Paul Dexter has been involved in the concert touring industry for over 30 years and has put in thousands of miles on the road. He continues to design, program, and tour, and will take time out of his busy schedule to speak at the first annual Live Design Concert Master Classes at CenterStaging in Los Angeles on December 11 & 12. He is also the co-author, with Jim Moody, of the third edition of Concert Lighting: Techniques, Art and Business (both authors sign copies of the book during the classes). Live Design touches base with Dexter about his life in the concert world:
1. What involvement do you have with the concert industry now?
Since February of 2005, I’ve been on a perpetual touring schedule with the classic rock band, REO Speedwagon, as production designer which encompasses all things visual— lighting designer/director/programmer, stage set designer, creative director, video concepts, content direction and concert video LD. It is a very hands-on affair because of all the adaptation needed for local production equipment, touring production equipment and venues from county fairs and casinos to theatres and stadiums. We just finished a summer tour (carrying our own production, including a 40’ x 14’ LED wall, in “Love on the Run” tour, featuring REO and Pat Benatar. I was also active for the creation of all things visual with Heaven and Hell, featuring Ronnie James Dio. He sadly lost his battle with stomach cancer in May of this year, but the band was proactive and very theatrical-production-aware, which pushed my concert designs to new highs. At the end of 2009, I was LD substitute for Bryan Hartley (he’s locked in to the annual Trans Siberian Orchestra franchise) and traveled to work all things visual in Hawaii and Abu Dhabi for shows with Aerosmith (see gallery on www.masterworkslighting.com).
2. You are the master of road stories. What is your favorite personal road story?
In 1978, I started concert touring with Rick James and continued during his meteoric rise and “Superfreak” heyday through 1981, at which time I began touring with Ozzy Osbourne (which is a whole other set of stories!). Rick was raised in the ghetto of Buffalo, N.Y. and needless to say, had a unique perspective and way of dealing with people, that was far different than I (white Southern California boy) was used too. Here is the story on YouTube, which I recorded for my film project Road Cases (www.roadcases.tv). Click here and enjoy!
3. How has the concert touring business changed since the early days?
I think the operative word is “business.” Corporations determined along our free-from-structured earlier days way of operating that touring was actually making serious money and they began trying to monopolize every facet of the touring industry. For example, Live Nation and Ticketmaster’s latest merger has bought up nearly every local promoter in the nation and then Ticketmaster can dictate the way for us all to buy tickets. It is a travesty and I believe that it has actually affected musicians and touring to conform and, we are paying more for it! So from the albums (yes, “album” is an anachronism, but it is what we called 12” black discs with side one and side two with music on each side) we grew up with, record companies nurtured rock band’s careers for years after their first “album” to now - corporations determining the type of mainstream music we hear and where they can perform. It is not inherently what music (an art form) should be conforming too. There are upsides too. Catering has improved! My first tour with Billy Preston in 1973 had a bucket of KFC placed on a table backstage and called it “dinner”. Being a lighting guy – by the time I got there it was nearly all gone. Today is much better, with organic and healthy choices. Not all the time—there are still some dodgy dinners that are dressed up to look nicer than they are! I could write another book about this subject of changes to the touring industry—from technology advancements to travel conditions— but I’ll stop here…
4. How is important is lighting and projection to the success of a tour today?
It depends on who you ask. Some artists believe the core reason that people attend their show is to hear their music. Some managers and accountants will cut anything they deem as unnecessary or anything that is not practical illumination because production lighting and video costs too much and they are in business to make money—right? There are thousands of touring acts out there but only the top tier can afford good production lighting and video and many are at the mercy of the promoter and what he is willing to provide. But audiences are far savvier in today’s market and they appreciate production value and actually expect it. From my perspective, the right lighting design and certainly the addition of video content, whether it is projection or LED screen configuration is psychological impact that improves the overall enjoyment of the live concert experience. The success of a tour is based on attendance and audiences will repeat the concert experience if enjoy themselves and they feel that they are getting value for money. Anymore, the music is not enough, particularly with top tier productions.
5. What will you be discussing at the Concert Master Classes?
Road Life. It is important that we keep up on technology advances and safety. Those things increase our service market value: to know about CAD and visualization programs, the latest media server and light software that you can operate on your iPhone. But, understanding road life and creating successful interpersonal relationships with your road comrades is equally if not more important. You can know technology and staging to the point of being a conceited ass about it, but I would rather have someone on the crew that can not only perform their job well, but communicates well, listens to instruction and will play nicely with others in the ‘road’ sandbox. In order to understand the concept of living and working with 10 or more people, stuck with each other on a bus for weeks at a time, smelling their farts, bad breath, smoking habits and offending political views you have to be of the right attitude to deal with that and some people just are not cut out to do it. I will pick out some highlight road tales and use other people’s experiences to emphasize the importance of communication and attitudes needed to travel well with crew and also ways to relate to the performing artist’s perspective. Yes, we will talk about lighting too…Copies of Concert Lighting: Techniques, Art and Business are available online when you register for the Live Design Concert Master Classes. Register by October 24 and save on the Classes as well as All Access LA events: Backstage Disney Day on December 10 and Technical Training Day on December 13.