Four Top Designers Discuss the State of Touring

Their names and projects are familiar to all readers of Lighting Dimensions. Our Sharon Stancavage went behind the scenes with LeRoy Bennett (Faith Hill, Sade), Marc Brickman (Pink Floyd, Matchbox Twenty), Abigail Rosen Holmes (The Cure, Janet Jackson), and Tom Kenny (Page & Plant, The Who) for a frank discussion on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the concert industry.

Sharon Stancavage: The September 11 terrorist attacks have changed the way many industries do business. What effect do you see on the concert market?

Marc Brickman: Given that Madonna tickets went from $265 on Tuesday the 11th to people giving them away by Friday night, it means that this outrageous pricing of concerts will hopefully come back to affordable for the audience. I also think smaller shows will become the norm, because large gatherings could become a target and security could become an issue.

Tom Kenny: Yes, definitely. At the moment the whole world is waiting on the next outcome of the September 11 tragedy. I know of a few tours that have canceled traveling to Europe and some events have been postponed. In addition, you have some special exciting events being planned as we speak. I know some of the performers I work for are gearing up to help out in any way. But just like the theatres on Broadway, ticket sales for current events have plummeted to virtually nothing. I grew up in Ireland and lived in London during the worst times of terrorism and it takes a while for people to get their confidence back in going out to public events. I just hope people try to get back to some normalcy in their lives, hard as it may it be. Music has always been a great healer in the worst of times.

LeRoy Bennett: The concert industry is a bit slow at the moment. This is due to prior apprehensions in the record industry. There are a lot of albums coming out and everyone is sitting and waiting to see. I think it will pick up in the beginning of the year. As far as the September 11 attacks and all else that is going on at the moment, I feel that entertainment will survive and do quite well. People always need an escape from the day-to-day chaos and stress, especially this kind. There will also be a rash of benefit concert bandwagon-jumpers. I do feel that ticket prices need to come down. This will affect the pop acts that have productions that are over-the-top. The economy can't afford them. Scaling back isn't a bad thing. It causes one to be more imaginative and creative. I think the style of popular music will change too. The manufactured bands will subside a bit and bands that are based on real musicians and songwriters will move to the forefront. I think we'll see a bit more of the older bands. The people who are hit hardest financially like to listen to bands like this for comfort and escape. Overall, I think it will be fine.

SS: Even before that, the summer saw a bit of an economic downturn. Do you think it was reflected in the summer concert season?

MB: I just came off the road with Matchbox Twenty, and they didn't seem to be lacking in ticket sales, but then again, their price is very reasonable. It's not these ridiculous amounts of money that even I can't afford. I don't understand how the kids can afford it.

Abigail Rosen Holmes: This season seemed incredibly busy to me.

TK: I think it was as busy as it usually is — actually, we had the big concert tours, like Dave Matthews, Madonna, and U2 out at the same time. Obviously, some of those tickets have ridiculous prices, but overall, it seemed as busy as it normally is during the summer.

LB: I personally think that this summer was far from slow — there were a lot of people out there. I've always felt that the worse the economy, the more people want to be entertained. There's tons of concerts out there and there are tons of very expensive tickets and I think that's a big issue. The reason they're so expensive is that you have these pop bands with over-the-top productions, beyond what they should have in the venues that they're playing. So they have to charge these ridiculous prices and these are shows for kids. Unfortunately, what I think happened with these shows is that they've gotten out of hand — it's more about competition and who's got the most gear versus pure entertainment.

SS: This past summer, many tours were eight weeks long and sometimes much shorter than that. Do you see this as a trend that will continue?

MB: I don't know the way they decide how long a tour is. I think that's just a formula that's plugged into a calculator that some accountant in NY or LA spits out. That's what they feed managers and the bands don't really have a choice. There's only one outlet. I think the trends are set by the businessmen, I don't think they're set by the bands.

ARH: Tours playing only urban and college markets have sometimes been a way for more alternative performers to tour — limiting the performances to markets where the less mainstream acts have an audience. Some artists might have an interest in performing live, but may not be willing to spend extended amounts of time on tour.

TK: Bands are just fed up with touring — they've got so many other ways of getting to their audience. It's the less-is-more thing. I know a lot of bands are focusing on other things, rather than touring everywhere, they're doing events and a few shows here and there, just to get the word out. Bands say “Maybe we're a bit overexposed, we've done really well, so let's leave while there's a big buzz going.”

LB: Some bands play specific markets based on the production that they want to carry and don't want to sacrifice. They don't want to have to cut back their production to play a B or a C market. I personally don't think there's any particular reason for shorter tours.

SS: Once again, we saw a prevalence of the same artists on tour this past summer. What's happening to the new talent?

MB: We're seeing those because they're brands now. They don't represent anything but a brand. They're just like Coca-Cola. You know exactly what it is, and they're not redefining anything any more — they've defined it, and now they're just being themselves. People feel comfortable — they're going to pay the ticket price, and they want to know that they're going to enjoy themselves, and with these bands, they know exactly what they're going to get. It's a very obvious buy. It's comfortable.

TK: Sadly, record companies are pumping all of their money into the young bands like 'NSync, the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and so on. A lot of bands out there don't get the support that they should be getting. I think it's going to cause a reaction among younger audiences — they're going to try out different ways of seeing concerts. Obviously, bands like Staind and Cold are going to go out — they have to economically go out and tour to make money. But I think, in the coming years, there are going to be alternative types of venues for bands. I was recently in Japan, where I was doing a project for MTV, and kids there are into the internet and they're not that interested in going out to see bands, which is a pity, because there are a lot of good bands out there.

LB: You've got promoters handing out big money to people that are going to make a lot of money — that would be the 'NSyncs, the Backstreet Boys, the Janet Jacksons, and so on. Basically, the people who control the concert industry are after the sure thing.

SS: Is there a place for up-and-coming designers in this sector of the industry?

MB: Oh, yes, definitely. I'm always getting letters from young people with their résumés and tapes. I always respond to those kinds of letters, because you never know who you're talking to or if, in 10 years, the person might be hiring you! (Laughs.) Especially with all of the intelligent lighting out there, there's definitely room for new people.

TK: There's always room for new designers. What happens is a lot of young bands come up with somebody and hopefully they'll be loyal to them. Sometimes what happens is, as a band gets bigger, sometimes the designers can't step up to the mark to carry on the success. Alternatively, bands get to a point where they can afford a certain look, that's what they want, and they can afford it. There is a lot of room for young designers — there's all sorts of work out there. Over these last few years, I've gradually gone towards television, and once someone like me moves on to other things, there's room for other people.

LB: I think there's always room for new talent — I hope there always will be — everybody deserves a chance. Right now, there are a lot more big, superstar bands that aren't coming up from the club scenes — these are manufactured bands that come with no designer. It's where the market is at the time. Bands like Phish and Dave Matthews, those are the kind of bands that have their own designers. Those are real bands.

SS: As an established designer in concerts, is it economically feasible to work exclusively in this sector?

ARH: I haven't worked exclusively in concert touring for many years. Although concerts do comprise a large part of my schedule, I find it interesting to work on a mixture of projects.

TK: For me, all the bands I work for are older bands, very successful bands that aren't touring as much any more. As a lighting designer, I've moved on to other things as well. Even though I love doing live shows, I've moved on to other challenges.

LB: I guess that's based on lifestyle (laughs). You can make a living in the concert industry — you have to work at it a long time to be able to back off and jump from tour to tour and not have to stay on the road. Most designers in the concert industry have to stick with the project for the length of the tour, unless you get to a certain level. You can make money off touring, and you can make a good living, but is that what you really want to do? Working in other areas, you're able to jump from project to project and don't have to be tied down to a tour. It's a hard question, because it's all relative to what satisfies you and what economics mean to you.

SS: In the past few years, the lighting supplier picture has changed somewhat, moving from several medium-sized companies to a handful of concert suppliers. Has that had any effect on you as a designer?

MB: Not really. Along with that, there are a lot of smaller companies that I work with in conjunction with LSD or Vari-Lite. Like with bands — there are really big bands, and there are also really big companies. That doesn't bother me much. Someone hands me a budget, I go and shop it around.

LB: It does effect me and it will more, sooner or later, because these companies can't survive like that for very long. It's a great idea but I know that they're all having financial problems. The idea that you have several companies now under one roof working through each other, I still find it very confusing and I think they do too.

SS: Are the lighting manufacturers still designing units with concert designers in mind, or have they shifted their focus towards other markets, such as architecture?

TK: They have to keep developing new gear for concerts, because if it wasn't for concerts, there wouldn't be any new lighting out there. It was concerts that made Vari*Lites and color changers happen, and television followed suit and started using what concerts did. Regarding the architectural gear, there are only so many buildings that are going to be lit.

LB: I haven't found anything at all changed in that respect. I think they design for both concerts and architecture. The concert equipment has only gotten better and they're constantly trying to improve. I've never found a sacrifice due to the fact that firms are branching off into architecture. I still get asked to consult on new equipment; whether they listen or not is a different thing!

SS: Overall, do you think that the concert industry is defined by the lighting innovation of the moment?

ARH: No, not at all. In fact, I find it surprising to note the age of some of the lighting products and fixtures still in regular use. Most designers I know are always interested in new products. However, not every show is a suitable place to beta-test new and unproven technology. The bulk of a lighting rig usually remains basic equipment that can provide the backbone of a show.

LB: No, I know a lot of designers jump around the newest gear. I'll use the newest bit of equipment if I have faith in the manufacturer. A lot of designers use the latest gear based not on the manufacturer, but based on a cool gimmick, or that it's a bright lamp, or that's what their vendor of choice is pushing at the moment. I like the workhorses, then the other things, only after extensive research.

SS: Does having a background in concert lighting work as an advantage or disadvantage when you work in other sectors of the industry?

MB: When I go to work in the movie business, when I work with the Spielberg people (A.I., Minority Report), they treat my background with respect, because it's not their business. And I look at them with respect and in wonder because I find what they do amazing. You know the old saying, “the grass is always greener on the other side.” Now that the concert industry is a brand, I find it gives me a lot of credibility. Maybe 25 years ago, working with Pink Floyd, people would be put off, but now, using that as a credential is beneficial. I think that the television people try to emulate the concert people, but they can't.

TK: It's an advantage in television, because they want to have that live feel, that live look. It's a disadvantage in some places, because you have a certain snob element there.

LB: I think it's a great advantage. You learn about logistics — hopefully. It helps you understand the basics of being able to get around issues. Being able to be creative and make the best of what you've got in a situation helps you. It's always different, and that helps you to adapt. You have to innovate constantly. If you really look at theatre, industrials, and television, they've all tried to emulate things from the rock-and-roll industry. It's had a huge impact on all of them. They wouldn't have moving lights in theatre if it wasn't for rock and roll.

SS: What would you say are the advantages and disadvantages of working in this part of the industry?

MB: It used to be that it was so free, and I still think it is. As an artist, I'm allowed to create pretty much what I want. There's still that area where you're allowed to push the wall forward — that's still very evident in the concert business.

LB: Being able to constantly create and use the vast resources that you have in the concert industry. Basically, to be creative. The disadvantage is that in the concert industry, it's pretty much disposable art. It's fun, but it's kind of impermanent and night-to-night; every moment is completely different, so it's totally disposable art that you may not be able to create again. In theatre, I think it's more long-lasting.

SS: Where would you like to see the industry 10 years from now?

MB: I don't know, but I'd like to see it alive, breathing, and well in 10 years.

TK: I'd like to see the industry a bit more down to earth, and I'd like to see a lot more honesty from the vendors. Vendors go after new talent, promise them everything under the sun, then don't deliver. They just want the account. But then again, I suppose that's sales.

LB: I'd like to see it go back to more boutique style rather than shopping mall. More individualistic, more personalized, and less corporate. I think you'd get a lot more creativity out of the industry.

SS: Conversely, where in reality do you think it will be?

MB: I'm definitely not a doomsayer, and if things didn't change, I'd be scared. If there's a shift, it means that the industry is healthy. Maybe we don't agree with the shift, but it's still shifting and the world is moving forward. Overall, I really don't see any negative aspects to this industry.

TK: In 10 years, it will probably be worse! (Laughs.)

LB: Somewhere in between. I think all this corporate stuff is a trend. It won't ever go away, but it will balance itself out.

Contact the author at sstancavage@primediabusiness.com. Tom Kenny can be contacted at tomkennyld@hotmail.com; Marc Brickman can be contacted at roygbiv@charter.net. Abbey Rosen Holmes is a partner in Lightswitch, which has a website at www.lightswitch.net.