In 2018, some of the most notable tours were also the most elaborate. Travis Scott’s Astroworld: Wish You Were Here tour featured a roller coaster; Drake’s Aubrey & the Three Migos boasted a flying yellow Ferrari (actually a large remote-controlled balloon); and Taylor Swift’s reputation run included a 30-foot-tall cobra. But one of the biggest tours coming to the United States in 2019 will also be one of the most minimal, designed by the world’s largest stage/tour design company, Stufish Entertainment Architects.
Ray Winkler, CEO and design director at Stufish, asked himself “What haven’t we done?” when The Rolling Stones’ longtime creative director/lighting designer, Patrick Woodroffe, approached Stufish in 2017 with plans for a then-untitled and unannounced tour. The answer? “Clean, simple lines,” says Winkler. He pruned the stage down to two necessities: a four-paneled video wall (one screen each for Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood) and a 60-foot-wide roof to keep the band dry at rainy gigs.
Since starting as an entertainment architect 25 years ago, Winkler, 51, has seen the industry change dramatically. Tours were once promotional tools used to sell albums, he notes, but as downloads and streaming displaced physical sales, “tours [had to] become profit centers in themselves.” And even as streaming has more than made up for the decline in physical sales, driving the industry to new heights, touring has continued to grow. In 2018, the top 25 tours reported to Billboard Boxscore reaped over $3 billion in ticket sales, a 12 percent increase from 2017.
At the same time, technology has become more affordable, as well as lighter, quicker to assemble and easier to pack, saving money on trucks and crews. But with a legendary act like the Stones — who will bring their No Filter tour to North America in April — the selling point is the band itself. (The European leg grossed $237.8 million from 28 shows, according to Boxscore.)
As a result, the tour’s no-frills design was more about focusing on the stature of the band with which Stufish has worked since 1989, beginning with its Steel Wheels run that kicked off that year. “Keith says this is the best the band has ever sounded,” says the group’s global promoter/tour director, Paul Gongaware. “People realize this isn’t a band that’s over the hill. It’s totally the opposite. They’re in their prime and kicking ass.”
Winkler grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia, listening to the Stones, David Bowie and The Beatles. He moved to London in 1990. By 1996, he was developing elements for an upcoming U2 tour while working as an architecture student at Atelier One, a British structural engineering company that handled the work of the late Mark Fisher, best known for his stage designs for Pink Floyd’s Animals and The Wall tours. Winkler ended up as Fisher’s quasi-assistant on what would become U2’s PopMart tour, which adopted turn-of-the-millennium media overexposure as a theme. It was the first tour Winkler had a hand in designing. That same year, Fisher hired him to join Stufish, then known as Mark Fisher Studio.
Winkler, who became CEO in 2015, has overseen the stage design for acts ranging from AC/DC to One Direction and Madonna. In 2018 alone, Stufish was behind tours including Elton John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road, Queen + Adam Lambert, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run II and Beyoncé’s epic Coachella performance — the festival’s all-time most-watched, with nearly half a million simultaneous global viewers on YouTube.
With the ubiquity of social media, a tour’s opening night now holds more weight than ever before. “The very first person who walks through that door has the opportunity to take a picture that will go viral,” says Winkler. “So you have to think about that carefully — in particular, ‘What does it look like on a small iPhone? What does it look like in the square [camera] format?’” One artist who understands social media instinctively, he says, is Beyoncé, who for On the Run II (which grossed $253.5 million from 48 shows) had 16 cameras and choreographed where she would stand in order to frame various moments throughout the show, all of which contributed to its cinematic quality.
Winkler says the clean design of the No Filter tour creates a crisp silhouette reminiscent of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey or a building landscape, so that from the moment the audience enters, there’s a striking familiarity. “That, to me, is a very good Instagram moment,” he says. But catering to online platforms isn’t his primary goal. “We want to give an experience that you can’t have on the internet,” he says. “You have to be there. People still fundamentally want to experience music live, and bands want to perform live. Selling music through Apple or an old-fashioned record store is one thing, but to experience the feedback you get instantly from your audience, bands will always strive toward that.”
And for the foreseeable future, Stufish — which staffs 22 employees across its offices in London and Asia — will continue to execute those experiences. “It’s the audience that matters to us,” says Winkler. “That they’re wowed, inspired, mesmerized. That is what we live for.” Perhaps the best testament to the company’s staying power? “We’ve been asked back [by the Stones], so you know we’ve done something right.”