Without Lights It’s Just Radio
When I am not doing the editor thing or playing I do sound gigs. And there is a real visceral feud between lighting guys and sound guys (and I am using the term “guys” in a uni-sex kind of way). A few years ago I began to see T-shirts with a slogan on it that more than a few lighting guys were wearing. The shirt said: “Without Lights It’s Just Radio.”
We are visual beings and I have to concede that there is some truth there.
Think about it. When have you ever heard someone talk about going to a musical performance and say they were going or had gone to HEAR the artist in question? No, they say “I went to SEE” whoever. As musicians, we are the “weird” ones--the ones out of step with the rest of the world that sees much more than it hears.
So, seeing as how we can’t change basic human nature, if we want to succeed we had best understand and use the power of all things visual. That can mean millions of dollars spent on staging and effects and video and pyro or it can mean cool clothes and some real stage presence.
A few years ago, I was at a conference for production professionals. It was a big room full of the people who make those huge shows happen. Through a couple of fortunate meetings we were able to get Todd Rundgren to give the keynote presentation. Todd has always been ahead of the curve from the big pyramid sets of the ‘70s to the stripped-down way he tours now. And he stood up in front of this gathering of creative and technicals pros--some of them legends in their fields--and told them that it all started with the right haircut.
His point, I believe is that you work with what you got. If you are Rascal Flatts and are making a fortune touring then you can have the biggest show in the world and the 18 trucks it takes to carry it all around the country. But most of are not in that position.
When I was coming up we tried to be visual and the results were horrifying, lame and occasionally illegal and dangerous. Example of the first part of that sentence: When I was about 18 I saw a band that I thought was really great at the old Starwood club in L.A. They were actually opening for the band I had come to see and if you put a gun to my head today I could not remember who the were. But I remember that the guitar player. His playing just knocked me out and he wore a satin ninja-kimono kind of thing. So I got my mom to sew one for me. White satin with a black collar and belt. The reflective nature of the fabric meant it appeared to change color according to whatever lights we got on the gig. I thought it was awesome. Today I am glad there were not video cameras readily available back then. The example of the second part would be something I really can’t go into a lot of detail on but lets just say that we figured out how to make our own pyro devices (flash pots) and we would set them off at the end of our last set. Oh and we were playing at church dances. And then there was the time our sound and lighting guy got a hold of some powdered magnesium.
But like I said, not too many details.
Today I live in Vegas and it is VERY visual--to the point that we added band members who had the kind of look the venues we were trying to get into wanted. Now, we lucked out and they are first great musicians and happen to have “the look.” (Sometimes it does not work out that well. Who was the guy in Sugar Ray? can’t remember his name but I saw the band live and he can’t sing. Not at all. But he looks really good and the girls dig him.) On another plane I know that there are both sound and band gigs that I got in big part because I had a rudimentary set of lights and I could make them flash with the music.
You can’t escape it. Even if you are a solo singer/songwriter with just an acoustic guitar, I guarantee you have a “look.” Everyone does.
The sooner we all get over the “purist” thing and understand that our competition is not another band or singer and that the real competition is video games and big popcorn movies based on comic books the sooner we can look around and assess what we have to use to make the visual aspect of our performances something more memorable.
Give ‘em a reason—in addition to your great music—to step away from the video games and come out to one of your shows. Those lighting guys, much as I hate to admit it, are right and people can listen to radio at home.