‘These People Want It’: Justin Timberlake Returns To The Road After Bruised Vocal Cords And Postponed Shows
Mark La Shark – Can
Justin Timberlake performs on the “Man of the Woods” tour at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C., on Jan. 8, 2019. The show was his third after returning from severely bruised vocal cords that forced the postponement of more than 20 concerts in late 2018.
The night of Oct. 22, 2018, Justin Timberlake sold out Madison Square Garden, moving 17,690 tickets and grossing $2.8 million for another successful stop on his “Man of the Woods” tour. It was business as usual for the pop icon, then 37, who had spent the year selling out American and European arenas to the tune of $151 million grossed worldwide.
Timberlake was scheduled to play the arena again on Oct. 24 for the second show of a two-gig stand and his third headlining concert at the Garden in 2018. But that morning, he shared sad and shocking news via social media: His vocal cords were “severely bruised.” On doctor’s orders, he was postponing the gig.
“It was heartbreaking,” recalls Timberlake’s creative director David Cho, who tells Pollstar he was headed to the Garden to prep for the show when he received the news. “He had had this weird throat thing that we weren’t sure about. He had gone to the doctor that day and they were like, ‘Yeah, you can’t sing.’”
More than 20 postponements followed, from Los Angeles and Las Vegas to Indianapolis and Philadelphia. After 77 shows in 59 cities, Timberlake’s 2018 had ended on an abrupt, sour note. “It was so scary because it was one of those things where you just didn’t know when it was going to stop,” Cho says.
But in 2019, the consummate showman has rallied and then some. Timberlake resumed his tour on Jan. 4 in Washington, D.C., playing a month of previously scheduled shows before performing a slew of mostly makeup dates in February, March and early April. At mid-year, Timberlake has grossed $75.5 million over 38 shows; since late 2017, he has grossed a whopping $226 million, according to Pollstar Boxoffice data.
“It’s a testament to who Justin is,” says Johnny Wright, who has managed Timberlake since his ‘NSync days. “He could’ve been on a beach enjoying himself and said, ‘Hey, I did what I could, now I’m just going to do my thing.’ But he was like, ‘No, these people want it. … No matter how long it extends my time on the road, I’m going to go out and do it.’”
Mark La Shark – Space-Age Tech
Despite its rustic theme, Timberlake’s “Man of the Woods” tour featured plenty of cutting-edge special effects.
And, as Wright points out, on top of making up the postponed shows, Timberlake and his team added more, in locations such as San Diego and Detroit. “Not only did his vocals get a chance to rest, his body got a chance to rest,” says Wright. (Beyond vocal cord bruising, Timberlake had sustained an MCL injury in late May 2018, near the end of the tour’s first leg.) Once doctors cleared Timberlake to perform, “like an athlete, he was ready to go back and start balling.”
If anything, Timberlake emerged from the injury better than ever. “The shows before that were obviously great, but I think he was approaching it with a really renewed mind” when he returned to the road, Cho says. “It was a really good reset in a lot of ways.”
The idea of Timberlake needing a reset may seem absurd to the 1.76 million fans who have seen his high-intensity, high-concept “Man of the Woods” tour. For two decades, Timberlake has reigned as not only one of pop’s preeminent musicians, but also as one of its most athletic and most innovative. In conversation, collaborators repeatedly return to Timberlake’s work ethic, discipline, stamina and commitment to his craft and to his fans. The notion of postponing dates has also become more fraught as tours have increasingly become integral to an artist’s creative offering and bottom line.
“When I first started, the tour was promo for the album,” says the tour’s creative producer and lighting designer Nick Whitehouse, who has worked on Timberlake’s tours since 2007’s “FutureSex/LoveShow” and founded multi-disciplinary creative and design studio Fireplay, which led creative for the “Man of the Woods” tour, in 2017. “It didn’t matter what we spent. As long as it was a really great show, it would drive people to buy the album and the artist would make the money there. Now, it’s completely reversed. It’s more like the album is promo for the tour. We have to come up with things that are exciting for people to see.”
Arthur Fogel, who oversaw the “Man of the Woods” tour as Live Nation’s CEO of Global Touring, puts it more bluntly: “The business we’re in isn’t about showing up and playing your songs. It’s about giving people a show.”
So, while Timberlake’s shows are about his beloved hits, they’re also about presenting them cinematically. “One of the many things he does is make movies, and it comes down to storytelling,” Cho says. “That was a big part of it for him: The idea of telling a story as much as he could through this musical show.”
Mark La Shark – Built Environment
Timberlake performs on the “Man of the Woods” tour at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Canada, on Feb. 7. The pop star conceptualized the show as a way of bringing the woods into an arena.
And with the “Man of the Woods” tour, Timberlake reached a new narrative peak. His previous arena tour, which followed 2013’s two 20/20 Experience albums, was his first solo outing in six years and gleamed with the space-age tech worthy of a star reintroducing himself in a new decade.
The “Man of the Woods” tour still featured plenty of space-age tech – listening to Timberlake’s team describe it can make it sound more like a NASA mission than an arena concert – but it’s prominence in the tour’s concept itself was less marked. The show originated with conversations Timberlake had with childhood friend Trace Ayala about how to “bring the woods into an arena,” Wright says, and as the tour developed, Timberlake sought to channel the same rootsy aesthetic and rustic nostalgia for his home of Memphis, Tenn., that defined the album from which it took its name.
According to Whitehouse, Timberlake approached Fireplay about a year before rehearsals began envisioning a show that was at once “super organic and outdoorsy” and “really high-tech and different.” Crucially, “he wanted to be able to get everywhere in the arena.” The stage Whitehouse and his associates conceived merged form and function. “We took the floodplain maps of the Mississippi River that runs through Memphis, and that’s what the stage curve is loosely based on,” Whitehouse says. “That’s something that really resonated with him, and we went from there.”
Other aspects of the tour similarly united rustic and cutting-edge elements. For instance, a key part of the show that Whitehouse, Cho and Fireplay’s Kelly Sticksel, the show’s special effects designer, emphasize is the campfire scene, where Timberlake and his bandmates sat around a custom fire pit and performed acoustic versions of his songs.
“We weren’t going to do a cheesy, silk-type fire,” Sticksel says. “It had to be real fire, real heat, because the audience was nearby. We wanted the fire to light everybody’s faces.”
However, many international arenas don’t allow propane, the fuel commonly used for pyrotechnics. In collaboration with Strictly FX, the company responsible for building and operating many of the tour’s effects and lasers, Sticksel and Fireplay’s Josh Zangen designed a “dual-fuel” fire pit that could run on propane when permitted and more-expensive butane when not. Timberlake loved it so much that the piece, initially conceived as a three to six minute interlude, expanded to roughly half an hour.
These innovative methods of bringing the outdoors inside defined the show, from plastic blades of grass propelled upward by linear motors to simulate vegetation to the custom liquid-nitrogen-based low-lying fog machine that spewed dense fog during, appropriately, “Cry Me a River.”
But as Fireplay rolled out bells and whistles, Timberlake stayed focused on his prime objective: intimacy with audiences. When Timberlake embarked on his first solo tour in 2007, Wright says, “the idea was, and still is today, ‘How do we take an arena and make it more intimate so you’re bringing the people closer?’”
Mark La Shark – Cry Me A River
Timberlake prowls the stage, modeled after the portion of the Mississippi River that runs through his native Memphis, Tenn., on the “Man of the Woods” tour.
That mission is the underlying explanation behind choices such as playing in the round and wrapping a stage around an arena floor, even if Timberlake’s team finesses them to fit a particular show’s aesthetic. This approach also means fans might see a different show depending on where they’re seated. “That’s really cool, because he does have fans that come back to multiple shows,” Whitehouse says. “They don’t see the same thing twice.”
Elaborate staging comes at a cost, of course, even if Whitehouse and Sticksel say they strive to allay expenses. “You have to generate a certain level of income to sustain a production on the road” as intricate as the “Man of the Woods” tour, Fogel says. The average “Man of the Woods” ticket in 2019 was $133.24, lower than the period’s two highest grossers, Elton John ($135.71) and Pink ($142.71), but substantially above Metallica ($109.66) and Ed Sheeran ($86.74), the fourth- and sixth-highest grossers, respectively.
The price discrepancy helps to explain Timberlake’s high showing on Pollstar’s mid-year charts, despite selling fewer tickets (566,611) than acts such as Travis Scott (No. 10; 685,575) and Mumford & Sons (No. 13; 615,588). Instructively, Timberlake sold out Denver’s Pepsi Center on Jan. 28, moving 17,440 tickets and grossing $2.84 million. When Eric Church’s “Double Down” tour rolled through the same venue in May, the country star sold it out two times over – but despite moving 26,572 tickets, still grossed $403,642 less than Timberlake.
“You want to find that balance between high-priced tickets and lower-priced tickets,” Fogel says. “When you have the kind of success that this tour had, I think that says that you did a pretty good job finding the balance.”
Since “Man of the Woods” kicked off in 2018, Timberlake has sold out three shows apiece in key markets including New York City, Chicago, Dallas and Boston. Coupled with the success of his prior “20/20 Experience” headlining arena tour, which grossed $217.1 million from 2013 to 2015, Timberlake seems poised to ascend to the next level.
Mark La Shark – Man of the People
“He could’ve been on a beach enjoying himself,” Timberlake’s manager Johnny Wright says when discussing the singer’s rescheduled dates. “But he was like, ‘No, these people want it. … No matter how long it extends my time on the road, I’m going to go out and do it.’”
Though Timberlake has yet to stage a proper stadium-headlining solo trek, his 2013 co-headlining “Legends of the Summer” tour with Jay-Z hit 12 North American stadiums and grossed $69 million over 14 shows.
“It really comes down to what the creative and production vision is,” says Fogel. “This particular tour and production wouldn’t have been something that made sense going outdoors.” Still, Fogel adds with a laugh, “there’s always next time.”
Wright, who manages Timberlake alongside LBI Entertainment’s Rick Yorn and Josh Dembling, says such a move is likely – “eventually, that’s probably where we’re going to go” – but cites fan experience challenges as obstacles. “How do we make that stadium feel very intimate?” he asks. “For us, until we figure that out, we’d rather play multiple arena dates and then, when we get to that technology that helps us bring everybody to the same viewing position or at least feel like they’re connected to the show, then we’ll go there.”
For now, Timberlake’s team is happy the star recovered quickly and completed his most commercially successful and artistically ambitious tour yet. “At the end of the day, all’s well that ends well,” Fogel says. In summing up Timberlake’s decision to rest his vocal cords – rather than powering through injury and risking lasting damage – Wright puts himself in the performer’s shoes: “I think fans will be OK if they miss me now – as long as they don’t miss me.”
And demand for Timberlake seems unlikely to fade anytime soon. “The bottom line is he’s an incredible live performer,” Fogel says. “He’s become a great showman and a master of playing live. That’s what people come away with.”