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PHOTOS: THE LES PAUL FOUNDATION; SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
The Music Man
To introduce the father of modern music to new generations of fans, The Les Paul Foundation embarks on a 40-city tour that nets more than 133 million impressions. By Lena Valenty
Company: The Les Paul Foundation Event: Les Paul's Big Sound Experience Objectives: Increase awareness of Les Paul among younger generations, attract 50,000 attendees, build the foundation's email database, and grow the fundraising base for future initiatives. Strategy: Share Les Paul's innovations with people of all ages across the country via a mobile experiential event. Tactics: Outfit a 53-foot semitrailer with a series of interactive touchscreen experiences to teach attendees about Les Paul's many contributions to the music industry. Results: Attracted more than 66,000 attendees at 40 stops, scored 4.5 million live impressions, generated 130 million media impressions, and collected 12,999 email addresses. Creative/Production Agency: Mobility Resource Associates, www.gomra.com; Balance Studios Inc., www.balancestudios.com Production Agency: The Exhibit House, www.exhibithouse.us Budget: $750,000 – $999,000
Ask a Millennial "Who is Les Paul?" and he or she will likely sip an avocado latte, shoot you some nasty side eye, and reply, "Don't you mean what is a Les Paul?" That's because to younger generations, Les Paul is synonymous with the Gibson guitar that carries his name and not much else. "Many think Les Paul is just the name of a guitar," says Sue Baker, the program director at The Les Paul Foundation (LPF), a nonprofit that supports music education. "Some think of his chart-topping recordings. Some know Les was intimately involved in the creation of the solid-body electric guitar and that he showed musicians how to play it. But few people know that Les' many recording inventions and innovations ushered in today's music."
It's true. He invented a multitrack recording process that allows different instrumental and vocal tracks to be recorded separately in a studio and layered together during production. This groundbreaking technique opened the floodgates of musical experimentation in the 1950s and beyond. Among other inventions, Paul created the harmonica holder still used by Bob Dylan. But if Les Paul is such a music legend, why is it that relatively few music lovers – especially those born after 1980 – know much about him?
That's the challenge that Paul's namesake foundation faced. "We wanted to find a way to give people of all ages an opportunity step into Les Paul's life, experience his curiosity in his childhood living room, understand the impact of his mother's relentless encouragement, and observe his persistence in the face of an array of challenges," Baker says. "This became particularly important as we neared what would be his 100th birthday."
In short, Baker and other foundation staff, including trustee Jeff Salmon and executive director Michael Braunstein, wanted to create an experience that would share with the world – and a new generation – the Les Paul they knew and loved. "We sought to inspire as many people as possible by sharing Les' legacy," Baker says.
Since the LPF's beginning, it has provided resources to museums and nonprofits wanting to create Les Paul exhibits to celebrate his part in music history, his innovations, and even his work regarding hearing impairment – a condition he suffered later in life. "The foundation's goal has always been to inspire innovative and creative thinking by sharing Les Paul's legacy," Salmon says. And while Baker and Salmon had plenty of experience assisting other institutions in curating Les Paul exhibits, they felt something more spectacular needed to be done to commemorate Les Paul's centennial.
To understand Les Paul's influence on music, Baker and Salmon believe you have to understand Les Paul the man. And the only way to do that authentically, they surmised, would be through an experiential event that would bring attendees face to face with the man, the music, and the memories. "Les always wanted people to have a chance to play with his 'toys,' as he called his inventions, and that is what we wanted to bring to the people," Baker says.
"I loved watching people walking up the steps, chatting with their friends, and then stepping into the experience, stopping, and saying, 'Wow!'"
In the past, the LPF had provided those inventions to museums as part of temporary installations. Seeing the success of those installations and the positive public reaction, Baker and Salmon wanted to figure out a way to replicate that experience over the course of a year, reaching the largest number of people possible. They knew they had to produce more than a stationary museum exhibit in a single city if they wanted to truly reach the masses, so the foundation decided to do what many a musician has done in an attempt to elicit worldwide awareness: It took the show on the road.
All Roads Lead to Les Paul
With the idea of putting a museum exhibit on wheels and traveling from city to city, Baker and Salmon reached out to Balance Studios Inc. and Mobility Resource Associates (MRA), a company specializing in road show vehicles and events. "The Les Paul Foundation came to us seeking to engage both longtime Les Paul fans – generally older generations and experienced musicians – as well as Millennials who had little to no knowledge of Paul's life and work," says Jim Notarianni, client group director of education outreach at MRA. "From the outset, we knew that part of the tour audience would be unfamiliar with the life and music of Les Paul. So our approach had to ensure that the visitor experience engaged diverse audiences and provided personal touchpoints."
In short, this event had to resonate with a broad spectrum of potential visitors and not only meet the expectations of Les Paul enthusiasts, but also answer the question that would likely be posed by younger people who came upon the exhibit, that being "Just who the heck is Les Paul?" "To a substantial segment of the target audience, Les Paul may be the most famous person they've never heard of," Notarianni says.
The goal of the experience wasn't completely altruistic. Sure, Baker and Salmon wanted to share their love of Les Paul with the masses, celebrate his life and contributions to the music industry, and create a new fan base of loyal enthusiasts. But they also hoped the multicity event would help bolster the LPF's database of contacts, which the foundation would reach out to with news about music programs, grants, and scholarships. The LPF also hoped to learn more about its growing audience and ultimately create a broader fundraising base for its initiatives. With those objectives in mind, Notarianni worked with the LPF to curate an experience that would put Les Paul's accomplishments on display as a means to foster audience interaction and forge new fandom for a notoriously modest man who once said, "If I have to go around telling everyone how great I am, then there's something wrong with my act."
Fortunately for the LPF and MRA, the foundation had a robust inventory of Les Paul memorabilia ready to go. "The biggest challenge in developing the road show was taking 94 years of brilliance, hardships, inventions, TV shows, gold records, awards, and stories and fitting them all into one truck," Baker says. "Even the biggest truck we could get seemed too small." The struggle was real for MRA, too, as it took multiple rounds of drafts and designs of various components and configurations until the foundation was satisfied. "We knew Les," Baker says. "He was our friend, and his story had to be right."
After selecting the artifacts and vehicle, Baker and Salmon devised the name: Les Paul's Big Sound Experience. They also identified the tour dates and 40 locations, piggybacking off of festivals, music events, fairs, and sporting events across the country to take advantage of the swarms of attendees gathered at such public places. And with that, Les Paul's Big Sound Experience hit the road on June 9, 2015. First stop: Times Square in New York.
Best known as the namesake of a popular Gibson guitar, Les Paul was a prolific musician and inventor who is credited with developing multitrack recording, which allows instrumental and vocal tracks to be recorded individually and later mixed together. ON THE ROAD AGAIN The Les Paul Foundation's mobile museum increased awareness of Paul's legacy with a number of interactive, sensory-driven activities. The road show stopped at 40 different locations, often piggybacking off of fairs, music events, festivals, and sporting events.
Les Paul's Big Sound Experience was housed in a 53-foot double-expandable semitrailer.
One of the first things guests saw was a 60-inch monitor showing videos of Les Paul's musical performances.
A touchscreen-based activity let visitors create their own multitrack recordings and share them on social media.
Another touchscreen station allowed guests to try their hands at sound mixing.
As the 53-foot double-expandable semitrailer pulled into one of the busiest tourist attractions in the United States, people didn't quite know what to think. Enveloped in graphics featuring Les Paul playing the guitar, the vehicle was impossible to ignore. Adding to the buzz, a launch party held at the nearby Hard Rock Café featured performances by musicians and friends of Les Paul, including Steve Miller, Neal Schon, and Joe Satriani, while Guitar Center's flagship store in Times Square offered in-store promotions and tour merchandise.
Big Sound Experience staffers invited passersby to board the bus, as it were, and explore the various activities and exhibits that brought Les Paul's sounds, stories, and innovations to life. As attendees entered, one of the first things they saw was a 60-inch monitor displaying a video loop of Les Paul performances from the 1950s through the 2000s. As the video played, the audio bellowed from ceiling-mounted speakers and in-wall subwoofers installed throughout the space. In addition to the large flatscreen monitor, a double-sided, headphone-equipped listening station provided another vehicle through which to experience Les Paul's musical genius. That first impression was palpable, according to Salmon. "One of my favorite parts of the whole experience happened at the very beginning," he says. "I loved watching people walking up the steps, chatting with their friends, and then stepping into the experience, stopping, and saying, 'Wow!'"
After rocking out to classic Les Paul licks, guests moved further into the semitrailer where they learned about the musician's life as a young boy via interactive touchscreens. While his contemporaries were making balsa wood airplanes and playing with Lionel electric train sets, Les Paul was taking apart the family radio, telephone, phonograph, and player piano to make one of the world's first amplified guitars. Detailed views of the radio, telephone, and phonograph demonstrated how tinkering with such everyday objects could lead to big inventions. The touchscreen activity also revealed one of Les Paul's favorite pastimes – taking piano rolls from the player piano and taping over holes to create new melodies. Guests could then give it a try themselves at a digital interactive where they were able to modify a piano roll and listen to the results.
Moving through the experience, guests were given the chance to rock out on a Gibson Les Paul, if only virtually. "We developed a series of high-resolution interactive touchscreens allowing visitors to see and hear four of the best known examples of electric guitars Paul developed," Notarianni says. Rotating 3-D models of the guitars appeared on a large monitor as attendees manipulated the images to highlight technical innovations and even hear the actual guitar being strummed.
"We wanted people to see his story and be inspired to try something new, pick up a half-done invention, or play an instrument."
Next, guests approached one of two stations featuring more interactive touchscreens. After putting on headphones, attendees could view easy-to-follow animations that explained how Les Paul developed several innovations, including multitrack recording, echo effects, reverb, phase shifting, and more audio techniques that continue to shape the sound of music from world-renowned artists as varied as Barbra Streisand and Justin Bieber. From there, the mobile museum "turned the camera around" on the attendees, making them the star of the proverbial show throughout the course of three additional creative experiences.
During the "What's Your New Sound?" activity, visitors used a touchscreen to create their own "new sound" – an homage to Les Paul's first multitrack recording called "Les Paul, The New Sound." Starting with a spoken word track, visitors layered on recording effects and musical elements. After creating their masterpiece, would-be music producers entered their email addresses to receive a link to their creations and share them on social networks.
Once their chart toppers were recorded, guests ventured to the next interactive experience called "Mixing it Up!" Here, visitors created their own custom music mix with a touchscreen tablet and large display monitor. Starting with a rare disc recording of Les Paul's song "Brazil," guests added effects, experimented with sound mixing, adjusted volume levels for multiple tracks, and more to master their recording mixes. And just like the previous activity, music makers could receive their creations via emails and share them on social media.
After dropping their sick beats, guests arrived at the final experience: a photo op with an image of the music man himself, Les Paul. Staffers invited visitors to select one of three classic images of Les Paul in sepia tone, black and white, or color, and pose alongside his visage. The result? A keepsake souvenir – shareable via social media – that made it look as if attendees had brushed shoulders with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee.
"We wanted visitors to leave the exhibit thinking, 'Maybe I could be like Les Paul,'" Baker says. "We wanted people to see his story and be inspired to try something new, pick up a half-done invention, play an instrument despite a physical challenge, or pursue a dream some might think is impossible. Les' life is a beacon on many paths, and we wanted visitors to see Les' light on their own paths."
So while many never met Les Paul in person, an interactive walk down memory lane and a priceless photo op were the next best thing for a new generation of music lovers.
A photo op allowed visitors to choose one of three images of Les Paul himself, then pose alongside the musical genius. The resulting image served as a memento of their experience that could be easily shared on social media. A SUCCESSFUL SOUNDTRACK The road show did more than introduce a new generation to Les Paul and his game-changing innovations. It also generated a platinum record's worth of measurable results, all exceeding The Les Paul Foundation's pre-event objectives.
130 MILLION Les Paul's Big Sound Experience carried a price tag of just under $1 million. However, the more than 130 million media impressions it garnered represent $8.7 million in ad value.
12,999 The Les Paul Foundation collected 12,999 unique attendee email addresses, with 9,352 of those opting to receive follow-up information about the foundation's activities.
4.5 MILLION The road show captured more than 4.5 million live impressions during the yearlong tour, exceeding the foundation's original goal by 125 percent.
66,454 While the foundation had hoped to attract 50,000 attendees, the four ultimately generated 66,454 visits, with a per-stop average of just under 700.
Leaving on a Good Note
From the very first stop at Times Square to the last tour date some 12 months and 20,000 miles later, Les Paul's Big Sound Experience was as much about the tactile activities as it was about the emotional responses. "Seeing people exit the experience with opened minds saying, 'I had no idea,' is what I would consider a success," Baker says. "To see headphone-wearing toddlers in their parents' arms, tapping to Les Paul's music, surprised me. I smiled at students who peppered me with great questions and only stopped when it was time for their groups to leave. I mused at the high school students dancing to Les' music. I overheard older generations sharing their recollections of Les, and it was hard not to chuckle as preschoolers showed their grandparents how to use the touchscreens."
Good vibes are great, but what about real results? In addition to giving attendees all the feels, Les Paul's Big Sound Experience also generated impressive stats. While the LPF had hoped to attract 50,000 attendees, the tour generated 66,454 visits, with a per-stop average of just under 700. The road show also captured more than 4.5 million live impressions throughout the yearlong tour, exceeding the original goal by 125 percent.
On top of impressions and visitors, the tour generated stellar results tied to its onboard activities. Since many of the interactions prompted participants to enter their contact information, the LPF collected 12,999 unique email addresses, with 9,352 of those opting to receive follow-up information about the foundation – or 1,352 more people than were in the audience at The Beatles' first U.S. concert in Washington, D.C.
And the numbers don't stop there. At the start of the tour, the LPF hired a public-relations firm to monitor media coverage. While the road show carried a price tag of just under $1 million, the more than 130 million media impressions it garnered represented $8.7 million in total ad value – an astronomical return on investment that impressed Corporate Event Awards judges. "The awareness generated by this event and the number of people it completely immersed in the experience led to a remarkable ROI," said one judge.
By combining their deep admiration for their friend and musical innovator with a sophisticated, interactive experience, members of the LPF created a memorable tour that not only attracted new fans, but also topped the charts in terms of creativity, ingenuity, and results. As Les Paul
aficionado Madonna sings, "Music makes the people come together." E