MSG Ventures CEO David Dibble Talks 'Re-Writing the Rule Book' With the Next Generation Sphere Venue

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Courtesy of MSG
MSG Sphere London 

First unveiled to music industry executives at Radio City Music Hall on Feb. 8, the Madison Square Garden Company says its new venue concept, MSG Sphere, will “redefine live entertainment” through its use of cutting-edge technology and striking design. To date, two locations for MSG Spheres have been announced: one in Las Vegas and one in London, the latter of which will become MSG’s first location outside of the United States.

Speaking to Billboard following a presentation in London, David Dibble, CEO of MSG Ventures -- the New York company’s new technology-focused subsidiary -- outlined the company’s vision for the future, as well how the Sphere will grow the overall live market. “Artists will be able to connect with audiences in ways that have never been done before,” he promises.

Billboard: Where did the idea behind the Sphere venue concept originate?

David Dibble: [MSG executive chairman/CEO] Jim Dolan and I were in his office late one night in the summer of 2016 talking about the state of the live entertainment industry. During the course of that conversation, he said, "Do you know what Dibble? This is an industry that is ripe for reinvention." The model hasn’t fundamentally changed in a long, long time in two very important respects. Firstly, the model around how audiences engage with the artist. Secondly, how the artist engages with the audience. And in that conversation, Jim said, "Let’s have a building that’s iconic, and let's have more than one." On a piece of paper, he drew a circle, put a human being in the middle of it and said, "Let’s have a series of building shaped like this and call them Spheres." That’s literally how it started. I [still have] the piece of paper on the pad it was written on.

Why opt for a spherical design, as opposed to the more traditional rectangular concert venue shape?

The new type of experiences that we aim to offer are what Jim refers to as "immersive experiences." The goal of an immersive experience is to let an audience feel that they are transported to a different place -- not sitting in a seat in a venue. Using content that we will help them create, artists will be able to connect with audiences in ways that people have [previously] considered impossible. [Right at the start] Jim happened to draw a circle on a piece of paper, but when we looked into what forms best lend themselves to immersive experiences, it is in fact a spherical form. It’s the optimum means to deliver these types of immersive experiences where content starts on the performance stage, comes up and over and literally wraps around the audience. That was serendipitous. Jim wanted a spherical venue shape and it just turned out that carrying that into the performance area was like peanut butter and jelly. The perfect match.

The design and scale of the project must bring many engineering, design and technological challenges?

The short answer is, oh yeah. There are many challenges, from structural engineering to architectural, but having said that the world has been building spheres for a long time. You’ve got the Montreal Biosphere. [Ericsson Globe in] Stockholm. But the scale of this sphere and its ability as a music venue has never been done before. We have gone through more than our fair share of professionals where we describe the vision and they say, "Oh, that’s fantastic. I don’t see how that can be done." But persistence pays off and we have a structural engineering approach that we know enables us to build it in the form and the scale that we want. We’re not so much breaking rules, but we’re re-writing the rule book somewhat.

What kind of content is best suited to a venue of this type?

The fancy word for that is modality. Obviously, the big music acts up on stage engaging with audiences, but also different types of storytelling. There can be stories around science and nature. Corporate events. Imagine a product launch in one of these things. Imagine Neil deGrasse Tyson onstage exploring the origins of the universe and cloud nebula. Imagine different uses of our acoustic system to take audiences to places that they have never been before. Even the most sophisticated use of visual content right now is presented on a rectangular flat surface and there’s nothing rectangular or flat about anything we’re doing inside the Sphere. It’s about 15,000 square meters of display plane and it wraps the audience. If you couple that with the audio tech that we’re deploying in partnership with a state-of-the-art acoustic company called Holoplot in Berlin, it’s going to be staggering. I like to refer to it as virtual reality, but without the goggles.

AEG already voiced concerns over the MSG Sphere London’s close proximity to its own The O2 arena. What impact do you think these venues will have on the live market as a whole?

Any time someone with the breadth of reach of the Madison Square Garden Company comes into an industry that frankly hasn’t changed very much over the last few decades and puts something on the table like the MSG Sphere, not as a theoretical or aspirational thing, but [something] we are building -- if I was on the other end of that I’d be concerned. But the feedback from the artist and creative community has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve seen several times that bringing in a state-of-the-art, large-scale venue can actually lift the entire market. It creates more dates for artists and more choices for fans. We saw that firsthand in L.A. with The Forum.

Where do you see the Spheres sitting within MSG’s portfolio of venues?

I think they add [to it]. It’s another iconic structure in a remarkable legacy of the history of the Madison Square Garden Company. On Feb. 8 we announced the MSG Sphere for the first time at Radio City Music Hall in New York. In 1936 when Radio City Music Hall opened it was touted as the world’s most advanced entertainment venue -- and, by the way, it's still going strong. So, it was fitting that we announced the Sphere there. We don’t view MSG Sphere in any location as taking the place of the remarkable Madison Square Garden, L.A. Forum or any other MSG location. It adds to them. Those locations are historic by themselves.