THE BATTLE DAWNS
To say that I was excited about last night’s iPod Battle at Tribeca might be the understatement of the century. While I would take issue with being labeled a full-blown music snob, there’s no question that music not only surrounds my life but in large part defines it. The chance to actually use my music library in combat was an opportunity that was simply too good to pass up. (For more on the decision to complete in the battle, check out my first post on the subject.)
Over the past couple of days, Travis Smith and I realized that our enthusiasm and excitement for this had led to a ridiculous amount of preparation, likely far more than any other team we’d face. In addition to assembling our costumes and preparing tentative playlists, we actually took the time to edit 30 of our potential songs down to 1-minute versions to fit the competition’s rules (originally we were supposed to have 1:30 played from each song, but this was changed the night before). We had painstakingly agonized over every possible inclusion – how many hip hop songs are needed to not appear like posers when we play them, for example – while still leaving a lot of room to breathe and change things on the fly.
As we marched down the cold city streets of Halifax towards Tribeca to meet our fate, the solid rumble of anticipation began to shift into crippling anxiety. Were we prepared enough? Too prepared? Would we have the stage presence to get the crowd on our side? Would we even HAVE a crowd on our side? And the biggest question of all was looming over us: did Travis Smith and Ryan McNutt, old university friends turned PR allies, have what it takes to compete in the adrenaline rush of Halifax’s second iPod Battle?
As the Spin Doctors took the stage for the very first time, we were about to get some answers.
1. Eight teams of 2-3 people load up their iPods with the sickest beats, hottest jams, and most embarrassing guilty pleasures.
2. Two teams face off at a time, plugging their iPods into the sound system and attempting to win over the crowd with their awesome selections.
3. Each team gets five songs in a round, alternating back and forth. Teams can only play 1:00 from a track before the DJ starts to fade them out but they can queue up their iPod to start at any moment in the song, or edit the song’s best parts into a single file. The only rule with song selection is that no mash-ups are allowed.
4. The winner of each round is chosen by crowd volume in a cheer-off, measured by a decibel meter.
ROUND 1 – PLAYDOWNS
Opponent: Team With Really Long Name
Setlist: Junior Senior – Move Your Feet, The Roots ft. Cody Chestnut – The Seed 2.0, Huey Lewis – I Want a New Drug, Daft Punk – Technologic, Guns ‘n’ Roses – Paradise City
I wish I could remember the name of the first team we faced off against, but it was something really long and charmingly pretentious. They were worthy opponents; in fact, the matchup seemed to fit a pattern throughout the first round where the two teams facing off seemed to play similar music. In our case, instead of sticking to one genre, both teams strove for eclecticism and variety.
I’ll be honest – I was incredibly nervous when names were drawn shortly before 10 p.m. and Travis and learned that we would be in the first match of the night. Did we have enough of a crowd on hand to successfully cheer us to victory?
Oh hell yes.
While our opponents played some really good tracks – “Danger! High Voltage” by Electric Six stands out – it was clear the moment that the cheer-off began that our loyal fans had heeded our word and arrived early. They simply blew the roof off the joint. I wish it had been a bit closer – our opponents deserved better than the mild response they got – but there’s no question that our first set friggin’ killed. Though the rest of the night had its highlights, nothing else clicked quite as well as those opening five songs.
How well did it click? Well, Travis and I had planned to play Huey Lewis’ “I Want a New Drug” sometime during the night as our token gesture to our doctor regalia. So I went bananas with excitement when I heard what our opponents had cued up for their third song: GHOSTBUSTERS, “written” by Ray Parker Jr. as a complete rip-off of “I Want a New Drug” when Lewis turned down the offer to write the movie’s theme song. Without missing a beat, Travis and I broke out the original, the crowd ate it up, and we sucked up any momentum that our opponents might have gained.
And when their last song was a dance track that few in the crowd seemed to get into, we knew the ace up our sleeve was going to hit big. Out comes our one-minute version of “Paradise City” and the whole crowd cheers, chants and rocks out. Right then I knew that we had another round of battle ahead of us.
ROUND 2 – SEMI-FINALS
Opponent: The Bus Boys
Setlist: Elvis Costello – Pump It Up, James Brown – Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine, Presidents of the United States of America – Lump
During the match that followed ours, I went around and asked several of our supporters what they thought of the two teams, as the winner would face us in the semis. Their thoughts were similar to where mine ended up – that while the Bus Boys would be a stronger opponent, they would also be more fun; who doesn’t love a team that breaks out Hulk Hogan’s “Real American” theme song? The challenge for us would be that the Bus Boys are also Tribeca employees who actually worked at the bar in-between rounds. We were definitely on their turf.
We were also hit hard by the news that to make up for the first round running long, matches were being cut back to only three songs per team. This was not a complete surprise to us – we knew that it had happened at the first battle in December – but it totally changed the dynamic of our performance. Now, if our first song bombed, we might not have time to recover.
Reworking what we had originally planned, our opener – “Pump it Up” – didn’t go over as well as we had hoped, but thankfully was not a major misstep. I began to get nervous, though, because while our next track was killer, a team in the first round had played a song by the same artist. I confided in Travis before the round that I thought that we were taking a risk – would the crowd treat us as lame copycats?
Hell no, brother – “Sex Machine” hit it and hit it hard. In one of several failed attempts at theatricality for the evening, Travis and I tried to do the whole James Brown robe toss bit using one of our labcoats, but the stage really didn’t allow anyone behind the very front row of people to see what we were doing. It didn’t matter though; the crowd was digging the track all the same.
While our opponents brought some solid material, it was no match for a crowd-wide sing-along to “Lump,” everyone simultaneously reliving their mid-1990s together. By this point the entire dance floor was packed like sardines, and the cheer-off was ridiculously intense and far more evenly matched than our first round. Both teams had their supporters, and for a moment I thought that our quest for victory might have met its end. The announcer even tried a Regis-esque swerve to make everyone think that the Bus Boys had won, before shifting and declaring another win for the Doctors.
Final round, here we come…
ROUND 3 – FINALS
Opponents: The Game Boys
Setlist: Michael Jackson – Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough, Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Got Your Money, The Killers – Mr. Brightside
In one corner: Yusef and Andy, better known as the Game Boyz, champions of iPod Battle 1, bringing with them thunderous crowd support and a reputation for excellence, succeeding in making it to the final round once again and defend their title (heck, they were even on the damn poster!). In the other: McNutt and Travis, the Spin Doctors, brash young upstarts who stormed Tribeca with an army of loyal supporters and an eclectic music library, reaching the final round against all odds as rabid underdogs in the quest for iPod Battle glory.
This is how legends are born.
As the evening progressed, and the number of songs allowed in a round diminished, I think that Travis and I started to play things a little bit safer, skipping over some of the more indie-style material that best fits our own personal tastes in favour of more ubiquitous, mainstream sounds (especially after “Pump Me Up” didn’t really make a big impact). And while this strategy had its share of successes, it bombed horribly with “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough.” I have no idea why the track was dead on arrival – doesn’t everyone love Off The Wall? – but its failure REALLY stung when Yusef and Andy followed it with Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” – same genre, same era, VERY similar sound – and the crowd ate it up. At that moment, I was pretty sure we had met our match.
We didn’t go down without a fight, though – “Got Ya Money” was another sing-along sensation and “Mr. Brightside,” while not the synth-romance moment we had hoped for, got some significant enthusiasm from the crowd. But the Game Boyz owned this show – heck, they didn’t even have to care that their last song – Outkast’s awesome “Ghettomusick” – has a slow breakdown right in the middle of the opening minute. This was their night, and they made the most of it.
We went first in the cheer-off, and let me tell you: if we had concluded that our quest for victory was over, someone forgot to tell our audience. With their biggest, loudest, awesomest cheer of the night, the place went insane as our fans used every last ounce of volume to try and push us over the top. But their efforts were in vain as the Game Boyz got a cheer so loud that I swear I felt the building shake. As the host made the inevitable announcement, we proudly shook and raised Yusef and Andy’s hands and bought them each a drink; two incredibly worthy victors on this or any other night, and nice folks to boot.
As Travis and I stood at the bar and chatted after most of our audience had left, I couldn’t tell if our buzz had more to do with the booze or the adrenaline still pumping through our veins. I think I can say without a doubt that this was one of the most fun things that I’ve ever done – it was theatrical, it was musical, it was competitive, and it was a blast. Event organizer Double ‘A’ (real name Aaron Siegner) has done a great service in bringing something new and different to Halifax’s club scene. I can only see this thing getting more popular each time it’s held, which may prove a challenge considering that Tribeca was ridiculously packed as it was tonight.
We definitely learned some lessons about how best to compete in these things. Our idea to edit songs down to 1-minute was fantastic, but we erred in actually working endings and fade-outs into them ourselves. In the final round, for example, the announcer was willing to let us go longer, but we were stuck to a minute because that’s how long our song files were. And I think we got a much better sense of what material plays well to the crowd in a competition like this and what things have a tendency to fall somewhat flat.
But the thing to keep in mind is that, often regardless of the music played, an iPod Battle decided by crowd volume is essentially a cheering competition, a challenge to see which team can drag the most of their friends out to Tribeca on a Friday night. It’s not like there’s anything more than bragging rights and a good time at stake here, but should these things continue to grow and become more significant in the future (maybe even with prizes!), perhaps including some sort of judging/crowd volume hybrid system where noise is a factor in the decision but not the sole decider might be an idea worth considering.
But as long as the format remains the way it is, the audience is everything, which is why I’d like to thank everyone who made it out to cheer us on. Sure, I’ve already sent out thank you notes on Facebook and tried to thank as many people in person last night, but it deserves repeating. Without a massive crowd made up of PR grads, PR students, debaters, estranged high school comrades and more, we would have just been two music nerds standing awkwardly in front of a sea of strangers playing songs to no one in particular. Instead, dozens of our friends and allies were on hand to dance, to sing and to cheer until throats ran dry. While our quest for the championship came up short in the end, it was certainly not due to a lack of enthusiasm from our fans – you came, you saw, you brought the noise. Travis and I are extremely grateful for your willingness to spend your Friday night watching two 20-something dudes dress up as doctors and make idiots out of themselves (albeit rocking idiots).
So all of this begs one final question: has Halifax seen the last of the Spin Doctors?
Watch: The Spin Doctors rock the crowd at the iPod Battle. The sound quality on these videos is pretty miserable since the photographer was (rightfully) right at the very front of the stage (make sure your speakers are turned down before you hit play). But hopefully they give you a good sense of how the night was. The first is a clip of our premiere track, Junior Senior’s “Move Your Feet,” (coming soon) the second our final one, The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside.”