Like all good origin stories, the tale of the beginning of Sphere, its principles insist, mixes a little apocrypha with the facts.
It’s been repeated hundreds of times — including in the pages of this magazine — but it’s a good story worth repeating, even if everyone agrees there’s a bit of exaggeration around the edges.
After selling Cablevision in 2016, James Dolan, Executive Chairman & CEO, MSG Ent. Corp. and Sphere Entertainment Co., turned to David Dibble, his tech-minded consigliere (aka CEO of MSG Ventures) and said “Let’s reinvent live entertainment.”
Seven years later, Sphere opened its doors in Las Vegas as a multi-billion-dollar ball of innovation, full of visual and audio innovations that would have had their creators convicted of sorcery in a less enlightened era.
Sphere’s September debut with U2’s residency “U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere” would have made 2023 a watershed year for live tech on its own. But though Sphere may be the peak of innovation (ironic given the building’s shape) 2023’s galactic tours with their gargantuan grosses — Taylor Swift’s “Eras,” Beyonce’s “Renaissance” and Drake’s “It’s All A Blur” — also provided plenty of eye-popping and ear-pleasing tech wizardry at venues across the globe.
With Sphere’s launch and a seemingly endless supply of blockbuster tours with ever-bigger budgets, are we destined for an annual arms race, a constant competition for what’s next, what’s bigger, what’s better, what’s louder and clearer and brighter … and pricier?
The post-pandemic thirst for human connection and live entertainment provided the energy for the innovation storm that’s been brewing for two decades with the ubiquity of the smartphone and the resulting change in the way we consume culture.
“The culture of the digital device, with everyone having one or two in their hands at all times, means our attention spans are in the nanoseconds. That’s the culture we live in today. … We are overstimulated. The audience is taking videos and posting faster than artists can finish the songs,” Randy Hutson, senior vice president of PRG’s music group, said.
Hutson’s been in the game a long time — a veteran sound engineer, he got his start with Led Zeppelin — and he said live music’s reaction to the post-pandemic environment was like an accelerated version of the business’s evolution over the last five decades. Touring’s return was regional — “routing was all screwed up,” Hutson said — and the need to get back on the road and back to earning meant production demands were meager, but as things ramped up and did so quickly, the artists at the top were, consciously or not, trying to one-up one another, straining personnel and putting demands on equipment. After all, there’s only so much stuff and so many people.
And, ultimately, Hutson says, that’s what sometimes gets lost in production and tech-side discussions: the people matter.
“There’s fewer people in the industry, so one of the biggest concerns we have is crew services. It’s a hard life and people are realizing that. The pandemic had a little to do with that realization, but we can’t run the environment so hard because people get burned out,” he said.
Artists and their teams will always push production folks to find the newest board or the crispest amps and the coolest lighting rigs — that’ll never change — but there’s increasing emphasis on finding sustainable solutions. But that’s not cheap.
PRG is refitting existing lighting rigs to use more sustainable LED bulbs.
It’s a smart, cost-effective, earth-friendly move, but it’s also an apt metaphor for how the live industry can keep chugging in an era of breakneck technological advancement: tweak what’s worked for years to meet modern demands without forgetting the foundations that have always worked. And at the core of that is artist development and its backstage equivalent.
“I had a good artist development plan before the pandemic and that’s the first thing we cut once the pandemic started,” Hutson says. “That has to be an emphasis for everybody: figuring out who’s going to carry us. … I am 100% focused on artist development, because I can put a new person on my team with an up-and-coming artist and they can learn together.”
Ultimately, it starts with the song and Hutson says production crews and the technological innovators can’t lose sight of that.
“Everybody has to get back to basics: it’s all about the music. The artist has a product and we are just a means to present it to the public. That’s our job: to give them the best show,” he says.
All of the servers and bytes and lighting rigs and pyrotechnics and video boards matter not a whit if the people running them don’t have the imagination and talent to make them hum.
“It’s great to have tech, but sometimes we expect the tools to carry us,” Hutson says.
All of Sphere’s new-fangled systems would be silent cenotaphs if U2’s songs didn’t burst forth with life and vibrancy. People still matter more to the results than do the machines. We are in an era where technology has shrunk attention spans and the latest TikTok phenomenon may disappear in the blink of a circuit, each next big thing coming faster and faster. But for the best of live tech to find its fullest potential, Hutson says, the industry has to remain focused on developing career-minded artists with deep catalogs who can connect with audiences.
“There’s nothing like it. It’s addictive and satisfying and exhilarating. The artists change but the basic core — it’s about the music, it’s about the artist and the audience,” Hutson says.