Raise The Roof And Get It Down

 

While launching our first ship, I was tasked with leading the build of a concert stage and roof for our fly-on act – 80’s New Wave icons ABC Band with Martin Fry.

 

Orchestrating the build of a stage and roof on land is a challenge in and of itself. Many elements come into play. You have to consider space and show needs, budget, safely rigging the structure, and the logistics of moving people and equipment to meet those demands in a typically very tight timeline. Now, imagine trying to accomplish all of those things on a brand new cruise ship launched by a brand new company in a foreign port during the tail-end of a pandemic.

 

I started by investigating the location of the concert and met with our local riggers as well as rigging consultants to see if we could raise a structure ourselves using points on the pool deck.  Unfortunately, the tie-offs couldn’t bear the weight leaving us with the only option of erecting a conventional truss structure and flying a roof with ballast support. This led to new challenges.  We couldn’t float safely with a temporary stage on deck 15 and we had no place to stow it at sea, so the roof needed to be loaded, built, derigged, and offloaded before we set sail. Getting the stage components to deck 15 posed its own challenge. Tight corridors and elevators that are just shy of 1M x 2M left us to cap components sizes, find an alternative to heavy stone ballasts and required a whole lot of travel through the vessel. This concerned our deck department who insisted that all parts be craned on and off to prevent damage to the interior of the ship.

 

Craning a stage onto a cruise ship.

Building a stage on a cruise ship.

Building a stage on a cruise ship.

Cruise ship concert with stage.

Craning a stage off a cruise ship

 

This raised new logistical challenges.  First, we had to investigate pushing the ship’s departure back with the captain, company, and port by at least four hours to meet our project timeline. For those that don’t know. This is not a rubber-stamp request as tides, weather, and port traffic all impact when ships can come and go from the dock. Second, we had to meet with the port agents and a local craning company to discuss crane positioning, the load, lift, and do a risk assessment. All of these items required a sign-off by the captain, company, port, stage, and crane companies before we could move forward.

 

As these clarences moved through their proper channels, other show logistical pieces needed to be handled. The transportation of backline gear to the port, to the ship at dock, through the provision door, and up to deck 15 before the show had unique challenges. We needed to create a timeline to connect those outside the ship (stevedores, port security, etc.) with those inside the vessel (clearance officer, hotel department, technicians, etc.) to move the items from land to the vessel. We then needed to get clearance for backline vehicles and drivers to enter the port and approach Scarlet Lady at the dock.

 

Further security clearance and COVID testing needed to be orchestrated for all individuals boarding the vessel including stage riggers, crane spotters, the band, and their entourage. Inside Scarlet, multiple departments were brought into the project. The deck department to assist with clearing the stage area, helping us protect the deck, filling and draining water ballasts, and roping off safe zones for craning. Security, the clearance officer, hotel department, and ship doctor were prepped for the arrival of local labor, and screening equipment being craned and forklifted onto the vessel. Catering and rider requirements were organized with food and beverage. Sailor Services and crew engagement were briefed on the project to make customers and crew aware of the day’s activities, itinerary changes, and safe areas during crane movement. Accounting was informed of cost centers for each piece of the build. Finally, the technical team briefed on the backline gear, stage set-up, and how to integrate their technical needs with onboard equipment.

 

Due to weather patterns, we didn’t receive the official “green light” to proceed until 24-hours before the concert date, but our teams were ready thanks to over-preparedness.  The crane was in place as the ship docked that morning. However, a miscommunication led to a two-hour delay in getting items lifted onto the ship. Despite this challenge, the build continued moving forward safely and on-the-fly schedule changes led to us falling only twenty minutes behind for our backline load goal and eventually one hour ahead for a completed soundcheck.

 

The show was great. The artists were happy, the organizers thrilled, and excited fans were jumping in the pool during the encore. However, with nowhere to go after the show cruise ship guests remained near the stage as the house lights came on. With time working against us, we went into crowd control mode. I asked FOH to turn off all music and to bring on the brightest white lights we had to demonstrate the show as over to lingering fans. I then used polite, yet assertive, communication to push patrons close to the stage back as technicians roped off the area to create a safe workspace for teardown.  The roofing company began embarking the vessel as local labor pushed road cases back down to the provisioning door. Within minutes, they began tearing down the stage as myself and the deck team roped off safe areas on Decks 16, 15, and 7 for crane operations. The entire derig operation was so efficient that we had craned off the last pieces of stage safely nearly two hours ahead of our load-out end time.

 

This 22 hour marathon day was nearly two months in the making and a huge team effort thanks to our Virgin Voyages team, our friends at the Portsmouth Port, CPS Staging, Imagine Cruising, the band, and their management teams. It was a remarkable undertaking for a new ship under a new brand operating in a foreign market and everyone should be proud of their contributions.  🤘

 

The Amygdala – Fear, Pleasure, and Rock and Roll

 

In my post Herd Mentality in Entertainment, I discuss how a small piece of our brain called The amygdala (what some call the old mammalian brain) is responsible for our natural mental reflexes to evade predators. This is a key component to my overall concert consumer behavior thesis as it is my belief that this piece of our brain is hard-wired for us to seek out the pack. Ultimately, leading us to copy their behaviors. Regardless if those behaviors are to group together, disperse, or buy another beer.

 

In his book, This is Your Brain on Music, neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, Ph.D. goes into depth regarding how our brain is hardwired with (on average) one hundred billion neurons. Each neuron is connected to other neurons—usually one thousand to ten thousand others. Just four neurons can be connected in sixty-three ways, or not at all, for a total of sixty-four possibilities. As the number of neurons increases, the number of possible connections grows exponentially to the point that we will never fully understand what our brains are truly capable of.

 

For us to process a thought, memory, or even the color red the respective neurons need to fire and create that connection to pull the respective data from other areas of our brain. A great example of how this happens musically is when that song (or more likely just a part of it) gets stuck in your head – aka the “earworm.” Scientists believe this could happen because you hear the song and it triggers a set of neurons that continue to fire and get stuck in playback mode. This demonstrates to us that if a certain part of the brain becomes activated it can lead to repeat fire in the neuro-circuitry of that area, which brings me to our good ol’ friend – the amygdala.

 

You see, the amygdala is not just responsible for those survival instincts. According to Levitin, “it sits adjacent to the hippocampus, long considered the crucial structure for memory storage, if not memory retrieval. And experiments over the past decades have shown that it is highly activated by any experience or memory that has a strong emotional component.” You know…like live music.

 

So when you are at a concert your amygdala is fully powered up. Its circuits are firing and with it the likelihood that your need to connect with the pack is increased. You are biologically primed to fit into the crowd and more likely to follow their cues. This is a great plus for ancillary sales such as alcohol and food and probably explains why we all accept the overpriced beer and food while at a concert – especially if those in our row have a beer in hand.

 

However, the neuro-firing of the amygdala doesn’t stop with ancillary sales. Sponsorships benefit from this priming as well. For one, that charged-up amygdala rests near your memory storage so you are more likely to store and later recall brands you see while at a show. Second, as our earworm scenario showed us, all it takes is a piece of one song from that event to trigger those neurons and create an infinite feedback loop that could easily trigger memories of that night including the weather, smells, and advertisements you came across. Furthermore, your brain will likely categorize those brands with the positive emotions that are generated from music consumption – a huge win for advertisers.

 

Live music ignites nearly all areas of our brain. However, the amygdala carries special weight because it also drives us to instinctively follow the pack. In addition, its location near our hippocampus aids memory storage and recall, which is powerful biology that fuels concert consumer behavior.

 

Could the Return to a Pre-Pandemic Concert Experience Take Longer Than We Think?

 

The increased speed of the vaccine rollout has given many in the live events industry an overly optimistic outlook regarding the swift return to pre-pandemic packed shows. The primary focus thus far has been on how venues need to adjust to “The New Normal” and if they can balance new health mandates against their already razor-thin margins. While the vaccine may relax some of these mandates and allow operators to increase capacity, it does not address the shift we may be facing in the macro-economic demand curve of live events.

 

In December of 2020, The Washington Post found nearly 12 million renters would owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities by January of 2021. According to Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, that could equate to almost $70 billion in unpaid debt – “a painful amount that renters, landlords and utility companies will have to sort out.” The US government has been working to provide relief for this housing crisis. Just last week, newly elected US President Joe Biden extended the federal eviction moratorium, which is set to expire on Jan. 31, through at least March 31. In addition to this pause, US Congress had provided $25 billion in rental assistance through their December 2020 stimulus package with Biden asking for an additional $25 billion in his future bill.

 

These cash infusions will chip away at that growing $70 billion debt, but will ultimately come up short and relief will take time to trickle down to concert fans. Likely falling at a time when venues start to re-open at more profitable capacities. This “perfect storm” could leave venues across the country looking to pack their houses against a large portion of their consumer base conflicted over purchasing concert tickets or catching up on their physiological and safety needs. And as Maslow has taught us many will opt to catch up on those basic needs first.

 

This conflict is not a new phenomenon. There are always demographic segments facing the choice of want versus need. However, businesses usually adjust their marketing approach to capitalize on the segments free of that conflict. This is not the case today where a disproportionate percentage of the entire world population has been shaken by the economic impacts of the pandemic. This leaves venue owners to fight over a very small percentage with the necessary disposable income to fork-over.

 

How can concert promoters face this challenge?  First, it is imperative that the majors such as Live Nation, AEG, and NIVA begin to focus their lobbying efforts on getting that second $25 billion round of housing assistance passed. Without it, the suggested rental shortfall is just shy of $50 billion and growing. This would, in essence, double the time for the collective concert fan segment to catch-up on their basic needs and be able to regularly support live events. Second, the industry will have to accept that the supply/demand curve will shift when we return to operations. With fewer fans with adequate resources to attend shows, the only solution is to reduce the price of tickets. Promoters, suppliers, artists, and managers will have to work together to find that new equilibrium and then adjust as the consumer pool emerges from its COVID-catch-up. Ultimately, we will return to those pre-pandemic levels.  However, it is going to take time and compassion for concert fans to get there.

Are We Facing a Post-Pandemic Concert Venue Consolidation?

 

Small concert venues teeter the line between a vital music industry need and a profitability challenge for their owners. They are a keystone to the entire music industry serving as the laboratories where artists hone their skills and are instrumental in building and empowering fan bases that will help push that talent up the pipeline to bigger spaces. Yet they operate within a risky business model that is loaded with unpredictability due to the status of the artists they support and the caps on their income streams.

 

There is no doubt that the major live event brands such as Live Nation and AEG understand the vital importance of smaller venues for their long-term strategy. They need these establishments to survive so future superstars and their fan bases can be cultivated to the point that they can fill their larger (and more profitable) amphitheaters and stadiums. Before the pandemic hit, Live Nation was on a $20 million-plus spending spree in Southern California including the acquisition of Spaceland Presents and their roster of small venues such as Echoplex, the Echo, and the Regent. Pre-COVID, both AEG and Live Nation were actively shopping the smaller cap space with every tool at their disposal.  Their strategies included buying out smaller promoters, partnering with established venues, exclusive promotion deals, and perhaps the most strategic.  Selling and installing their ticketing services into these independent venues, which not only provides the majors with revenue but a treasure trove of data to help focus their future investment decisions.

 

Most independent owners will tell you they do this for the love of music and when you analyze their basic business model. You will quickly surmise they aren’t lying. Profitability is difficult in the under 1,000 cap space. The smaller audience size means that the fixed cost per person is higher. This impinges on the variable costs per customer and leads to reduced profitability per show. Add in the fact that the acts at this level are still building their fan bases and owners face the very real possibility that they will not reach 100% occupancy on a regular basis. This lack of regular profitability leads to less money in reserves for slower times and very little protection from systematic risk such as a pandemic that forces them to close down indefinitely.   We have been witnessing this playout since COVID hit. By June of 2020, 90% of Independent Venue Owners said they would need to close within a few months without government help to sustain their businesses. Many are ecstatic that the US Government could provide much-needed relief soon, but this help may (unfortunately) be too little too late. Especially if there are no further rounds of funding coming down the pike.

 

Smaller cap venues simply do not have the economic resources to support reduced capacity, increased testing and sanitization protocols, state and local shutdowns, and weary public. Unfortunately, this means that we will likely continue to see many of these spaces shutter their doors into 2022, and while that is bad news for fans, independent owners, and the free market. It is a HUGE opportunity for well-positioned majors such as Live Nation and AEG.

 

In the words of Baron Rothschild, “buy when there is blood in the streets.” Unfortunately for the live concert industry, very few are positioned to heed the Baron’s advice. Both Live Nation and AEG have the infrastructure and financial reserves to withstand the COVID pandemic. While LN has a serious advantage thanks to their stock market status. A public company can secure financing through numerous debt instruments outside of typical lenders such as selling bonds or by releasing more shares. They can also renegotiate existing loans more easily thanks to their massive liquidity and the horizon-focused mindset of their investors.

 

Both companies have already reduced their workforce and cut spending at unprecedented rates due to the pandemic. And while this is difficult to swallow now, it does pose the opportunity for them to return to service much leaner and potentially free up capital to allocate towards future growth in the strategically important small-cap market. Add in the fact that both have troves of ticketing data which can be cross-analyzed against economic stricken hotspots, prime tour markets, and real estate prices and we are left with a large probability for future consolidation of the small-cap venue market.

 

There are a few saving graces for independent venue owners.  One is the creation of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). This organization burst onto the scene and was key in lobbying the US Congress for relief.  They will need to remain vigilant post-COVID and shift their focus from relief to the defense of a free market for the live music industry. Another comes in those with a true passion for live music.  Be it owners, managers, fans, or even leaders at the helm of these majors. We need people who understand that music was never meant to be corporate. It was meant to be raw, emotional, messy, and a little bit scary.  Only then will the magic present itself.

 

Spotify, Machine Learning, and A&R

 

Keeping up-to-date with current, trending, and fresh music is part of my current role with Virgin Voyages. Our ships support over 100 different styles and genres of music. Everything from Anthemic Pop to Disco House, R&B, Eclectic Soul, and Balearic just to name a few. Add in the fact that Virgin has always been about “what’s next” as opposed to “what’s now” and the task to constantly discover emerging talent across a vast music landscape becomes quite a challenge. Fortunately, we live in a world of machine learning, algorithms, and data science which makes handling my unique quest that much easier.

 

I switched over from Apple Music to Spotify when I started with Virgin and immediately put together a plan to utilize their unique machine learning system to my advantage.  To be 100% transparent, I am not a programmer so I will not go into depth regarding the technical aspects that drive their bots.  I encourage those of you interested in the mechanics of Spotify’s machine learning to visit their Engineering R&D website.  Here you will learn about their multi-armed bandit framework that drives recommendations for 248 million users and over 50 million tracks.

 

In the most basic explanation, Spotify’s machine learning engine uses a collection of variables from your involvement with their platform. This includes your likes, the albums you save, playlists you like, artists you follow, search history, browsing history, how long you listen to a song, and the playlists you create to feed their suggestions. These recommendations come in a number of formats. You really see this going down from the app’s Home Screen where you will find auto-propagated playlists just for you called Your Daily Mix 1-6, Your Discover Weekly, and Your Release Radar. The app will also suggest playlists and artists related to your past browsing history. These are usually titled For Fans of XMore of What You Like, or Based on Your Recent Listening. In addition, these parameters will feed the various Radio channels you can run from an Artist, Playlist, or that automatically follow when you finish an album as well as the recommendations you receive to add tunes to playlists you have created.

 

Here is the secret to making these recommendations work for you.

 

You have to actually listen to music and build your own library. This includes liking songs, following artists, saving albums, liking playlists, and creating and updating your own playlists regularly. This information is vital to the machines operating behind the scenes because it gives them parameters to follow. Bots don’t necessarily know that Cory Wong, Vulfpeck, and The Fearless Flyers sound similar. They do know that they likely fall into the same category, have similar BPMs, and are statistically liked by the same types of fans. So when you like or follow Cory Wong the machine learning guesses (likely with the statistical certainty of 95% or better) that you would also like Vulfpeck. As you like, follow, and save more artists, the machine uses serious math like regression analysis to predict what you will like going deeper into the Spotify database of tunes.

 

I have been following a systematic approach designed to feed this style of predictive analytics. First and foremost, I listen to a LOT of music (hours upon hours daily). As I listen, I like songs that capture my attention. I go through my Liked Songs and explore each track further at the end of the week. As I go through these liked songs, I may listen to additional tunes by the artist, and if I dig what I hear. I may follow them. I might explore recommended artists and playlists associated with that act and like a few songs for further review. I then choose to either categorize the saved songs to one of my many playlists and closeout by unliking the track. Those that made the cut are now in my library, which I assume is given more weight by the spot-bots.

 

This process has served me quite well for a number of reasons. For one, I am all over the spectrum when it comes to music consumption. I may listen to Deep House at the gym, Hip-Hop Jazz on a walk, the Billboard 100 on a drive, and French Pop while I do the dishes. Liking and moving on while I criss-cross genres allows me to enjoy the tunes and not become overwhelmed by a bot just throwing limited options at me. Reconciling those likes at the end of the week allows me to give those songs a second listen and, if warranted, spend the time exploring the artist, style, playlist, or vibe a bit more. The recommendations I have been receiving in My Daily Mixes are strong evidence that my process is working.  I continue to find new tunes and artists to explore along with the re-discovery of tracks that are not limited to any particular era or genre.

 

In all of my years of consuming music – from LPs to cassettes, CDs, and digitally. I have never had such an eclectic selection of music that consistently piques my fancy and inspires further exploration.  The recommendations aren’t always perfect and I would never give bots 100% control over what I choose for programming needs. However, machine learning helps me wade through the long-tail supply that has become music streaming.

 

My New Gig

 

I am sure many reading this would agree 2020 has been quite challenging. It has been a crazy and (at times) exhausting year. Personally, things have been a bit more hectic as I relocated from AZ to FL to start my new gig with Virgin Voyages as their Manager – Music Production & Operations.

 

The cruise industry was not on my radar when I was looking for the next chapter in my career. Having worked on ships as a musician and later operating as a booking partner for all the major lines. I just didn’t feel that the cruise industry aligned with my goals. I was looking to create something new in the live music industry and in my opinion that doesn’t happen too often at sea. But when I came across the gig listed for Virgin Voyages it caught me as different. I felt compelled to apply and I am lucky that I did.

 

My enthusiasm to hit the high seas quickly elevated as I made my way through their interview process, spoke with their team, and learned about the Virgin culture. If you don’t know, Virgin got its start as a record club on the streets of London.  Shortly after, they opened a recording studio called The Manor, which morphed into a record label. Their first release Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield would eventually become the theme for the 1974 classic The Exorcist. In 1977, Branson himself convinced The Sex Pistols to join Virgin and together they dropped a piece of Punk Rock history called Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.

 

When you join the Virgin namesake you quickly witness the correlation between their early days as a record label and what the (dare I say) conglomerate has become today. One where it doesn’t matter if you create progressive cinematic rock like Oldfield, screamed for anarchy like Johnny Rotten, or are made up of an eclectic group fronted by an openly Irish gay man like the Culture Club. If the product is good and you care deeply about it, Virgin has your back.

 

And so here I am. A Virgin employee getting ready to help launch our first ship – The Scarlet Lady with two more visible on the horizon. I am surrounded and supported by some of the most driven and intelligent cruise and non-cruise people in the game. The excitement of what we are creating is powerful. It has motivated me to reclaim my passion for music in ways I never thought the cruise industry could provide.