I stood in my favorite corner of Elsewhere one Friday night.
Except this time, I wasn’t alone at the bar wasting drink tickets and drowning in misery after running into an ex. This time, I was in my pajamas on my couch, eating ice cream while seeing one of my favorite bands play and chatting with my labelmates. Elsewhere was actually Elsewither, a digital recreation of the Brooklyn club within Minecraft.
I was at the NetherMeant festival, one of many livestream events hosted by Open Pit. Their most recent event, Square Garden, had 85,000 unique Twitch viewers and raised $55,000 towards Feeding America. The Open Pit team aren’t strangers to Splice – marketing and graphic design lead Max Schramp was coincidentally the winner of our 2019 Video Game Month Contest. In celebration of their recent run of shows, we sat down with Max, A&R and marketing lead Umru Rothenberg, and community management lead Robin Boehlen to discuss how their shows come to life, the official Doja Cat Minecraft remix, and how they explained the game to American Football.
How did Open Pit and the idea of hosting shows in Minecraft begin?
Max: Our first show was actually my birthday party, back in May 2018. It started out as a joke on Twitter like, “Let’s do a birthday party in Minecraft!” I was producing music at the time, and a lot of my friends were also producing music. So, we built this little world in Minecraft, and I was like, “What if we had DJs playing on this little stage we built in one of the mansions?”
Umru: Basically, we were expecting 40 or 50 people, and it ended up being a couple hundred. The server crashed and we had to buy a server host from Hypixel at the last minute, because Max was running it from his home computer and there were way more people than we expected. That was the point during that event where we were like, “Whoa, people would actually come to something like this.” Then, we decided to do an actual event that wasn’t a birthday party soon after.
In September 2018, you hosted this first festival – tell us about ‘Coalchella,’ which had performances by the likes of Anamanaguchi and 100 gecs.
Max: After my birthday party, we said, “Let’s do this huge festival in the fall and have 80 people play it.”
Umru: I don’t remember exactly when we started planning it, but it was very last minute. One of the first things Max did after briefly moving to New York City was meet me at a café and make the whole poster for Coalchella. We were confirming the artists as we were making the poster.
Max: We named it Coalchella because we thought it was funny. This time, we had 2,000 Minecraft players and about 20,000 listeners on the website, which was significantly more than the first one.
Robin: Since then, we’ve more solidly defined the team that works on these events. We weren’t even named Open Pit until our third event, September 2019’s ‘MineGala.’
Umru: —Which was intentional. We didn’t want it to seem like it was about us as a brand or a company. We wanted the events to just highlight artists and members in our community.
What’s the logistical setup on your end for pulling these shows off?
Max: Every single show we’ve done is a 20-minute pre-recorded set that we play back. We have the artists join in Minecraft and stand on the stage like a DJ set. Everything is optional for them – we give them a Minecraft account, and then ask if they want us to make a skin for them or if they want to make their own skin. They can play in the game, or we can play as the artists if they’re in a different time zone or can’t attend. We have the audio streaming on our website through Mixlr, which is an internet radio service. Attendees can play Minecraft and then just put the audio from our website on in the background.
Tell us about the booking process. How do you even explain the concept of a for-charity Minecraft livestream show to a manager or booking agent?
Umru: We have a big call with everybody and write down a list of people we want to get. Someone will be like, “I know this person who works at this label,” or “I know this manager,” etc. Reaching out is all done through our bigger network. Once we’d done Coalchella, there were articles written about it, so we had a bit more credibility to be like, “Look, we’re the people that did this event. Would you be interested in playing the next one?”
Max: It’s pretty straightforward, especially because we don’t make money off of it and everything we do is all for charity. We’ve only had to sign two performance contracts over the course of the whole thing, which is good because it’s such a pain to do all of that. We use Mixlr mainly because it’s an internet broadcast radio service that covers all of those legal questions.
Umru: The majority of the time people were like, “A charity livestream event in Minecraft? That’s sick.” Only now that everyone is doing livestreams do managers get involved and say, “There’s only so many livestream events my artists can do.” Now that everyone is quarantined, it’s gotten a bit more rigid.
American Football is one of the most peculiar and exciting artists to have headlined 2020’s first event, ‘NetherMeant.’ Can you tell us about booking a mostly ‘offline’ legacy act like them?
We had to start from zero explaining what we were actually doing because they’re so far removed from what we do, even though a lot of people in our community are big fans of them. They’re middle-aged guys now with kids and everything; their kids are playing Minecraft. Anamanaguchi and American Football are both on Polyvinl, so we got in touch via a thread with all of us. We had to walk through everything, including doing a pre-recorded set with music and voiceovers. Luke Silas from Anamanaguchi helped us put their set together.
There’s an influx of livestream events being announced now. However, Open Pit stands out in terms of attendance and excitement from your community. What do you think draws people to your events?
Robin: A lot of other events are very corporate and ours are very grassroots; that’s something people really gravitate towards. We’re community-focused and always try to put smaller artists who don’t necessarily have the opportunity to play real-world festivals or big shows alongside massive names. In addition, we always push for inclusivity. It’s been super disappointing seeing all these massive companies do these lineups where it’s all white guys.
Umru: Before we went by the name Open Pit, we had Max announce Coalchella on his personal Twitter so people would be like, “Oh Max Schramp, I know who that is; he’s a member of our community.” We’re not a faceless company – we’re all engaging, promoting, and talking to people about it. Our Discord server remains active too, with 10,000 members on it.
Robin: The thing is that none of us are big artists, and we’re not a big company either. No matter what, we’re engaging with our community every day, whether it’s on Twitter or Discord. This community began as a small group of friends from years ago, and we’re always going to value it.
Max: Attention to detail and marketing are also big parts of what get us the viewership. All of our posters on our website are super accessible and include everything viewers need. We also always get everyone to tweet the hashtag that’s the title of the event. We’re also the only group that’s been able to handle the technical difficulties of a Minecraft event of this size multiple times.
Umru: We have this interesting middle ground that not a lot of people have focused on previously. We can have a lineup that includes artists as big as American Football alongside lesser-known acts like Bean Boy and Folie.
What can you do in a Minecraft show that you wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else?
Umru: Minecraft is the most-owned game in the world, so a lot of people either have it or know someone who has it, so they can borrow their account. It’s relatively accessible as far as games go. You can really build and create anything out of it. But it does cost money and not everyone has it, so we’ve always streamed the audio for free, both on our website and on Twitch.
Max: With Minecraft, we have the opportunity to just build a world and run everything ourselves without Microsoft’s involvement. We wouldn’t be able to just go into Fortnite and make a virtual concert – you’d have to get Epic Games to make everything for you.
Umru: We wanted to have a lot of stuff within the game that encouraged people to work together and play together. For example, we’d have these boss fights where they’d be hard enough that you have to fight them with a bunch of your friends. We created a lot of things for people to find, like merch. There were people posting guides online on how to find stuff.
Robin: Building worlds in the game is obviously completely different from the real world. There’s real value in how these events bring people together, even if they’re geographically far apart, have a handicap, etc. A lot of these challenges are alleviated in this setting.
Umru: Even though it’s nothing like actually meeting your favorite artists, it’s so easy and fun when there’s a visual and you can see all these people around you. People were uploading pictures with their friends and making skins just for the events and stuff. People love doing stuff like that. Most livestream events don’t have that kind of engagement.
What pitfalls do you think others hosting livestream events could avoid?
Robin: A lot of the same people are getting booked for all of these events. We try and keep things more interactive and engaging. A reason I like that all of our sets are pre-recorded is that artists can be in the chat or in the game talking, which isn’t something you necessarily see all the time. It feels like a real concert with the artist hyping up the crowd.
Max: I think it’s going to become a bit stale unless people figure out new ways to interact with their audience.
I have to ask about these Minecraft parodies that happen at every show. For the uninitiated, Minecraft song parodies are a thing, and at NetherMeant, Doja Cat joined the livestream to premiere the Minecraft version of “Say So.” How did this come about?
Max: Y2K and I were working on our set and Y2K and Doja Cat had been hanging out. A week before the show, we were like, “Let’s just do a ‘Say So’ parody,” and we wrote the lyrics in an hour or two. Then, she just recorded them and all the harmonies.
Umru: I know 100 gecs did a song with Yungster Jack and David Shawty that’s all about Minecraft, and other original songs with Minecraft lyrics during their sets. We’re hoping people keep doing them; there’s a lot of potential for the original artists to be doing parodies of their songs. It would be great for more people to do that.
Lastly, tell me about tomorrow’s event, ‘Aether,’ and what’s next for Open Pit.
Robin: Aether is happening this Friday, May 8th. We have another event planned at the Elsewither space after that, and then we’re hoping to return later this summer to do our festival events.
Max: We’re planning on just continuing what we’re doing, but more frequently.
Umru: We definitely aren’t planning to stop after people are no longer quarantined. We started this two years ago, and we want to keep doing them. We definitely want to continue providing this experience for people.
For updates on Open Pit’s shows, check out their website.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
May 7, 2020