Behind the Curtain of a Multi-Billion Dollar Industry That’s on Red Alert
Updated: Sep 30, 2020
Six months ago, I stood in the middle of Bridgestone Arena in Nashville surrounded by over 15,000 screaming fans, scores of country music artists, and record company executives for the opening night of Dan + Shay the Arena Tour. Little did I know it would be the last time I attended a concert in 2020…and likely the last time we got to create a show in the music industry as we knew it.
I’ve been obsessed with live music and theatre since I was a child. In my early teens, I made it onstage to perform in front of 5,000 people. It was an incredible achievement I had worked hard for, but as I stepped onto the stage, something amazing happened: the lighting, audio, and production staff that no one else saw took my performance and turned it into something magical. I had no idea these people existed, what the crazy, futuristic equipment they were using was, or how they did it. But at that moment, I knew that I needed to find out , and that was the moment I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life.
In the late nineties, being a roadie wasn’t a considered a real job, let alone a career choice. There were no schools that taught it, and very few books about the trade. No one could offer any advice on how to get onto a tour. The job description was mysterious life of sex, drugs, rock and roll, and endless parties with rock stars. The reality was anything but glamourous. Getting started in this business is tough – a real “work your way up from the bottom” kind of job. I volunteered for years, lived in a haunted dressing room in an abandoned theatre, worked weeks at a time with no sleep for hardly enough money to eat. I searched for buried cables at festivals covered in mud and shit, wading though overflowing Porta Potties, climbed thin trusses high above venue floors to fix or re-color lights with nothing but a basic rock climbing harness. I took any and every roadie gig that came my way to learn and build up the specialized skills and knowledge I needed to move up the ladder.
In one of those right-time-right-place moments that are pretty much the only way to get a break in this industry, I met someone who saw my potential and was willing to teach me. He become my mentor. By 19, I was on a European tour as a lighting designer for the first time. (Technically, because it was only me, I was the truck unloader, rigger, stage hand, lighting tech, lighting operator, troubleshooter, and maintenance guy all in one.) It meant long grueling hours: a 6 a.m. truck tip, set up for sound check by 2 p.m., show at 8 p.m., with de-rig and load out finished by 2 a.m. I showered in disgusting dressing rooms and the band and crew all slept on one moving bus (with 16 bunks) as it drove overnight to the next venue where we would do it all over again the next day.
Once a week, we got to have a day off in a new and unique place. It was unbelievably hard work, but it was amazing. I loved it. We – the band and the crew – entertained thousands of people, brought smilies to their faces, and removed them from real life for just a few hours of pure immersive entertainment. It was my dream job.
Twenty-two years later, a lot has changed. As a creative, lighting designer, and producer, I have had the honor of creating some of the most memorable concerts experiences for the world best artists. I’m also now a CEO in what has evolved into the multi-billon dollar live music industry. When Napster, Apple, and then Spotify introduced streaming, overnight, we flipped from touring to promote album sales to those tours being the major source of income for all artists. Each tour is treated like the multi-million dollar corporation it is, often bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket sales, merchandise and concessions. Whereas album sales used to be the way artists built their wealth, the income produced from records sales and streaming now looks like a rounding error in their live touring business. Needless to say, it was a dramatic shift in the industry.
The extravagant productions we design to wow, invoke emotion, and deliver life-changing experiences to fans are all totally unique – custom-designed and manufactured by many talented people who all have similar stories to mine. Each event, big or small, has one thing in common – one thing that by the very design of what we do is hidden. It’s the magic, the secret sauce, if you like. It’s the people who support our vision: the touring road crew, creative teams, local stage hands, security, bus and truck drivers, caterers, riggers, electricians, engineers, seamstresses, runners, teamsters, the list goes on.. Without this dedicated, highly-skilled, professional workforce who nearly always have trained their entire life to execute their small part of any production flawlessly night after night, no event would be possible. It’s their job to be invisible, to hide in the shadows behind curtains or backstage. They don’t get to have sick days or to be late. They run on little to no sleep. Often, one mistake could endanger lives, and every little detail of their work has to be perfect night after night; there is no room for compromise. Without every single one of them working in unison, nothing you have come to expect from a live concert would be possible.
Then there are the vendors and manufacturers. They’re the massive to small companies who specialize in the design, R&D, manufacture, creation, and rental of the highly specialized equipment, staging, set, pyrotechnics and structures that are required not only to bring our dreams to life, but are also designed to be fast to set up and easy to tear down and transport each day. It’s more complicated than building the average 4-bedroom house, but we do it every day in 8 hours!
Let’s not forget the people the fans do get to see: the bands, dancers, cast, and talent onstage. Again, all have trained, practiced, suffered, practiced again, been squeezed into outrageous costumes, and forced to play in pitch black, night after night.
We haven’t even started to talk supply chain. An average arena tour’s entourage would spend millions on flights, book hundreds of hotel rooms each night, and drive tens of thousands of people into cities, spending their hard-earned cash on hotels, food, and drinks. Multiply that by the thousands of tours traveling the U.S. at any given time, and add in theatre, corporate events, trade shows, theme parks, and festivals and we get an even bigger number. Add in every single country in the world and we start to have a substantial global impact on multiple industries. Just in the U.S. alone, arts and culture accounts for $877 billion, 4.5% of the U.S. economy. Live concert touring is an estimated $35 billion of that, and it’s a similar story all around the world.
Six month ago, all live music stopped. We were the first industry to really fully shut down, and overnight, business evaporated for everyone. It’s estimated that 96%, or as many as 12 million people in the live events industry are currently unemployed, furloughed, or have lost up to 90% of their income. Meanwhile, the world’s largest concert promoters are reporting a 98% loss of revenue since the start of the pandemic. I know firsthand; heartbreakingly, I have had to make multiple rounds of cuts to the incredible staff we have built over the years, and everyone remaining has had wages slashed considerably.
Live events will be the last to return and it’s looking bleak. Current estimates predict anywhere from 6 to 12 months before we are able to fill an amphitheater or arena, sustaining increased financial losses in the tens of billions of dollars. Let that sink in: twelve million people with absolutely no way to earn a living doing something they trained their entire life to do, and thats just in the U.S. The live events industry across the entire world is in the same situation to the tune of over 30 million people in 25 countries.
We often talked about nothing effecting live entertainment. Live music has always had a place in society. Through the worst of times such as world wars and depressions, people always needed an escape – to be entertained to support their sanity and bring hope. I have flown into war zones with artists to entertain the troops and seen firsthand the difference it makes. This pandemic, however, shattered that belief. Perhaps if we would have returned to live shows in September or October this year, which were the initial estimates, we would have stood a chance of getting through it. But nothing till summer or fall 2021 - an entire year to year and a half without a single dollar of income – is simply not survivable by any person, company, or industry without help, no matter how well-prepared they are.
To make matters worse, most of these crew members are freelance, self-employed independent contractors, so government benefits in multiple countries simply don’t cover them or are insufficient. Many haven’t claimed anything yet and have tried get through on their own because it’s not in their DNA to rely on handouts, and information circulating has been that we’ll be back soon. Because of this, a vast majority are not showing up in unemployment figures. In addition, it’s hard for them to get another job, as outside employers generally don’t understand the skills they have. Sadly, the reality is setting in; even the most hardened roadie is at a point where savings have dried up, bills are mounting, stress is rising, mental health is a real issue, money has run out, and there is no end in sight.
While some governments have recognized venues and are investigating funding to save venues, it’s imperative that this funding also extend to the lifeblood of the industry: the people. No matter how famous or cool a venue is, it’s just a building. It’s the people that make it work and bring it to life.
So for everyone reading this who loves live music, misses concerts, festivals and tours: it’s time to bring these men and women of the entire backstage industry out from behind the curtain and to make enough noise to get them recognized and to get the support that they so desperately need. If action isn’t taken immediately, when your favorite venue opens back up again, there just might not be anyone left to put on a show.
On September 1st, the #wemakeevents effort lit up over 2,500 buildings red across the U.S. to raise awareness of our dire situation. Tonight (Sept 30th) We will do it again - this time worldwide. I encourage anyone who works in the industry or who loves events to get involved and share. Creating a spectacle is what we do best; let’s light up this country bigger and better than ever before. But thats not enough; we need you to write, petition, and call your government officials to let them know the live industry needs help. We don’t have lobbyists or inside officials like other big businesses. We need the fans who love what we do to get onboard to help. visit www.WeMakeEvents.org for more info.
Anyone reading this who has the budget to put on any kind of event, consider doing it now and spreading the work around outside your normal circles. Record companies with promo budgets for all those albums being written in lockdown – let’s spend them putting as many people back to work as possible. Anyone wanting to do a virtual event – let’s do it in style, as there is an endless supply of talent out there just waiting to work. Artists who have received support – let’s make sure it’s passed onto the crews who have supported you for years on the road. Please don’t ask us to work for free, that just not sustainable. Most importantly, everyone reach out to friends, co-workers and your crews to check in on them, if they need help or someone to talk to be there for them, if you can't direct them to the amazing team at The Roadie Clinic.
Finally wear a mask! We may be a vast industry, but we are a small, close family, and we’re in this together. It’s going to be tough, but we will get there.
Even if we are successfully getting the support we need when we do emerge from this pandemic, we are going to be facing a very different landscape. The very essence of music and live events will have changed considerably. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. With this complete shutdown, we have the opportunity to redefine and guide a new normal in the design, creation, and economics of these events which will define how live music as a whole is consumed in the future. The willingness of all fans to attend in person will take time to recover. Getting artists as close to as many fans as possible, capacities, chair spacing, and immersive VIP areas will all need to be revised, which will all have a ripple effect to the bottom line. Virtual and hybrid audiences, VR, AR, XR and gamification’s development and use during this time have opened doors on new ways to experience performance. In the future we may have smaller budgets to work with, but thats also not a bad thing. That pushes us to be better, more efficient, to rely more on talent than spectacle.
We so desperately need to succeed in saving all our incredible people. So as one big team, we can get to innovating, educating, creating, healing, and pushing ourselves now, so when we are able to bring back in-person events, we’ll do what we do best and bring with us a whole new era of live events – one which is even better, richer, and more inclusive for fans, artists, and crews alike.
Fireplay’s CEO, Nick Whitehouse, learned his craft from 20 years of designing and touring with artists such as Coldplay, Jay Z, Kylie, Beyonce, Rihanna, Carrie Underwood, Aerosmith and Britney. His bold style and innovation has won the admiration of music’s most prominent figures and a 15-year collaboration with Justin Timberlake. From Super Bowl performances and award shows to pivotal moments in popular culture, chances are you’ve seen Whitehouse’s work without even knowing it. The UK native created Fireplay to bring a unique and collaborative touch to the industry and to provide services that go beyond artists’ expectations to revolutionize production and design.