One On One With Fireplay Co-Founder Nick Whitehouse

Those who saw Justin Timberlake turn U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis into an over-sized club during his Super Bowl halftime performance this year undoubtedly took note of the intricate choreography, the voluminous live musicianship, the massive walkway leading to the main stage and the visual effects. And of course there was the giant projected image of Prince for throngs of the Artist’s hometown fans.

A company that made a lot of the visuals from that performance happen was Fireplay, a creative / design studio founded by seven professionals from different disciplines, including lighting, stage design, special effects, production, marketing, and architecture.

Fireplay formally began operations in January 2017 and the company has been very busy, counting James Taylor, The Killers, Thomas Rhett, Brett Eldredge and many more on its client list.

Co-founder and lighting specialist Nick Whitehouse came up in the industry with Coldplay. He spoke on transitioning from road warrior to company co-founder, his process of working through creative design with artists, and how Fireplay’s business differs from traditional models.

Nick Whitehouse

Pollstar: So business seems to be going well with the new company. You’re keeping busy?

Nick Whitehouse: We’re doing well, actually. It’s been great to see. Obviously when we got started there was a little bit of “maybe it’ll go great, maybe nothing will happen,” and thankfully its gone great until today. So hopefully it continues.

What tours are impressing you? What are you seeing and taking notes of?

I’m kinda funny. I don’t see many. As someone that helps put together the creative side I don’t want to be inspired by what someone else is doing.

Someone once said to me: “You can’t un-see something,” once you’ve seen it, it’ll always be in the back of your mind. I tend to just look at pictures of shows and see if they’re good. I don’t tend to go to many others that aren’t ours so that I don’t steal ideas. …

I do know that the Bruno tour looked pretty good from the pictures and got some great reviews. … I know Corey, the guy that designed that, and Gloria are fantastic designers.

The rest of it, I’m not so sure. I know that’s a really bad answer but I just tend to distance myself from the other shows … so that we’re actually going at it solely based on what we’re getting from the artist.

Do artists ever say “I want it to be like this thing?”

All the time, they say “I love this person’s show” and “I love this person’s show” and “I love this person’s show.” I try to get out of them what they need about it or what they liked about that person’s show. …

I think that’s one of our biggest strengths is to take what they’re asking for and then develop it. For me, I’ve been lucky – and for Fireplay, we’ve all been lucky – all the artists we’ve been working with are very cool and very creative. They’ve had some really strong ideas to be different, and want to be different.

Perhaps they have a show they like the look of, but it’s also ‘I don’t want a show that looks like the other ones you’ve done.’

There’s some very creative people out there at the moment. With the music and the vision, the artists that we’re working for are really trying to push boundaries. … That’s what we are known for in the industry, we will take it and push it the extra mile and try to do things that are a little bit different and a little bit unseen because people remember that. They might not know why they remember it but they do remember those shows.

You are said to be budget conscious. So you mean big tours don’t just throw money at you?

No. I was working with Coldplay when they were playing 1,000-capacity rooms and I was with them all the way through until they started doing stadiums. … It was still an industry when album sales were driving profits. So it was, “Whatever you need … we got it”. But that’s so different these days.

Even the big artists, a lot of the times we are designing on a very strict budget. These guys are running their tours like the million dollar industries that they are. They are businessmen, and they think ‘I’m the CEO of a company.’ The most successful ones, that’s how they treat it, and they have business manager, and they have lawyers and people really look out for where things stand. The creative is incredibly important but what we’re finding is just as important is how to get unique creative without it costing millions of dollars.

When money was no object it was easy, but now money is an object and it affects the bottom line of the profitability of a tour. And we’re still doing it the way that we’ve learned how to do it.

Justin Timberlake
AP Photo / Charlie Neibergall
Justin Timberlake
Justin Timberlake dances and sings his way around U.S. Bank Stadium during halftime of Super Bowl LII between the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots in Minneapolis Feb. 4.

One of the magical things about live events is these incredible productions. But it goes from arena to arena. Do you travel with these shows?

I toured for like 16 years straight, I almost never went home. I have my wife and we have a child. So that’s part of the reason I switched into designing and producing and giving these younger guys, the up-and-coming people the chance to get out and do the work on the road. It’s my time to be in the back.

Yeah it seems like even artists get road weary after awhile. We seem to observing some tend to tour less and price more aggressively as they get older, so it makes sense the other professionals would feel similar.

I think you can say some of these artists have toured constantly for 10-20 years of their lives. So they say “OK, I’m just going to do what I want to do now. I’ll come back to my fans and create amazing experiences, but maybe instead of doing a full-year tour I’ll do a 3-month tour and charge more.”

Can you talk a bit about how the company formed with seven co-founders? I heard you were somewhat of the catalyst.

About two years ago I was approached by someone who asked me if I would go work for them to put together something like this. There was a trend for the new managers to want to go to one person, almost like a one-stop shop and say ‘Put together a tour, put together creative, figure out everything. How to make it work, how to make it profitable, how to make it tour.’

Someone came to me and said “Can you put together a business plan and see if you’d want to do it?” So I studied what was going on in the industry and a lot of people were trying it and a lot of things being pooled together to do that. And I probably spent a good six months talking to a couple of friends, figuring it out.

We kinda got to that point at the end of the six months where I went back to that person. They said “Do you think it’s going to work” and I said “No, it doesn’t work at all. They want a lot of people, but there’s just a whole bunch of pitfalls. For me, and for what we do, it just doesn’t work.”

So I kinda sat on it again for another six months, and I kinda got to the point where I said: “It doesn’t work that way, but maybe if we can get together a great group of people and instead of being in competition with everyone, we can be that company that everyone actually wants to work with because we’ve got something for everyone.”

That’s kinda how the Fireplay thing developed. I identified a few of the now co-founders and started talking it through with them… and we decided we were gonna do it. We got a business plan, wrote down ideas and we started and Jan. 1, 2017 we all went on payroll and figured it out.

We found a different investor who was willing to come in and back it and said, ‘You need some money to get going and this sounds exciting.’

Now we’re [more than a year] later and everything we wrote in that business plan has changed. We’ve developed with how the industry is changing, we’ve developed with how we’ve seen our clients work, and I think what we’ve changed into is actually a vision of what it’s gonna need to be in a couple years down the line.

 It’s very different from anything there has been before and I think that’s why things are starting to work great for us. We are this really open, transparent company that is able to do amazing creative work and partner with people who want to do the same.

The fact that we’re really busy is kinda proving that other people want the same thing too.

That was kind of a long-winded way of saying: I put a team together, we really like each other, and it works great and the creative is fantastic that’s coming out.

So it would seem like one of the main pitfalls would be competition? Is there competition for control within the group, or with other companies for work?

If we put together [all the details] and we do great, and every single actor comes through, then everything we do is gonna have our signature on it. I know my lighting has a certain signature I know Josh’s work has a certain signature … so if we do everything, then it’s all gonna start to look like that.

So the idea of Fireplay is: we are an amazing support team and we have our own great effects. But if we don’t think we are the right creative director for that, well we can go out into the marketplace and go to any other creative directors out there that we know and that we’ve worked with before and say “We think you’re great for this and would you work with us on this project?”

Instead of competing against them for the show we say “we’d like to back you for this show and we want to help you get in there.”

Over the last year we’ve done five really big tours and we’ve had five different creative directors for them and none of them are on staff at Fireplay. They’re all [colleagues] that we’ve hired for that particular show. And the same thing with video content. We were pretty adamant to not make all our stuff look the same so we’ve gone to 20 different studios to get the content for those shows and everything looks unique and fresh and different and new collaborations happen all over the place. It’s been awesome.

I think as we continue building that, as we grow and as we get people to be involved, we’re never gonna repeat, we’re never gonna put the same buildings up for the show. Again, the reputation for everything that comes out of here being totally tailored for every artist, every client and every executive project we do.

You get other professionals with their own companies, but they are contractors? How does that process of selection work?

We would set it up and present a few options to the artist and say “We believe these two are the perfect people to do your tour.” … We actually manage them for the artists, we keep them in budget, we keep the creative running and we let them do the lead, the really cool things and we’re kind of in the background so if they need renderings, if they need great set design they can just lean on Josh. And if Josh isn’t the right person Josh’ll find someone.

As the seven family members of this, we always guide every project because the artists, the managers, the business managers, Live Nation, all trust that we deliver an amazing project. At the end of the day we’re almost the real producer of the show. …

[And] what we tend to find is then, because the experience went really well, those directors [we recommend] get their own shows and that’s bringing them tours, they’re saying “I want to do the same thing, how do I do that?” …

Instead of being in a marketplace where every single creative is competing against each other for one show, we’re gonna say well if you wanna hire us, we’re not gonna tell you you can’t hire your own team. We’re not gonna compete, we’re not gonna tell you you can’t have your own light designer, we’re not gonna tell you you can’t have your own set designer, we’re gonna be part of the team and we’re gonna bring the elements that you want from us and deliver everything that’s given us and we work with everyone.

Aren’t people always looking for their next gig though?

A lot of the time the job that I do and one of our partners does is we go out there and we look for new talent as well. We’re looking for the next cool lighting designer or the next cool set designer and trying to bring them into a project so they can feel like they’re not competing with us but they can be a part of the team and if they need to pick a team for a project they are doing they can call us and not feel scared. They’re gonna go in there and say ‘Yeah you’ve got this guy, but we can do better.’

It sounds a little bit weird. But we’re trying to create an industry where you work together. When you work together you get better creative and you get better results. A lot of collaborations and partnering and that’s really where we see this going.

Is there enough work for everyone, though?

Yeah. There’s tons of work in the live music scene. And there’s tons of work in the events scene.

A big part of what you do then is just being connected to the marketplace?

I would say it’s 50 percent [knowing who does what well] and 50 percent still providing the creative. Some of the shows its knowing where the fans would sit. Obviously, we’ve brought in clients that would say “Hey Josh has to do the set design for this one” and we said “Hey, no problem.” We work around that too.

Like any company, if you want to scale it, you can’t just be dependent on the people that you have right there at the time. I always have to look at growing this thing and we always have to look at how we can expand to meet the needs of the people that want to come and work with us.

Anything else?

I think the most interesting thing is it’s a group of people out there having fun and doing cool creative. Making friends in the industry with people that two years ago were actually people we would compete with. That makes it really enjoyable and a nice overall environment.

Stay tuned for a second interview with two more Fireplay co-founders.