The Tech-Powered Stage Takes Center Stage

by Dan Daley • in
  • July 2018
  • The Biz
• Created: July 17, 2018

What takes place on the stage today at live events, and most particularly at music concerts, has been a remarkable process of evolution. Forty years ago, concertgoers were happy to watch a band perform on stage, with most musicians tethered to their amplifiers by pig-tail curled guitar cords (which are back in vogue now) or surrounded by a bank of keyboards. A decade or so later, everyone was wireless, having the run of a stage that is filled with architectural sets and scenery, all while ducking pyro explosions.

A decade past that, the backdrops are huge projections, and thrusts and iso stages into the audience bring performers closer, thanks to sound systems that have essentially made feedback extinct. The next iteration of this sees the video images on massive LED walls, their sizes limited only by gravity and local building codes; and sound systems that are inching towards the immersive experience.

Madison Square Garden, one of the oldest stops on the touring circuit, is now giving us a peek at the next generation of what’s on stage, one in which it’s the stage itself that is part of the process. Earlier this year, MSG officials unveiled what they called a “revolutionary new live entertainment venue” and for once, reality lived up to hyperbole. Where LED screens now create backdrops to the action on stage, they are the stage for the MSG Sphere Arena, a 360-by-500-foot (HxW) dome completely covered on the outside and inside by programmable, wraparound LED screens, with a 170,000-square-foot display plane within the arena itself. Billed as the largest and highest resolution on earth, the LEDs are capable of displaying 250 million pixels (19,000 x 13,500), a pixel count that is more than 100 times higher than HDTV. The outside wrap of the Sphere will be able to be turned into any number of visuals, from a giant tennis ball to a world globe, from displaying a performance going on inside or even making the Sphere blend in with the surrounding skyline. Inside, the MSG Sphere goes for total immersion, with internet access throughout and beamformed audio directed at each of its 18,000 seats, doing away with conventional line array propagation for sound.

“It takes the definition of ‘interactive’ to new heights,” exclaimed Irving Azoff, the music-business macher who partnered with Garden owner James Dolan for the venture, during a demonstration of the combined technologies that took place simultaneously in New York and Las Vegas. Azoff has not made a bad bet yet in the post-CD music business: he parlayed his management business Front Line (Eagles, Steely Dan, Van Halen) into helming Ticketmaster after they bought Front Line, and then the chairmanship of Live Nation when the world’s largest promoter bought Ticketmaster, taking a little time during that to completely upset the applecart of music publishing with Global Rights Music, a direct-licensing venture that bypasses BMI, ASCAP and Harry Fox. He began the partnership that led to the MSG Sphere when he sold half of his Azoff Music Management to MSG for $125 million back in 2013 to MSG CEO James Dolan, who also owns NBA perennial cellar-dwellers the NY Knicks and is said to be a decent guitar player, whose $1.5 billion net worth keeps him well-stocked with vintage Strats and Les Pauls.

That bit of financial background is worth knowing, because it’s going to take a lot of money to power the coming next generation of performance stages. No hard figures have been revealed, but the Sands Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, where one of the two MSG Sphere Arenas will be built (the other is planned for London) has pledged $75 million towards the project, which ensures that the Sphere, expected to be finished in 2020, will be connected to the Sands’ own Sands Expo & Convention Center, as well as bridged to the Venetian and Palazzo hotels. The stakes in the live-production business are getting bigger by the day.

‡‡         Bigger & Bigger

Interactivity and immersivity (yes, that’s a real word) have been creeping into live shows for some time, through gags like wirelessly controlled LEDs lighting spheres and wristbands and making them pulse to the beat of the music and change colors, which PixMob created for Arcade Fire at Coachella in 2014 and then for Taylor Swift’s 1989 tour in 2015. Then came holographic visual 3D glasses, which AXO and 3D Live collaborated on for Flying Lotus’ show at the 2017 FYF Festival in Los Angeles, the same year that Americana star Chris Stapleton went on the road with his LED-filled dome.

This has significant implications for tour sound providers, as well as for their cousins in lighting, staging and video, because it’s increasingly apparent that simply performing songs on stage, projected through sound systems, illuminated by lighting and scaled by video may no longer enough to sustain a tour. Year after year, stage wizardry grows exponentially. Just a couple of years ago, in 2016, Kanye West performed on a flying stage for his “Saint Pablo” tour, while Beyoncé’s Formation tour included a revolving video screen the size of an apartment building, a moving runway, with a second stage that stored 2,000 gallons of water.

This upward spiral produces two things: wonderment and concern — the former because the spectacles are mind boggling (I was in the “Beyhive” for Beyoncé’s last tour, and it was friggin’ spectacular) and the latter because the cost of these spectacles is a major part of what is propelling ticket costs upward. God knows we need distraction these days, and the upper echelons of the music touring business are also putting a sizable part of their next generation through college. But the worry is that it might collapse under its own weight at some point. As Adam Davis, chief creative officer of Tait, which envisioned Formation’s eye-widening stage set, told an interviewer last year, “The audience expectation of what a concert experience is continues to increase, and competition for the ticket continues to increase.”

Academic studies have shown that we are an optimistic species, and when things are going well we tend to expect them to stay that way. Much of what we now call the legacy music business was grinning even as it careened over the cliff that was Napster (though all that blow might have been helping). Fifteen years later, it looks like the “biz” is back, with streaming and live music pushing the numbers ever upward. So now’s the perfect time to start figuring out what comes next. Just as the punks of the late 1970s pulled us back from the outrageously theatrical touring spectacles of Pink Floyd (flying pigs!), Genesis and the rest, providing what in retrospect was a useful reset, we need to be looking for the next opportunity to stop and take a deep breath, because nothing — not even Kanye’s flying stage — lasts forever, and nor should it.

 

Pictured above, a rendering of the proposed MSG Sphere Arena project in Las Vegas, planned for completion in 2020.

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