When the setlist on Drake’s current tour rolls around to two particular songs, “Elevate” and “Look Alive,” 200 backup dancers rush onto the stage to twirl in choreographed fashion above the rapper’s head.
They’re miniature autonomous drones, made by Zurich-based indoor drone company Verity Studios, which custom-designed the tech for the Canadian rapper’s “Aubrey and the Three Amigos” tour. At a demonstration of the micro drones in New York City last month amid Drake’s multiple tour stops in town, Verity’s founder Raffaello D’Andrea — an engineering professor and entrepreneur who also was the founder of Kiva Systems, which is now Amazon Robotics — explained how the set-up works: Each of the tiny devices, which weigh less than a slice of bread and are equipped with powerful lights, deploys from a net that’s set up in front of the stage but hidden from audience view, and follows pre-set choreography made by Verity and Drake’s creative team. Verity’s proprietary tech allows the drones to also fly autonomously, rearranging themselves as Drake moves and avoiding collision with other people or objects, and the whole affair is set up and broken down at each venue by the touring team.
According to D’Andrea, Drake’s team approached Verity several months ago, asking. While contracts prevent the reveal of specific details of the partnership, he noted that most of the time clients “find us from simple searches,” often by looking up autonomous indoor drone technology on Google or YouTube. (Verity, founded in 2014, has also provided indoor drone displays for Metallica and Cirque du Soleil.) D’Andrea declined to comment on the production cost for Drake’s drone show, but noted that Cirque du Soleil spent $500,000 on a similar display in 2016.
Drake’s team wanted “something that had never been seen before,” D’Andrea said.
“What the teams created together is visually stunning,” D’Andrea said. “Our drone choreographers worked in partnership with Drake’s creative team to come up with various concepts for the show, like geometric shapes and drone tornadoes, before deciding on the final choreographies.”
In the age of Instagram concerts — wherein the proliferation of visual-heavy social media is making artists more conscious of the aesthetics of their live shows than ever before — every musician on a large-scale tour is trying to push the boundaries of what they can bring to their stage. Drake’s drones are relatively modest in size compared to other stunts and spectacles that audiences have witnessed this year: Travis Scott performs on a hanging mechanical bird, for example, and Taylor Swift’s “Reputation” tour features the singer dancing in front of a 32-foot cobra. (That’s just the height of the head; the tail measures 63 feet tall, per Swift’s team.)
Of course, Drake’s show is also not without its large-scale theatrics. In addition to the drones, his concert set-up includes a screen that displays an immense iPhone scrolling through Drake’s account, a laser-lit basketball court and, last but certainly not least noticed, a neon-yellow Ferrari that floats airily over the audience’s heads. “It’s about isolating the artist from other things on stage, from too many other distractions. You want to pull them out,” longtime stage designer LeRoy Bennett tells Rolling Stone. “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 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.” Drake’s yellow Ferrari for instance, Bennett says, allows fans to take an instantly recognizable shot that others — whether they were at the show or not — can later discuss and remember as “Drake’s Ferrari.”
The same goes for the Verity drones. While most concertgoers and at-home Instagram viewers may not be able to identify the technology itself, they’ll remember “Drake’s dancing lights” and associate the display with a one-of-a-kind experience at a specific artist’s show. At a time when live events are quickly shooting up as the biggest revenue-driver in music, shows that are able to visually distinguish themselves from the otherwise-homogenous slew of other concerts in the year are the ones that stick around in people’s minds — and in artists’ wallets.