VenuesNow Conference: Jim Dolan Goes Deep On MSG Sphere With Irving Azoff

James Dolan and Irving Azoff
Don Muret / VenuesNow
– James Dolan and Irving Azoff
in the leadoff session at Tuesday’s VenuesNow Conference in New York City.

James Dolan, executive chairman and CEO of The Madison Square Garden Co., and Irving Azoff, chairman and CEO of The Azoff Co., sat down for an illuminating conversation with broad implications for the live entertainment industry to begin the VenuesNow Conference at the Conrad New York Downtown on Tuesday morning.

The conversation focused almost exclusively on MSG Sphere, the visionary new line of facilities by MSG Co. The first two Spheres are in the works in Las Vegas and London, and Dolan teased that MSG Co. has already started scouting locations throughout the world for future Spheres.
Conference attendees were treated to a striking video detailing renderings of the Sphere facility and its associated technology, and Dolan elaborated upon the Sphere’s conception, planning and priorities moving forward.
Though he has built an empire with venues including Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall, the Beacon Theatre, and the Forum, Dolan explained that the venue business “has its drawbacks,” particularly in its capital-intensive nature.
“It takes a lot of money to build an arena, and then once you finish building it, you essentially become a landlord of sorts,” he said.
MSG Sphere emerged from Dolan’s desire to change the formula.
“It was clear that when you own the content, for instance, the Knicks or the Rangers or the Christmas Spectacular, that’s a very profitable formula,” he said. “You get both ends of the deal. In looking at how I was going to grow the business, how could I own more of what was going into the buildings?”
His solution was the MSG Sphere, a concept that will revolutionize both the facilities and content areas.
To start, the Sphere will create “multisensory environments that unite the senses,” according to the video played, by engaging all fives senses for immersive experiences. Some of these developments are existing concepts, just writ large, like the Sphere’s 160,000-square-foot, 250 million-pixel display surface, which dwarfs IMAX screens.
Other developments rework concepts entirely, most notably the Sphere’s beam-forming technology, which ensures constant volume from point of origin to final destination, by transmitting sound as a beam rather than an ever-expanding wave. MSG Co. has patents related to the technology and also owns a part of the German company, Holoplot, that developed it, Dolan said.
Given his experience in music management and the complicated nature of sound design, Azoff was particularly interested in this aspect of the Sphere — and Dolan added that the beam-forming technology will also be deployed for artists’ monitors to improve performances.
Furthermore, MSG Sphere will use haptic technology to simulate feeling, plus temperature and scent controls to round out the sensory experience. If a Sphere presentation featured a volcanic eruption, for example, Dolan said the room would rumble and increase in temperature.
Naturally, MSG Sphere will also feature unparalleled connectivity and high-end concessions from hospitality group TAO Group, which falls under the MSG umbrella.
The technological aspects will ground the venue’s three-pronged content approach, which the MSG Co.’s video broke into the categories of attractions, performances and demonstrations.
Performances, like concert tours, and demonstrations, like educational and business presentations, are straightforward types of programming that the Sphere will support with new capabilities. But, under the supervision of MSG Co.’s new Sphere Studios, the attractions branch represents a content advancement. Sphere Studios is designing immersive content and stories that will fully harness the venue’s technological elements and will constitute a library that will be accessible across Sphere venues.
“We’re talking to people like the Hubble (Space) Telescope people about how to do an accurate rendering of space inside of the Sphere itself,” said Dolan, as an example. He also referenced the company’s June hiring of Jennifer Vogt as president of creative content and productions, who comes most recently from Walt Disney Imagineering, where she oversaw Disneyland’s Star Wars “Galaxy’s Edge” theme park expansion, and will play a seminal role in developing what Dolan calls a “palette” for touring performers.
“Part of the concept of the building is to make the building somewhat plug and play,” Dolan said. “Sphere Studios is going to create content for the inside of the venue. When we’re talking about concerts, and hopefully residencies, all the acts should really need is their back line. Everything else should be provided. The actual content on the screen itself will come from Sphere Studios.”
Dolan, who casually mentioned that a Sphere team was at the Grand Canyon just last week, shooting the landmark with an immersive camera, envisions a future where artists work collaboratively with Sphere Studios to use the venue’s existing content library and also generate new content.
When Azoff asked Dolan if he could share two or three acts he’d most like to see at the Sphere, the MSG executive first responded with a quip (“I can — might make negotiation with them a little harder”), but then gave some impressive examples.
For one, he said, a member of Pink Floyd might stage an immersive “Dark Side of the Moon” show at MSG Sphere; a Pink Floyd member could also recreate the band’s iconic performance at the ruins in Pompeii. Another idea Dolan suggested was to partner with Sting, a known environmental advocate, for a “whole eco thing” where Sphere Studios would send Sting and a camera crew to the Amazon rainforest, generate content, and subsequently adapt it for the Sphere stage and design a corresponding Sting show.
Dolan also offered a standing invitation to Azoff-managed acts the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. But lest the Sphere seem oriented to legacy acts, Dolan also brought contemporary programming examples. Tame Impala, the Coachella-headlining psych-rock act that played Madison Square Garden for two nights in August, has caught Dolan’s eye as a potential fit for the Sphere’s production offering.
“I loved what they did with their visuals,” Dolan said. “It was youthful, it was exciting. You could tell there was a lot of creativity wrapped into it. That’s the kind of artist I’m hoping gravitates to the Sphere and comes to the studio and does something really outrageous for their show. I hope that the medium draws that kind of person in.”
As for future Spheres, Dolan envisions flexibility in size — perhaps several thousand fewer seats than the Las Vegas and London models — because the concept is “more about medium than it is about size.”
But these venues are likely years in the distance.
“We’re looking for third sites now,” Dolan said. “Really would like to get this one built and proven, that would really help.”
Still, Dolan — and Azoff — are bullish about the business. Before Dolan took the stage, Azoff and Oak View Group co-founder CEO Tim Leiweke kicked off the VenuesNow Conference with brief remarks (OVG is the owner of VenuesNow).
“If you can’t flourish and make money now in the entertainment business, you’re doing something really wrong,” Azoff said.
When Azoff and Dolan fielded a question near the end of their discussion from Leiweke, who wanted to know how Dolan felt about underwriting and borrowing money given the current state of the economy, Dolan responded with characteristic confidence.
“It is a good time to borrow money,” he said. “Even better if you have your own. I’m in the second category at the moment – let’s see how it goes.”