Guest Post: Guiding Light Bill Graham Started It All

By Michael Strickland

SHINE A LIGHT: Bill Graham, one of the most highly influential concert promoters, well understood the importance of lighting performances. He’s seen here backstage at the Waldbuhne in Berlin, 1984, before a Bob Dylan concert. (Photo by Patrick Downs / L.A. Times / Getty Images)

Today everyone experiences and understands the importance of lighting in a concert environment. But few people know that Bill Graham started it all. In the mid-’60s rock ’n’ roll was just being born, and there was little money in the endeavor. Amazing bands were making historic music and simply looking for a place to perform. Enter promoters, particularly the late Bill Graham.

Bill Graham saw what few others saw: the concert experience could be improved. Perhaps it was because he lived in the Bay Area and was in the middle of the psychedelic revolution. Perhaps he simply knew it would sell better if it looked better. Either way, Graham understood from the start he was selling an “experience” to the fans, and he wanted it to be amazing. Out of The Fillmore and Winterland, Graham began to employ creative people and use crude, interesting lighting effects. Lighting gear at that time was equipment meant for theater or some other purpose but applied to a concert.

Bill Graham Presents shows quickly became the must-attend events. Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin were early adopters. Posters even touted Fillmore Lights, Heavy Water Lights, Blood Lights, Josh White, and many others. Thus, an industry was born. As crude, exciting “light shows” evolved, I was a kid in Kingsport, Tennessee, emulating what I saw in New York, San Francisco, and L.A. Thus, I too need a “cool” name, and hence “Bandit” was born in 1968.

Concert lighting has two parents, Thomas Edison, and Bill Graham. From there, all else flowed. The credit also belongs to a much wider group. By the late ’60s, every promoter and venue knew they needed a light show to compete. Thus, venues and promoters created a demand from which an industry was born – Concert Illumination. While artists and managers agreed, in the early days the promoters and venues drove all of this.

From the mid-’60s forward the arms race of concert lighting moved at 100 mph. More, better, faster, brighter, cooler was the mantra. With that came expensive. From 1969 to 1982 little changed, as the industry simply refined standard illumination techniques and equipment from theater and television. There are a huge number of innovators and entities in this time frame that all deserve mention.

In 1981-82, the concert world changed forever as Morpheus Lights and Vari-Lite were born. Moving lights that changed colors and produced patterns were born. The concert world would never look back. Who can forget Genesis’ 1982 tour with the world’s first all-moving light system! What few knew was that the band had a stake in Vari-Lite. Their financial backing was crucial to the development. While these two firms dominated early, manufacturers began to spring up to offer alternatives.

The next 20 years were again an arms race to see which company and which act had the most amazing moving lights, and this cemented the need for the highly qualified, very technical person called a Lighting Designer or Director. This position has evolved up to today and every concert is dependent on amazing equipment, a talented crew to set it up, and a creative Lighting Designer or Director to create the magic. All these elements are needed to ensure a successful show that leaves the fans begging for more.

Around 2008 Jackson Browne reached out to Bandit and requested something never before seen – an all-LED lighting system. LED lighting was in its infancy and was very expensive. We explained to Jackson it could be done but would cost a lot. He understood and still wanted to move forward.  He accepted the fact the cost to him would be much greater, but he was driven to push a new green initiative. After working tirelessly for a year, Jackson hit the road with an all-LED lighting system that was the most energy-efficient system on the road. Jackson was ecstatic, and others noticed. We branded it GRNLite.

Light Show at the Fillmore Auditorium
TRIP THE LIGHT FANTASTIC: The wall-to-wall light show surrounding Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco circa late-1960s. (Photo Ted Streshinsky / CORBIS / Getty Images)

Crosby, Stills and Nash; Neil Young; Toby Keith; LCD Soundsystem; Garth Brooks; Robert Plant and many others joined in. The green movement was in full blossom. David Crosby called me after their very first show to tell me that while it was a success and he appreciated it, he wanted to know if we could make these new lights emit some heat. You see, their first show was outside on a chilly evening and the band was accustomed to the lights keeping them warm! We both got a chuckle.

The green initiative was but part of a move to sustainability by the concert industry. In 2008 many believed all lights would be LED by 2012, but that did not occur. Even today the industry is only about 60% LED based. Old habits die hard, and, in many cases, people cling to what they are comfortable with. At the same time there are still a few things that older technology can do that LED cannot yet do. We will get there. How many of you have converted every light in your home to LED? Even five years ago it was difficult and expensive, but today that is not the case.

The next step in sustainability is solar power generators for power and that has been in the works for many years. They exist but are still very expensive and very limited. And you are a slave to either the sun or a small battery storage device that does not yet exist. Again, we will get there.

Today, the LED lighting fixtures are mature and changing by small degrees. LED video boards came into being years ago, and they too have now matured. The race was once for the size, intensity, quality and spacing of the individual LEDs. Today, they are as close together as possible, extraordinarily bright and quality improves every day. LED boards as well as LED moving lights are now like iPhones. Everyone wants the new one! For many years there indeed was an arms race here, but today most LED boards and lights are separated only by degrees.

This brings us to the real new field of differentiation in the world of concert experience, the content! Yet another new field of endeavor has been derived, content creation. While the moving lights and LED boards change by degrees year to year, the world of content creation is in its infancy. This is the new Fillmore. This would be right up Bill Graham’s alley. Remember, Graham brought you the psychedelic oil and water behind the stage in the sixties. This is oil and water on steroids! The hardware is amazing, but the creative content is what takes everything, including the show, to the next level. Think of all the shows you have seen in the last year and how impressed you were with the visuals, which is the creative content. The people that dream this up and then transfer it into what is now very sophisticated equipment are ruling the industry. They are called many things: Show Producers, Content Creators, Designers and so many more things.

An offshoot of the video craze is several phone-based apps that you see in use now in arenas and stadiums. The show takes control of your phone and pushes images to all the phones at the show, thus making everyone a part of the show. This also occurs now at sporting events. This too is in its infancy. The use of the phone-based app is preferred to the previous wristbands that were used because the show does not have to spend thousands of dollars handing out wristband devices. This is very expensive when you give away 20,000 to 80,000 devices per event.

The final development today is laser-based moving lights. While lasers and pure laser companies have been around for decades, the laser-based moving light is just developing. Using a powerful enough laser inside of a light that moves is in and of itself a challenge. A standard laser administered by a laser company with a crew of laser techs will assure that at every event no one is ever struck by the beam and that the beams will never go into the air in violation of FAA rules.

From here on out we are speaking to the U.S. only.  There are a few laser-moving lights on the market, and they are very impressive. The U.S., however, currently has a very strict set of federal guidelines about the use of lasers at public events that make the use difficult and expensive. With this comes a large amount of liability and paperwork. Most shows that do use these lights have shifted away from a pure laser firm with laser experts to a model with a lighting technician that is trained to meet federal standards. Most of the laser-based moving lights have been approved for normal use in the rest of the world, but at the moment in the US they are highly regulated and controlled by the FDA. Permits, training and standards are applied to every show. If a show is outside, you must normally obtain an FAA variance. This segment will continue to grow and become more mainstream.

Today the promoters and venues who birthed the concert illumination industry no longer must drive it. Bill Graham’s baby has grown up. All the above can be applied to audio as well, just with a different set of names.

In all of this information, we must never forget it all begins with a song. A musician. An artist. A band. Without all of the beautiful artists around the world, there would be no industry. None. No venues, no promoters, no agents, no PR firms, no managers, no production firms, no transportation firms, no labor firms, nothing. We need to thank all of the amazing artists worldwide for providing us with the canvas upon which we all paint. And thank you to Bill Graham and all of the managers and venues that kicked it off.

Lastly, as this is about illumination, remember, “Without lights, it’s radio.”

Michael Strickland is the founder and chair of Bandit Lites, as well as the founder of The Entertainment Association.