The New Las Vegas Music Market

How Aerosmith, Gaga & Robotic Chandeliers Are Elevating Live Music In Vegas

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Aerosmith perform during their Deuces Are Wild tour at the Park Theater in Las Vegas. Zack Whitford

Residencies are starting to outshine arena shows thanks to cutting-edge production

Steve Dixon, the producer of Aerosmith’s Las Vegas residency, Deuces Are Wild, had a vision for the band’s 50-show run at the Park Theater on the grounds of the MGM Park hotel: see the band like never before, hear the band like never before. The 5,200-seat theater is a fraction of the size of the arenas Aerosmith has played for over four decades. That assured the first half of his vision: The last row in the venue is a mere 145 feet from the stage, so there is literally not a bad seat in the house. But the sound — that was a different matter.

“I had already decided we were going to use surround sound,” says Dixon. So he went to MGM Resorts International to discuss an upgrade on a property that had undergone a $450 million renovation in 2016, just a few years before. “In their kind of corporate way, they were like, ‘Well, we’ve put in quite an investment,'" says Dixon. “I can be fairly convincing.” His pitch was simple: “You’ve built this big, giant building right in the middle of the Strip, and like everybody else, nobody thought about sound.” When MGM asked for time to have an internal meeting and discuss, Dixon asked for its immediate buy-in — and got it within hours.

“It has 1,000 more seats than the Colosseum [at Caesars Palace], and it’s newer and sexier than the one across the street, but sound is the next frontier,” he says of the Park Theater. “This sound system is a toolbox, and nobody has ever had this toolbox available to them.”

It’s a big toolbox: There are 230 speakers, installed by French manufacturer L-Acoustics, which allow 96 individual sounds to be moved through the space in 64 different directions. The sound can follow sight — when a performer moves to the far right, the audience will hear that as they see it. “It’s actually mixed to be fully surround sound, like you’re in a movie theater,” says Bobby Campbell, manager of Lady Gaga, who is also performing at the Park Theater with two different residencies that run in tandem, the vocal-focused Jazz & Piano and the more spectacle-oriented Enigma. And like movie theater surround sound, the Park Theater is THX-certified. “THX is the only company in the world that certifies the experience,” says Dixon. “The important part of THX was having them come in with their tools and guide the process.”

For Deuces Are Wild, Aerosmith has even incorporated high-end sound into its Onstage VIP THX Experience. Fans that pay $820 per ticket (plus $58 in fees) can watch the show from special bar areas located at both stage left and right. While fans enjoy once-in-a-lifetime proximity to the group, the sound quality from the stage is not great — the bandmembers rely on monitors to hear themselves play instead of the house sound system.

To help solve the sound problem, Aerosmith turned to Mike Einziger, Incubus guitarist and the co-founder of Mixhalo, a company he created with his wife, violinist Ann Marie Simpson-Einziger. Mixhalo is an app that captures audio from the soundboard and relies on its own low-latency network of one-way Wi-Fi routers to transmit that high-quality feed to a user’s phone and earphones. The ultra-fast network allows audio to be instantly mixed and played back in real time. The network that powers Mixhalo provides for “an infinite number of people to get onto the network because the devices are just listening and not communicating back, the same way cars on the street tune in to a radio station,” says Einziger, whose list of investors and advisers includes Rick Rubin, Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams.

Fans can use their own earbuds, but VIP ticket buyers receive a pair of THX-certified 1MORE Triple Driver in-ear headphones (which they keep), and via the Mixhalo app can hear the audio as it’s mixed at the soundboard, or hear a special mix created for frontman Steven Tyler’s in-ear monitors while he performs.

Surround sound, whether experienced through speakers or THX headphones, offers Aerosmith and Lady Gaga an avenue to create the sort of enhanced, enveloping experience that’s less common in the streaming age. “I’m a child of the ’60s and ’70s, and we used to buy albums,” says Amy Tinkhim, creative director for Deuces Are Wild. “You would stare at the album art and listen from the first track all the way through. You fell into it, you were immersed in it — but how do you do that in a show? This is a great theater for that. We’ve done it sonically, visually, and that’s a different experience than a tour."

Different, but in terms of production just as demanding. “We invested in it at the same level, if not more, as an arena show,” says Campbell of Gaga’s residencies. The Park Theater’s stage is outsized — 145 feet long and 40 feet deep — and Gaga takes full advantage of the space. “Our set is 30 feet too wide to fit in an arena,” says Campbell. “If at some point years down the line we want to tour Enigma, we’d have to build a new stage, because it actually wouldn’t fit. Productionwise, we have just as many people as we would on an arena tour in terms of the crew.”

Neither Campbell nor Dixon would divulge production costs for Gaga's and Aerosmith’s residencies, but as a means of comparison, a source well-acquainted with the price tag of touring says that buying the equipment needed for an arena tour — including a PA system, line arrays, monitors, cabinet speakers, subwoofers, a rigging system and lights — runs between $500,000 for a bare-bones setup to upwards of $6 million. To rent, say, $4 million worth of the same equipment for a 40-date, eight- to 15-week arena tour would cost $1.6 million to $3 million for the run. (Which is why acts that tour frequently tend to buy their own equipment and sell it when they outgrow it.)

Those numbers seem fairly minuscule when compared with the investment that Caesars Palace made to bring Céline Dion to Las Vegas for her first residency, A New Day, in 2003. AEG senior vp John Nelson was part of the Concerts West team that convinced the resort to build a $95 million, 4,000-plus-seat venue, the Colosseum, for the diva’s extended stay. The steep outlay turned out to be worth it. A New Day ran until 2007, and, in 2011, Dion returned to the Colosseum for Celine, which ended in 2019. The two productions respectively rank as the No. 1 and No. 2 highest-grossing Vegas residencies of all time — over $683 million combined. The former is also credited with sparking the residency trend that continues in Vegas to this day.

“There are all kinds of things you can do in a show that’s built in a permanent facility in Las Vegas that can’t travel,” says Nelson, such as the elaborate “rain curtain” effect that surrounded Dion during her performance of “My Heart Will Go On” for Celine.

Special effects and other production bells and whistles can cost big bucks, but Nelson explains that “the economics of a resident show in Vegas are such that these super-large production budgets can be amortized over a lot of performances over many years. For [Dion’s] first show, the investment in the production was really as much as the cost of building the theater itself,” he says. “It turned out to be a wise investment because people kept coming to the show for all those years. Touring shows just have different economics, because big productions are playing in much bigger buildings — 12,000 to 15,000 seats, rather than 2,000 to 4,000 in Vegas.”

Dixon says cost savings are not the right way to think of a Vegas residency. “The movie business has a saying: Spend the money where the audience sees it. We are no longer paying for planes and trucks. That’s usually a substantial number. Playing this environment allows us to redirect all that spending to the fan experience — put it on the stage where the audience gets to enjoy it. The best part of playing Vegas, for [Aerosmith], is quality of life. It allows them to put on a better show.”

The band's Deuces Are Wild show requires a load-in of 31 trucks worth of equipment, compared with the 15 Aerosmith used on a previous tour. “You still spend the money,” says Dixon. “If they’re in an arena, we’ve got to light 60 feet by 40 feet. Here, we’re lighting 145 by 40 feet — we have three times the lighting fixtures here than we do in an arena. That means it’s a bigger lighting bill.” An 82-foot-by-33-foot video screen towers above the band at the back of the stage, broadcasting the performance and flashing back to notable moments in the group's career on a nostalgic reel that plays before Aerosmith takes the stage. “We can’t even put a video screen or sit a screen that size in an arena — that screen is wider than an arena floor.” Arena tours are about efficiency. “Your stage and rigging and lighting systems are designed to be loaded in over a period of eight to 10 hours, soup to nuts,” says Dixon. Whereas Deuces Are Wild is about “beauty over function”: “We have 50 hours to load it in and 24 hours, rather than three hours, to get it out.”

Vegas productions aim to overdeliver in the dance space as well. “Is the DJ experience going to be comparable to a live music experience?” asks Richard Alexander, marketing director for Hakkasan Group, which operates its namesake club along with Wet Republic at the MGM Grand; the Jewel and Liquid at Aria; 1OAK at the Mirage; and OMNIA at Caesars Palace. “I think people assume 'no' until they see a show at OMNIA or Hakkasan or even at Wet Republic during the day. The experience is equal if not better.”

OMNIA recently received its 3 millionth visitor four years after opening the club's doors in 2015, and sets from Scottish DJ-producer Calvin Harris account for a large portion of that based on his omnipresence alone. Harris — whose 2011 Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper with Rihanna, “We Found Love,” marked EDM’s takeover of the pop world — rarely tours these days. Save for the occasional engagement in Ibiza or festival set, his live performances take place predominantly at OMNIA or one of Hakkasan Group’s other properties in town. During a busy month, he’ll bounce between OMNIA and Hakkasan on a weekly basis.

Harris is reserved when he isn’t in the DJ booth, but the second he leaves the green room and takes his place at the console, that changes: He grins broadly and locks eyes with the people dancing on the other side of his rig. Occasionally, he’ll turn around and scope out the scene in the VIP section behind him and nod in approval if the mood of the room matches his own.

His show doesn’t solely rely on the music: Special effects — which at OMNIA include a gigantic robotic chandelier that twirls and undulates over the dancefloor in a complex light show before the DJ enters — complete the experience. The scene at 1:30 a.m. on any given weekend is nothing short of euphoric: VIP hosts and servers lead a mini marching band tapping paradiddles on snare drums to the booths for each bottle service procession. LED screens retrofitted to the space loop around the venue and broadcast graphics that move sinuously with every BPM. This tech is a huge draw for artists, who understand that, yes, their audiences are coming to see them, but they welcome the toys provided by Vegas clubs, which are constantly competing with each other to deliver the most top-of-the-line production.

“The expectation for people when they come to Vegas is ratcheting it up a lot more,” says Alexander. “You expect that once-in-a-lifetime unforgettable moment or night out. These artists, especially Calvin, understand that people are paying money to get to Vegas — the hotel, the tickets, the night out. I know for a fact that he understands what it takes for the staff to pull off the show. From the moment he gets onstage and grabs that mic, he’s a different person... he knows that these people worked really hard to get there to see them, and then he has to return that.”

Steve Aoki, the internationally known DJ and a frequent OMNIA resident, agrees. “I felt like I was getting abducted into space,” he says of his first encounter with the chandelier. “You’ll never find a nightclub experience like that anywhere around the world." A Los Angeles native, Aoki recently made the full-time move to Vegas (he has a house outside the city), which he sees as both a global platform and global draw. “A lot of people see what’s happening in Las Vegas on social media from wherever they’re from. It’s the kind of thing where you have to be there to see firsthand — you might get glimpses of it on Instagram, but once you’re in that space alongside thousands of other people, it’s definitely something you’ll never forget.”

That includes the kind of unpredictable moments that happen during his set — moments that a festival could never provide. Aoki has hosted a number of other Vegas regulars at OMNIA, including Dion, who visited the club one night after her Caesars Palace residency. Aoki cued up “My Heart Will Go On,” Dion got on the mic, and the moment went viral. The same thing happened when Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys popped in unannounced: The first notes of “Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" rang out, the room erupted, and Carter seized the moment.

“I didn’t expect him to do that,” recalls Aoki. “I just wanted to play and have him jump around the booth with me, and [he] grabbed the mic and did the whole song. The crowd was going wild. It wasn’t planned. That’s the great thing about Vegas: There’s a lot of those things that just happen because of that Las Vegas energy. You have this comfort of, like, 'Well, fuck, we’re in Vegas. Let’s go crazy!'” It helps, of course, that he was given the ideal toolbox to create that kind of only-in-Vegas moment.

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