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Coldplay took a risk to push ahead this year with their Music of the Spheres tour. And the pay-off has been extraordinary
By Gordon Masson on 12 Sep 2022
While other acts opted to wait until 2023 for their stadium tours, Coldplay took a risk to push ahead this year with their Music of the Spheres tour. And the pay-off has been extraordinary, as fans starved of live music for two years are helping the band smash records. Gordon Masson reports.
With more than 3.5 million tickets sold in 2022, at the start of what is mooted to be a four-year project, Coldplay are in the midst of the biggest tour of their career – not a bad achievement considering it’s also the most eco-friendly stadium tour ever.
When frontman Chris Martin revealed the band would not tour to support their Everyday Life album in late 2019 but would instead try to “work out how our tour can not only be sustainable, [but] how can it be actively beneficial,” the industry wondered whether such ambitions were even possible.
But it turns out that those ideals had been simmering for a couple of years before the shock announcement, as stadia around the world were already on hold for the band’s current Music of the Spheres spectacular, which is laying down blueprints on how to dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of touring.
“To be honest, we started to plan this tour when we were on the last tour, in 2017,” band manager Dave Holmes tells IQ. “It seemed crazy at the time, but we were holding venues for 2022 and 2023, as some stadiums actually need to be booked that far in advance.”
“The rate at which they sold – I’ve never seen anything like it, especially in South America where we couldn’t put shows on sale fast enough”
Coronavirus meant that every act had to shut down touring activities, but with Martin’s bold pronouncement never straying far from the headlines, the decision to push ahead with the tour, as scheduled, when many other A-list acts decided to keep playing their wait-and-see strategy, seems to have paid off. Big time.
“We took a big risk in terms of holding these multiples. But the rate at which they sold – I’ve never seen anything like it, especially in South America where we couldn’t put shows on sale fast enough: they’d just sell out on the day,” says Holmes.
With sales for around the 3.5m tickets mark for this year alone, the gamble has been more than worth it. But the challenges the tour principals have had to overcome along the way have been considerable.
Represented by Marty Diamond at Wasserman Music for North America, Coldplay’s agent since day-one for the rest of the world was Steve Strange, who passed away in 2021. X-ray Touring colleague Josh Javor worked with Strange for many years on the band’s live career and reveals that Music of the Spheres was the final tour they planned together.
“The first show in Costa Rica was very emotional because normally I’d be arm-in-arm with Steve on those occasions,” says Javor. “Steve had been talking about this tour specifically, for a very long time. The band’s last tour was ground-breaking, but it was all just building up to this. He knew that Coldplay would be bigger than they were on A Head Full of Dreams and the venues we booked and tickets we’ve sold prove he was right.
“Just as Steve predicted, this tour is the band’s biggest to date. It’s like his legacy, and it’s very sad that he isn’t around to see just how successful it is.” Holmes comments, “Steve was brilliant. It was never about the money with him: of course, he’d always fight for you to get the best offers, but his focus was always about building the right way; taking it step by step.”
“We sold all six stadium shows in one day, and we could have easily added a couple more dates if there had been availability”
Indeed, the band themselves had to be convinced about the scale of the current tour. “When we were putting the routing together, the band were definitely a little bit unsure,” says Holmes. “It was a little bit shocking for them to see the number of dates – the multiples, in particular. It was eye-opening for them just to realise, ‘Wow, this is where you guys think we’re at now.’ But it’s the biggest tour the band have done, and a lot of that is thanks to the work Steve Strange did over 20-plus years.”
In addition to the millions of fans they are thrilling, Coldplay’s promoter partners are a happy bunch. With Live Nation promoting the tour, along with a number of local promoters in key territories, there is universal praise for both the band and their production crew.
At press time, Simon Moran’s SJM Concerts was co-promoting Coldplay’s six dates at Wembley Stadium alongside Live Nation’s Phil Bowdery. “The demand has been incredible,” says Moran. “There was a presale that offered tickets to anyone who bought the album, but when we did the general on-sale, we sold all six stadium shows in one day, and we could have easily added a couple more dates if there had been availability.
“Coldplay’s live shows are just legendary. The number of hits that they have and just the fact that their live performances are so engaging mean that word of mouth basically sells the tickets. A Coldplay stadium show is just a massive event because there’s so much goes into it.
“I’ve never known anyone who has not been blown away by their stadium shows, and I have to say that the current tour is just the best they have created.”
“The tour being eco was very educative for all concerned: the audience, the venue, and us”
Wembley Stadium’s senior commercial manager, James Taylor, notes that Coldplay are only the second act to sell six shows in one year at the new stadium. “This takes them to 12 shows in total and equals the all-time new Wembley Stadium record – a huge achievement,” he says.
“Demand for tickets has been amongst the biggest we have ever seen at Wembley and is testament to the ongoing popularity of the band, who continue to innovate and excite with every tour.”
In Poland, Live Nation’s Grzegorz Kurant is jubilant. “It was a triumphant return,” he says. “Their last show took place in Warsaw in 2017, and it was a great success, but the demand for this year’s show was unprecedented. If there were any new [ticket] releases they were disappearing in seconds.
“The tour being eco was very educative for all concerned: the audience, the venue, and us. Even though we all do our best to be more environment-friendly, the tour was a good reminder and educator of how much still needs to be done.”
PGE Narodowy stadium is also celebrating. “It’s not only the band but also the whole team of technical support and other coordinators who made the concert in Warsaw so special,” says venue manager Jarosław Bodanko. “It doesn’t happen often that the entire production team brings so much passion and commitment to the event’s creation. Coldplay concerts are not only a unique show for concert attendees but also an extraordinary experience for everyone working on its production.”
Kurant adds, “The band are on great form. The modernised [PixMob] wristbands with all the new features are astonishing. The only challenge we had was to find enough tickets to satisfy the demand.”
“We were just coming out of Covid, and we did not know how the public would react or if they had the financial resources to go to a concert”
That’s a similar tale worldwide.
Memo Parra, director of international talent at Mexican promoter OCESA, promoted the band for back-to-back shows in March at Estadio BBVA in Monterrey and a further two dates in Guadalajara’s Estadio Akron. Then, in early April, they smashed records in the capital city.
“We sold out four shows at Foro Sol – more than 250,000 tickets in total. They are the first international act ever to do that,” Parra reports. “It was a very important time for us because we were just coming out of Covid, and we did not know how the public would react or if they had the financial resources to go to a concert. But in the end, we were delighted. Coldplay are a class act, and it is great to work with them.”
Parra is also promoting appearances at Bogotá’s Estadio El Campín – a sales feat he again lauds. “It’s not easy to sell out two stadium shows in Colombia,” he says. “Coldplay are just huge in Latin America now, and we cannot wait to have them come back again next time.”
The most impressive sales numbers, however, belong to Argentina, fulfilling the dreams of local promoter Diego Finkelstein.
“We have ten sold-out dates at River Plate Stadium – that’s 650,000 tickets in one city – but I am not surprised because Coldplay have a huge connection with people in Argentina”
“We have ten sold-out dates at River Plate Stadium – that’s 650,000 tickets in one city – but I am not surprised because Coldplay have a huge connection with people in Argentina,” says Finkelstein who runs DF Entertainment.
“On the last tour, I had lunch with Dave Holmes and told him that we could sell out ten stadiums in Buenos Aires, but he was reluctant to commit to that many at the time. So when we went on sale, we went with four shows at River Plate and that was supposed to be the end of the tour leg, but the speed they sold out at was incredible, so I pushed for more.”
Praising Josh Javor for his part in proceedings, Finkelstein says the FIFA World Cup’s unusual November kick-off means a halt to domestic football, thus freeing up River Plate Stadium.
“We invested $2m [€1.96m] in pitch protection to persuade the stadium to give us more dates,” he continues. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get so many dates at River Plate, so we begged the band to extend the tour. On 24 May, we put shows five, six, and seven on sale and they blew out in one day. The following week we sold out shows eight and nine.”
Coldplay were similarly blown away and recorded a video in Spanish to thank their Argentine fans. “It was perfect,” says Finkelstein. “The tenth show went on sale on 7 June and sold out in two hours. It was incredible, but if we wanted, the demand was still there to sell even more dates.”
“I came in just six or seven weeks from the start of the tour, so there was a lot of catching up to do”
Having already seen the spectacle in Chicago (twice) and Paris, Finkelstein is counting the days until Coldplay arrive in Buenos Aires. And citing the use of the third-generation PixMob – that in keeping with the rest of the tour are now produced using plant-based materials – Finkelstein believes that incorporating the audience into the show has elevated Coldplay to the top.
“What they deliver is this amazing immersive show for all the family. I cannot wait to see all ten shows in Buenos Aires.”
Another unforeseen challenge for team Coldplay happened earlier this year when long-time production manager Bill Leabody had to step back because of health issues. He recommended Jake Berry as his replacement, and thankfully the production guru was available.
“I came in just six or seven weeks from the start of the tour, so there was a lot of catching up to do,” says Berry.
As Leabody had spent months setting everything up, Berry found himself in unfamiliar waters, inheriting suppliers he hadn’t worked with before. “When I came along, everybody thought, ‘Oh, here comes the hatchet man: everybody’s gonna leave,’” laughs Berry. “But that was never going to be the case – there’s no point breaking up a happy crew. And besides, I couldn’t have found any suppliers able to do it in terms of equipment and the logistics that were already in place.”
“It’s a bit like stepping back in time for us old enough to remember the 70s and 80s, when we used to have to deal with carnets”
With Covid policies still in place at the start of the tour, the initial shows from Costa Rica to Mexico entailed lockdown bubbles. “Our policy would be if somebody felt sick, we would test; if they were positive, we would isolate,” says Berry. “That would mean leaving somebody behind, on their own in a hotel, and they’d catch up later. So that could be for ten days, but now it’s down to five days.”
Another dilemma to deal with has been the aftermath of Brexit. Berry is unfazed. “It’s a bit like stepping back in time for us old enough to remember the 70s and 80s, when we used to have to deal with carnets.” And he’s pragmatic about related issues. “New driver regulations and things that have changed because of the British structure in Europe didn’t really fall upon us – it fell upon the suppliers to make it work. We order what we need, and we expect the companies to do all the logistics.”
Having very publicly proclaimed that touring would not resume until the band had figured out a more environmentally friendly way to hit the road, team Coldplay has been involved in an intense three-year period of research and development.
“Luckily for us, once Chris had mentioned it in an interview, we had an overwhelming response of people approaching us with different ideas and technologies,” explains Holmes.
As a result, the array of new tech and concepts that are being used on the production is extensive, including: state-of-the-art batteries supplied by BMW, wind-turbine technology on delay towers, solar blankets on unused seats in venues, trucks powered by Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO) fuel, and floor covers that can turn the kinetic energy created by fans dancing into electricity. More on the latter two, anon.
“Coldplay set a very high standard. They’ve invested a lot of time, effort, and money into trying to meet their sustainability goals”
Those measures have been put in place to meet the band’s pledge to make the tour “as sustainable and low-carbon as possible,” guided by three key principles: reduce, reinvent and restore.
Indeed, ongoing development will result in the 2023 introduction of generators that can run on either hydrogen, diesel, or biodiesel. “I wouldn’t want to say the name of the company behind them, yet,” states Holmes, “but their generators are a quarter of the size of the ones we currently use. And the fact they can be so versa- tile with different fuels will be a game-changer for the whole world.”
Other proposals, such as a bamboo stage system, however, had to be dropped, reluctantly. “We realised there was no guarantee that we could tour a bamboo stage everywhere in the world because different countries have different rules about bringing in trees, plants, and vegetables, and it would have fallen under that category,” says Holmes.
The Hardest Part
The band’s ambitions to cut the touring carbon footprint by 50% has forced suppliers and their logistics experts to take a long hard look at their own operations and equipment. But that task has, reportedly, been universally welcomed, as any savings made with Coldplay can be implemented – and improved upon – for future clients.
“Coldplay set a very high standard,” says Berry. “They’ve invested a lot of time, effort, and money into trying to meet their sustainability goals, and they’re so far ahead in their planning that government infrastructure is not up to speed. If it was a 100-metre dash, we’d to be ten metres in front of them at the finish line.”
“We feel proud to be part of their commitment to bringing music to the masses whilst being respectful of the world we live in”
As an example, Berry cites sourcing HVO fuel for vehicles as particularly irksome. “We used it wherever we could in America, but it was very regional,” he says. “It was great in California and places like Texas, but when we got to the east coast, it was really, really difficult. We are try- ing to set a standard, but the infrastructure isn’t there to support us.”
Determined to meet their targets, the band purchased 65,000 litres of HVO through truck- ing vendor Stagetruck, meaning the trucks were fully fuelled when they left the depot in England. “The idea was that we would buy more HVO along the way in Europe, but it’s just not avail- able in certain places, and it’s not worth the car- bon footprint to deliver it to the trucks onsite.”
However, the ‘green’ solution to that problem has been very grown up. “Now, when there’s a tour going out from the Stagetruck yard, they fill up those trucks with our fuel,” reports Berry. “The fuel is still being used to cut the carbon footprint. It may not all be on the Coldplay tour but it’s a very clever idea.”
For his part, Stagetruck boss Robert Hewett says, “We have a long-standing relationship with the band and spent time working with production to ensure we can supply the 40-plus strong team of trucks and drivers, to fit in line with their pledge to tour in an as environmentally friendly manner as possible.
“Along with staging, lights, audio, and cater- ing, we are also trucking two trailers of rechargeable [BMW] batteries, which [provide] power via solar photovoltaic panels. Our trucks are monitored to run as efficiently as possible, and the routing is carefully planned to ensure we are not burning extra diesel unnecessarily. It’s always a great pleasure working with Coldplay and their team, and we feel proud to be part of their commitment to bringing music to the masses whilst being respectful of the world we live in.”
“Everyone decided that even if it costs a little bit more money to get the same effect, if it has less environmental impact, we should do it”
Other suppliers have also upped their game in terms of reassessing efficient touring.
Nashville-based Strictly FX is supplying lasers, confetti, and pyro for the tour, which have also been put under the eco microscope. “All the confetti is biodegradable and doesn’t contain any PVC,” says the company’s art director David Kennedy, adding that their pyro product is also more sustainable. He notes, “There have been cost implications, but everyone decided that even if it costs a little bit more money to get the same effect, if it has less environmental impact, we should do it.”
However, he stresses that wellbeing remains paramount. “Sustainability comes second to the safety of something that explodes next to the band,” he says. “The flames use a standard fluid, so we’re generally getting that locally wherever we can because it doesn’t make sense to ship it. And the flame cannons themselves are now smaller units, so our freight impact is drastically reduced.”
Speed of Sound
On the audio side, Wigwam Acoustics has been working with the band for around 17 years, and company founder Chris Hill reveals the green goals of the latest tour mean that rather than flying most of the PA, “we’ve gone back to more conventional PA towers.” The company is also using equipment that requires significantly less power than on the previous Coldplay tour.
And noting the new leadership in the band’s touring set-up, Hill says, “When there’s a change of production manager, it usually means change everywhere. But Jake has basically left us to it because the audio department is kind of self-contained and doesn’t give him any grief.”
“Logistically, it’s been a major operation, as we have planned the most eco-friendly routes for supplying our equipment in all territories”
Indeed, highlighting the camaraderie among rivals in the audio business, Hill adds, “Going from zero into the summer madness where the challenges are not only with crew but also warehouse staff, manufacturers, and various supply-chain issues, has not been easy. Luckily, I have a great relationship with most of our competitors and most of them are good friends, so we all talk and try to support each other.”
When it comes to steel, Music of the Spheres is one of the few genuine world tours currently being serviced by Stageco, according to its project manager Dirk De Decker. “Logistically, it’s been a major operation, as we have planned the most eco-friendly routes for supplying our equipment in all territories,” he advises. “Jake Berry’s production team assess which local services can be called upon to meet the design’s requirements, and we provide the remaining custom elements that are irreplaceable.”
A significant engineering effort, four separate systems have been fabricated for the tour by Stageco. Two systems have been travelling around Europe while, to avoid shipping across the Atlantic, the other two were based in the United States. Each system is contained within 15 trucks and includes the materials to build each iconic part of the scenery, including the stunning moonrise arch.
In addition, Stageco’s crew – headed by Johan ‘Bellekes’ Van Espen, Stefaan Van Den Bossche, and a third team leader in America – build a50m upstage arc, two 23m high ‘pylons’ at left and right to support video screens, and a pair of custom sound towers, each with a large cantile- ver, designed in collaboration with Coldplay’s head of audio.
De Decker adds, “It’s a 72-hour steel build for us [with a single-day load-out]. All of the elements we are constructing are unconnected. No single element depends on the other, and this offers us a lot of practical flexibility on-site.”
“The artwork resembles galaxies in the universe, so the TAIT scenic team added designs in several layers to make it feel like the stars, words, and symbols were appearing from the darkness”
Another significant partner on production is TAIT, which is providing a custom mainstage sprung floor made to interact with the show’s various stages.
“Every deck surface is treated with an anti-skid treatment to allow the performers safety out in the elements, but more powerful than that is the hand-painted scenic over the entire stage,” explains TAIT senior project manager Shannon Nickerson.
“The production team provided renders and TAIT was able to create a system to paint the custom designs and layout words in Kaotican – the language created by Coldplay. The artwork resembles galaxies in the universe, so the TAIT scenic team added designs in several layers to make it feel like the stars, words, and symbols were appearing from the darkness.”
TAIT also constructed the show’s multi- coloured alien mirror ball, which houses eight lasers within it, meaning the cueing has to have pinpoint accuracy to ensure the safety of the audience.
Among the most high-profile tech that the band is using on the tour is their kinetic floor covering – one of a myriad of products that specialists eps are supplying for the tour.
“Coldplay was my first tour, so I have an emotional connection to the band”
“Being involved on Music of the Spheres is a very special situation for me because Coldplay was my first tour, so I have an emotional connection to the band,” says eps chief Okan Tombulca.
“We do the barriers, the cable covers, the seat drapes, and we also have a solar system that we can place on the unused seats in the grandstands, depending on whether they face the sun or not. And, of course, we have the kinetic floor, which we developed together with a Dutch company to try to realise one of the ideas Coldplay themselves had.”
Indeed, Tombulca believes that the state-of-the-art floor might quickly pay for itself because it is no bigger than normal ground protection systems. “The truck space for the floor is probably around about the same,” he says.
PM Berry observes, “We have two of the kinetic floors – they’re about five-metre disks and they’re quite sophisticated. I tell people, ‘the more you jump, the louder the band will play,’ but we’re actually using the energy to help power the C stage a little bit for the lighting.
He continues, “They are brand-new so the technology’s not there yet where we can create enough energy to do it all. But back when the Vari-Lite first came out, there was only one moving light. Now there are 4,000, and they’re all 100 times better. So somebody will take this kinetic floor idea and build something that creates more energy.
“Their partnership with Coldplay is very experimental, so there will be successes and failures, but the goal is to try to change the whole paradigm of international touring”
“We’re learning as we go,” admits Berry. “We didn’t know it all to start with – certainly, I knew nothing – but it’s very, very exciting.”
Freight specialists Global Motion have worked with Coldplay for 16 years and have recently helped the band establish a new partnership with shipping giants DHL, which runs an extensive number of proactive sustainability programmes, such as windfarms in India and dams in Laos.
“We’ve worked lots with DHL in the past, using their infrastructure and helping them with projects, where the need arises,” explains managing director Adam Hatton. “Their partnership with Coldplay is very experimental, so there will be successes and failures, but the goal is to try to change the whole paradigm of international touring.”
Hatton believes everyone now has to make decisions on what is worth spending carbon on and what is not. “Everyone needs to carry less equipment internationally to make a difference,” he says. “That means less work and less profit for Global Motion, but in my view, going forward there will be more tours that are smaller, rather than the huge spectacles we’ve become used to.”
Ahead of personally handling the freight needs for Coldplay when they return to Latin America in September, Hatton reports that the crippling pandemic fees of up to six- and seven-times normal costs are gradually falling. “It’s now about 250% of where it should be,” he reports. “It’s a lot better than what it was and, personally, I don’t think it will ever come down to what the costs were pre-Covid.”
“Right now, you really have to entice local crew to come to work. Nobody’s going to show up if you’re going to pay them for four hours”
Immensely popular with contractors and their personnel, Coldplay are renowned in production circles for factoring in generous breaks to the touring schedule, often with a three- weeks-on, two-weeks-off rotation to allow band members and everyone else to spend quality time with their families.
Newcomer Berry believes such concepts en- gender loyalty, but he notes that the post-Covid scramble to assemble skilled staff has still been a significant test. “We’re not frugal on local crew because we want to get the production up and running quickly and tweak it in the same day before going into 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning,” explains Berry.
“Right now, you really have to entice local crew to come to work. Nobody’s going to show up if you’re going to pay them for four hours. It’s not worth it – they won’t show up. So you need to consider day rates. And if you need 20 hands, you always book 24.”
Appreciative of the way Coldplay take care of their crew, Wigwam’s Hill tells IQ, “They’ve al- ways tried to do the right thing, and we’ve always felt like part of the Coldplay family… it makes people go the extra mile because they’ve been looked after.”
Explaining that the generously scheduled time off also allows suppliers to carry out maintenance on equipment, Hill adds, “The amount of consoles we have on this tour is quite spectacular. Because we had some custom built, we took them back in the break between Paris and Brussels and literally stripped them down, fixed a few bugs, and serviced them.”
“Sustainability is now ingrained in every event, production, and tour we cater for”
With more than 300 mouths to feed on a show day, caterers Eat to the Beat have a 14-strong party on the road with the band – a far cry from when the company worked on Coldplay’s first tour in 2000.
“Sustainability is now ingrained in every event, production, and tour we cater for. We’re constantly striving to minimise our carbon footprint, and Coldplay is no exception,” says Kim Joyce, Eat to the Beat account manager. “Specific examples include sourcing local produce; accurate head counts to reduce food wastage; minimising single-use plastics and having a varied selection of delicious plant-based meals in our menus.”
She adds, “We have a relay system in place whereby we send an advance team on to the next city on the tour to source the local produce. We have completely cut out plastic-bottled water on the entire tour. We have aluminium bottles or cartons of water, and everyone has a refillable water bottle for use at the water cooler. We’ve also given everyone an Eat to the Beat branded mug and reusable coffee cup with a lid, which has massively reduced waste.”
In My Place
One major factor in the band’s plan to cut emissions is the tour’s residency feel – stopping in capital cities for multiple dates.
“You can’t tour in a sustainable way by travelling every day,” states Javor. “The great thing about Coldplay is there is such demand in each country and city for them: they can sell 180,000-200,000 tickets in Berlin; Frankfurt, Brussels, and Paris are similar. And when we look at where the audience is travelling from, they’re not travel- ling that far – they’re mostly locals – so we’re cut- ting down on carbon footprint for the fans, too.”
“It might sound crazy because of the volume of tickets we’re selling, but there’s still a fair amount being left on the table”
Berry observes, “You can recite the European tour on a postage stamp – three Frankfurts, one Warsaw, three Berlins, four Parises, four Brussels, six Wembleys, and two Glasgows. That’s Europe. And then we go to South America where, once again, the band is so popular that we can afford to stay in cities for two, three, four, six dates, and in the case of Buenos Aires, ten nights.”
Agent for North America, Marty Diamond, had the band play a dozen shows in May and June. “Josh [Javor] and I work in lockstep in terms of the scheduling and the band’s availability, while we also work very closely with our promoter partners,” says Diamond.
He says that while Coldplay are capable of playing multiple dates in the metropolis cities, for the first US leg of the current tour, “We were trying to cover off a lot of territory in a very short period of time, so that’s why most of the cities were just single dates.”
Diamond reveals the band will return for another stadium run in America in 2023, adding, “The band are always pushing the envelope in terms of creativity. This tour just takes everything to the next level.”
Javor says that plans for the current tour remain consistent with previous outings. “When Coldplay last toured in 2017, we left a lot on the table even though we sold out everywhere. It might sound crazy because of the volume of tickets we’re selling, but there’s still a fair amount being left on the table this time, too.
“We’re playing eight stadiums in Brazil, plus a 100,000-capacity festival – Rock in Rio. We’re playing ten shows in Argentina, two shows in Colombia, two shows in Peru, four shows in Chile. It’s huge but, in truth, we could have sold more.”
PM Berry is a newly converted fan and is also looking forward to the record-breaking run in Argentina. “I love the energy that Coldplay have,” he says. “It’s a family show where you can bring your three-year-old kid or your 80-year-old grandmother, and they’re all gonna leave singing or whistling a song. And that’s why we all do what we do.”
This feature appeared in the current issue of IQ Magazine (113), which can be read here.
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