U2 had its 400-ton, 360-degree “Claw” stage that cost $30 million. Lady Gaga’s 2013 concert circuit involved a looming five-story Gothic castle. Taylor Swift’s ongoing Reputation stadium tour needs 52 semis and 30 flatbed trucks just to haul all the gear.
It isn’t fans’ imagination that music tours, particularly ones put on by the biggest artists, are getting more lavish by the year. For evidence in hard numbers, look no further than the mid-year report Pollstar released this week: The concert company found that the live market’s 2018 mid-year gross is a record-setting $2.21 billion, up $240 million (12 percent) from the previous year, and that average ticket prices are at a record high of $96.31. Fans are hungry for live shows, and they’re willing to splurge on them. “The precipitous rise speaks to the industry’s aggressive pricing strategy to better meet demand and exclude the secondary market,” Pollstar noted, as well.
But the soaring costs are also due to the fact that A-list concerts – which have been exploding in popularity as fans in the streaming era seek more interactive connections with their favorite musicians – are now regularly expected to be full-blown, Instagram-ready spectacles. For a closer look at the future of major music tours, Rolling Stone spoke to Ray Winker, CEO and design director of Stufish Entertainment Architects, the firm that crafted the visual dreamscape for Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s current On the Run II tour. (The studio has also designed stages and sets for the likes of U2, Madonna, Pink Floyd, the London and Beijing Olympics and Cirque du Soleil.)
Now that live events are such a key, lucrative industry for music – how have artists changed their approach to concert tours? Do they give them more thought than before?
By the industry’s own admission, the way to make money in the day and age of streaming and downloads is for artists to go on tour. The demand is for artists to do something spectacular. The crowds are expecting something pretty big. So that pushes the artist to think about touring in a more challenging way. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, touring was a promotional tour that bands used for new albums. It wasn’t the profit center that it is now, where bands don’t make money on CD sales – they do so in touring and merchandising. Their core mission is to grow the fan base and get them to come to an event that basically allows bands to make a business out of their music.
So what kinds of “spectacular” things are we seeing on stage? And what will we see more of?
Everybody likes pyrotechnics. People will always revert back to that technology because it’s just a wonderful way of celebrating something; it’s grand and exciting. I don’t think you can really advance on that too much, [other than] things like making the timecode with the music absolutely precise. But what’s happening much more on top of that is audience participation – like giving wristbands that are controlled by the show and change colors and patterns with the show. I think that trend is going to increase with augmented reality, as well. Fans downloading an app and holding it against the screen to get an AR experience with the band. But how loyal fans are going to be to AR, only time will tell.
Why is that?
Because people are no longer content with an experience that creates a barrier between them and the experience. They want to be much more immersed in the event. People go to these shows to experience something, and if there’s a certain distance between them and the artist, the link between the two can be severed quite easily. So we’re always looking for ways to bring the show closer.
What kinds of features accomplish that?
Bigger and wider stages, for example. Catwalks deeper into the house. In On the Run II, there’s a bridge that spans over the audience’s heads – and Taylor Swift did that too, and in 1997 when the Rolling Stones did their [Bridges to Babylon] tour, there was a bridge hidden under the stage. Those are things that go down very well. Other big changes are ones you can see in the technology of engineering: bigger, brighter and cheaper.
Why are shows getting grander in the first place?
The desire for humans to be entertained – it’s a very important part of how we express ourselves. And entertainment architects apply understandings from one industry to another. For example, lightweight façades, LED technology: U2 went on tour a few years ago with the largest screen ever that created the backdrop to the band’s performance. That was revolutionary. You wouldn’t have found that scale of screen anywhere. And now, it’s pretty much present in any city center around the world. There’s direct tie-ins, [which is] how entertainment architecture works.
“A show no longer starts when the curtain rises” – Stufish design director Ray Winkler
What’s most different about the set design for tours today?
In the day and age of Instagram and Snapchat and all other social media, far more people know about the show than the people actually sitting in the stadium. The “Instagram moment” is a very important aspect of how we design things. At the start of the On the Run II show, before it’s even started, there will be thousands of photos circulating on the internet about how it looks like. So a show no longer starts when the curtain rises. The show starts the moment the first person takes a picture of it. Getting that moment right – making sure the show looks impressive and enticing before it starts – is a challenge you wouldn’t have thought about, 10 years ago.
The show has to live up to expectations – but also to images.
Yes, nowadays, you’re very minded to make the experience mobile-friendly. As soon as the doors are open for the very first show, the excitement mounts. People talk. A lot of people don’t even watch the show anymore – they film the show and watch it on their phones. That changes the way one thinks about design, quite considerably. You can’t underestimate the power of making sure a show looks good the moment people walk into a stadium – it’s now as important as the show itself.