An Interview With Patrick Dierson, The Music Industry’s Go-To Guy For Concert Tour Lighting

If you’ve been to an arena concert — let’s say for someone like Jay-Z or Lady Gaga — within the past couple of years, or maybe just watched the MTV Music Video Awards, it’s likely that you’ve seen Patrick Dierson’s work. He’s one of the music industry’s highest profile names in the lighting industry, and as a director and/or designer, he’s created elaborate productions for everything from Kanye to U2.

We had a chance to speak to Dierson after he returned from working on Drake’s Club Paradise tour, and we asked him about working with the talent, whether certain venues are better for lighting than others, and if there are certain artists guys in the industry hate working for (there are).

What exactly does a lighting director do?

It’s got many different facets. You start with being the lighting designer, where you’re creating a concept of what the show should look like. And then you’re figuring out where the equipment needs to be, in the air, on the ground, that kind of stuff. And then the architectural drawings where those things should lie around the stage. From there, you progress to the physical build, where you have a crew supporting how that all happens, and from that you move onto the technical rehearsal process, where you’re then creating the light show. In the case of a concert tour, you’re creating all the different lighting cues within each of the songs and getting ready for playback. And then at long last, you come to the actual performance itself, where sometimes the lighting director is running the lighting console, making sure everything’s running correctly, as well as calling all the spot cues. Mixed up into all of that is the sort-of non-technical element of dealing with celebrities in their dressing rooms, in their homes, wherever, going over their desires to create something ethereal on-stage. In many cases, you’re coaching them along, advising them as they’re coming up with these ideas that may sometimes not be to their best interest. Of course you’re always trying to make sure you’re pleasing the client, but you’re also looking out to make sure what is happening is appropriate, which inevitably leads to the coaching to make sure they’re comfortable onstage. You end up being a bit of a psychiatrist.

How often does the talent come to you with an idea, versus you coming up with everything?

I’d say about 99% of the time they have an idea. What they’re creating has an image to it, and they’ve got an emotion, something thematic that they’re trying to put on that stage. They don’t know how to do that because it’s technicians who make all that stuff happen, and it’s your job to do that. More often than not, you’re the one that is assisting them to bring that idea to life. As the music industry has progressed, artists have gotten much more savvy and understand the elements that help convey the story they’re trying to tell on-stage.

In the case of someone on the level of a Drake or Jay-Z, someone who’s playing these massive arenas, how long is the process from when the idea comes to fruition to the first date of the tour?

Oh my God. *Laughs* It’s so wildly different. In an ideal situation, you’ve got a couple of months to prepare. It really depends on the scale of the project. You’ve got these artists who are gearing up for a major concert tour, and they’re putting tickets on sale sometimes months in advance. There’s no real surprise, you know they’re going to go on tour. Whether or not the concepts that you’ve done have been accepted by the artists and their management, you know that something is going to happen. So you start preparing for the scenarios that will inevitably happen, you start preparing for the vendors to be ready, even if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing yet. On top of that, you also have artists occasionally doing a one-off show, like festival performances or award show appearances. In those instances, things run a lot quicker. Getting the approval to move forward with things to figure out how much money needs to be allocated to that performance tends to not be in the pipeline until very close to that project. On a concert tour, you may luck out and have two months beforehand, whereas on a one-off festival, you may not know until the week before it.

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Do you travel with the tour the entire time, or are you working with other clients as the tour is happening?

I’m working with the clients as it happens. There are several different kinds of lighting designers within the business. There’s a fairly clear definition between the lighting designer role and the lighting director role, though very often you’re the same person. For the Drake tour, for instance, I am the lightning designer, and there’s a gentlemen by the name of Guy Pavelo, he’s the lighting director. Guy is the one who’s on the tour, handling how the show gets set up each day and making sure all the robotic lighting is focused, that things are pointing in the right spot, that kind of stuff. As a lighting designer, I am working with Drake himself, with our creative director Willo Perron, making sure that the overall concept is executed. We all then spend a week, two weeks actually creating what the show is going to look like. And then it goes out on the road, and Guy is in charge of maintaining the integrity of that design throughout the course of the tour. With Jay-Z, he’s actually one of the few clients where I design it and take it out on the road and become a lighting director on a day-to-day basis.

Are there concepts that you’re particularly proud of?

It’s always the last one that was your coolest and biggest one, and in this case, Drake’s Club Paradise tour was a particular achievement because we created a touring set that had multiple genres of technical gear. There were video elements, lighting elements, all created into a structure that could be expanded and contracted within various venue sizes. It became this sort of living space.

Could you name some of the other musical clients you’ve worked with?

Over the years, I’ve been very fortunate to have worked not just as a lighting designer and director, but also as a lighting programmer, which means I would run the lighting console during a lot of these rehearsals to help designers put the show together. From that standpoint, I’ve worked with Shakira, the Rolling Stones, R. Kelly, Jay-Z, U2, Bon Jovi, Kanye West, and all sorts of various television performances, like the MTV Video Music Awards and the Grammys.

Are there artists in the lighting industry that people like to work for more than others?

Yeah, definitely. There are legendary stories of different crews getting into arguments and sometimes fights over who was going to get to go on tour with somebody because they know the tour’s going to be particularly fun. Especially country acts. There are some country acts out there that people just go nuts over to work for. The guys are so down to earth that they treat the crew really well. It’s a lot of hard work, and these guys, the quote-unquote “roadies,” it’s a very tough life physically. You’re up at 7 a.m., push big heavy pieces of metal around a room into an arena, you work all day long, you get everything set up. At some point during the afternoon, they open the doors to the arena to let people in, you get ready to do the show, you continue to do the show for three, four hours, and then you start breaking it all down and somewhere around 1-2 a.m., you think about possibly putting your head down in this submarine bunk of a tour bus to nap for a couple of hours before you do it all over again in a city 200 miles away. You repeat that, over and over and over again. And when you have an artist who appreciates you doing all that, it’s a really special thing. There’s also the flipside, where some artists you have people just shake their head over and go, “Oh my God, there is no way I’m going on tour with them because that is going to be an absolutely miserable experience.”

How many people tend to be on the crew for a massive tour?

It varies. On a large-scale crew, you’ve got an average of 30-50 people that are on the day-to-day operations. Sometimes for a massive worldwide stadium tour, you can have upwards of 200 people. It can be pretty intense.

Is there a major difference in difficulties in an outdoor show compared to one that’s indoors?

There isn’t actually. What changes is more the scale of it. The biggest factor of an outdoor show is obviously the weather. But the fact that you’re doing something in a stadium or outdoors means the number of attendees is going to be much larger than at a normal arena. You’re trying to create a certain level of intimacy with the artist for all those people. So your equipment choices tend to be slightly different, as in higher powered lights and a higher quantity of video screens that may extend further back to help people in the cheap seats, so to speak, help see the stage better.

Earlier, we talked about artists people in the industry do and don’t like to work for. Is the same thing true of venues?

God yes. Every venue brings its own specific group of challenges, and you have basic perimeters that you have to work within at every one. For instance, one of the most basic things you deal with on a large concert tour is trying not to, what they call, “breaking the dasher line.” When you’re putting a concert tour on, you’re usually basing the width of the stage on the width of a hockey rink, because nearly every arena in the United States doubles as a hockey rink now. When you go past the hockey dasher boards or past the width of the rink, you’re breaking the dasher line. What that ends up doing is that it usually pushes you into the seats. For the average person, you think, “Oh, that doesn’t sound like a big deal,” when you’re laying out big, long sticks of lighting trusses and scenic trusses and the support structure that’s going to hold everything that’s on the stage, you have to have labor technicians stand in the seats trying to put stuff together, while there are people on the floor putting stuff together, and it becomes difficult to do. Each venue will pose a new challenge in that regard, and you just have to deal with some venues ultimately become world renown particularly easy or difficult to work with.

Do you put media photographers into consideration when you’re designing the light show?

Personally, I do. Not everybody does. I’ve always followed the main rule of thumb when it comes to lighting: light the money first. Meaning whatever artist is on that stage, I’m going to do this big, cool light show, and it’s going to have special effects and video effects and maybe lasers and maybe pyrotechnics and all this other stuff, but before any of that can happen, you have to figure out the angle, the color, and the position of the follow spots where the performer is lit appropriately. They have to be lit in the fashion that’s going to tell the story of something iconic in a close-up shot.

What’s your next project?

I have to say I’m not at liberty to say. *Laughs*

/hopes it’s a Kanye tour