On a hot August night in 1965, the world’s first mega-concert event took place at New York’s Shea Stadium. At the height of Beatlemania, 56,000 kids crammed into what Rolling Stone called an “orange-and-blue ass-pit of a venue” to hear John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Except they couldn’t—hear them, that is.
The stadium, which had opened a year earlier as part of the 1964 World’s Fair, was state-of-the-art for the time. Even so, the PA system used to call Mets games was no match for hordes of shrieking fans. The band members themselves couldn’t hear their set, and to people in the nosebleed seats, the Fab Four probably looked like Beatles bobbleheads—tiny figurines on a platform a mile away.
That was then. This month, when U2 takes the stage at the new MSG Sphere in Las Vegas, the music will be pumped through 164,000 speakers choreographed to images on massive ultra-high-definition screens. Bono & Co. can add to the excitement with an atmospheric system capable of changing the room temperature, emitting scents and even mimicking wind. Topping it off, 10,000 “infrasound” haptic seats will let fans feel as well as hear the music.
With a total capacity of 20,000, the Sphere is bringing unprecedented spectacle to the concert arena. While other venues may not rush to follow suit—the dome-shaped, 36-story structure and its U.K. cousin each cost billions—technology has fundamentally changed how people consume entertainment, and what they expect for the price of admission.
“Competition has increased, ticket prices have gone way up and guest attitudes have changed,” says veteran Las Vegas entertainment producer-manager Clint Billups. “The change in technology is really a symptom of the trend, which is to deliver a bigger, better guest experience.”
Bigger and better also means pricier. In 1965, fans paid $5.10 to see, if not hear, the Beatles (five bucks plus tax, the equivalent of about $55 today). This year, parents who send their kids to see Taylor Swift in concert will shell out an average of $1,300 for the total package: tickets, food and concert swag.
Supersized production values have made it costlier to mount shows and a lot more expensive for fans. They, in turn, want more bang for their buck.
“A lot of this is post-pandemic economics-driven,” adds Billups. “So casinos that bring tribute bands to their little theater are going to have to up their ante.”
The Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut, which regularly makes the lists of the world’s top performance venues, “is not at the Sphere level, but sometimes the productions are just off the charts,” says Tom Cantone, senior vice president of sports and entertainment for Mohegan Gaming. The 10,000-seater has hosted superstars including Swift, Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, Jay Z and Kenny Chesney.
“The A-list contemporary artists roll in here with 28 or 32 trucks—an enormous load with the staging that’s produced and the rigging that goes with it,” Cantone says. Some shows are literally electrifying. Glam rockers KISS, for example, close their extravaganza with “pyrotechnics and explosions of confetti—it’s an experience to see.”
Of course, some performers don’t need all the bells and whistles to impress listeners. In February, at the grand opening of the OLG Stage at the Niagara Fallsview Casino in Canada, “Billy Joel just needed to be Billy Joel,” says Cantone. “That’s all people wanted, and that’s what they got.”
Showrooms must be prepared to serve both ends of the spectrum. At the Live! Casino & Hotel in Maryland, the 4,000-capacity venue known as The Hall employs “a lot of the tech that 10,000- to 20,000-seat pavilions would use, from our PA system to the video walls and the lighting rig,” says AV Director Ryan Dewey.
The 75,000-square-foot, three-story, multi-use arena has a $10 million audio-visual setup and a 60-foot-by-40-foot performance stage flanked by six LED walls and an LED ribbon that encircles the mezzanine.
“Everything in our room is very rider-friendly; the artists have all the tools they’re used to,” says Dewey. “We provide the house, and (the artists) bring the colors to paint it.”
Thanks to immense screens and roving video crews, “there’s no such thing as a bad seat, even if you’re far in the back.”
Production values aside, there’s a slew of other technologies also helping to transform the concert industry.
Electronic wristbands, lanyards and badges
More than mementoes of a big concert or sporting event, these wearables are tagged with the same radio frequency identification (RFID) technology that activates contactless credit cards (it’s also used in the chips that help find lost pets).
The devices can link to a user’s wallet, which simplifies purchases of T-shirts, posters and other merchandise. They also make it a snap for event sponsors and organizers to access consumer emails and social media accounts, seamlessly gathering data for future marketing.
The tap-and-go IDs help shorten entry lines and can be programmed to light up on cue. “Imagine 10,000 fans wearing wristbands that coordinate with the music that’s being played live, whether it’s changing colors or pulsing to the beat,” says Cantone. “In many venues, there’s no cash anymore, so you can order food on your phone and just go pick it up, or it’ll come to you.”
In addition, RFID chips are unique as fingerprints, so counterfeiting is all but impossible.
According to Pew Research, 78 percent of concertgoers prefer to connect with marketers via social platforms, and marketers are happy to comply. In the share-and-share-alike virtual world, what goes out to one person on one platform can expand instantly and exponentially.
“Social media is the No. 1 way we market our entertainment events,” Cantone says. “Ticket sales that used to take weeks and sometimes months now sell out in minutes. Push a button on your phone, and it’s done.”
Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan portal, launched in 2017, promised to minimize resale exploitation and give fans a better shot at exclusive seats. But the system has gotten mixed reviews. It crashed last fall when tickets went on sale for Swift’s record-shattering Eras tour, due to a “staggering number of bot attacks and fans who didn’t have invite codes.”
In general, social interaction among fans is a great way to hype an event and, in essence, lets them do much of the selling. But simple informational posts aren’t good enough anymore, says Billups.
“Now when you go to post on Instagram, you’re not just posting a video, you’re doing special effects, you’re adding music—and by the way, when I say ‘you,’ I’m talking about a 12-year-old.”
Casino marketers can no longer “just post on Facebook or Twitter or whatever it is we’re calling it today,” he says. “Everybody has to step up their game.”
Music promoters are everywhere the fans are: according to one survey, 95 percent use Facebook, 87 percent use Instagram, 85 percent are on X (formerly Twitter) and 20 percent use Snapchat. Ticketing platform Eventbrite says “the next big thing (isn’t) how you use a social website to communicate with fans—it’s how fans use it to share their own stories. With technology like drones, Facebook Live and RFID, those stories will become richer than ever before.”
Booking software company Prism.fm reports that audiences for music engage more on Instagram rather than Facebook, and recommends “jazzing up a simple pic of a show poster with animated GIFs, text and even clips of music from the artist you’re promoting,” using the swipe-up feature in IG Stories to link directly to a venue website or ticket seller, and using Instagram for contests and ticket giveaways.
On X and TikTok, reduce content to palatable “chunks” for easy sharing and discussion.
The metaverse lets artists interact with their fans, which also boosts interest in an event. DJ Steve Aoki, a favorite of casino nightclubs around the world, says the expansion of 5G internet will enable him to instantly pull songs from his mixer to play live, and allow his fans to stream those sets in real time.
The ubiquitous Swift is known for prowling her social media (Swifties call it #taylurking) for posts to respond to. The mere possibility of being acknowledged by the pop princess keeps fans riveted to their screens—a boundless opportunity for canny promoters.
Livestreaming of concerts became the norm during the pandemic, and festivals like Lollapalooza continue to stream live on Youtube, Twitch and other channels. Livestreaming isn’t commonplace in the casino sector, says Billups, though it has its uses.
He notes that when Cantone “started bringing Disney acts to Mohegan Sun, it was so mom and dad would drop the kids off to see their favorite star, then head for the poker table and slots. But if someone is sitting at home watching the show, I’m not getting them to dine and go to the casino.
“Livestreaming is more for casino marketing than for entertainment,” he says. “For example, when the artist arrives, they may livestream an interview.”
It’s inevitable that some fans will post their concert experience, often as it happens. Russ Crupnick of marketing research firm MusicWatch recently told the L.A. Times that record labels, music publishers and artists should appreciate the free promotion instead of waging an unwinnable war against copyright infringement.
“At some point, (those companies) could take down (all those posts),” he said. “But fans will put them back up just as fast.”
GREATEST SHOWS ON EARTH
Then there’s stagecraft. In past world tours, which included stops at 70,000-seat stadiums, superstar Garth Brooks went big—really big. During his shows, he soared in a harness 30 feet above the audience, executed mid-air somersaults, then descended to a stage alight in flames. In one venue, the rumble from a Brooks concert actually registered on the Richter scale.
For his current residency at the 4,100-seat Colosseum at Caesars Palace, which is almost intimate compared to stadiums, the Country Music Hall of Famer has eschewed all that razzle-dazzle.
“In Vegas,” he said in a recent interview with the Associated Press, “you guys have this reputation that everything’s smoke and mirrors, trapeze…”
That was true for him in the past, but this time around, his show is stripped down to the man, the band and his “Plus One,” wife Trisha Yearwood.
But the prices are still sky-high. Fans can pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars for resident shows starring Brooks, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Keith Urban, Usher and Katy Perry. Mexican singing sensation Luis Miguel commands the same breathtaking rates. Even ’80s pop star Kylie Minogue is getting almost two grand per ticket for a 10-show residency at the Venetian’s Voltaire this winter.
And resale tickets for Adele’s Las Vegas residency, which starts in November, are reportedly going for a cool $40,000 each.
TESTING THE WATERS
As technology and music trends evolve, organizers are phasing out old-style stage shows and testing “experiential” programs like Transfix at Resorts World, touted as the world’s largest touring immersive art experience. According to one account, guests stroll through a sound-and-light tunnel to a pyramid of pulsating light, “a hypnotic trance show synchronized to pre-recorded music.”
In Vegas, arguably the standard for casino entertainment everywhere, Broadway tours seem to be nonstarters—Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical Freestyle Love Supreme at the Venetian’s Summit Room recently folded its tent months early—and burlesque and musical revues are now relegated to off-Strip stages. Tributes to Elvis, Sinatra and the Carpenters “have ended up in a three-star hotel ballroom,” says Billups. “If you’re into nostalgia, it’s kind of sad. But obviously, the folks that grew up listening to Elvis aren’t buying many tickets today.”
Technology will continue to change how humans consume entertainment, and future generations of fans may send their avatars to virtual-reality concerts. In the meantime, the jury is still out on the Sphere, which opens September 29.
But Ryan Dewey, for one, is rooting for the venue. “I’m an A/V nerd,” he says. “I want it to be super-successful. The concept is amazing.”
At the end of the night, it’s less about technical wizardry than about what’s happening onstage.
“There’s no technology that could ever, ever replace live performance,” says Cantone. “It’s a new world, I get it, and you have to stay relevant to be in it. Whoever adapts, wins.
“All I know is, the Beatles only needed four amps.”
UNDER THE BIG TOP: MSG SPHERE AT THE VENETIAN
The $2.1 billion MSG Sphere at the Venetian in Las Vegas will arguably raise the bar for other performance venues.
A project of Apollo Global Management and Madison Square Garden Entertainment, the Sphere has the largest LED exterior screen on Earth, capable of projecting images visible from space.
The skin of the exterior or “Exosphere” is embedded with 1.2 million disc-shaped puck lights, each with 48 LED diodes that can display millions of different colors. Guy Barnett, senior vice president of brand strategy and creative development for Sphere Entertainment, calls the Exosphere “more than a screen or a billboard—it’s living architecture, unlike anything that exists anywhere in the world.”
The interior sound system by Sphere Studios with speakers by Holoplot ensures crystal-clear, headphone-quality sound for every listener.
According to Ryan Penny, head of sales for Holoplot, the system allows for “incredibly precise control over sound with minimum loss of level over distance. Essentially we can digitally steer sound, independently on both the horizontal and vertical axis,” which conventional speakers can’t do.
While the audio is pure inside the venue, its energy “drops immediately outside the soundfield, not only improving the listening experience, but solving noise pollution and acoustical challenges,” says Penny. The technology can scale up or down for use in any sized venue.
For the ultimate experience, multi-sensory 4D technologies enable guests to physically feel special effects like the thud of a bass riff, the clap of ersatz thunder, or the touch of a passing breeze.
The venue will open this month with Irish rockers U2. Country rockers the Eagles are reportedly next in line to perform at the venue, which will also host championship boxing, UFC/WWE contests and other special events.
In a statement, U2 guitarist the Edge said, “The beauty of the Sphere is not only the groundbreaking technology that will make it so unique, with the world’s most advanced audio system integrated into a structure which is designed with sound quality as a priority; it’s also the possibilities around immersive experience in real and imaginary landscapes.”
Lead singer Bono added, “What a unique stage they’re building for us out there in the desert… The Sphere… is the right venue to take the live experience of music to the next level.”