This article about Russian Chicago tribute band Leonid & Friends was updated in December 2021.
Russian musical director Leonid Vorobyev is old enough to be a long-time fan of the band, Chicago. But he’s no fan of retirement.
Nearing 60, the average retirement age in Russia, Vorobyev created a multi-generational 11-piece jazz band, Leonid & Friends, to pay tribute to the music he grew up loving. With the help of social media, he developed a fan base in the thousands with a sound so authentic, it’s described as more Chicago than Chicago.
In 2014 Vorobyev began putting together a band of musicians from various parts of Russia to collaborate for what he described as a musical present to himself. In addition to facing language and cultural barriers, he lacked musical scores of Chicago’s most popular recordings. He began deconstructing the songs by ear and transcribing them individually for each instrument—drums, bass, guitars, piano, horns, and vocal harmonies, striving for complete authenticity.
He and the band filmed their first studio recording, Brand New Love Affair, and uploaded it to YouTube. Chicago’s drummer Danny Seraphine discovered the video two weeks later and uploaded it to the official Chicago website. Leonid & Friends was an instant hit.
Today the band has more than 157,000 followers on Facebook and 131,000 YouTube subscribers. Some of their songs have received more than 6.6 million views. Collectively, their recordings have more than 30 million views.
In a video documentary about the band, Vorobyev says YouTube is helping Chicago fans reconnect with their favorite recordings and is introducing the music to younger generations. The studio recordings reflect Leonid & Friends’ commitment to legitimacy, exactly matching the original recordings, which Chicago rarely did during live performances.
“We strive to play authentic arrangements just as they were recorded in the studio,” he says. “Keeping tempo beat by beat and horns arrangements note by note. To keep all the nuances the best we can, we play it in the forms they were initially recorded, which in fact Chicago themselves do not do.”
Since the band’s start, Leonid & Friends has recorded two albums and completed a tour in the U.S., including performances in New York and Los Angeles. Additional performances are planned in the U.S. once the Covid-19 pandemic is over. In the meantime, their music is available over iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon.
Dedicated Fan Base on Social Media
Vorobyev says the success has taken everyone by surprise. “There were certainly no expectations that we would earn from the band or get something out of it,” he says. “We were having fun. Now that we have over [130,000] YouTube subscribers, our dedicated fans are seen as friends.”
While Leonid & Friends wait out the pandemic, they keep in touch with fans over Facebook. Vorobyev’s son Roman manages and promotes the band over social media with updates and live feeds from rehearsals. They recently wished their American fans a Happy Fourth of July with a quick rendition of Saturday in the Park.
During the Covid-19 crisis, millions of bands worldwide are leveraging social media to stay connected to their fans. Even before the pandemic, musicians frequently put as much work into their social media as their performances. Sometimes that work is in partnership with major brands.
The Budweiser series was designed to help fill the void created by live concert cancellations by featuring legendary headliners as they “rewind through their greatest hits.” Budweiser plans to announce new artists on their social channels where fans can curate setlists and ask questions directly to artists.
Small, local bands especially understand the importance of captivating audiences on stage and online. Richard Jacks, a bass player with Chicago’s Hillbilly Rockstarz, says clubs and events judge a band’s social media presence just as critically as their setlists and recordings. The group consistently engages with fans with updates, upcoming performances, concert venues, and photos.
Clubs and event venues often review the band’s Facebook page to see how many followers they have and how consistently they communicate to verify their popularity and ability to fill a venue. Its Facebook page also connects fans to businesses, enabling them to expand their social media connections.
Followers and Gigs
The Rockstarz typically book more than 100 shows, which they promote over Facebook to their 16,000 followers. The band also uses Facebook to stay connected with fans over live streaming performances, which have attracted as many as 6,700 fans.
“These numbers are really important because it shows clubs our ability to fill their venues, and it enables fans to share their experiences with friends and family,” Jacks says. “Facebook provides a two-way interaction to make sure they know about our gigs and share news about the band. It’s not uncommon for our fans to comment on a venue and like or follow them on Facebook. The more we can help make that connection, the more likely the clubs will want to work with us. Every show is like an election, the more we have there, the more we get invited back.”
Until the pandemic is over, bands like Leonid & Friends and Hillbilly Rockstarz will continue to stay in touch with fans and promote their music. Leonid & Friends, for example, is expanding its repertoire with hits from Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Earth, Wind & Fire.
I’m With the Band
Roman Vorobyev has some advice for other bands looking to use social media to expand their brand. “Keep creating content that you are proud of on a regular basis, keep increasing your level of skill and quality…and you will reach out wider and wider,” he says. “You never know where it will bring you but sometimes it works like magic.”
Meanwhile fans continue to express their appreciation and admiration for the band. Upon the recent recording of Chicago’s “Happy Man,” YouTube subscriber Jen C. offered this: “Thank you, guys…a ray of sunshine in the current gloomy onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic.”
Another fan said, “You have brought so much happiness into my life. My husband just died and nothing can take away the pain. But watching you and listening to you brings me out of reality and into a little bit of joy.
“Thank you so much. Sincerely, Carly.”
To learn more about the band’s story, watch the video.