December 3, 2005

Acts, Audience Connect Via Text Messaging

By Antony Bruno

SAN FRANCISCO -- About an hour into a typical show on U2's Vertigo tour, Bono tells the crowd to hold up their mobile phones, in what has become the modern-day equivalent of flicking on a lighter. Instantly, thousands of blue-tinted screens illuminate the darkness as he marvels at the spectacle.

"Is that a 21st-century moment or what?" Bono asks.

Soon the video screen atop the stage flashes a five-digit number above the word "UNITE."

"Time to do a magic trick," he says. "These little devices -- these cell phones -- they can do all sorts of things."

Then the band launches into the song "One," and Bono encourages the audience to use their phones to send a text message (also known as an SMS) to the Web site, a sort of digital petition voicing support for poverty relief in Africa. Later, during the encore, the names of all who did so are scrolled on the same screen, and each receive a message of thanks from Bono on their phones.

This is one of the most visible examples of how the mobile phone is being used as a communication tool between artist and audience, turning the concert event into a much more interactive experience.

"It's the perfect intersection of pop culture and technology," says Andy Sheldon, a senior director at Sun Microsystems who implemented the system that manages the U2 SMS campaign.


The SMS initiative began at the worldwide Live 8 concerts in July, where fans at each show were asked to text their support of Live 8's anti-poverty message to the petition. More than 26 million responded. (Sun also implemented that campaign.)

U2 then picked up the concept for its Vertigo tour. The U.S. leg of the trek averages about 10,000 responses per night, totaling more than 250,000 so far.

While Bono and U2 are using wireless text-messaging for altruistic purposes, other efforts are more profit-oriented.

"This year was definitely the year of mobile at concerts and live events," says Nihal Mehta, founder and CEO of Ipsh, another company facilitating interactive messaging campaigns. "This is the year that we've felt the most traction."

Ipsh powered the SMS messaging campaigns of more than two dozen events this year, including the Austin City Limits music festival in September, Lollapalooza in July and Heineken's AmsterJam in August.

Lollapalooza mastermind Perry Farrell used SMS to engage concertgoers to join in a massive scavenger hunt, awarding successful participants with tickets to an exclusive after-party.

During the AmsterJam concert, organizers used SMS messages to direct fan attention to unfolding events, such as the arrival of Snoop Dogg's helicopter. And fans were asked to text in the song they wanted to hear for the encore.

Simon Renshaw's Strategic Artist Management earlier this year tapped Boomerang Mobile Media to manage SMS campaigns at events for several of its clients, including Ghostface, Clay Aiken and Anastacia.

As at the U2 shows, fans attending these concerts were invited to text messages to a pre-set code that let them post messages to large screens near the stage, as well as compete in trivia contests for the chance to win better seats or VIP backstage passes and to buy concert merchandise.


For artists and their management, this new capability adds yet another layer of potential revenue to the concert tour. They often charge up to $2 for fans to send their messages during the show. Fans are notified of the fee in advance and given the option to continue. Revenue is split with the company managing the service.

U2, however, charges nothing. SMS airtime charges will always apply, and vary by carrier and subscription plan.

Rather than waiting in line to buy a concert T-shirt, fans could simply text in the code for the shirt they want, with the charge billed to the mobile phone and the product delivered by mail.

Next year, expect to see acts offering fans ringtones or full-song downloads of live performances, or the ability to pre-order an album. One proposal would send fans an SMS with a digital coupon worth $2 off the cost of the artist's CD, redeemable at participating retailers.

Kevin Wall, CEO of Network Live and executive producer of the Live 8 concerts, says interactive text-messaging will soon become as commonplace at concerts as T-shirt sales.

"The location-based SMS business is at a primitive stage, but will be incorporated into shows in a lot of different ways," Wall says. "Two years from now, it'll just be a standard thing to do."