Light Up The Night: Collaboration, Causes, And A New Kind Of Platform

GGreetings, fellow indie musicians! My name is Josh Urban, and I’m using my music and to make the holidays a bit brighter for people. In turn, it’s making my stage bigger, and getting far more people involved than I would have ever thought possible. Pull up a chair by the virtual fire, and I’ll tell you a story (it’s all true!)

The Kindness Exchange

The Kindness Exchange

Musicians as innovators

The new music industry is brimming with potential. Not only is the market efficient (check your Facebook event invite list), but it’s relatively untapped. The level of noise on existing channels using secondhand ideas is at a fever pitch – but this is a good thing. It pushes us back to central tenants of artistic culture – of innovation, experimentation, expression, and being the cutting edge of cool. Creating an experience for people is at the top of my list, and recently, I stumbled upon a way to add meaning to the mix.

“All Comrades please report to Stage Left”

The more I experiment with creating experiences, the more I realize that, for my personal style, the more people who are involved as active participants, the more successful the experience is for everyone. My buddy Mike from Terra Rising Records best summed up this philosophy: The more people invited on stage, the bigger the stage has to be. If the experience becomes a cause for people to rally around, not only is there more involvement, but the involvement can actually accomplish something to make the world a better place.

A dark time

December 18th marks the anniversary of my Grandfather’s death. I remember sitting by the Christmas tree a few days later, watching the light stream out into the darkness, blurred by my watery eyes. For several holiday seasons after that, other sad things happened, and I begin to see why many struggle during the season. It seemed a dark time of year, indeed. Yet all of the faiths that celebrate a holiday during December have light as a central theme. As the season approached this year, I wanted to do a music project that would bring some light into what can be a very dark month. After a bit of thinking and brainstorming, the project was hatched.

Beacon tree

The #KindnessExchange

The idea, grown from my previous two social media tours, is simple: People do something nice for someone, and post it on social media using the hashtag #KindnessExchange. I see any tagged post, print it out, and put it on a lit “kindness tree” in my front yard – a literal beacon in the darkness! Meanwhile, I’ve been traveling around in a 150 mile radius, playing shows in hospitals, homeless shelters, street corners, nursing homes, radio shows, and even a psychiatric ward at a veteran’s hospital. (Let me tell you, that was quite a fun, moving, and profound gig.) With a heavy social media presence and online Google + hangouts, it’s a project on many fronts and formats. It started on November 20th (the anniversary of the death of a family member), and is running through the 1st of 2014. Please feel free to join in (even if it’s past the official end date – kindness is needed every day!) The hub of the project is at, and participants can visit to get information, see the Twitter feed, and download a free copy of my holiday EP Lt. Prancer.

A recap:

  • Do something kind.
  • Post it using the hashtag #KindnessExchange
  • I put it on the tree, and light up the night.

The Reaction

The reaction to the project so far has been overwhelming. Not only is the idea received well, but it seems to be much-needed. Many seem to be grateful to have a place to admit that the holidays aren’t always jolly, and are enthusiastically joining in with posting their acts of kindness back to the tour. The media has been very generous in their coverage of the project, and the venues that I’m donating shows to are most appreciative. A Facebook group has been set up, and is very active with people discussing the good things that they’re doing. The base is very energized by the project, and new people are being drawn into the loop. It’s even morphing into other projects. A friend who works at an elementary school out of state mentioned the project to her principal, who loved the idea so much that I’ll be Skyping in to address the entire school on a big projection screen. They’re adopting the idea, and making it a school-wide project, asking the students to do nice things for their families over the holidays, writing them down when they get back and displaying them on their own kindness trees.

Lt. Prancer EP

Lt. Prancer EP

One of the intriguing things about the project so far is that I’m not asking people to donate any money to anything or anyone. Usually altruistic activities involve some financial matters, but this one is totally free, setting it apart from many of the other causes this time of year.

It’s also uncovered an interesting social issue – some people feel that sharing their kind acts amounts to bragging. There has been much spirited debate on how to be a good citizen of the world, and just how the world might be changed through this very issue of language and culture. And here I thought I would just be playing a few holiday tunes!

The Business Side

Since this is an industry blog, many readers are doubtless wondering “So how are you making money from this?” In short – I’m not. But, that’s not the point. While it’s not the only strategy available, I feel that building a base comes before monetizing it. What started out as a fun way to make the holidays a little better for my fellow humans and myself has turned into an eye-opening example of how people can make a difference given the chance – and the stage – to do so.

Does it scale up?

So, involvement and collaboration is great, but can it really scale up? I had thought previously that this was a way to jump up the ladder of the traditional one-sided model of one guy on stage, ten thousand people watching. Scaled down, this is one guy in a coffee shop, with two people half-watching. Well, the idea hit in a flash – what if there was one guy on stage, with ten thousand people joining in in a two-way interaction. The possibilities are endless – human light shows, the world’s biggest rhythm section, and all other manner of participation in an event. Not only does it scale, but there’s a lot of money in the idea, too. Hence the strategy of base first, money later. Involvement on a massive scale is a new idea to me, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

In Closing

This project has been, and continues to be, quite a fascination for me. I’m happy and grateful that it’s making the world just a bit brighter during such a tough time of year, and excited at the ramifications of the possibilities for even bigger projects in the future. I urge you to ponder how you can take something that matters to you and build a project with your music as a platform. As musicians, saving the world and building brilliant careers might just be the same thing. I, for one, could go for more album sales and a better planet. Sounds like a win-win to me!

And remember – go do something kind!


Josh Urban is an independent rock musician living near Washington, DC, USA. Connect on Twitter @DontJoshMe, and visit to join The Kindness Exchange – a global project to bring light into the darkness this holiday season. He enjoys inventing new ways to bring his music to the masses, including touring by train on two previous interactive rail tours.


  • The Legendary Frank

    To continue the stage metaphor – The more people invited on stage, the bigger the stage has to be and also the more resilient the structure of the stage has to be.

    In a way I would say you are making money indirectly. As you point out you build the base first and then monetize it. Nothing wrong with that as long as it’s upfront.

    It’s a little sad that we have to flag up kindness especially at Christmas. Kindness aka charity should be such a common thing that it does not invite comment.

    Also ideally charity should be anonymous but of course in these days where privacy is becoming rare that may not be possible.

    Whilst your actions are laudable I feel that the way you’re approaching it, hashtags etc is making a circus out of it and I’m not sure that will be lasting considering that the attention span of many people online is less than that of a gnat.

    Lets just all be kind to each other without the hype please.

  • Kindness has to be a common thing, but it is not quite – we live in a world where people often times forget about kindness. We had a chat about the matter with Josh before he launched the campaign and he was concerned that it may look weird when people speak about their kind actions loud on social media – but I didn’t see a big issue there and do like the way he did it. If it helps more people do more kind things, why is it bad? And if hashtags make it a circus, than the whole Internet is a circus (although wait.. it is!)

    An artist has to do something that is bigger than him, so I support Josh’s initiative in full.

  • The Legendary Frank

    Ideally acts of kindness should be selfless but in the real world very few are.

    We do acts of kindness because we get pleasure from it. That’s our payoff and nothing wrong with that.

    But to do acts of kindness on the internet is shouting “hey look at me, I’m so cool cos I’ve done acts of kindness!” makes me feel a little queasy.

    Just think of the army of people out there who do acts of kindness without recoursing to shouting as what happens on the Net. They feel good and that’s all they want, not to brag.

    So I feel that acts of kindness based on the desire to look good are phoney acts – they don’t come from the heart.

    Do they help people? Well it depends on what is being offered.

    But my comments are not really addressing your question – does it encourage people to do acts of kindness.

    I would say no, those types of acts are transitory. They shout online how marvellous they are but I doubt if they will carry it through in their lives unlike those people who everyday perform acts and kindness in a quiet way.

    I wonder how many people invited a homeless person into their homes at Christmas? Very few I suspect. I didn’t and wouldn’t.

    It’s one thing to throw some money at homeless charities it’s quite the other thing to invite a homeless person into your home.

    It’s one thing to help out at a Christmas dinner for the homeless, quite another thing to have a homeless person share your Christmas dinner with your family.

    I’m afraid acts of kindness are highly conditional!

  • Josh Urban

    The Legendary Frank! And I thought I had an epic web presence…TLF, nice to hear your input. It’s definitely a complex matter that I stumbled into here, and I’m curious to hear your further thoughts. First off, thanks for reading about the concept in such a detailed manner. Here’s a few thoughts that I’ve had over the course of the tour, in reply to your points:

    – Any successful stage, in person or virtual, will hopefully have to be massive, literally as in a group performance, or figuratively as in bringing in outside help to manage the logistics of a large interactive project. I personally would rather have the problem of having TOO many people to reply to rather than too big of an advertising budget to get people to pay attention. Perhaps I should state in a clearer fashion: The best way that I’ve found to get people to pay attention to one of my projects is to involve them directly, hence the “bigger stage” metaphor. What would you say about this? It’s a new idea for me, and I’m soliciting input from everyone on this.

    – Regarding the talking about kindness: This is the most fascinating aspect of the whole project. I didn’t realize it was even an issue until some other folks voiced what is a very legitimate concern – CAN we even talk about being kind, or does it defeat the purpose? I think it’s an issue of language and culture, and perhaps we can solve it with language and culture. Here’s a blog I wrote about it

    – I’m pleased to say that it seems to be working very well, actually – folks aren’t bragging, and they’re experiencing increased awareness and motivation to be kind…(And funny you should mention a homeless invite – one of the ladies on the tour invited a near-stranger to her house after the water had been cut off for the unfortunate person, and she gave the project credit for giving her the courage to reach out.) Among many other things, an elementary school is taking it up as a project to actively make things better. All in all, I think the “bragging backlash” is far less than I had originally worried about. Yes, some people, including myself, worry if it’s socially acceptable and in line with Kindness itself, but in tackling the issue and going ahead regardless, it seems as if far greater good has been accomplished, and problems that need to be solved are being moved to the forefront! People are talking about kindness, thinking about things, and are being inspired to do things that they wouldn’t if it weren’t for the collaborative project. Never before have I been involved with anything that has 5th graders and old ladies, vets and teenagers, middle aged professionals and new agers, rockers and poets involved in. It’s really neat, and it’s working. Now, this of course is just my personal take, and to really change anything, there needs to be much thought and discussion. I think ideally the world would run on silent kindness. Flip on the news, though, and we can see that it doesn’t. To get it TO that place, perhaps loud, active kindness can help out. There’s an element of social media that I’d like to harness to help the world, and this seems an interesting way to do it.

    The thing that I’m most intrigued with is – just how much people ARE discussing a music project that’s morphed into something more. As a creative, a musician, and of course, a marketer, that is the gold – and ironically, gold that can change the world.

    Please, let’s chat!

    Andrew and Frank, thank you both for your support. I appreciate the encouragement, Andrew, and I welcome the scrutiny, Frank. Between everyone, we’ll build bigger and better projects to create success while making a difference!

  • Side note: Thanks a lot for the reply @joshurban:disqus and sorry for the delay with delivering it here @thelegendaryfrank:disqus – Josh replied the same day, but I just noticed it was “awaiting moderation.”