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With an app, Wham City finds its mainstream breakthrough

The audience at Dan Deacon's show at Washington's 9:30 Club uses the Wham City Lights app.

At last month's Academy of Country Music Awards, Brad Paisley performed his single, "Beat This Summer," alongside John Mayer. The audience held up cell phones — the modern version of the lighter at concerts — that displayed bright, flashing colors that changed in time with the song.

It was an eye-catching trick, and it wouldn't have been possible without Wham City. Yes, the same Wham City responsible for some of Baltimore's most wonderfully surreal music, comedy, theater, art and more since the mid-2000s.

It was an unlikely pairing that showcased Wham City's first attempt at a smartphone app. It also hinted at the app's crossover potential. Suddenly, an arts collective that has always operated on the fringe has created something that could one day be used by the masses at concerts, sporting events and elsewhere. The irony is not lost on the app's creators.

"It's very validating to see our technology being used on a massive scale," said Alan Resnick, 26. "People like Brad Paisley saying 'Wham City,' which has always meant something specific in Baltimore — it's always surreal."

Like countless apps before it, the Wham City Lights app came from a simple idea. On a tour bus two-and-a-half years ago, Resnick — along with Wham City musician Dan Deacon and Keith Lea, a 29-year-old Wham City member who worked as an engineer at Google for three-and-a-half years — kicked around ideas on how to increase crowd participation at Deacon's shows. During the conversation, it dawned on Deacon that almost everyone has a smartphone in his or her pocket.

"I started thinking about how smartphones are amazing little lights and speakers, and more and more people have them at shows," Deacon, who is currently on tour in Europe, said in an email message. "Using them all at once makes it possible to create really incredible spatial soundscapes and lighting designs that would otherwise be impossible."

Brian Kaplan, a digital marketing manager at Sony Nashville discovered the app while watching YouTube clips of Deacon performances, says he could see the app becoming commonplace at concerts. Kaplan contracted the Wham City Lights team to create the "Brad Paisley Light Show" app, which the singer is using on tour now. Paisley's "Beat This Summer" tour comes to Jiffy Lube Live on June 29.

"Come fall, as we get people noticing and seeing how cool it is, the more and more people will download it," Kaplan said. "I know it's only the start of artists using this technology."

In order to use the app — which debuted last July — the Wham City Lights team must work with the musician or team to program the changing lights and imagery on the phone. In other words, it won't work if you hold your phone up to a random speaker. Instead, the app — which doesn't require reception or a Wi-Fi connection — synchronizes phones to create a communal experience in large crowds, Lea said.

"It's like a basic audio signal that pierces through the noise and tries to use audio in a structured way," Lea said. "We designed a system like Morse code. It's transmitting data through sound."

Wham City Lights is the first app to utilize this technology, according to its creators. They said multiple software developers have reached out since the launch to say they were working on a similar app, but Wham City beat them to it. To some, the next logical step would be to patent the technology, but the three-member team isn't interested for a variety of reasons, Lea said.

"One patent for us — as far as what we've been informed — could cost us $500,000," Lea said. "We certainly don't have that, and if we did we wouldn't spend it on a patent. ... There's better ways to stay ahead of your competition. It's a combination of politics, financial situation and being practical."

The Wham City Lights team wouldn't divulge details about its finances, but Lea said the operation is "cash positive." The company also didn't ask for venture capital from outside parties, which is where most startups begin, Resnick said. They also say the company has never spent money on marketing or advertising because of the TV exposure.

"Luckily, we've had word of mouth," Lea said. "It's gotten us every single client ever."

The latest version of the app, 1.2.1, was released in March, and it can now display colors, text and imagery, which should only further expand its reach and potential. Lea says he's expected competitors for months.

"Honestly, not to flatter ourselves, but I'm a little surprised no one has copied us yet," he said. "It's a little strange to me. I was prepared that by now, someone would move into this space in a serious way."

It hasn't happened yet, so Wham City Lights — a tiny startup company with five employees that operates out of Resnick's home in the Copycat Building — is pushing forward. Lea conducts the interview from Las Vegas, where he is working with producers of the Billboard Music Awards, which aired last Sunday, for a performance by Swedish DJ duo Icona Pop. There have been talks with sports teams to utilize the app, too, Resnick said.

"It has grown exponentially in a way where we have less and less time to manage all of it," Resnick said. "At some point, we're going to have to think about hiring more people, but it's probably a long way away."

In Wham City fashion, the app's creators are running things their way. No one is rushing to make a quick buck, Resnick said. The creators say they're simply energized by the app's endless possibilties.

For years, the question of whether or not Wham City could break through to the mainstream has lingered. It seems the collective has, by way of smartphone technology.

"Baltimore is not Silicon Valley," Resnick said. "We're doing it our own weird way and it's been working."