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.

 

Judge Judy – A Demo in Audience Compounding

 

My mom is a HUGE Judge Judy fan and I will admit it, so am I.  However, we are fans for different reasons. My mom likes seeing someone her height take control of a situation. While I admire what the 5′ 1″ judge has done in creating a powerful global brand through the concept of audience compounding.

 

In fact, I admire her so much that I have created the Judge Judy Principle in regard to how venues can craft a loyal customer following. It works like this.

 

People are creatures of habit. Our brains have to process so much data each day, that the organ is constantly looking for things it can place on autopilot. This is where habits kick in. We habitually take the same route to work. We instinctively pick-up the same toothpaste without considering dozens of other brands. And for many of us, like Pavlov’s dog, we instantly check our messages when we hear that “ding” from our phones. This is a core part of consumer behavior and many of the top brands seek to utilize it to get their products and services into our auto-consumption routines.

 

Basically, brands need two things to break into our habits. One, they must always be where we would expect them to be and two, they need to give us the same quality product every time. Judge Judy has been doing this since 1996 and is reaping the rewards.

 

She has been on the air for 23 seasons and has remained in the same afternoon slot (roughly 3 pm – 5 pm) for that entire time. This is key to habit-forming because her fans know where they can get their Judy fix anywhere in the country with little effort. Second, her product is always the same. Her intro music and logo don’t change. She wears the same robe. The program is always filmed in the same courtroom – they never go anywhere special. Her bailiff, Byrd, always announces her and the case before jumping into a crossword puzzle. This is the second key to her success – she gives her audience the same quality product at each interaction. This prevents people from becoming confused and continually reinforces their positive stimuli response, which strengthens their tie to the habit and feeds the viewership cycle. It also explains why Judge Judy has a fan base of 10 million-plus every weekday and has been the number one syndicated daytime show since 1998. So, how does this apply to the booking of entertainment venues?

 

Judge Judy’s success is a testament to the importance of establishing a long-term booking strategy and sticking with it. Before the internet, iPhones, social media and streaming, entertainment consumers had fewer options so the onus was on them to seek out their choice of leisure. Technology has shifted this behavior. Consumers now have access to countless opportunities with little cost of engagement such as streaming music on Spotify, viewing videos on TikTok, or binging a whole TV season on Netflix.

 

Talent buyers and venue bookers must consider consistency in their programming as a way to counteract this challenge. Since the consumer’s cost to see live entertainment is more than, say, streaming Hulu at home, they are in a vulnerable position. And if you operate in a highly competitive live market these “on the fence” consumers have a multitude of options at their disposal as well. This means that anything you do that confuses them could become detrimental to your operations.

 

This doesn’t mean you need to book the same act each night, but your calendar should be consistent in one way or another. You can hold tight to theme nights such as Latin on Sundays, Karaoke on Wednesdays, and Pop on Fridays. Or you can book one style of entertainment such as an open format DJ regularly. The key is sticking with your decision once your A/B booking testing is complete (more on that later). This will mitigate the fan’s choice apprehension.

 

It will also fuel an audience compounding strategy that works like this. A customer arrives and digs your vibe, so they come back. If you are consistent and reinforce their stimuli response, they will stay along with the next patron who visits, likes what they see, and decides to come back a second time as well. Over time you will build a core group of promoters for the brand. This will lead to an adoption tipping point that is regularly hit, which will speed the time it takes to fill the venue.

 

However, if you change your entertainment too often you risk confusing and alienating the customers you have gained. In essence, you will start the whole process over and it will take longer for you to pack the house. Think of it like your 401(k). You put in money consistently every month. Later, you reap rewards with very little effort on your part. However, if you pull money out early it takes longer for those checks to cash. This is why Judge Judy is so successful. She has a solid brand that has delivered a similar quality product consistently for 23 seasons and has reaped the benefits of audience compounding in the process.

 

If you would like to learn more please reach out to me at info@jeremylarochelle.com or call me at ‭(602) 842-2050‬.

 

 

 

 

The Power of a Venue Pull Marketing Strategy

 

You may be surprised to learn that all of the ads you encounter each day aren’t just to get YOU to purchase products. While this is a majority of the brand’s intent, there is an additional hidden agenda and it comes in the form of a pull marketing strategy.

 

According to the Corporate Finance Institute. “In a pull marketing strategy, the goal is to make a consumer actively seek a product and get retailers to stock the product due to direct consumer demand.” For instance, if Doritos intends to launch a new flavor of chip. Retailers may be apprehensive of allocating valuable shelf space to the product. To mitigate this risk and get them to stock their new offering, Frito-Lay may introduce a pull marketing strategy to build awareness of the new flavor, increase demand, and pull consumers to the new product, forcing retailers to place orders for the flavor.

 

The same can happen in the concert venue world in various strategic ways. One approach is the fan perspective where the venue establishes its brand in a way that pulls specific consumers through the doors to experience the ambiance and /or notoriety. This is the case with legacy spaces such as The Greek Theater, Red Rocks, The Ryman, Madison Square Garden, and The Gorge. Another is to focus on a specific segment. The Bowery Presents does this with their chain of venues that focus on indie and up-and-coming rockers.

 

There is also a pull strategy that can be established by homing in on the talent. In this method, management focuses on enhancing the act’s experience to pull them towards their stage over other routing options.

 

Ryan Murphy did just that with St. Augustine’s The Amp by crafting a positive environment for acts that visited the out-of-the-way outdoor venue. His efforts soon paid off when legend Tony Bennett’s positive experience was relayed to Stevie Nick’s team. This led to a one-off solo show for the Fleetwood Mac star. Soon, The Amp was playing host to names much larger than its capacity.  Kacey Musgraves, who packs the 20,000 seat Bridgestone Arena, legends such as Robert Plant, OAR, Willie Nelson, and Kendrick Lamar made their way to St. Augustine, FL. Helping push The Amp to the #2 amphitheater spot in Pollstar Magazine’s 2019 Mid-Year report.

 

Not too shabby for a venue with a capacity of under 5,000 and well off the routing path.

 

Murphy’s pull strategy circumvented outside variables by going direct to the source of the commodity – the artist. Their handlers very likely were pushing for larger capacity venues that could provide more revenue, more wiggle room on deal points, more efficient routing, etc. Unfortunately, many venue leaders do not understand the rigors of the road and how it impacts artists of every level and, perhaps more importantly, their crew. Giving them a special spot that has a unique vibe, history, and a feel of home can have much more power than we think. It’s not just a pull marketing strategy… it’s a compassion for the artist strategy and it can pay large dividends as Murphy and The Amp proved.