Saturday, August 15, 2009

U2’s $30 Million Stage — Extravagant or Practical?

The U2 360° tour is the only music tour I know of to have people protest the design of its stage. David Byrne, touring Europe at the same time, called the U2 staging “extravagant” and “overkill” even as he thanked the band for helping to keep his tour promoter in business. Protesters delayed the removal of the stage from a stadium in Dublin as they objected to the noise of the round-the-clock work of the concerts there, much of which involved trucking the stage in and out of the stadium. A few environmentalists have called the tour’s carbon footprint, much of which reflects the cost of transporting the staging, “massive” or “colossal.”

But some perspective is called for in this kind of discussion. If you’re going to question the cost of producing something, you have to balance that with the value of what’s being produced. When the subject is live entertainment, the value can be measured by the number of people being entertained. David Byrne criticizes “200 semi trucks crisscrossing Europe” (his own tour crew’s estimate) for the U2 tour, but the number of trucks required isn’t so much after you consider the number of people in attendance. U2 is playing to audiences around 50,000 along its tour. That could be around 1 truck per 250 audience members. That’s a ratio probably slightly better than that of Byrne’s own tour, based on what Byrne has written about the places he is visiting. Extravagant? It would seem more fair to call it proportionate.

You can apply the same sense of proportion to the estimated carbon footprint, which is said to be similar to the carbon usage of 10,000 people in an industrialized country. That sounds like a lot until you compare it to the crowd of 88,000 at Wembley, at which point it starts to look rather efficient. That is to say, the ultimate carbon usage might actually be less than if all those people had gone about their usual evening activities instead of going to the U2 concert.

Even the cost of building the stage, estimated at roughly $30 million, is not out of proportion when you look at the purpose behind the unusual design — to allow an unobstructed view of the performers for almost twice as many seats as a conventional tour stage. This increases the tour’s box office potential by more than $1 million per show. At this point, there is no telling how long the tour might go, but if the band’s last tour is any guide, the stage will pay for itself long before the tour is over — and that’s not even considering the possibility that the stage will still be good for something after the tour is over.