18 May 2019 • Music
When that LED bling, that can only mean one thing for Drake's concert stage
As live shows explode in popularity, so does the demand for performances to be arresting, unforgettable, and – most critically – available to an audience of immense size. Historically, that level of ‘availability’ has been dictated by the class of ticket you bought and, consequently, where you sat; but new advances in stage design, powered by technology, are reducing that hierarchy of experience and delivering shows that can resonate with audience members in the cheap seats as strongly as those in the front row.
Take the Aubrey and the Three Migos tour, a globe-spanning arena tour headlined by hip-hop superstar Drake that took over 43 North American stages last year and is making its way across Europe under a different name this spring. Instead of focusing on the fans near the stage, the show used state-of-the art visual design to broker an intimate connection between Drake and every person in attendance.
Advances in stage design are delivering shows that can resonate with audience members in the cheap seats as strongly as those in the front row
To bring together the lone artist and the thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of fans surrounding him on every side required a production team with expertise across a number of fields. Architectural engineering firm Tait, in collaboration with creative designer Willo Perron and lighting designer Jesse Blevins, fashioned a 300-square-metre LED stage complete with 288 video decks, the low height of which allowed audience members to see directly through to the other side. Two hundred tiny drones flitted over their heads at one point, as did a helium-filled yellow Ferrari made of foam. At another point in the show, the video stage flickered into a crowded summer pool, then a blindingly white iceberg, then a reel of fan-made videos scrolling out from underneath Drake’s feet.
‘The idea here was to give people all the way around the arena the same show and the same view,’ said Aaron Siebert, a senior project manager at Tait who oversaw the tour from production to execution. ‘We talked about how the feel of it should be like being courtside at a basketball game. And there’s even a basketball court in the show, with a hoop installed at one end and Drake summoning up an audience member to make a free-throw at one point.’
In traditional arena shows, Siebert estimates that only around 60 per cent of an audience – those sitting in the rows from the middle of the arena and back – receives a ‘good, holistic view’ of the stage, while the rest of the crowd is shunted to awkward angles. Some shows have opted to ameliorate that viewing problem by extending a runway into the crowd; other shows acknowledge the inevitable and sell a number of restricted-view seats at lower prices. For Drake’s tour, the designers decided to lower the stage itself, so that it appeared almost indistinguishable from the floor, and put in additional features like the whirring drones to help create a unified feel.
In addition, Willo Perron developed a unique form of 3D illusion – something that usually only works from a fixed vantage point – that rotates through different perspectives in order to be convincing when viewed from any seat in the arena. At one point, for instance, it appears as if Drake is standing on top of a vitrine containing a giant scorpion.
Finally, stage technologists Sila Sveta integrated BlackTrax, a system that follows the performer’s movements in real time and adjusts the VFX accordingly. This meant that Drake could free-roam from edge to edge and the visual narrative would sync with his actions – cracks appearing in the ice with each step – rather than dictating where he should stand at a given moment.
Usually, only around 60 per cent of an audience receives a ‘good, holistic view’ of the stage
The rapper’s show is not the first to offer an egalitarian concert experience – U2 in 2009, for example, popularized the idea of a 360-degree stage with a 190-tonne rotating dome affectionately known to fans and designers as ‘the Claw’ – but its dedication to democracy is singular. By turning the stage into a video screen and suspending a set of complementary screens high up above it, the production team was able to project the show to the entire crowd while leaving Drake exposed on all four sides, unobstructed by ungainly trusses or weight-bearing equipment. While iconic shows in the past like Roger Waters’ The Wall tour used dividing blocks to emphasize the power and individuality of the artist on stage, Drake’s show had the opposite effect of breaking down barriers and letting fans swarm in – without actually having them come any closer in physical space, of course.
It’s also worth noting, however, that this tour concept did not lower the prices themselves: the show commanded a wallet-straining average of $116 per ticket in the United States, according to concert research firm Pollstar, making it one of the top-grossing tours of the year. On the European leg, standing-room tickets around the stage are going for €162 while the seats farthest away are around €86. If Drake’s tour heralds a shift in concert design, it is towards a more democratic audience experience, but not necessarily a cheaper one.
This piece is part of our four-part lab series about concert design, featured in Frame 128. You can purchase that issue here.