How does that expression go? You can choose your friends but not your family, right? Well, at Upstaging, family is family, but business isn't just business. More often than not, the company also considers its friends and associates to be family as well.
"We have formed such long-term relationships with so many of our clients that it really does feel like a family," explains director of lighting services John Huddleston. "Maybe it's the Midwestern roots, but our approach to this business strikes a chord with a lot of people. Over the years, I've heard production managers say that they chose us for a certain project because we're family."
Aspersions of nepotism are hardly a concern, however, because this steadily growing company owes its exemplary reputation to more than just its amiable attitude. Upstaging has maintained a steady growth over the past 25 years by capturing a large chunk of the concert touring and corporate event business in the US. Last year, the company built an additional 4,000 sq. ft. (360 sq. m) onto its warehouse in Mundelein, IL, to accommodate its increasing business. The company also has a satellite office in Los Angeles, which is headed by one of its founders, Robin Shaw.
While attending a suburban Chicago high school, classmates Shaw and Robert Carone decided to get into the music business. "Because we were on the student council, we were involved in running dances. There was a DJ in town who did concerts in the summertime at the various high schools around us," Carone explains. "We thought that was a great idea, so we decided we should do it too, and make a lot of money."
The enterprising students lined up a financial backer and got to work. "Since we planned to do this every week for the rest of our lives, rather than rent lights, we bought them. Then we did two shows and lost all of our backer's money. So, for the booking agent who was working with us not to get in trouble, he needed us to do one more date. He sent us to another Chicago promoter, and while we were sitting in his offices waiting to lose almost everything on this deal, we overheard that they didn't have anybody to run lights for their Black Sabbath show in Dubuque, IA, that coming weekend. So I said, 'Hey, we have lights, we could do it for you.' And that's how we got into the lighting business."
Subsequently, they also got into the trucking business. "This was during the gas shortage, and we were renting trucks from this car wash down the street," Carone explains. "The owner had Ryder trucks, and we didn't have to wait in line for gas because he had gas pumps. He suggested that we get ourselves put onto Ryder billing, and offered to vouch for us. We pretty much started in my parents' garage. We'd back the trucks right up to it and load in our one little lighting system."
Carone came up with the name Upstaging, and after recruiting some friends, they set up their first formal shop in Elk Grove, IL. Robert's younger brother, Don Carone, did two or three tours before he was even out of high school. "Our first real tours were with Sha Na Na, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Climax Blues Band," Robert Carone says. "Also, Styx would play the area high schools and colleges, and we had a lighting system for them with 30 PAR cans and three Genie towers. We actually got written up in reviews for the light show. For control we had EDI Scrimmers, a 6-channel, and a 12-channel."
Touring was still a very new business in the mid-70s, so few bands took production crews on the road with them. "We would do local shows with a band and then we would try to do all their regional shows in the Midwest," Robert Carone explains. "So we worked with REO Speedwagon and that's how we got Lynyrd Skynyrd, because they opened up for them. I started out as a drummer, so I could tell where the changes were coming in the music and they liked that."
"Bob Seger and KISS also opened for REO Speedwagon, so we worked with them too, and it just snowballed from there," Shaw adds. "In the early 80s, we began working with the newer bands like the Police, Cheap Trick, the Romantics, and John Cougar Mellencamp. We were actually one of the first companies to call up bands and offer our services. So we developed relationships with the bands and the management, and later with the LDs."
"Back in those days, they'd just call the lighting company for the lighting system, and we would also provide the LD," adds Don Carone. "Matthew Perrin, a very talented guy, was one the first LDs who came with the band--Cheap Trick."
Other LDs the company worked with in the 80s include John Broderick (then with Joan Jett), John Featherstone (the Smiths) and Nick Sholem (the Police). "A lot of the relationships we formed back then, we still have today," Huddleston says. "That's one of the reasons that we're still around. The same is true of our staff. Our core people are all longtime employees, and we don't have a lot of turnover. I've been with the company since 1979, and most of our management team has been here for at least six years."
While the company will hire seasonal help as needed, the staff numbers between 30 and 45 in the lighting division. The trucking division employs well over 100 drivers, and there are a dozen full-time administrative employees. In the LA office, there are three full-time staff members, including Shaw.
"I went to Los Angeles in the early 80s," Shaw says. "Our company was doing really well with all the Midwest events, so we were at the point where we could expand. We would look at which bands were going out and just call them. That was my job. I'd listen to albums I enjoyed and then call the record companies. Because most of the managers and booking agents were based in Los Angeles, I found I was spending more and more time there. For example, if we were doing the Pretenders tour, I would go to all of their shows in the LA area, because everyone in the industry would be there. That's how I met other managers, production managers, and lighting designers."
Although the company is branching out into other areas, the bulk of its business is split between concert touring and corporate events. "We concentrate equally on both markets," Huddleston says. "A lot of our corporate clients like the fact that we do tours because they realize we're using the latest gear on these shows with top entertainers, so they know we can provide the same for them."
Account executive John Bahnick, who also grew up in the Chicago suburbs, handles most of the company's exhibit work. "I deal with a few sporadic tours, such as Marilyn Manson, the Beastie Boys, and Smashing Pumpkins," he says. "But I mainly work on everything that is exhibit-oriented that comes through the shop."
Motorola, Pepsi, and Discovery Communications (the Discovery Channel) are among the company's biggest accounts. "We work with them all year round," Bahnick says. "We also work with BMW at the Detroit and Chicago auto shows. I personally design about 50% of the exhibits we do, and oversee the rest. For the most part, everybody in the shop works on everything, but some people are concentrated in areas. Tammy Smith does all of our Motorola shows. Jerry Swatek does all the Pepsi shows, and Mike Mahoney all the Discovery shows."
"When we first started doing corporate shows, we blew people away by how quickly we could get their show together," Huddleston adds. "We still work with every single corporate client that we worked with in the mid-80s."
The first time Upstaging introduced moving lights into a corporate show was for Zenith in Phoenix. "Donny and I had gone to Milwaukee for a summer festival and there was a regional USITT show in town where John McDowell of High End Systems was showing the Intellabeam(R)," Huddleston explains. "He sold us 14 of them and became our rep. Because they were some of the first Intellabeams ever used, he sent them and a technician. It was hugely successful and the client loved it. So we bought a lot more Intellabeams, and we have carried High End's products ever since."
"Using the Intellabeams on that corporate show really helped us gain more of that market," Robert Carone adds. "The introduction of custom gobos so you could use a company's logo was a great incentive."
"We pushed it hard," Huddleston says. "And showed them how the technology could be used."
The company also carries product lines from Columbus McKinnon, ETC, Irideon, Leprecon/CAE, Martin, Optikinetics, Strong, Tomcat, Wildfire, and Wybron. "When Springsteen toured in the mid-80s with an all-moving-light rig from Morpheus, people were telling us that if we didn't invent a moving light of our own, then we were going to go out of business because that was where the future of lighting was going," Huddleston says. "We agreed that moving lights were certainly the future of lighting, but we always thought that there would be a vendor out there who would be much better at R&D than we could all of a sudden become. We took a bit of a gamble then, but we were ultimately right. We didn't really even consider jumping on the bandwagon of trying to invent a moving light."
During that time, the lighting industry had its own British invasion when a number of lighting companies came over from the UK and set up offices in the US. "It was kind of a thin time for us, but we just kept doing good work and believed that we'd keep going forward," Huddleston says. "We felt that as long as we kept that focus and didn't worry about what our competitors were doing, we'd be all right--and it worked out."
The company may not have its own automated luminaire, but it certainly does have its own fleet of trucks, a unique feature for a lighting company. "We have a large market share of the trucking because we have a lot of experience in that area, coupled with great equipment, drivers, service, and support," Shaw says. "With lighting there are a lot more details to look after because we strongly believe in custom designing every project."
If Upstaging has lights on a tour, the company's trucks will usually be hired as well. "But they don't really work with each other," Huddleston says. "That's not necessarily how the deals are put together, but they do tend to complement each other."
"We've done the trucking for a number of bands who will return to us for their next tour and say, 'We've been hearing an awful lot about your lighting service,' and we'll get a job that way," Shaw adds. "That doesn't happen all the time, but often enough, so it is a benefit."
While word of mouth has brought in a lot of business, the company decided a few years ago to actively broaden its scope. "When I came here six years ago, my main focus was to explore other avenues of income, because there wasn't any one person concentrating on that," says Mike Creager. "One of the projects that I worked on was to generate more corporate/trade show work, so we went around educating exhibit houses on how moving lights work. That has really panned out for the company. We did corporate theatre before, but we've brought that and exhibits up a couple of notches."
Creager, who hails from a club background, is also responsible for handling all of the custom gobo orders, which are usually for company logos, and usually rush jobs. "I'm also the one person who does fixture sales, and while I don't sell tours, I often work on the details for big projects," he explains. "My latest project is to look into lighting for retail stores as well as outdoor architecture. I'm working closely with High End right now and getting good contacts to do demos with some pretty reputable architectural and design companies."
"We've always been a lighting business, so we've always explored different areas where lighting can be used," Huddleston adds. "Robert used to say that if someone calls us up and asks if we can do something, there is no point in saying 'No' right off the bat. We'd always take the time to figure out if we can handle it or not."
When the company wins the bid for any project, Daric Bassan is the person who handles the nuts and bolts. In the recently created position of shop manager, he is responsible for getting together everything necessary to complete it. "Essentially I went from being the top guy in the shop to the bottom guy in management," Bassan says. "I'm responsible for the shows that are coming in and going out--and the ones that already are out. I have a lot of freedom to do my job the way I see fit. The quantity ofshows we're doing is greater than anything we've been doing since I joined the company, so a lot of my responsibility is to make sure the quality remains at the same standards that got us to this level. The toughest thing about growing as fast as we are is maintaining the quality of our service--that was why my job was created."
For a company that advertises mainly through the swag it gives out, its growth over the past five years has been substantial. "We have a great reputation now and we just wanted to keep working hard to maintain that and not stretch ourselves too thin," Huddleston says. "We don't get many phone calls telling us that we're doing things wrong, and we pride ourselves on that. We spend a lot of time, energy, and money making sure we don't get those calls. Certainly problems crop up for everybody, but we work hard to make sure that when something goes wrong, it doesn't catch us off guard."
"Of course, problems happen, but at that point, it's our response that counts," Robert Carone says. "How you respond to a problem or a crisis is really the measure of a company."
Judging from the glowing reviews for their performances on tours and big events, Upstaging's crews consistently do better than just measure up in terms of experience and competence. Bassan explains that this is the result of the company's thorough training program. "We're happy to invest in people and help them grow and train them," he says. "For instance, if someone hasn't run a Wholehog in a few weeks, I'll give them a day just to practice on it. I try to keep a rig hung in the warehouse at all times just for that purpose.
"Having the reputation we do, we attract some of the best technicians and designers in the Midwest," he continues. "We look for career-oriented people because it takes a couple of years for someone to learn how to be a crew chief. We offer the opportunity to work for a solid company, in what can be a fly-by-night industry. Our crew chiefs are gold to us. They get a lot of freedom within their job because there are so many different ways that you can put a show together. If being a crew chief or an LD is not your goal, then you may be in the wrong place."
But if it is, Upstaging just may welcome you to the family.