Listen — the way life has been going lately, I've had enough trouble keeping up with myself, let alone with anyone else in this crazy business. By the time I finish programming the sessions for LDI (oops, sorry — The Entertainment Technology Show), I'm exhausted. Fortunately there are panelists like Paul Dexter, marketing director for ELS in Los Angeles, who are entertaining, intelligent, and actively keeping up with both the industry and the larger world. At LDI this year he's presenting a panel called “Keep Up!” which is designed to help people like me (and maybe you, too) stay current with everything from big business trends to technology. As Dexter says, you have to stay in touch with all sorts of information to stay competitive.
ELG: Who is on your panel at LDI and what are you going to discuss?
PD: “Keep Up!” is all about the commercial and political influences that affect what we do inside the lighting business. These things have infiltrated our world — there is no escape and we can't hide. At the show, we only have time to scrape the surface of the subject, but it will be cohesive and thought-provoking. “Keep Up!” is also about the technology revolution.
Moving lights and computerized consoles weren't part of lighting until 1983, when Vari-Lite released the VL-1. Now we have a generation of technicians and designers who have never known a world that didn't include automated lighting. On the other hand, there's resistance from the old guys to learning a new CAD program or integrating an automated trick that will save them from hanging 14 lekos with 14 different gobo patterns — keep up!
Jim Moody will be on the panel. He's written a new book, The Business of Theatrical Design and, with his illustrious history, he is a master of keeping up. One of the software writers responsible for High End Systems' Wholehog console, Richard Mead, will be joining us. Richard is a great orator, is articulate and can explain new technology in a way that even I can understand. The co-chair for ESTA's certification committee, Tim Hansen, will join us to discuss the new idea of obtaining certification. Qualifying documents for various stagecraft accomplishments is one more change I didn't see coming — the only papers I've received for my years of practice are for a divorce and few bent photographs.
ELG: Give an example of a recent change that is more profound than a new piece of gear, something that really affects the way we think and work.
PD: There have been many changes — natural, good, and bad — which have affected the way we conduct our business. I started touring in 1973, when rock and roll was a raw attitude. But the allure of enigmatic rock stars has substantially decreased. Now the music industry is struggling, and talent is packaged into a pretty gift-wrapped box. For example, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen were on the September front cover of Rolling Stone! They may sell magazines, but they have nothing to do with music. Pop music has run out heroes. Madonna and Britney Spears kissing on national TV — what is that? Rock stars have been replaced with sex and superficial imagery — things that have, unfortunately, leaked into kid's trashy fashion trends. Creative direction has shifted; it is intensely influenced by budgets, because big corporations have power over the recording artists, quelling their creative control; this has a direct effect on the way production vendors operate. Clearly, the corporate motive is about money, greed, the bottom line — and it pervades our system like a nasty disease. These objectives have caused damage to the industry, which is proven by a significant decline in live concert attendance and album sales (a 31% drop in CD sales over the last three years).
It's anybody's guess whether a story or song is going to be a hit or not. As more accountants become the CEOs of companies, the safe route, the what-worked-in-the-past formula, will be favored, as opposed to qualifying a new and original artist/writer and taking an educated risk for his or her reward. Ironically, outsiders to the craft largely control the entertainment that we see and hear.
Furthermore, a corporate, meet-the-bottom-line mentality is breeding a compliant new generation of designers. Their approach to lighting has definitely been molded to account for changes that have absolutely nothing to do with the art of performance.
ELG: What major changes are coming down the pike? How can people in the industry be prepared for what's coming?
PD: To prepare for what's coming, it's necessary to identify how we got into the present. The lighting business used to operate in its own isolated, entrepreneurial world. It was a small, unknown business. But steady development and growth ensued, accompanied by consequential profit — and the corporate vultures began to pay attention. Since 1995-96, corporate intervention in our business quickly brought competition to its knees and dramatically reshaped our marketplace. A quantity-driven, cheaper-by-the-dozen approach took over and the price wars began for command of any cash flow in a dwindling concert touring market.
That's where greedy, monopoly-minded corporations made their mistake — by taking the lion's share of the glamorous music business just as the bottom was falling out of it. We all thought that rock and roll was never going to die. PRG, Gearhouse, Matthews, and Westun were buying smaller companies competing for the live production market and simultaneously attempting to service the hungry-for-new-technology productions with 1970s' prices. Egos overshadowed common sense and, as many are aware, three of the four aforementioned companies had relatively short tenures.
ELG: Are there positive developments?
PD: Fortunately, the entertainment lighting business has seen lucrative markets open up in other areas like exhibits, special events, and themed environments. Every rental house in the world has essentially the same lighting gear — it's just that some have more of it. You have to know what new tricks are out there in order to compete. It's important to provide the one thing that differentiates you from another LD or vendor — a high-level service (personal, commercial, and technical).
ELG: What else should we keep up with?
PD: Be aware of politics and the world economy. It's hard — many of us started in lighting because it was a liberating lifestyle. All we have now is the ramped-up pressure to compete in a congested and fragile business. Just keep feeding your head with news as it happens — business information — and react with common sense. There still is opportunity out there. It doesn't matter what your industry role is; the foundation of knowledge and practicing ethical principles will never change.