Article featured on WIRED.
Deep in Amish country, Tait Towers designs live sets for the world’s biggest music acts. Its aim? To make rock stars’ visions come alive
In December 2016, designer Ric Lipson was in New York on a conference call with Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. Lipson is a senior associate at London-based design firm Stufish, the company that, along with U2’s set designer Willie Williams, has created all of the band’s tours since 1992’s Zoo TV. In October 2016, U2 had played software giant Salesforce’s annual conference on the site of the old Geneva Drive-In Theatre in Daly City, California. In homage to the Geneva, the stage had a movie screen and little else.
Now, the band wanted something similar for The Joshua Treeanniversary tour in 2017. The four musicians were leafing through proposed designs from Stufish and Williams when Bono grabbed a Sharpie and drew a rough outline of a Joshua tree breaking out through the top of the screen. That’s what should be on the stage, he told Lipson.
It’s always a difficult moment for designers such as Lipson and Williams when rock stars doodle their concepts for stage shows. To get a stadium tour from notion to opening night costs tens of millions. Thousands of people are needed to design, build, assemble, market and sell the show. The technology involved often doesn’t exist yet.
In this case, at first, the set design looked simple – a 61-metre-wide, 14-metre-high 8K LED video screen painted gold with a silhouette of a Joshua tree picked out in silver. During the second half of the show, the screen would show epic high-definition American landscapes shot by photographer and director Anton Corbijn. There would also be a tree-shaped catwalk and satellite stage extending into the audience, plus steel trusses that dangled lights and speakers high above the stage.
To deliver that concept, however, required at least three world-first equipment prototypes: a video-controlled follow-spotlight that tracked performers using a CCTV system; a state-of-the-art carbon-fibre video screen (the largest and highest resolution ever used for a concert tour, with pixels just 8.5mm apart); and prototype speakers from audio specialists Clair Brothers that are so powerful, only 16 speakers are needed to flood even the largest stadium with sound. Furthermore, the various technical and safety standards involved meant that the stage would take three days to put up and take down, so there would need to be two sets of steel supports moving around the world at the same time, with, for instance, one under construction in Berlin as the band walked on stage in London.
“At that point, we didn’t know what the kit would be, beyond the hope that technology just on the cusp of being possible would be invented in time for the start of the tour in May,” Lipson says. “But rock stars don’t want to hear problems and our job is not to say, ‘That’s impossible’ – our job is to say, ‘Yes, of course.'”
To get Bono’s tree from sketch to stadium, Stufish and the band decamped to Lititz, a rural town in Pennsylvania. Lititz is home to Tait Towers, the architectural engineering and software company that has built the sets for every one of the ten highest-grossing tours in history using a blend of rock’n’roll engineering, technology – and a little help from the Amish community.
In 1968, a young Australian backpacker called MichaelTait took a job behind the bar at The Speakeasy Club, a late-night music industry haunt just off Oxford Street in London run by a friend of the infamous Kray twins. If anyone wanted a career in music, getting into – or best of all, getting to play at – The Speakeasy was the fastest route to stardom until it closed in 1978. The Beatles, David Bowie, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Jimi Hendrix all graced its dingy stage.
When the manager of a bunch of prog-rock newbies called Yes spent the evening touting for a van driver to get his boys to a gig in Leeds, Tait volunteered. He was stunned at the shoddiness of the band’s equipment and lighting – guitarist Peter Banks kept stamping on his effects pedals, breaking them almost every time. “I realised that I could make all this stuff work,” he explains. Tait became Yes’s tour manager, sound engineer and lighting designer for the next 15 years.
Out on the road he leveraged his childhood love of electrical circuit kits, batteries and bulbs to devise edged boards that kept wah-wah pedals and fuzzboxes safe from stomping, create the first revolving stage in rock and design one of the first self-contained lighting towers. Other acts loved his ideas. Soon, he was working with Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond.
“Before I knew it, I was in the set business,” Tait explains. He founded Tait Towers in 1978, naming the company after his industry-famous lighting tower, and located its headquarters out in Lititz, to be near his close collaborators, the Clair Brothers.
The Clair brothers – Roy and Gene – built their first speakers in 1966 when Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons played Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, near Lititz. Roy and Gene’s PA so impressed the band that Valli took them on the road with him. In 1970, the brothers designed and built the first stage monitor, and two years later the first hanging sound system for indoor arenas. By 1978, the brothers were the first port of call for any band heading out on the road. They saw no reason to leave Lititz, so Tait set up nearby.
In the 80s, Tait built the stage that Michael Jackson moonwalked on, as well as sets for Bruce Springsteen and U2. The company built the stage for the Rolling Stones’ record-breaking Voodoo Loungetour in 1994 and the video screen for Janet Jackson’s Velvet Ropetour in 1998. “Even then, it was more like a hobby,” explains James Fairorth, Tait’s president and CEO – a well-built, genial man with a loose ponytail who everyone knows as “Winky”. “Michael Tait was Willy Wonka and we were working in a dream factory – building stage sets because nobody else was.”
Then 1999 arrived, the file-sharing site Napster launched – and Tait’s world changed overnight.
Alan Krueger, the Princeton economist and co-author of the 2005 paper Rockonomics: The Economics of Popular Music, describes the post-Napster music industry using what he calls the “Bowie theory”. Back in the 80s and 90s, Krueger explains, most artists made most of their money from music sales, using tours as promotional vehicles for their latest album. U2 sold 14 million copies of The Joshua Tree in its year of release, earning the band around $37 million (£28m) in the US. The original 111-date Joshua Tree tour grossed roughly the same, at $40 million.
Post-Napster, the link between recorded and live revenues has been severed, a trend spotted by David Bowie in 2002 when he told The New York Times, “Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity. Artists better be prepared for doing a lot of touring, because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left.”
“Rock stars don’t want to hear problems. Our job is not to say, ‘That’s impossible’ – our job is to say, ‘Yes, of course.” -Ric Lipson, designer
Crispin Hunt agrees. He experienced a brief flash of fame in the 90s as the singer in Britpop band Longpigs, best known for their indie anthem “She Said”. He became a successful songwriter after the band broke up, writing hits for the likes of Lana Del Rey, Ellie Goulding, Florence + the Machine, Jake Bugg and Rod Stewart. It’s a living, he explains, but the post-Napster world of streaming services and online video hasn’t rewarded the songwriter.
“If I’d written songs that reached the same chart position in the 80s or 90s, I wouldn’t be talking to you now,” he grins wryly. “I’d be by the pool in LA. But as long as Spotify pays, on average, between $0.006 and $0.008 per stream, and while YouTube’s royalties are cloaked in secrecy, that’s impossible to imagine. I recently had a song on BBC Radio 1’s C-list – that’s six plays a week. In the same week, a Jake Bugg track I wrote had 12 million views on YouTube. I earned £75 for six plays on Radio 1 and £65 from 12 million YouTube plays. The only way to make money is to be able to sell out 2,000-seat or larger venues. Any tour, any gig, for any size of band has basic running costs – transport, crew, PA. Unless you sell over 2,000 tickets you’re losing money.”
In 1999, recorded music in the US – the world’s biggest music market – earned an inflation-adjusted $20.6 billion, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. In 2015, auditors PwC estimated global music-industry revenues from recorded music, whether sold or streamed, totalled around $15 billion. Across that same period, the live touring industry saw the kind of expansion rarely seen outside Silicon Valley, with US concert ticket sales tripling in value between 1999 and 2009. In 2016, live music took more than $25 billion per year in ticket sales and another $5 billion in sponsorship – around double the global revenues for recorded music and larger than the GDP of Iceland.
For artists, the difference is stark. U2’s album sales have been in decline since The Joshua Tree, from Achtung Baby’s eight million in 1991 to, in 2009, No Line on the Horizon’s 3.4 million copies sold. Ticket sales, meanwhile, have been rising: 1992-1993’s Zoo TV tour, supporting Achtung Baby and Zooropa, saw box-office revenue top $151 million; 2009-2011’s 360° tour took a record-breaking $736 million. The Joshua Tree’s 2017 tour has fewer than half the dates of the 360° tour, but it took $62 million in its first month.
“Live music is competing for the same entertainment dollar as movies, box sets, restaurants, nightclubs and theme parks,” Winky explains. “Shows have had to become spectacles to compete but the relationship between fan and star is incredibly intimate. Our challenge is, how do we wow tens of thousands of people? If you’re sitting at the back of the hall, how do we deliver the artist to you in a way that feels intimate and personal? Otherwise, you’re not coming back.”
With a population of around 10,000, Lititz is asmall market town perched in the middle of rolling wheat fields and dairy pastureland. Most of the town was built before the 20th century and comprises a mix of wooden colonial houses, Regency-era classical stone buildings, gothic Victorian red-brick shops and converted warehouses.
The surrounding area, Lancaster County, has the highest concentration of Amish – the Anabaptist sect that rejects modern technology and conveniences – in the US. Driving to Lititz from Philadelphia, you see a road dotted with small, boxy, four-wheel horse-drawn buggies. The black buggies belong to the Amish and the grey buggies belong to the more tech-savvy Mennonites.
Both communities are crucial parts of the tech-focused ecosystem spreading out from Tait’s headquarters, an industrial estate at the edge of town called Rock Lititz. It’s a sprawling campus of buildings built by Tait and Clair Brothers in 2014 to host companies looking to join them. It’s what University of Toronto professor Richard Florida calls a place-based ecosystem. Besides Tait and Clair, businesses on site include lighting and design company Atomic; video experts Control Freak; barrier company Mojo; Stageco, which creates large steel structures such as the Claw used in U2’s 360° tour; engineering firm Pyrotek; Yamaha instruments; and Tour Supply, an instrument-rental company.
It’s cluster innovation in the purest sense. Artists and companies can experiment at a lower cost, test ideas and quickly change their minds. The cost of making mistakes reduces, allowing people to take greater risks. The close proximity also brings people together. “Success in this business – just like any other – is about relationships,” explains Troy Clair, president and CEO of Clair Global. “You get to know people and you work with them and they trust you.”
This company based on technological innovation is not only situated in the heart of Amish country, it’s entirely symbiotic with the back-to-basics ethos and economy. The agricultural supply chain and network of small metalwork forges allows Tait’s designers and architects to build anything. A Mennonite company that makes steel cattle grids, for instance, also cuts the metal supports for Tait’s rock shows.
“All my neighbours are Amish,” explains Adam Davis, Tait’s chief creative officer, an enthusiastic tousled man in his late 40s. “When you’re a farmer and you break something, you have to fix it, especially if you’re still using traditional tools and not computer-driven combine harvesters. So, when it comes to creative problem-solving, the Amish are the masters – they just get on with it. All of these farms are enterprises, with this incredible culture of innovation and making that doesn’t exist in most places. If a show designer needs something made, we’ll prototype custom shapes and sizes in our steel shop within 15 minutes. Then we go to an Amish forge and they’ll turn out 10,000 of them almost overnight.”
Rock Lititz feels like Nasa’s Cape Canaveral, with outlying buildings surrounding an enormous warehouse that resembles outsized rocket assembly rooms. Walking in, you get a brief sense of what it must be like entering the TARDIS – the space feels even bigger on the inside. It’s large enough to hold one stadium stage or two arena stages, with room to build and change things.
Tait’s main building is a short drive from the assembly and rehearsal room. It covers 232,000 square metres and hosts a design space, project management, a metal shop, electrical-control shop, hoist and winch department, LED-video-screen team, scenic department, print shop and a complex loading dock. It’s like an old Victorian family company: everyone, down to the packers and loaders, is on the payroll and the only outsourcing is to Amish craftsmen. “Everything we do is a prototype,” Davis explains, as he drives across the sprawling space between rehearsal room and head office. “U2, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift… they’re the CEOs of their brand. They don’t want the same stuff Justin Bieber or the Rolling Stones had last year. They want something brand new. So we’re in a spectacular arms race. It’s probably fun to look at from the outside but it’s a fairly horrible place to be because every day we have to reinvent ourselves, create something new to get to the next level with the knowledge that we can’t fail, especially with the bigger flying-through-the-air stuff. That can’t go wrong as people may get hurt.”
Taylor Swift, Usher, Mumford & Sons, U2 and Lady Gaga have built and rehearsed shows there since it opened, “and the beauty of it is that when they go into town after rehearsals, the Amish don’t know who they are,” Davis grins. “We wanted a perfect techie space because I was tired of showing up in front of our clients and testing something for the first time. The problem is, there were no spaces large enough to do it. So, we built it for ourselves, for techies. But what’s happening is the artists are coming – with the band, the choreographers, lighting, pyro, sound, automation, staging, content… and the creative process happens here.”
Lititz offers a curious case study, fusing creativity, construction, craft, community and computing in a global billion-dollar, boutique, artisanal tech firm. So that if you were, say, Lady Gaga, you could walk through the door and follow your concept from design to build to rehearsal to load out across this one site. Which is exactly what she did for Joanne, her 2017 tour.