Chris Smither has been somebody’s birthday present twice. He’s also been an anniversary present, performed at an office holiday party, and taught private guitar lessons, all on Zoom.
“The people are usually very excited to see that it actually works: ‘Holy cow! I’ve got him right here in my living room!” says Smither with a laugh from his Amherst home.
Smither is just one of dozens of musicians who have joined Topeka.live, an online platform that brings musicians into their fans’ homes (and vice versa) for private concerts, serenades, one-on-one lessons, and conversation.
While it was created before the pandemic, it feels made for these times, and has grown more popular during the pandemic — a win for both the artist who can’t tour and the fans who can’t see shows.
Aside from Smither, musicians on the site include Mary Gauthier, Dar Williams, Edwin McCain, Stephen Kellogg, Shawn Mullins, Chris Barron of the Spin Doctors, Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls, and others.
Here’s how it works. If you click on, say, “Chris Smither,” you have three options:
- A 15-minute “Serenade”— you can also add “Plus One,” adding a friend in a different location to Zoom ($150-$400).
- A six-song “Mini Concert” — choose your songs, and add friends in different locations to join a private show ($1,200).
- An hourlong private guitar or songwriter lesson ($300). You can also buy a package of four lessons ($1,000).
Artists set their own prices, and chose which categories to offer. Mary Gauthier, for example, offers songwriting coaching; Michael Glabicki of Rusted Root offers a pay-what-you-can “conversation” hang.
In a serenade, Smither explains, “People [might] say: It’s my wife’s anniversary, she’s a Chris Smither fan, she wants to hear this and this.” For a lesson, a fan might ask: “What’s that lick you do on such-and-such? Can you demonstrate that?” Or “What key do you play this song in? What are the fingerings?”
And, from his Amherst music room, Smither shows them.
Unlike some other livestreams, Topeka allows the artist to see the faces of the audience.
“It makes me get ready in the same way I’d get ready for a real show: I gotta put my game face on, make sure I’m rehearsed, I’m practiced, warmed up,” Smither says. “Going through those motions, it’s like a real game. Otherwise [I feel] I’m just practicing, and you never ever play as hard when you’re practicing.”
Singer-songwriter Dar Williams agrees. “It’s just like getting ready for a show. You put on a little makeup, make sure the lighting is right, you pay attention to what you wear. It did a lot more for my morale and sense of connection than I realized.”
In fact, Williams says, Topeka has been a powerful reminder during isolation of why she’s an artist.
During the pandemic, she says, “I’ve made the most of my solitude — turned my lawn to a meadow, did some yoga. I got a Spanish app. I returned to Buddhism. I could tell myself this is just the year to wander around and talk to God with sticks in my hair and it might’ve suited me.”
But seeing fans via Topeka has been a reminder “that I’ve chosen a career where you connect with people through art,” she says. “So get the sticks out of your hair, put on a little mascara, and remind yourself that engaging with humans is a very important and wonderful thing to do.”
Inspired by Topeka, Williams created an online songwriting retreat — it’s “how I got the faith that we can connect” virtually. And through Topeka, she’s performed serenades and for parties. She also had a powerful moment with a fan who was in the hospital.
“They passed away, and one of the last family Zoom events was a concert I did,” she says. “This was a catalyst, something around which to gather, like a campfire. I was their campfire.”
Founded by entrepreneur Andy Levine in Atlanta, Topeka launched in July 2019.
“Our biggest challenge [then] was how are we going to get people to know what Zoom is?” Levine said with a chuckle.
The name for his website was inspired by the scene in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 movie “Almost Famous.” Rock star Russell (Billy Crudup) wanders the streets of Topeka, Kan., one night, when a van of teenagers pulls up.
“I know you’re a big rock star and all, but do you want to hang with some good people looking to have a good time?” one of them says. “We’re just real Topeka people, man.” Russell is all in, and a good old-fashioned house party ensues.
Levine says the scene captures the spirit of the site. “I wanted it to feel like people hanging out,” he says.
The seed for Topeka came from watching artists trying to balance marriage, kids, and touring.
He tossed around an idea to some performers: “What if we could create a way for you to connect to an [audience] while you’re home, so you earn money and sleep in your own bed?” Two years ago, Topeka was born. Its roster of artists and employees has grown during the pandemic, Levine says.
“We moderate. It gives the artist extra comfort to know there’s someone there,” he says. “They’re great to watch. We all fight over it: ‘I want that one,’ ‘No, I want that one, he’s gonna propose!’”
Yes, there have been wedding proposals. And first dances at weddings. One college graduate was serenaded by Joshua Radin, connecting a family when they couldn’t be at her commencement in person. “They were all crying. It was one of the sweetest things I’ve ever seen,” Levine says.
Singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier called the platform a “win-win-win” for artists, fans, and Topeka employees.
Gauthier has performed serenades, played at birthday parties, family gatherings, and wedding anniversaries, and has been given as a holiday gift. Says Gauthier, “It makes people happy.”
But “the main thing I do is mentor songwriters one-on-one,” she says.
In helping students with songs, “the answer isn’t ‘we need to work on the chorus.’ It’s much more spiritual in nature — it’s the sense that their story is relevant,” says Gauthier, a 2018 Grammy nominee who wrote her first song at 35 and got her start on the Boston open mic scene.
“I teach them that if you go deep enough, you’ll hit a universal. I teach them to get more and more vulnerable until they’re almost naked. And that’s where the listeners will see themselves. . . . If it matters deeply to somebody, it’s going to matter deeply to a lot of somebodies.”
When the pandemic eases, she expects to keep teaching on the platform, as she’s able to reach students from Norway to New Zealand.
Each time Gauthier logs on, “I’m shocked at how much connection there really is. You’d think we’re just pixels on a screen, but we truly do connect. It’s authentic. It’s not virtual. My students are a part of my world now.”
Learn more at Topeka.live