Lighting Industry Takes Cues From Fans (Production Quarterly)

CUE Audio lets fans take lighting matters into their own hands, with mobile phones becoming part of the show. Photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee Athletics

Fans have long gotten into the limelight at shows by taking matters into their own hands. Examples include the classic cigarette lighter during a quiet moment or, more recently, the higher-tech light-up wristbands seen at blockbuster events such as a Coldplay concert.

Taking a page from both of those books is CUE Audio, which, despite having “audio” in its name, is very much in the lighting business.

“Artists spend millions on lights on stage, but very few spend any on lights in the audience,” says Ira Akers, co-founder of CUE Audio. “Why not use what everyone already has with them, which is their cell phone?”

CUE is used at more than 800 live events annually, mostly sporting events. The company’s core service turns attendees’ phones into part of the show, a coordinated lighting-up of the audience’s phones to add to the experience at key moments, such as at the massive Caesars Superdome that is home to the New Orleans Saints.

“The ones that really caught on would go from 20% all the way up to 40%, 50%, to 60% of the stadium participating,” Akers said, noting that fans have become accustomed to scanning QR codes since COVID. “When you’ve got 70,000 people, even if just 7,000 participate, you’d get a really nice activation.”

The key to CUE’s light shows and the reason for the “audio” part of the moniker stems from its delivery method, which does not require WiFi or mobile service.

“We call it our acoustic modem,” Akers says, noting that CUE has a patent on the technology. “It’s a medium to deliver data through sound. We have been able to do it at the Kansas City Chiefs’ stadium where we’re sending data all the way across the stadium, so it’s a pretty long range and low latency.” The company formed in 2017, and is led by founder Jameson Rader.

“It’s not detecting the beat or anything like that. It is as if your phone scanned a QR code and now it’s doing exactly what it tells it to do,” Akers said. “It shows images at a certain time, it does the lights and the strobe and our sparkle, different effects for the lights.”

CUE is either installed as part of a team’s existing app or via its own app.

About 70 Division I schools are making use of CUE, as are nearly half of NFL teams and a handful of Major League Baseball teams, according to Akers. That includes the acoustic modem-powered light show but other CUE services as well, including fan cams, trivia and other visuals, which provide sponsorship opportunities.

There is opportunity to use the service – or a similar one – on tour, but a few key challenges persist, such as requiring participation from artist’s teams, lighting directors and synchronizing between all the different venues involved. Artists including Lynyrd Skynyrd and Jeremy Camp have employed CUE during shows to great effect, Akers says, with other events including Summerfest, America’s Got Talent and Canada’s Got Talent.
“We’ve historically designed 95% of the light shows just because we’ve done it so long and we want to maintain quality control. They’ll take the images or gifs that they’re using on the big screen and import that into our portal and then they’re just time coding it,” Akers said. “With tours having a lighting director, we take their input or we hand them the keys, but the onscreen content is always theirs unless they just don’t have anyone to do it. Then we’ll help with that.”

In the live music space, CUE hopes to clear another hurdle soon.

“The problem is apps aren’t a huge thing in touring, right? We’re still finding our way through that,” Akers said.

Currently, CUE has to be installed via app, whereas being able to work via a webpage URL would make it more accessible.

“Hopefully Apple will open up the opportunity for just a webpage to be able to access the torch. If that does come, it changes the game for us,” Akers said.

However, there is still headway in live music.

“We think the video board and some of our new features, like one we’re calling Fansee, are a ticket into touring,” Akers said. “They’re getting the vantage point of a fan selfie cam up on the video board in real time, and there’s some other things like that, that have never been done.” s