0:03 [MUSIC PLAYING]
0:07 WALTER ISAACSON: Oslo, August 6, 1997– with tens of thousands of adoring Norwegians clapping and cheering, one of the planet’s most beloved musical acts is trapped inside a giant lemon. For some time now, the crowd has been screaming for an encore. Finally, the stage lights go up, music begins playing, and from above the stage descends a 40-foot metallic disco ball lemon.
0:45 According to plans conceived by creative directors, this is the point where the lemon is supposed to open, revealing members of U2. But on this evening, the lemon was a lemon. A technical malfunction prevented the top portion from rising, trapping the band inside. To everyone’s relief, this lemon came equipped with an emergency trapdoor. In what pop culture has come to call a Spinal Tap moment, an eager crowd watched as the band escaped–
1:22 [MUSIC PLAYING]
1:23 –on its hands and commenced its encore. That same lemon would malfunction in Sydney, Australia, and again in Osaka, Japan, where members of the band remained inside for several minutes as the giant fruit was repaired.
1:42 [MUSIC PLAYING]
1:43 Staging a live event has always been a combination of art, engineering, and technology. And as you’re about to hear, today’s live events are undergoing an almost constant disruption by the planet’s best and brightest digital thinkers– and with good reason. At a time when both the music and the movie business are struggling in the face of disruptive technology, the live event business is thriving.
2:17 Last year, the worldwide concert industry alone was worth more than $25 billion. And competition for a share of those revenues is pushing the limits of creativity and technology, culminating in spectacular experiences– and the occasional lemon. I’m Walter Isaacson, and this is Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.
2:50 [MUSIC PLAYING]
2:55 WOMAN 1: This is the hottest ticket in town.
2:58 MAN 1: A very big thank you everybody for coming along here today.
3:01 MAN 2: Anyone need tickets, guys? Tickets, tickets, tickets!
3:04 MAN 3: Their Show which was just– so much energy just playing with the crowd. It was really, really fun.
3:09 WOMAN 2: It was amazing to hear all of the hits. I loved it.
3:16 WALTER ISAACSON: In the decades following its giant lemon experience, U2 never lost its taste for big live spectacles. By no means do today’s live events need this sort of scale to thrive. But they serve as a good barometer of the health and wealth of the live entertainment industry, an industry whose modern technology has deep roots in stage craft and show business techniques forged by the Romans some 2,100 years ago.
3:49 [HORSES GALLOPING]
3:50 In the year 70 AD, Rome’s emperor, Vespasian, and had a morale problem. He needed to win back public confidence following the ugly civil war that ended the reign of Nero.
4:03 [CONSTRUCTION NOISES]
4:04 So he had no idea. Where ponds and gardens sat on Nero’s lavish estate, he would literally drain the swamp and create a massive public amphitheater.
4:18 What we know today as the Colosseum was an engineering and logistical masterpiece, with seating for at least 50,000 people. At the heart of the Colosseum’s show business appeal lay its many tunnels beneath the stage, where trap doors and wooden elevators could add surprises. In the middle of a gladiatorial battle, a wild animal–
4:43 [ANIMAL ROARING]
4:43 –might suddenly appear from the floor. Using aqueducts, the surface could even be flooded to recreate great Roman naval battles using scaled down craft. There may not have been giant lemons in ancient Rome. But giant lemon thinking was alive and well. Over time, Rome’s big stadium entertainment model would fade, to be revived by a 20th century musical and cultural upheaval.
5:17 [MUSIC PLAYING]
5:20 It’s February, 1964, and thousands of fans are packed into JFK Airport. They’re there to greet a plane carrying four foreign musicians, arriving in the United States to play for the first time. The four in question were, of course, the Beatles. And their landmark first American tour would change popular culture forever. Ivor Davis was a reporter for the London Daily Express assigned to travel with the Beatles on that landmark visit. His book is “The Beatles and Me on Tour.”
5:55 IVOR DAVIS: They had a lot of experience of mania in Europe. But they were very nervous when they came to America again. Because even though they’d been a great success on The Ed Sullivan Show, they know that many other rock groups– Tommy Steele and other singers– had come to America with high hopes, and had been flops.
6:15 And so The Beatles never knew what to expect. What they saw was amazing. They were amazed. And they saw the kind of ecstasy and the madness and the frenzy that they’d never seen before. The crowds were bigger. The stadiums were bigger. And the screaming fans were even bigger.
6:36 WALTER ISAACSON: The antiquated public address technology of the time was no match for the steady screams of a Beatles concert. According to some accounts, it reached a decibel level of 131–
6:49 [AIRPLANE ENGINE]
6:50 –louder than a jumbo jet at 100 feet– louder–
6:55 –than a clap of thunder. If you meet somebody who was at one of those concerts, they invariably joke that they saw the Beatles play live in 1964, but they didn’t hear a thing. Ivor Davis.
7:10 IVOR DAVIS: The sound issues was just a nightmare. Because what would happen was, as soon as the Beatles appeared on stage, the crowd– wherever it was, whoever they were, whichever city it was– burst into a non-stop screaming.
7:27 Scream, scream, from start to finish.
7:31 [MUSIC PLAYING]
7:32 WALTER ISAACSON: At the time, no one thought about the sound for a large concert venue. When Los Angeles promoter Bob Eubanks– later the host of The Newlywed Game– booked The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, their contract rider required only an adequate sound system.
7:50 IVOR DAVIS: I sat in the front row at every concert, and I can tell you, I could never hear a word that the Beatles were singing. Because the sound systems back then were pretty poor, compared to the way they are today. With poor sound systems and 25,000 to 40,000 screaming in the audience, you couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t hear the words. The Beatles, actually, sometimes couldn’t hear themselves. And sometimes they lost their way.
8:19 And Ringo said that he learned to lip read, because he wasn’t too sure which song he was playing, and was able to realize that he was playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and they were singing “Help!” And he’d better get some help and get onto that song.
8:35 WALTER ISAACSON: Primitive sound technology persisted through the Beatles tours, compounded by concerns about security and safety.
8:45 Playing through the rain in an outdoor stadium–
8:48 [MUSIC PLAYING]
8:48 –a crew member stood ready to cut off all power at the first signs of electric shock. He noticed that every time Paul McCartney bumped into the microphone, there were sparks. Earlier in the tour, an outdoor concert was canceled when an electric shock sent a Beatles crewmember flying across the stage, which, in turn, caused another problem– how to tell 35,000 screaming fans they weren’t going to see a show.
9:18 Though, the rock and roll era was firmly established, technology, stagecraft, and live event logistics hadn’t yet caught up. But they would take a giant step forward a few years later on a quiet farm in upstate New York.
9:33 [BIRDS TWEETING]
9:36 In 1969, three entrepreneurs in Woodstock, New York, were brainstorming ways to raise money to build a recording studio. To do that, they decided to hold a giant music festival. With no ample venue in Woodstock itself, they decided to scout a location about 50 miles away–
9:56 [CAR PULLING UP] –on a dairy farm owned by Max Yasgur. With them was Bill Hanley, a thirtysomething sound engineer–
10:04 [CAR DOORS OPENING]
10:04 [CAR DOORS CLOSING] –with a fast-rising reputation. Hanley recalls the day he took that scouting tour of Max Yasgur’s farm. We went up to Max’s house, and we get in the car, and went out of the driveway of his house, where he had his dairy farm, and took a left-hand turn up– I believe it was 15B– and then took our next left and took our next right, and he was pointing out a couple of different fields that he was feeding his cows in.
10:32 And then all of a sudden, we cross this intersection, and I saw this beautiful bowl. And I asked him to pull over. Because they wanted to take me around to other places. And I looked at this place, and I said, this would be perfect for this kind of thing. And then I laid out the stage area and how I would deal with the sound system, and went back and built it.
10:53 WALTER ISAACSON: And what Bill Hanley built would change the concert going experience forever.
10:58 [MUSIC PLAYING] John Kane is author of the dissertation, “The Last Seat in the House: The Story of Hanley Sound.”
11:09 Live music was typically played through antiquated public address systems. These systems were mostly used at churches, college gymnasiums, calling a boxing match at an arena– you know, early Madison Square Garden public address systems were just mainly orally driven– meant for just oral speech– and county fairs. And you know, small to mid-sized towns across the United States might have a person who rented systems– public address systems– for political speeches and things like that. And that usually looked like, you know, one amplifier, 30 or 40 watts, one microphone, and a small speaker, so to speak.
11:50 WALTER ISAACSON: Hanley had built his reputation working with the Newport Jazz Festival. And he created the sound system for Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration. He built his reputation by designing elaborate systems of microphones and speakers, then improved on traditional public address systems. Bands began seeking him out, from the Beach Boys to Buffalo Springfield.
12:16 Many had a contract rider requiring that Hanley work on their show. He even worked a few shows during The Beatles’ last tour in 1966. But with the equipment of the time and the industry’s reluctance to invest in sound systems, he couldn’t overcome the wall of screens that marked every concert. Woodstock would be different.
12:39 [MUSIC PLAYING]
12:41 BILL HANLEY: Once you start to put together multiple microphones, multiple amplifiers– bigger, louder– more speakers– what do you have? You have a system of sound. That is the distinct change from public address into early live concert sound. That is the blueprint. And Hanley is reponsible for that.
13:01 WALTER ISAACSON: Before long, the phrase “Bill Hanley sound” was used in concert marketing, appearing on posters advertising shows by Janis Joplin, The Band, and Jefferson Airplane. The era of public address system concerts was over. Bill Hanley.
13:22 BILL HANLEY: I’m definitely proud of it. I was the first guy that was really paying attention to trying to deliver the information that was happening on the stage to the audience. And we refer to it now as– I just thought about it a few months ago as– I’m a conveyor belt. And I convey all the instrumentation and the music as I’m hearing it in the audience to the back of the house, and trying to get them emotionally involved in the music, which is what they came there for– most of them anyways.
13:53 WALTER ISAACSON: With better sound systems, popular concert venues grew. Promoters began introducing props, special effects, and stagecraft to live shows. At the time, the digital revolution was about to change the business of the live event experience. The change it brought wasn’t to what fans saw or heard, but to where they sat.
14:17 [MUSIC PLAYING]
14:19 In May of 1965, New York Times drama critic Howard Taubman wrote a piece headlined “How to Civilize Ticket Sales.” A computerized ticketing system, he said, would make the process of acquiring tickets infinitely easier and pleasanter. As Dean Budnick and Josh Baron describe in their book “Ticketmasters,” that was music to the ears of Samuel Bronfman, the head of US operations for the Seagram’s distillery.
14:50 Earlier that month, Bronfman had launched a company called TRS, or Ticket Reservation Systems, whose purpose was to computerize ticket sales for Broadway shows, and who soon expanded to include concerts. Bronfman’s point man was Jack Quinn, a startup specialist with a deep knowledge of technology. TRS electronic box office terminals sprung up in American Express offices, banks, supermarkets, and, eventually, department stores. For $150 a month, they could rent a computer ticketing terminal about the size of a 1990’s office copier, and collect $0.25 on each ticket sold.
15:41 The good news was that ticket sales exceeded expectations. The bad news?
15:48 [MUSIC PLAYING]
15:48 Retailers tended to plant the machines deep in their stores, hoping to induce ticket buyers into more purchases. As a former TRS employee put it, they liked the business, but they hated some of the rock business. High-end department stores were less than thrilled by some of the fans who came to buy tickets for the Grateful Dead or Jethro Tull.
16:14 Soon, a California competitor emerged, calling itself Computicket. Feeling that he was neglecting his distillery business, Edgar Bronfman sold his majority share in TRS in 1969. And soon after, the company changed its name to Ticketron. A muddy battle between computerized ticket giants got muddier as they scrambled to sign up major concert halls and sports venues.
16:45 Complicating matters was that their clients could only parcel out part of their ticket inventory to computer ticketing companies, withholding the rest for mail order and box office sales. For a decade, electronic ticket companies rose and fell.
17:04 But it was a dark course called Ticketmaster that would soon change everything. Soon after CEO Fred Rosen took over in 1982, the company struck deals to control the entire ticket inventory of the live events they handled. Ticketmaster terminals were placed in venue box offices, and service fees became a part of every ticket. It won over its clients– the venues and promoters– by paying advances against proceeds, and providing marketing and advertising services.
17:41 Another source of success–
17:42 [MODEM SCREECHES]
17:43 –was Ticketmaster’s ability to leverage the internet.
17:46 [MUSIC PLAYING]
17:47 Sean Moriarty is a former Ticketmaster CEO.
17:52 SEAN MORIARTY: In the late ’90s, selling anything online, really for anyone, was difficult. Internet connectivity was pretty spotty and sporadic. We were figuring out the technology for the first time. There weren’t necessarily a lot of commercially available solutions for the problems we were trying to solve.
18:10 So in the early days, we had a challenge, particularly at Ticketmaster, because we had extraordinary demand for what we were selling, which was tickets to the most sought-after events on the planet. And so we had a lot of growing pains in establishing the technology to allow for that migration online.
18:28 WALTER ISAACSON: In those early days online, the computerized ticket experience was fast and easy– at least when you bought in person.
18:37 SEAN MORIARTY: We used to talk about this quite a bit. An outlet sale at Ticketmaster at the time– if a customer knew what they were looking for, and the person behind the counter was prepared– they could sell that ticket on the keyboard with a three-keystroke sequence, and it took probably 20 seconds. So it was actually pretty fast.
18:55 Of course, buying a ticket in your home and not having to change your clothes or leave the house is a pretty nice thing. But, you know, in the age of 14.4 modems, that could take a while.
19:06 WALTER ISAACSON: But as access to high speed internet became widely available, Ticketmaster was finally able to realize its true potential.
19:15 [MUSIC PLAYING]
19:16 I left Ticketmaster in April of 2009, I believe. And at that point, the sell-through capacity of the internet was just extraordinary. We could sell out the equivalent of an arena full of tickets in a matter of minutes. But most importantly, what we could also do simultaneously is manage the full scope of that demand. I.e., imagine there are several hundred thousand people trying to buy tickets for a single arena. And not only were able to sell those tickets out in a matter of minutes on behalf of our client, but that the several hundred thousand people who showed up were all effectively placed in a very orderly virtual line, and we could manage their place in line.
20:04 There were times during major on-sales, for example, that that line would extend, where, you know, 40 minutes after a show went on sale, if there were any individual tickets left on sale, someone who had been waiting in that queue for nearly an hour would get their opportunity or turn to buy. And you know, that’s an extraordinary technology feat to accomplish in a transactional environment. And the fact that we were able to do that by the mid to late 2000’s really is a testament to that team and that technology.
20:36 WALTER ISAACSON: Today, connectivity has reach far beyond buying and carrying your ticket on your phone. Some venues are now equipped with wireless beacons, enabling you to order food from your seat, and scan for the washroom with the shortest line. It’s part of the current trend of digitally adapting a venue to each individual customer– a trend that’s very much in evidence here at Disney Resorts, where a new wearable technology is redefining the live experience. Austin Carr, a writer with Fast Company, explains.
21:16 [MUSIC PLAYING]
21:17 AUSTIN CARR: MyMagic+ actually dates back to around 2007, 2008, when Disney Parks and Resorts was running into a bit of trouble with how many people were coming back to the park. They noticed a decline in the metric that’s known as “intent to return.” And that basically means, after you’ve gone on vacation to Disney World, how likely are you to come back to the park next year, or the following year?
21:40 And because the park was just so stressful– you know, you can imagine, if you’ve ever been to the park, running around with your kids. You have your baby carriage. You have your sunblock. You have your maps and your hotel keys. And you just are juggling all these different things to make sure everyone’s happy with that experience. And it is just inevitably stressful with all the lines.
21:58 WALTER ISAACSON: It was a time when smartphone technology was hitting its stride, and social media was taking off. A team of Disney Imagineers was assembling under the nickname of “The Fab Five.” Their task was to re-imagine the Disney park experience from start to finish. Their mandate was to create an NGE, or next-generation experience.” Austin Carr.
22:29 [MUSIC PLAYING]
22:31 AUSTIN CARR: As the legend goes, they were on a flight between Burbank and Orlando, which they were shuttling back and forth between pretty consistently, because Disney’s based in Southern California, and Disney World is based in Orlando. And on the plane, they were actually flipping through a SkyMall magazine. And the leader of The Fab Five– his name is John Padget– as he was flipping through, he came across what was called the Trion:Z, which is sort of this magnetic wristband that’s used to improve your golf swing.
22:58And they had this sort of eureka moment. He, I think, tore out the page and handed it to the other members of The Fab Five on the plane, where they started to thinking, wait a minute. What if we could make your Disney park ticket this wristband? What if we could make an electronic wristband that took care of every single thing that you need to enjoy the park? It could be your, you know, credit card, it could be your hotel key, it could be your park ticket. And all of a sudden, the ideas really started bubbling up from there.
23:24 WALTER ISAACSON: The plan was to create MagicBand– wearable technology for every customer. The disruption it would bring to live customer experience was nothing compared to the disruption it brought to the Disney organization. To begin with, the material for MagicBand were estimated to cost $35. That’s 87,000 times the cost of the $0.04 paper tickets it would replace. Austin Carr.
23:55 AUSTIN CARR: So you can imagine the people who work in the finance department at Disney saying, oh, my god. What are you doing? This is going to completely blow up my P&L. If you go to when the MagicBand people went to the security team– the people who control the access points to the park– they said, you know what? With this MagicBand, we don’t need turnstiles anymore, because you can just swipe into the park.
24:15 And suddenly, the security people are saying, wait a minute. You’re going to take turnstiles away from the park? That’s a huge security challenge for us. What are you thinking?
24:23 WALTER ISAACSON: It was an enormous undertaking. Tens of thousands of staff had to be trained. Infrastructure and software were modified. And thousands of hotel door locks had to be changed.
24:36 Once implemented, the MagicBand chipped away at what marketers call “pain points” facing the customer. It gave users directions to their favorite rides. It made reservations, and provided trackable data to understand and improve the customer experience.
24:56 [MUSIC PLAYING]
24:57 AUSTIN CARR: So one of the biggest upsides to implementing MyMagic+ was lowered line times. Actually , in terms of entering the park itself, they were able to cut lines at the gate by about 30%. Additionally, because they were able to manage crowd flow throughout the park, the idea being that– let’s say there was a big crowd in one area of the Magic Kingdom. Because Disney now had insight into how many people were in one section of the park, they could potentially start, say, a character parade in Adventureland to ease crowd flow, because you get people to move in different areas in the park, and you never let one area get too crowded.
25:32 So with that type of crowd flow management and the new data that they got from all that system, they were actually allowed to have an additional 5,000 guests within the park system, within Magic Kingdom, for the same exact park experience. In other words, they were essentially allowed to accept more guests without it creating strain and lines for the guests themselves. And that’s a huge amount of potential new revenue.
25:55 WALTER ISAACSON: Meanwhile, the creative technology being used for today’s live events and experiences isn’t just found in places like Disney World or concert venues. It’s also adding customer excitement to some of the most mundane aspects of everyday life.
26:12 Tom Bradley Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport was in dire need of a renovation. With an outdated interior, tightening security, and long lines, the passenger experience was stressful. The romance of travel was gone helping with the transformation was Moment Factory, a Montreal-based multimedia company. Their CV includes experience design for Nine Inch Nails, Arcade Fire, and Madonna’s halftime show for Super Bowl LVI. Sakchin Bessette is CEO of the Moment Factory.
26:52 [MUSIC PLAYING]
26:54 Sakchin Bessette: Basically, we were mandated to be the executive content producers. So we collaborated with Mike Rubin and Marcellus Hardy to create really iconic multimedia installations. There’s one big tower that’s called a Time Tower. And on there, every hour, it kind of opens up and reveals this Busby Berkeley-inspired dance show. And it’s also, you know, based on time travel and time zones, as, you know, traveling somehow– part of, like, going back and forth in time with different time zones. So that’s why it’s called the Time Tower.
27:31 And on it, like as a base layer that we’ve done in video– but it’s kind of, like, metallic arms that look kind of real. And they move in real time. But then when they kind of open up to reveal new pieces of content or new stories, they kind of accelerate through time.
27:51 WALTER ISAACSON: The Moment Factory is a true 21st century amalgam of project managers, 3D designers, programmers, coders, and creative directors. But for all the technology and talent, its work is only magic if it makes a connection with its audience.
28:09 SAKCHIN BESSETTE: It’s about writing a good story. It’s about building a good effect . It’s about having great images. It’s about having the right technology that’s doing the right thing at the right time, that’s placed properly, using all the lighting and some of the music. So it’s all these different multi-disciplinary talents that need to come together. And it’s that orchestrating that makes it magic.
28:35 [MUSIC PLAYING]
28:39 WALTER ISAACSON: Which brings us back to the giant lemon in that stadium in Norway. There were those who predicted, more than a century ago, that technology would end the era of the live event, that the phonograph would eliminate live concerts, that cinema would eliminate the need for live theater, that television would kill the cinema. More recently, some believed that the internet would keep people at home and away from live events.
29:08 But they all underestimated the power of live, shared experiences, which, today, combine the technologies of media that was supposed to kill it– audio technology from the recording industry, visual effects and projection from the film business, and the sort of software design and code writing that helped build the internet. And for all the power of home entertainment and virtual experiences, live events, now powered by the finest digital minds in the business, will always find their edge in five powerful words. You had to be there.
29:50 [MUSIC PLAYING]
29:55 I’m Walter Isaacson, and this is Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. If you enjoyed the show, and want to find out more, you can visit our website at DellTechnologies.com/Trailblazers. Please feel free to subscribe to us at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you liked today’s episode, please leave us a rating and a review. It helps new listeners discover the show. Thanks for listening.