A veteran concert designer explains how shows these days are just as engineered for audiences at home as for those in front of the stage
Artists these days have a new concern at the forefront of their minds when designing tours and concerts: how they look not just to live audiences — but also to millions, and potentially billions, of people at home. A chief driver of that worry is Instagram.
In the last year, the social media app has added 300 million monthly active users — doubling in size and bringing its total global user count to twice the size of the population of the United States. Of that immense user base, nearly half follow 10 or more verified musicians. And even more are making regularly posts and Instagram stories about music, with concerts a particularly popular photo and video subject. “A show no longer starts when the curtain rises,” entertainment architect Ray Winkler, who designed Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run II tour, told Rolling Stone earlier this summer. “The show starts the moment the first person takes a picture of it.
As Instagram continues on its explosive growth trajectory, artists are employing all sorts of tactics ranging from practical to outlandish to ramp up the visuals of their tours and the create the perfect “Instagram moment,” says longtime concert designer LeRoy Bennett, who’s produced iconic shows for Madonna, Prince, Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney and a litany of other household names. Rolling Stone caught up with Bennett on how the trend is changing the concert industry — and where it will go from here.
We’ve seen concerts go from music experiences to visual spectacles, and this year’s big shows seem especially focused on visual theatrics. Is it fair to say a lot of that is directly because of Instagram?
Yeah. Social media is making a lot of artists very concerned about the Instagram moment, about making sure their show’s photographs are the best. The whole Instagram thing is kind of a slippery slope because there’s a lot of people in the audience not all in the same spot, so some people take better shots than others, and artists see it and go “This is terrible!” You can only control it so much.
So the preoccupation with Instagram moments is coming from artists, not designers.
It’s the artists’ concern, yes, about what pictures of their shows look like. How they’re lit, how they look on stage. Of course you can’t sacrifice your live show for Instagram, but you can take it into consideration.
Why are we seeing so many oversized items on stage this year — like Drake’s floating Ferrarri, Taylor Swift’s towering snakes, and Travis Scott’s bird?
The idea has been around for decades: Pink Floyd had a flying pig, Prince’s Lovesexy tour had a Ford Thunderbird that drove around the stage. It’s about isolating the artist from other things on stage, from too many other distractions. You want to pull them out. So the Ferrari, obviously, you single out because it’s floating over the audience and over Drake, and not too many people have a flying Ferrari in their shows. It allows for a moment where the focus is on the artist — not other textures around them. If it’s iconic like that, it will be a good Instagram moment.
Another feature that seems to be ubiquitous on big tours is massive LED screens.
I would say over the last 15 maybe 20 years, they’ve really grown in popularity. The first LED screen that was ever invented was used was U2’s PopMart, and since then, the tech has gotten refined and a lot more cost-effective. Everybody feels they need to have an LED screen. But sometimes when you have a big screen like that it becomes claustrophobic. With an LED screen it’s also a commitment: You have to have an image or it’s just a gray thing in the background. I like depth on stage, I don’t like to know where the horizon ends — so over the years I’ve been using transparent or blow-through screens where they’re open enough that you can put lights behind it. So you don’t have to have an image there all the time. Also, for the last Nine Inch Nails tour, we had a transparent screen with so you could play images that could interact with each other on different layers. In U2’s tour, they had a walkway that went through the audience and there’s a classic camera shot of Bono having his hand out, looking like he’s holding up the edge with the palm of his hand. The whole technology has changed a lot.
Like screens, lasers also seem to be in shows everywhere now.
Laser technology has come a really long way since I started in the business. Back in the Seventies, the lasers had to be water-cooled, so you had to hook them up to plumbing and have laser-tech plumbers. Since then, the efficiency has improved, they’ve gotten stronger as far as output, and they’re a lot more compact and don’t require water to cool them. New lasers can also scan into the audience without burning people’s irises. They’re constantly improving on it, which is why there’s more lasers in a lot more shows now — because it’s more interesting than it used to be.
“The whole Instagram thing is kind of a slippery slope” — veteran show designer LeRoy Bennett
What about fire, another popular visual gimmick? How has that technology been changing?
There are heavy restrictions and safety laws for pyrotechnics. I’ve designed for German band Rammstein for 16 years and they have more pyro than anyone. We have a safety officer who’s at rehearsals the whole time and literally makes this whole catalog of certificates and everything, about every single pyro effect. Sometimes cities have different rules and regulations, so once you come into a particular city, you have to present the fire marshal with what you’re doing and how it works within the parameters of their laws. For Rammstein, I’m in the process of designing a stadium show for next year that is outdoors, so the fire will be a lot bigger, and even in the audience.
So a lot of these things are striking visual effects, perfectly suited for Instagram and other social media. But it seems even with all of that, there’s still no way to make sure pictures will come out well.
The thing about creating these Instagram moments, these iconic pictures, is there’s only so much you can do because it also involves where the audience member is. If you’re in front of the stage looking at it, it’s easy to take a good Instagram. If you’re off to the side, pointing your camera sideways, it’s not necessarily the best angle — but you can’t build sets that wrap around because venues don’t sell tickets the same degree around. It’s a funny little dance. But it has become a really important factor. It can be a pain in the ass when it comes to the lighting side of things, because artists will look at these Instagrams and they get upset thinking that’s how they looked during the show when someone just took a bad photograph.
What’s the solution?
We should just ban phones from any show, that’s my theory. [laughs] Social media has become not exactly a hindrance, but it’s adding more stress into designing a show, and it’s putting undue pressure on the artist. All they’re worried about is if somebody posts a really bad picture. It’s unfair. I know there are some artists trying to ban phones from shows and prevent this — and also I have to say, it’s good the cameras are getting better.
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