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Music Historicity

Music Historicity | Concert production — explained

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Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well - Chicago Day 2 - Show

The Grateful Dead perform during the Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well show at Soldier Field on Friday, July 3, 2015, in Chicago.

Last week's "Ask a Musician" column answered questions specific to a working, gigging musician such as your humble narrator.

For example, as those who know me are well aware, my favorite food, as a musician, as well as a journalist, coincidentally, is pizza.

This week, a slightly more intriguing topic will be explained: What goes into producing a music concert.

Most fans of live entertainment are not fully aware of the myriad preparations, coordination and advance arrangements that are made for a big show at an arena concert venue.

Mark Potzler is a professional live sound concert engineer who has recently worked with bands such as Boston, Fleetwood Mac, Kiss, James Taylor and Bruno Mars. He recently toured with one of the top country artists in the U.S.

"First and foremost, concert touring is a business," Potzler said. "When fans buy tickets for live shows, it creates a revenue stream and a source of income for everyone involved."

For that reason, Potzler said, concerts and tours are well-planned to ensure they will be profit-making ventures.

It should first be stated that a big concert in a large market almost always is part of a tour, where the artist performs in several cities over the course of several months, and sometimes longer.

There are exceptions.

Kanye West earlier this year held a mini-tour of music events known as "listening parties," each of which included live performance as well as the playback of recorded tracks for his latest album.

Advance planning for a music tour often coincides with an album release, where it's hoped that concert-going fans will spend money on the artist's recorded music and merchandise.

Regardless, the process begins with the music artist and the record company agreeing to do concert performances in a region of the country or beyond.

The artist or band must decide how many weeks or months they will make themselves available for a tour, a factor coordinated between the record company, the artist's management and the booking agent.

Next, the agent must propose the travel route for the concert tour, which may begin at one end of the country and conclude with dates on the opposite coast. It's done that way, logically, because band members may travel by airplane but the concert equipment moves from city to city over the road in semi-trucks.

It should be noted that the Grateful Dead at one time utilized a large PA system called the "Wall of Sound" that used 604 speakers set up across the stage on three-story-high scaffolding. Because of the time required for set up, two complete leapfrogging sound systems were needed in order for one to always precede the band to the next city an extra day in advance.

The booking agent has his hands full trying to juggle desired concert dates with those available at a venue in a given city. If the band in question is popular and a money-maker, such as the Rolling Stones, for example, then a concert arena is likely to welcome the band on any date it wants.

The size of the venue will have bearing on other concert production factors such as the number of speakers needed, the lights, staging and any special effects.

The business aspects also come into play at this point. The size of the concert hall dictates the number of tickets that may be sold, at a given price, yielding the amount of potential revenue.

It all must be well-coordinated. A production designer may wish for a larger light show or pyrotechnics, but those elements will have certain limitations if the tour is to retain a desired level of profitability.

"Concert designers know what they can and can't afford to include in a show," Potzler said. "You won't see a lot of extra stuff, such as lighting automation, if it affects the bottom line."

The production designer, the tour manager or a combination of individuals must then secure contract agreements with an audio company to provide the speakers, amplifiers and primary personnel to run the sound. Additional local crew usually is hired for individual shows.

The management also will arrange for a professional stage lighting company to provide trusses, lights and personnel for the tour. They may also bring special effect add-ons such as video display walls, pyrotechnics, lasers and machines that generate fog, haze, confetti and cryo-gas.

There are even more concert aspects to consider, such as the staging company, permits, legal, transportation, set element design, catering and advance promotions.

Production designs might also include elaborate stunts, such as Grateful Dead promoter Bill Graham suspended by wires above the audience as he glided to the stage on New Year's Eve, 1978. Or, during his 1992 "Dangerous" tour, when Michael Jackson appeared to fly over the audience using a jetpack.

Getting back to Kanye West, a recent published report estimated the profits he may have made at two listening party concerts this past summer in Atlanta.

For one of the shows, West sold 40,000 tickets at an average general admission price of $35, yielding gross revenue of $1.4 million. After paying technical expenses, personnel, manager, agent, taxes and a cut to the arena, West may have ended up with roughly $343,000 for himself.

But West made far more than that with the sale of his merchandise (including $150 sweatshirts), which has an estimated 90-percent profit margin. His cut? $3.332 million!

The bottom line, according to Vice News, is that West earned take-home net pay of $7.521 million for his two Atlanta listening party shows. Not bad.

Try to keep all those factors in mind the next time you attend a big music concert!

Gary Gibula is an SIU alum, musician, writer, editor and author of the Music Historicity columns. He can reached at gary@gratefulgary.com.

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