The second half of March was a nonstop whirlwind. His voice mail and inbox were flooded. There were messages from Pollstar, Billboard, and network TV, all seeking details about the Dropkick Murphys St. Patrick Day show that was livestreamed from Studio Lab; his recently opened facility designed for creators.
Over 10 million people watched that show, making it one of the most viewed livestream concerts of all time. Was this program a harbinger of things to come in the concert industry? We ask Messina this and a host of other questions when we interviewed the owner of Events United and Studio Lab for the cover story of our “special edition” April Lighting Insights.
At the time neither of us were quite certain what lay ahead. Would this crisis last a few weeks, or would it be wiser to measure it in months, or even years? As 2020 draws to a close, we decided to catch up with Messina to get his take on how events have unfolded since our last interview.
There have been challenges and difficult, painful decisions to be sure, but since this summer his businesses have been self-sustaining. We found that encouraging, but even more inspiring is an attitude that remains as determined today as it was back in March.
It’s been about nine months since you did the livestream for Dropkick Murphys St. Patrick’s Day show. That was a seminal moment in a lot of ways, since it signaled that things were going to be different for a while. Did you think then that we’d still be in the same basic situation nine months later?
“At first I was hoping that this would be a two to three-month shutdown. I had feeling that it would most likely last longer, but I was still hopeful. Everything was moving so fast back in March. We typically produce around 300 events a year and at that time five to eight events were cancelling every day, before long (like the rest of our industry) we had lost 90% of our work.
How did the Dropkick Murphys show come about?
“Originally we were providing the audio system for the Dropkick’s upcoming St. Patrick’s Day tour in conjunction with our friend’s at Ultrasound. Two weeks before their tour we had decided to turn our sister company Studio Lab into a virtual event venue to try and salvage some of the events we had lost.”
“As we were building out these studios the DKM team decided to pull the plug on their live tour, but asked if they could do a livestream from our new studio setup. I loved the idea and it was in the middle of that stream that I witnessed the hugely positive impact on those watching at home. This made me realize that we had something that could work during the shutdown. Over ten million people watched that stream. To this day we still get comments that the Dropkick Murphys production brought joy and hope to their home during a very uncertain and dark time.”
If you had to sum it up in a few words, how would you describe your impression of the months that have passed since that Dropkick Murphys livestream?
“A whirlwind! Immediately after the Dropkick Murphy’s performance everything became chaotic. We had so much press coming at us from all over world including Billboard Magazine, Pollstar, US, European, and Asian publications, etc. Everyone was asking us if this is the future of live events. All I could think was ‘I hope not!’ As cool as doing all of these events are, there is nothing that will replace in person live entertainment. In my opinion, when the talent, production crew, and audience are not sharing the same air space the experience from all parties is extremely lacking.”
What impact did the DKM livestream have on your business?
“We got a lot of press but we still had no confirmed work after that show. However, around that time, I had gotten an email from Sharron McCarthy of Girls Inc. who had told me her upcoming fundraising Gala in April was cancelled and wanted to explore a virtual option. It was from emails like this that I realized organizations still needed to do their events in some fashion, otherwise they would have no revenue to operate. I knew these events were absolutely necessary and I knew we had a safe solution for them. It was pricing these events that became very challenging, we were creating a new kind of event industry.”
So how did you figure out pricing?
“It’s been a challenge. We essentially had to figure out a pricing structure without any competitive or market data. At first we thought we just had to get through a couple of months and we wanted to help out organizations that had to cancel their events. We wanted to do it affordably knowing that the event organizers would have most of their cash flow. They could not sell tickets and would most likely have a smaller audience if the event went virtual.
“At first we planned to charge labor only to help everyone out but we didn’t realize how many people it was going to take to run a virtual event professionally. You would think we should have known since we produce events for a living, but it was definitely an oversight on my part.
“Most virtual events require at least 12 people to operate. We need a producer, stage manager, technical director, 2-8 camera operators, 1-2 audio engineers, lighting engineer, and two or three playback operators. Once we finally determined how many people it took to run these virtual events, the state of New Hampshire put a 10-person cap on any gathering. This meant we had to redesign our building infrastructure and layout. If there was a six-person band in the studio that meant I could only have 4 people in the studio with them. Those ended up being camera operators and the producer.
“In June we finally realized virtual events were not going away anytime soon and our current pricing model was not generating enough revenue to keep us afloat. We had numerous discussions about raising our rates to a sustainable and fair level so we can survive this time. As of September, we are finally meeting the breakeven point. When trying to determine rates in a new market you have to consider the quality of the service you offer and the demand for that service. It’s not an easy thing to determine which is why it has changed numerous times this year.”
Throughout all this trial-and-error you’re remained positive. How do you do that?
“I don’t spend much time watching the news or on social media and I choose to have all notifications except for texts turned off on my phone and computer. Because of this, I don’t get bogged down by media platforms or get distracted from notifications, this gives me time to think and innovate.
We all have the ability to come up with solutions and get ourselves out of an unfortunate situation. Yes, there will be hard, painful, and devastating decisions that we have to make but there are still positives in all situations. It was extremely emotional and difficult to lay off amazing members of our team but I had to look at the bigger picture. If we all want to have this job in the future than I have to keep Events United and not run out of cash. If the company goes under, none of us will have a future job. So hard decisions were made but those decisions were based off of planning a positive future for all of us.”
In our interview back in April you said that “some of the things being done in crisis mode will become standard.” Do you feel that way more or less strongly today?
“When I said that, it was more hypothetical. In our case, it was dead on. The months of work that we have poured into making virtual events interactive, professional, and entertaining will not be going away even when we get back to in-person events. Virtual events are not for everyone long term, many of them will go back to regular events, many of them will become hybrid events, and some of them will remain virtual. There are certain perks to virtual events that make them appealing to some clients. Typically, there are no food, venue, transportation, or hotel expenses which make them more attractive. But even with our clients that want to go back to regular events, the technology that we have developed during this time will be integrated into live in-person events.”
Which things will become standard?
“I wouldn’t necessarily say ‘standard’ but rather become more common. Streaming capabilities, adding in remote talent to live events, interacting with the virtual and live audience simultaneously, lighting for a mix of video and stage, adding in cutting edge virtual production technology including XR, VR, and AR. We can also now host simultaneous events in multiple physical locations around the country and integrate those live events together in real time.
During this period, you also made a serious investment in a curved video wall. Why did you take that chance now?
“Ah yes, that was possibly the riskiest decision I have ever made, yet it was the decision that has given us the ability to stay in business. I chose to do this in May when we were only bringing in about 20% of what we needed to break even. There were numerous factors that played into that decision. I knew that whatever we were going to do going forward would require video wall, whether it was drive-ins or virtual events. One of the driving factors was we were designing a massive outdoor drive-in venue with our friends from United Staging & Rigging and Port Lighting Systems that would be built at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in Manchester, NH.
“The parking lot has around 2,000 parking spaces however we could only fit 400 vehicles once we added a spot for people to sit outside their vehicle, added enough travel lanes, bathrooms, stage, backstage area, food stations, security, first aid, artist tents, and everything had to be socially distanced. With 400 vehicles it put the last row of cars over 800ft from the stage. To put that in perspective, even the largest shows rarely have audience members more than 400ft from the stage. Because of the massive scope of this venue we needed about 800 panels of video wall for people to see from the back rows, and at the time we only owned 120.
“We had no cash coming in, so we certainly couldn’t purchase any more video wall. While we were designing the venue, we were also refinancing our building to take advantage of a significantly better interest rate. We decided that instead of lowering our monthly mortgage payment with the new interest rate, we would take the capital from the interest savings, and use that capital to buy as much video wall as we could without changing our monthly mortgage payment. So essentially we added the equivalent of 512 tiles to our inventory without ever paying any cash out of pocket and having no change to our monthly mortgage payment. I say equivalent because we purchased 128 F4IP outdoor tiles and 128 indoor tiles which are twice the size as standard 500mm x 500mm tiles.
Why didn’t you buy all outdoor panels?
“Our airport plans were approved from all fronts: the state, the town, the airport, even the FAA. But in the end I pulled the plug. There was no way to create positive cash flow from this drive-in without asking everyone involved to work for almost nothing. We were building a stage that would typically be built for 60,000 people and we could only fit 400 cars, there was no way to make the numbers work.
So, we bought enough video wall to do smaller drive-in events and enough to build a virtual production studio. This purchase has not only allowed us to meet the demand for outdoor events but also allowed us to bring cutting edge virtual production technology to New Hampshire, which now opens the doors for us to introduce the film industry to our state because the future of film production is in virtual production.”
What would you say are the biggest lessons you learned about streaming based on your 2020 experience?
Live events don’t always translate well to streaming events. Many live events are about networking or an experience which has to happen in-person to be successful. It’s incredibly easy for any viewer to click away from a stream if they are bored. I’ve had honest conversations with some clients that doing a virtual event probably won’t receive their intended results and they either need to rethink the purpose of the event or hold off until live events return. It doesn’t make sense to have an event just for the sake of having an event. There needs to be a purpose behind it or you will lose your audience in the first few minutes of the stream.”
One livestream format that seems to have worked quite well for you is the charity fundraiser. How much have you raised for these groups? Why are these livestreams so successful?
“The virtual events we’ve hosted since March have collectively raised over $2,000,000. It’s hard to pinpoint why they have been so successful. It could be that attendees feel compelled to help these organizations during this time. It could be because the reach is wider than only inviting select people to an in-person event. It could be because people have easier access to things like Apple Pay, stored credit card info on their computer/device, or simply because they are sitting in front of the computer and we have grown accustomed to easily paying online.”
Have you had to retrain yourself and your team to do livestreams? Have you added new members to your team since the lockdown began?
“We had already been streaming many live events, we had the hardware and expertise in place already. We have just gotten much better at it this year. We have not yet added new members to our team. However, we are now looking for one or two creatives that have skills in 3D animation and graphic design.
This year has also given our staff an opportunity to take on new roles and put a lot of time into their craft. Chase Clark is our production and rentals manager, during this time he has become an incredible producer for a significant number of our virtual events. Lauren Thomason, our director of marketing, has been spending time learning to operate video cameras and video wall, while at the same time using her amazing photography skills to capture all of our events. Ian Messina, my nephew, is a cinematographer and is now heading up the creative virtual production workflow for film using our video wall and XR equipment. Our team has spent time honing in their skills and finding better solutions for all of us to work stronger as a unit. It’s incredible what our team can do together, I’m incredibly proud of what they have accomplished.”
Are you using lighting and video differently in livestreams than you would in a live event?
“In some instances. It’s easier to light for video only rather than light an event which can require lighting for a live audience and the camera. We just spend more time to make sure everything is dialed in for video only. One big difference is that Ryan Lane and Martin Lyons, two of our lighting designers, now operate the lighting console in a completely separate room than the studio. This way they can only light for what they see on the screen and not be influenced by what looks right in person.
Setting questions of lighting, audio and technology aside, what has your experience in 2020 taught you about running a business?
“That your rainy-day fund is never big enough. I remember when we had to sit our team down in March and tell them that we only have enough cash to get us by for two months and after that I didn’t know what we would do. In that moment I felt so responsible for their livelihoods and their families that it was breaking my heart to consider the possibility that I could be putting their families in jeopardy when they have worked so hard to make this company work. Maybe this is why I had so much drive to make something work and remain positive.
If we could magically fast forward in time and to a period when the pandemic was completely behind us, what percent of your business do you think would be accounted for by livestreams?
“I think about 20% of our virtual clients will remain fully virtual, about 40% will be a hybrid, and about 40% will go back to the way they were. With that said I think our virtual production studio will remain extremely busy as we have built it for the event and film industries. We have many clients using our space to shoot commercials with our virtual production technology.”
Based on what you experienced in 2020, do you think you will ever look at things the same way?
“Oh absolutely! 2020 will be nothing but a blip in time to forget. The biggest take away for me in all of this is that people need to be together to thrive. Enough of this sitting on my couch alone and participating in another forsaken zoom call. Let’s do what we were meant to do and go grab a beer….together.”