Originally published on Forbes.com.
Sunday night Madonna received a Billboard Music Award for the Top Touring Artist of 2012. Her MDNA tour, which brought in $305 million, was a musical and visual extravaganza. Madonna performed with 140,000 pounds of gear suspended above her head. She danced on 42-square-inch squares undulating up and down, reaching eight feet above the stage. What’s more, at each of the 88 stops of the tour, the stage had been built in a few short hours by a local crew who has never seen it (or the traveling roadies) before. Rock concerts descend upon a host site and then quickly disappear. The only certainty is that of unforeseen obstacles. How do they get the show to go on every night, no matter what?
The people who know the answer to that question work for TAIT, the company behind Madonna’s stage set. TAIT has built the sets for all ten highest grossing tours of all time, including for Roger Waters, The Rolling Stones, and U2. TAIT has developed expertise in designing complex stage sets that can be safely, quickly, and cost effectively put together and taken apart.
I recently spoke with the project manager who worked on the MDNA tour, James Erwin, about how the MDNA stage was designed to deliver consistent performance despite vastly differing circumstances on each of the tour’s stops.
TAIT prepares for worst-case scenarios. In that sense, it is a high-reliability organization, like an aircraft carrier or nuclear power plant. Research on organizations in dangerous industries shows that worrying about the worst thing that can happen is healthy. When you’re paranoid about failure, you pick up on close calls and learn. You see near misses as opportunities to understand the system better.
The MDNA stage was made up of 36 lifts with LED displays on three of the sides and also on the top. “They’re a really beautiful machine,” Erwin proudly says, “but every precaution must be taken, with dozens of performers moving through an ever-changing forest of heavy machinery. The lift matrix’s most potentially harmful hazards are the 146 discrete shear edges where the lift decks pass one another.” Traditionally, a lift like this would have a bump strip on the underside of the edge that would electrically stop motion on the lift in time to not injure a foot that got under it. “We decided that wasn’t good enough for something that Madonna and all of her entourage were going to be dancing on,” said Erwin, “So we just made the top surface of the lift removable. If the surface would land on your foot, it would just pop right off. It’s made of 3/8 inch polycarbonate and it only weighs about 20 pounds. I stuck my hand down there to demonstrate for the safety inspector in Tel Aviv that it is not possible for it to be dangerous in the course of its normal operation.”
A problem with the undulating lifts system was that if one of the lifts became stuck in the raised position, the show would come to a complete stop. “It’s like trying to get fixed fishing lines to cast perfectly every time for a year,” Erwin says. “They get rained on and they get banged around in terrible trucks. But they have to be reliable to a bombproof level to keep from downing a show because there is no opportunity to repair them.” If one of the lifts were to fail in the middle of a show, Erwin estimates that the cost to the tour promoter would exceed the entire fee paid to TAIT to work on the project. To prevent these failures during a show, the lifts are tested beforehand. If at any point the lift is an eighth of an inch off from where it is supposed to be, it stops so that whatever caused the problem can be removed.
Another challenge was that Madonna is such a reliable performer, she creates her own tripping hazard. “She hit the same four-by-four inch square of the stage with her heel every time,” said Erwin. “She is extremely consistent.” So the stage was built from scratch-proof high-capacity phenolis laminate that was designed to reciprocate her level of consistency.
Choreographing the Dance of Stage Construction
In addition to safety and reliability, cost was a major factor designing the MDNA stage set. Two of the biggest expenses for a tour are transportation costs and local labor costs. In fact, the local workers who put together the stage cost more than the rent on the venue.
This is why TAIT designs sets by thinking about the choreography of how the stage will be put together. The goal is to do it as fast as possible, with as few people as possible, and using, at most, one tool. TAIT stages are composed of lines of magnets built into corners that lock together quickly with a single tool. In contrast, most stages are built from platforms that are framed with wooden 2X4s that somebody has to screw together manually with a handful of drywall screws. “By providing scenery that bangs up very quickly we reduce the need for local labor in a given city. You need fewer guys, you need them for less time and that’s a huge cost savings for a tour right off the bat.” Shortening set up time also means that the crew gets more sleep, which also improves safety.
Learning from the Front Line
In high-reliability organizations, the people with the most valuable expertise are often the front line workers, in this case the roadies who travel with the show. TAIT works with the roadies by having them come into the shop to provide input into stage construction and packaging. “Spending that much time with the end user is an excellent master class for us. They point out things that we might not think of,” said Erwin. Likewise, the TAIT guys come to rehearsals and the first few performances to help the crew troubleshoot and gain mastery of the system.
Madonna put on the same spectacular show every night, no matter what surprises and setbacks came along the way. “We’re all very proud of what we achieved on that tour,” Jake Berry, the production manager on the MDNA tour, told me, “And she came home in one piece!”