New technology, environmental issues and EU regulations are all impacting the live show lighting sector, but its leading figures and companies are adept at embracing change and are enjoying a buoyant market, as Christopher Barrett reports.
Concert and festival lighting is evolving at a remarkable rate. Led by continual innovations in the use and application of LED, increasingly sophisticated digital consoles and lighting designers (LDs) are demonstrating an insatiable desire to find new and remarkable uses for the technology.
Arguably the dominant company in the lighting sector, Production Resource Group (PRG) merged with VER in August, with the combined operation now working from 70 locations across
Clients include Beyonce & Jay-Z and U2. It has been working on all the band’s tours since 1992.
For U2’s eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE Tour, PRG was asked to create a transparent LED wall that worked with augmented reality (AR) content. The result was the Pure 10 system, which sees strips of LED lights hung like a venetian blind, enabling the band members to perform between the LED strips while providing the ability to integrate AR into the show.
The company’s UK festival clients this year included Download (cap. 85,000), Isle of Wight (45,000), Wireless (49,000) and Bestival (35,000).
“Technology is getting better and better hence our investment in Mini LED,” says PRG marketing manager Peter Kerwood.
In June PRG became the first company to offer cut 1.5mm COB Mini LED screens for rental.
It has been one of the many companies involved in the #SaveStageLighting campaign against the European Union (EU) proposed Ecodesign directive, which aims to regulate stage lighting under the same environmental rules that regulate domestic use.
Many within the lighting supply and design industry have argued that the regulations, due to come into force in 2020, would cause major financial stress and are not achievable. The new rules would make it illegal to supply new lighting fixtures and lamps that do not meet the new EU energy standards, including a minimum 85lm/W efficiency and a maximum 0.5W standby power consumption.
“This directive on theatrical lighting will not only leave theatres in the dark but also every music venue, arena, music festival and touring concert production across Europe,” he said.
In June, the European Parliament voted in favour of an amendment to the directive and it appears an exemption for the entertainment sector could well be achieved.
Lighting the way
Along with tours by the Hollywood Vampires, Marilyn Manson, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Australian Pink Floyd Show, Bootleg Beatles and Barenaked Ladies, Entec has this year supplied lighting packages for festival runs by Billy Idol, Florence + The Machine, Alice In Chains, Incubus and Deftones.
“This summer, in particular, has been one of the busiest we have encountered in many years,” says Entec assistant head of lighting Adam Stevenson.
He says LED technology has resulted in smaller truck packs, less weight and reduced power consumption, so it’s little wonder why LED is so popular. Entec has found that while traditional lighting has a place in the market, demand is diminishing.
“For Alice in Chains festival dates this year, the floor package we supplied features four revolving pods that each contain 48 PAR 64s, all run on four Avolites Art 48-way dimmers on single channels, so they’re using a total of 192 conventionals,” says Stevenson.
“However, these pods each have LEDs on the reverse side, allowing the designer to bridge the gap between a modern feel and a retro tungsten look,” he says.
Headquartered in Southampton, GLS Lighting has grown considerably since it launched in 1995. Three years ago it became part of the Blackburn-based HSL group.
“There is always a demand for the latest tech and this year is no exception,” says GLS MD Ian Turner. “For us, this year has been all about GLP JDC1 and Robe Mega Pointe.”
He believes that while LED technology has made a huge impact on the market, the wholesale replacement of traditional lighting has not yet arrived.
“It will be a long time before we no longer need anything traditional. We still need more power in LED fixtures, for example we need to see viable replacements for fixtures like 400W MBI fittings at a similar price to those they replace,” he says. “LED fixtures have come of age, but that age is probably still only adolescence and we need to get to adulthood.”
Ryan Hopkins and Mike Oates founded Lights Control Rigging (LCR) with a warehouse near Blackburn in February last year. The company pitches itself as a solution provider rather than simply a lighting rental business.
LCR was launched on the back of the duo securing the current Ed Sheeran tour, which is now in North America. Hopkins says it is the company’s hands-on, creative, approach to its work that has seen the business take off.
“We started with three employees and now have a dozen,” says Hopkins. “We are now looking for bigger premises, we never imagined how well received we would be. We are reaching targets in our second year that we thought we would reach five years down the line.”
LCR’s biggest package is out with Ed Sheeran but the company has also worked on festivals and with Rita Ora, Two Door Cinema Club and Little Mix.
Hopkins says that there are many advantages to LED technology, not least for rental companies.
“From a maintenance standpoint, the benefits are huge, you don’t have to replace the lamps every 850 hours because LED will work from upward of 25,000 hours.”
Meanwhile, there are companies developing specific, “Intelligent”, tungsten fixtures that are proving hugely popular, such as Portman with its P1, P2 and P3 retro-style products.
“It is all about the look of the light,” says Hopkins. “Rather than the light just being something you illuminate something with it is more of a set piece. When you dim tungsten fixtures right down, at the end you get a warm orange glow and there are not many LED fixtures that can replicate that.”
Working nationally and internationally, Peterborough-based Pearce Hire is another lighting supplier to have had an active summer season.
Among their projects is the Forestry Commission’s Forest Live series of 21 concerts across seven forest sites throughout the UK. This year the headliners included Kasabian, George Ezra, Paloma Faith, The Script and Gary Barlow.
As a result of increased demand, Pearce recently invested in Vari-Lite VL2600 Profile moving lights.
“They use an LED source and some stunning optics to replace older discharge lamp fixtures,” says Pearce Hire managing director Jim Brown.
He says that the main aim is to find the most efficient and environmentally sound way of producing lighting designers’ desired effect and in many cases that ends up being an LED fixture.
“As technology moves on and costs come down we can introduce more varieties of LED fixture-washes, beams and pixels, there’s so much scope now,” says Brown.
However, he agrees that LED technology has not yet evolved sufficiently to replace all existing lights, and with many thousands of tungsten fixtures currently in service, it will be a long time before traditional lighting bows out.
London-based lighting and screen rental company Colour Sound Experiment is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and supplies around 50 festivals each year.
Among its longest standing clients is Festival Republic, which runs festivals such as Reading (90,000) and Leeds (80,000), and touring band Underworld, which it has worked with for 25 years.
CSE founder and MD Haydn Cruickshank says that it is about time a new lighting technology emerged and shook up the business.
“We’ve kept buying the latest kit but I’m keen to see a significant new technology, we haven’t had anything groundbreaking for a while,” says Cruickshank. “When I started, intelligent lights were new and exciting, then 10 years ago LED screens appeared. It’s the new tech that gets us and our clients inspired and excited.”
While he is very much enthused by cutting-edge technology, Cruickshank says traditional tungsten lighting remains vitally important and could even be having a resurgence.
“I imagine we’ll start to see some better dimmable LED replicas of traditional lamps over the coming year or two,” he says. “Although good LED dimmer curve technology exists, it is currently exclusive to the premium products, hopefully it will find its way into a wider range of fixtures. There is definitely still work to do on the LED colour range.”
Based in North London, Neg Earth Lights has supplied the concert market for more than three decades and MD Dave Ridgway, says one of the biggest changes in recent years has been the requirement to respond to shortened deadlines and increasingly complex lighting designs.
“There is more pressure for artistes to tour profitably, the lighting designers are under pressure to deliver an experience worthy of the ticket price and that will keep music fans coming back to live shows” he says.
Among the latest technology Ridgway is enthusiastic about is the new GrandMa 3 stage lighting console released this year.
“Ground control, or automated control, follow-spots systems are also making a real difference, they provide a safer option and have more features available than a standard followspot,” says Ridgway.
Founded by Martin Hawthorn in 1987, Hawthorn has grown into one of the UK’s leading lighting supply businesses, with bases in Leicestershire, London and Cambridge, and creative technical production and hire teams at each site.
Among recent projects was supplying lighting, video, draping and rigging equipment to Steven Wilson’s UK and European dates on his To The Bone Tour.
Head of concert touring Mick Freer says it provided a compact but versatile touring lighting package featuring LP JDC1 Strobes, Clay Paky Sharpy Wash, SGM P5 LED Wash, Martin MAC Viper Profile and Performance fixtures.
Hawthorn also helped meet the production’s demand for a holographic projection.
“To create the unique effect, we supplied a 20K Panasonic laser projector which was used alongside a 3DHolonet supplied by hologram specialist Hologramica,” says Freer. “By projecting onto the highly transparent scrim and carefully lighting behind it, the 3DHolonet becomes invisible with the projected images seeming to exist in free space.”
Freer says that one of the biggest challenges the company faces is meeting the clients’ expectations within budget. In order to do so it often works with clients from the start of a project in order to create designs that make the best use of equipment while working within the financial constraints.
Entec’s Stevenson agrees that balancing expectations and budgets is one of the hardest aspects of the job.
“There is always a Plan B, C or D,” he says. “Unless a budget is nowhere near matching the LD’s creative expectations, we will happily rise to the challenge of finding a solution that will deliver the optimum impact for a client.”