A popular Internet maxim is that no one watches longform video. So what do you do if you want people to watch 24 hours of it?
If you’re MTV, you bring in an established band with a loyal following and you blend the old (music television) with the new (reality television).
This is precisely what MTV tried to do with the latest installment of its O Music Awards. For the show, the company enlisted the Flaming Lips to go on a 24-hour mini-tour of the American south on a quest to set a Guinness World Record for the most live performances in that single period. As if that stunt wasn’t big enough, Viacom (which owns MTV) planned to live stream the entire production.
This would be one thing if it was just a concert in one place, or perhaps if Viacom streamed only the live performances. But part of the catch was turning the time between performances – those bus rides between places like Jackson and Hattiesburg, Mississippi – into something real, with Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne as the star. It turns out this endeavor has a lot more moving pieces than cameras, buses, and guitars.
The Flaming Lips were a perfect band for this show because they innovate, they care deeply about experiences, and they have a passionate and rabid fan base that they treat like family.
“I think more and more, especially younger people, they long to be in something. They don’t just want to watch it or talk about it, they want it to happen to them,” Coyne told Mashable earlier this year.
For this excursion, 40 of their fans rented a bus to follow them and bought tickets to all 8 shows. The Lips superfans were the ones dressed in outrageous costumes such as a banana suit and covered in facepaint. They also greeted Coyne in person with hugs as if he were arriving late to their family reunion.
Of course the Flaming Lips also occupy a sweet spot in terms of bands that could participate in this event. In a career that spans more than 30-years, the band has put in the work required to cultivate that kind of following. Still, they’re far from a household name. (Though they have crowd favorites, the only song they’ve ever had that would qualify as a “hit” is “She Don’t Use Jelly,” which will be 20 years old next year.)
Bigger pop acts that inspire mainstream cult followings (Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber) would be financially and logistically off limits for an event of this scope.
And even indie or alternative acts that might be more “of the moment” – such as Bon Iver or My Morning Jacket – might not inspire the devotion that compels people from their late teens into middle age to rent a bus and stay up all night following their favorite band through Mississippi.
Both to sweeten the deal for the ticket-buying public and to account for the fact that the band would only be playing roughly 15 minutes at each venue, the O Music Awards booked a variety of talent to open for and collaborate with the Lips at each stop. This included legendary songwriter Jackson Browne, popular contemporary artists like Hunter Hayes and Grace Potter, and left-of-center indie musicians such as Neon Indian.
As bookends to the event were major performances in the two most metropolitan areas of the tour, Memphis and New Orleans. In each location, the band played a full set on top of their Guinness World Records-mandated 15 minutes. This gave them a chance to really loosen up and be themselves, and not surprisingly these two performances were highlights.
If you haven’t seen the Flaming Lips perform live in the last decade, the experience has grown increasingly communal. It exemplifies offline engagement, though Coyne would never use such marketing speech. The performance is equal parts singalong and spectacle. There are countless giant balloons that bounce across the sky and confetti sprays out of giant cannons and fills the air.
Coyne is talkative and addresses the crowd as if there’s no divide between the stage and the sea of people in front of it. And the songs are carefully chosen from the band’s vast catalog to provoke a euphoric response. For example, “Do You Realize??” almost universally provokes the same explosion of ecstasy at every show.
How it Affects the O Music Awards
The Flaming Lips and MTV both have a built-in brand. MTV’s contemporary offerings like Jersey Shore and Sixteen and Pregnant tend to aim for the broadest reach possible. And the Flaming Lips, despite being a decidedly weird band, aim for — if not universal appeal — then certainly the most inclusive experience possible.
The O Music Awards, a new Viacom property that bears the branding “Offbeat, Outrageous, Online,” doesn’t have an established brand. What do you do in that scenario in the digital age? You appeal to established communities that back artists.
That’s certainly what they did in bringing in the Flaming Lips for a series of offline events, and similarly what they tapped into with the “Fan Army FTW” award, which celebrates the artist that has the greatest online backers. For the third time (in 3 O Music Awards), the prize was given to the “Aliens,” fans of German pop-rock band Tokio Hotel. The legions of Tokio Hotel fans beat out fans of artists with similarly rabid followings such as One Direction and [Super Junior](http://mashable.com/follow/topics/super-junior/). (Surprisingly, Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters” were not nominated.)
This is brilliant and savvy for the O Music Awards, who have a duty to both drive traffic (the site saw a 92% increase in social referral traffic over the 2nd O Music Awards) as well as to recognize the collective empowerment of fans that social media has brought. However, it’s hard to imagine a huge intersection between the fans who turn out for the Flaming Lips and the fans of Korean boy band Super Junior.
An informal look at the statistics suggests that maybe it’s not the Flaming Lips that’s driving the success of this event at all. Viacom told me that at its peak, the O Music Awards website was receiving 36,000 pageviews per second, all of which was driven by voting and excitement over three key awards categories: “Fan Army FTW,” “Must Follow on Twitter,” and “OMA Superfan Rundown.”
These categories have nothing to do with music, but honor the fans behind the artist. It’s not surprising that the peak moments of the awards show are driven by celebrity more than anything else. And it speaks to the savvy of the O Music Awards that this particular event is driven both by online and offline organizing.
Where It Missed
In typical MTV fashion, the time spent on the bus was intended to be live, unscripted, and unpredictable. Jackass star Chris Pontius was enlisted as the “rodeo clown,” and a series of hosts rode the bus with Coyne, who did his best to be the center of attention. But even Coyne with his endless enthusiasm for life and experiences couldn’t keep the feed afloat.
24 hours is a long time to watch people talk about nothing, and there just wasn’t enough compelling material. A more appealing alternative would have been to focus the down time between shows on the show headquarters in New Orleans. Rather than have personalities talking mostly about nothing, they could have arranged for less improvised filler.
The one highlight of all the in-between time came early Thursday morning when young country star Hunter Hayes boarded the bus with four teenage fans. This may indeed have been the most MTV moment of the entire show, with the confident and affable Hayes performing intimately while these girls deal with the odd mix of exuberance and embarrassment. However scripted it may have been, it felt like a real moment.
Why the O Music Awards Scored an Offline Win
After dawn, we rolled into tiny Hattiesburg, Miss., only to find the streets outside Benny’s Boom Boom Room lined with adoring fans. The venue was packed to the doors and beyond sold out, and yet fans of all ages had been waiting for hours to welcome the Flaming Lips to their town at 7:00 in the morning. It was a triumphant scene for the band and for the O Music Awards because at that point more than any other, you felt that people deeply cared about what was happening.
In New Orleans, the band broke the record with just under 30 minutes to spare. After receiving the award, Coyne addressed the crowd. “At 5:00 this morning, you think you’re going to get here, and if you’re lucky you’re going to crawl in and barely be able to sing and barely be able to play, and hope that you’re going to survive it. But, as the day went because we have this beautiful, beautiful gathering, and everywhere we would go they would give us energy. Everywhere we’d go we’d walk away with a little more energy. So as we’ve proven here today, as we got to New Orleans now I feel like, ‘I could go another fucking 24 hours.'”
When Viacom looks at the stats and deems this event a success (and it was), they’ll look at the 44 million votes they received, the 1.2 million streams, and the traffic bonanza that comes from the global audience. This is huge for the growth of the O Music Awards. However, those “Aliens” will go vote for Tokio Hotel wherever – no matter what.
Still, the real victory may have been on those streets of Hattiesburg, where the O Music Awards and the Flaming Lips brought something to those people that’s truly never been done before.