into a computer. It takes a lot to make “Double Rainbow (All the Way)” into a thumping crowd anthem, but the Brothers more than know their way around a beat. Having the ecstatic man himself, Yosemite Bear, on-stage didn’t hurt.
Dave Days rounds out the show, his small front-row posse of fan-girls giving a kind Justin Bieber flair to the set. Only without the annoying prepubescence…and with actual talent. His vocals and guitar aren’t exactly in constant communication, but the man has produced a soft pop-rock setlist that wouldn’t sound out of place in its own country-wide tour of malls and outdoor amphitheaters. For anyone above the age of 15 and removed from the female gender, his faux obsession with Miley Cyrus can get a little creepy – despite its obvious tongue-in-cheek overtones – especially when he produces a cardboard cut-out of the pop starlet for his song “My Last Song for Miley”. Hopefully you didn’t expect a traditional compilation concert.
For a $10-$12 ticket, The Digitour 2011 manages an impressively diverse and engaging concert experience. Depending on your demographic, the show’s flow will dip for certain sets, especially when the personality-led fervor declines. Its still impressive how much these made-for-internet tunes can translate to a live arena, even taking out the audience factor. The Gregory Brothers’ songified setlist makes for the most unabashed fist-pumps, but the improvisational bits hit far higher than expected, Ficarelli and Mysteryguitarman going beyond the call of the house band duty. It’s eclectic, intimate, and can get shamelessly odd. It’s exactly how a Youtube concert should be.
We sat down with some of the show’s talent and producers throughout the night, finding out the reaction to the show so far, and what to expect for the future of Digitour in 2011 and beyond. Unfortunately, the venue’s security team did not allow for complete coverage, but we were told by producers that all the talent wanted to express gratitude to those that came out to the shows.
Elder-Geek (Gav): Did you have any live experience going into the Digitour? Or was this your first time taking these songs on the road?
JomukeTV (JTV): I was already a singer before I went on Youtube, so [it] was kind of a bigger platform. So for me, it’s not much of a stretch. It’s just getting in front of a bunch of Youtubers. But for others it’s pretty cool to see how they incorporate video with the live performance.
Brett the Intern (BI), Tour Production Assistant: I think its working really well, a lot of people have just watched their videos and said “Oh, that’s cool that they do that, but what are they like in real life?” Truth is, people are surprised that they are nicer in person, and you know, we just want to hang out and have a nice time, and listen and play good music. Tight quarters [referring to bus transports for the acts and crew] are a great experience and a great learning environment for everyone, we’ve all be getting very close.
Nice Peter (NP): It’s funny for me because it’s actually a return to my roots. Before I started making Youtube videos about a year and a half ago, this is what I did all the time: tour and play live. So for me, it’s actually a return to what I’m more comfortable with. So I feel great about it.
DeStorm (DS): I do have a live background, I have done it before, live shows and inner-cities and stuff like that. So it’s new for Youtube ’cause you try to you know – use the video, I’ll say it like that. I didn’t use any video tonight, but for most shows I do use a lot of video.
Dave Days (DD): Growing up, in like middle school and high school, I had a band. We would play gigs every month or two months or so. So I have some experience, but I’ve never had something at this scale. We are doing, like, a show every day. So…no, but I’ve played a bit. (smiling) So I kinda know what I’m doing.
Gav: What was the process like, getting this tour off the ground? When did you get involved with the project?
Christopher Rojas, Digitour Producer (CR): Well, there were some acts on the roster that never performed live. And we had a lot of production meetings, we definitely wanted to have video playing behind some people. It was definitely a process and an education for everyone, and we locked ourselves up for two weeks before coming out here. We had scripting rehearsals to figure out the inter-play of the show and who was going to collab[orate] with who. Yeah, we had a long two week [process] seeing everyone in action and that’s when we really saw it come together. It took awhile, we wanted to make sure it was a really robust cast, a robust roster. We didn’t want to have just all parody acts or all pop acts. We really want to cast a wide net throughout the Youtube world, and I think we did that.
Michael Gregory (MG): They asked us to play. The Digitour –
Sarah Gregory (SG): The Digitour rung us up on the telephone one day and said (high, weird voice) “Hi! We’re the Digitour! Do you want to come, on the Digitour?” And we were like, “Yes!”
Evan Gregory (EG): Yeah, but we knew all of the guys that were going to go on tour, we knew the vast majority of them –
Andrew Gregory (AG): – Yeah we already knew DeStorm, we already knew Mysteryguitarman, we had already met Dave Days –
MG: – and we thought, “Who we want to hang out with for a whole month? Them.” They are all great people.
DD: Well, I worked with Chris (Rojas) and Meredith and Sarah, the producers. Chris helped me produce the song “What Does it Take?” Meredith’s awesome, Sarah’s awesome, they worked with Mysteryguitarman. They were like “Hey Dave, want to do a tour?” And I was like “Yeah, I’d love to be part of it.” And they got a bunch of other people to do it, like, to be a part of it. A new adventure for all of us, so why not?
Gav: What were the challenges in taking these songs produced for Youtube to the live stage? What surprised you about the road tour?
SG: The biggest challenge is dealing with all of the booty shaking that happens in the audience as a result of the combination of – you know – the videos and the live music component –
MG: – Yeah, that doesn’t happen inside a computer.
AG: The vibration of all those booties could actually upset not just the videos but the space time continuum.
DS: I’m learning from every experience that you never know what to expect when you hit the stage. Just freestyle, and get it right, you know, so my improvisation skills really had to kick in. I’ll say that.
BI: We are meeting lots of people, its interesting to see you viewers and put names to usernames. A video may get 300,000 views but meeting 300,000 people its really a cool thing. You get to see your demographic and what they’re like: what they look like, what shoes they wear, you know, they are just good people with nice smiles ready to listen to some great music.
DD: I think it’s, like, a big test to see how it goes. From, like, internet to real life. And, I think it’s really weird [that it took this long] because if you watch us and like us on Youtube, you should be able come and see us at a show. You realize we are real people and we do care about you, it’s just videos and us going “blah blah blah”. We want to show everybody that its, like, real life man. (laughing) Double Rainbows!
CR: I think a lot of fans didn’t know what the Digitour was, that was another part of the education. There have been Youtube conferences were people pay exorbitant amounts of money for what seems like limited access: they get to see their Youtubers in panels, and they aren’t that many performances. First, the fans didn’t know how much it was going to be, so once we announced the ticket prices, the fans went wild. They had been paying $300 for these VIP tickets to some of these conferences. The first couple of shows we had to pull up some video to let the fans know what the Digitour, this was the first of its kind, people didn’t know what to expect.
Gav: Where do you see the future of the Digitour brand, either ideally or pragmatically?
DD: I’d love to see this show kinda become like the Warped Tour. Like, with every year, Digitour’d get a bunch of different musicians on Youtube to perform live. I’d love for it to become large-scale like how that works, like, a world-wide known festival. And also a worldwide tour would be sweet, and from what I hear they’ve been working on that. So who knows?
CR: Well, Digitour Media is definitely not just a touring company, that’s [just] one of the platforms. I can’t speak too much, but, we are already planning Digitour 2012, because we’ve realized just how much of a long lead it takes to really do the show. And we are gettin’ the World Tour goin’. So that’s something to look out for.
JTV: I think the Digitour is going very well, I think its going to do very awesome. And so far, it’s had a great response.
DS: It’s already expanding, I can guarantee next year it’ll probably be international. From city to city, the [crowds] keep getting bigger, and a lot of shows on the East Coast, a lot of them have been sold out. It’s going to get crazy, you know, and we just gotta prepare for it.
NP: The Digitour folks are not slowing down, they are already taking about what they are going to do next. It’s really exciting to take this Youtube experience and bring it to the live stage. So I don’t think you have heard the last of the Digitour.
AG: Have you seen the movie “Tron”? That’s basically where I imagine we’ll end up. In the computer, but with us living in the computer –
SG: – our lives. Our lives in the computer.
EG: Kind of like a mix between “Tron”, “The Matrix”, and “The Last Waltz”.
MG: Yeah, where it’s a battle to the death through music.
SG: I hope that the Digitour melds with people’s sort of original experience with Youtube stars, in such a way that it makes it that the Digitour is constantly happening during work hours. People come to the Digitour and listen while they are also working, they, like, bring their cubicles to the Digitour and then break down their cubicles with the passion of the live experience.
BI: Well it’s simple, the end of the world is not 2012. We will be there 2012, 2013, 2014, it’s very possible that the world will continue to go because of the Digitour. We are just going to keep going, right now nation-wide, soon, possibly world-wide. You didn’t hear it from me. But there have been talks, and they have been good talks.