Eight WTF Moments at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards

Gone are the days of Lady Gaga’s ‘Paparazzi.’ Yes, friends, it’s time to throw in the towel because MTV’s VMAs have officially jumped the shark. Maybe I’m just getting older, and maybe this event was always a disaster, but in recent years the content has gone from plucky, alcohol-influenced debauchery, to just a sad attempt for today’s celebrities to one-up the previous year in terms of shock and awe.

In what seemed like the longest (and most confusing) two hours of television I’ve witnessed this year, MTV’s 2015 VMAs gave us nothing of value, except for the lingering feeling of regret that I should have skipped the event all together. However, it did provide us with some laughable moments.

8. Kanye West ‘pretends’ to nap.

Because MTV cares about nothing but ratings (see Moment #1), they asked Taylor Swift to present Kanye West with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, thus making the entire ceremony about their infamous 2009 ‘Imma Let You Finish’ moment, versus talking about Kanye’s career. Like the rest of us, watching Taylor publicly pardon West made all of us want to curl up and fall asleep.

7. Taylor Swift’s Dictatorship

Am I the only one who is sick of Taylor’s army of model BFFs? Her whole ‘Girl Squad’ has become Page Six’s “Plastics,’ with Regina George wielding her power over who is in, and who is out. Don’t get me wrong, Taylor has done a lot of good, but I’d just like to see other people in the spotlight without having to ask for Taylor’s approval.

6. Taylor and Nicki Minaj’s Duet

Forced. This was SO forced. Ok, glad you girls could make up after that little Twitter misunderstanding, but what could have been a great opportunity for these two to discuss the role of the black woman in todays celeb circuit, turned into a swept-under-the-rug performance that ended in a hug that says ‘It’s all butterflies and sunshine over here.’

5. Kelly Osbourne Dances with Nick Jonas

I really think she was just confused about where to go when the Pre-Show ended. In a last minute snag, Osbourne forgot to leave the stage and had to improvise by shaking it in her vintage BeetleJuice look surrounded by a bunch of twerking moon babes.

4. Britney Spears Presents an Award

2015 MTV Video Music Awards - Show
This has nothing to do with Britney–she looked amazing last night. However, her presence, along with Kanye and the entire Kardashian family, made me realize one thing: no one should attend the VMAs after the age of 25.

3. Justin Bieber Crying

Not really sure what happened there. Overall, the guy did a pretty good job with his comeback–he cut back on the flair (and hid that strange new haircut) to remind us why he’s famous (he’s very talented!), but the emotions just got to him in the end. Don’t worry, Justin, you’re just entering into a new phase of your career, hopefully one where you’re less of a jerk and more of an artist.

2. Miley Cyrus’ Everything

She has a new album. She slipped a nip. She wore every outfit imaginable to make sure she slipped a nip. Her hosting as she would even put it, was unqualified, but it was entertaining. I enjoyed the little sketch with Ike Barinholtz and Andy Samberg, and I’ll always enjoy a segment with Snoop Dogg, so maybe it was her supporting cast that helped her push through.

1. Kanye West’s Speech

This, by far takes the cake for the #1 WTF moment. I still have no idea where he was going with any of his speech–he talked about how the Hennessy-induced 2009 interruption affected his reputation, but trailed off on that topic. He kept starting a conversation about how having a daughter has changed him, but again, trailed off. It wasn’t until the end of Kanye’s moment that he actually said the most poignant statement: awards shows are pointless. Because, as the VMAs showed us, the awards don’t really matter unless you can bring together a bunch of egotistic celebrities who will get in arguments or flash a boob just to boost ratings.

But in case you were interested: The VMAs do have a ‘Professional’ category, where the people behind the videos get recognition for his or her work. These are not shown on live TV. Here’s the winners for this year:

Best Art Direction: Jason Fijal for Snoop Dogg’s “So Many Pros”

Best Choreography: Ok Go, air:man, and Mori Harano for Ok Go’s “I Won’t Let You Down”

Best Cinematography: Larkin Sieple for Flying Lotus ft. Kendrick Lamar’s “Never Catch Me”

Best Direction: Colin Tilley & The Little Homies for Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”

Best Editing: Beyonce, Ed Burke, and Jonathan Wing for Beyonce’s “7/11”

Best Visual Effects: Brewer for Skrillex & Diplo’s “Where Are U Now” with Justin Bieber

In Defense of Kanye West

kanye_west_live_wallpaperThe VMAs are upon us–once again, music’s elite will flock to the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, CA to bring us what may typically be described as the ‘most unpredictable event of the year.’ The VMAs traditionally bring us some of music’s most shocking moments: Madonna and Britney Spears’ kiss on stage in 2003; Eminem’s 2000 performance of ‘The Real Slim Shady’ with way too many Slim Shadys; Lady Gaga’s ‘Meat Dress’ of 2010 (although I will forever love her for her 2009 performance of ‘Paparazzi’ when she started bleeding on the stage from her stomach.). But let’s not forget the most popular of controversial VMA actions: the interruptions; and our reigning King of Interruptions: Kanye West.

2009 was the year Kanye infamously interrupted Taylor Swift during her VMA acceptance, telling her Beyonce’s video deserved the coveted award, sending Swift into silence as she tried to collect herself. (Beyonce would later bring Swift back up onstage to stare the spotlight, as only Beyonce could do.)  Since then, Kanye’s reputation seems to struggle to shake that moment from the public’s eye, despite his achievements over the last six years and the forgiveness Tay Tay so graciously gave him this year.

With the VMAs only days away now, Kanye has already nabbed the spotlight, but this time for a different reason–he’s accepting the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. What is the MJVVA, you ask? Well, it’s essentially a Lifetime Achievement Award for artists who have contributed significantly to the MTV culture. Prior to its renaming in 1991, the Video Vanguard Award was given to artists including The Beatles, David Bowie, Madonna, The Beastie Boys, Janet Jackson, and most recently, Beyonce, who accepted the award following a 16-minute performance from her 2014 self-titled album.

Which bring us to our next question: Why Kanye?

Beyond the outspoken, hot headed, self-aggrandizing Kanye we’ve come to know and love, there’s no denying that as an artist, he’s revolutionary. His 40-minute film to accompany Runaway comes to mind as a modern take on the extended music video, while some of his other noteworthy works include “All Falls Down” and “All of the Lights.” Rolling Stone reports that West has received nominations for 30 VMAs, winning two–one in 2005 for Best Male Video and another in 2008 for Best Special Effects. And who can forget his 2008 performance of ‘Love Lockdown.’

So really, the question should be, why not Kanye? The man’s career has shaped much of modern music–he’s produced some of the most iconic songs of the 21st century, collaborated with the industries finest (his most recent album has Paul McCartney in the credits), and isn’t afraid to use his music to talk about bigger issues (2005’s ‘Diamonds from Sierra Leone,’ for example, shed light on the diamond conflict in West Africa).

Yes, Kanye might not be everyone’s favorite person, but there’s no denying it, the man has achieved so much in the world of music. He deserves that recognition. I’m personally very excited to see what he does prior to his acceptance–maybe a best of set? Or a new song? Maybe he’ll surprise drop his new album that we’ve anxiously waited for. Or maybe he’ll just stir the pot in the most recent Taylor Swift-Katy Perry feud. We’ll find out this Sunday.

Safety at Music Festivals

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Photo courtesy of SFX Entertainment.

By Kelleigh Welch

*NOTE: This article originally appeared in the August/September 2015 edition of Music Festival Business

No matter the size of a festival, producers look at their multi-day events as a community—and with anywhere between 5,000 and into the 100,000s of people flocking to a festival site daily, organizers need to plan for the same risks you would find in a town or neighborhood of the same size. However, with these festival communities packed into a smaller outdoor setting, producers are able to hone in on more specific safety and health risks that come with the festival territory, ranging from crowd control, overheating and dehydration, to drug and alcohol consumption, and prepare ahead of time for these and other potential risks.

SFX Entertainment, Inc., a leading producer of many live Electronic Dance Music (EDM) festivals in both the United States and Europe, including Mysteryland, Tomorrowland and Sensation, allocates a large chunk of its budget for each festival towards health and safety.

“Our goal at SFX is to spare no expense in order to be the best host possible when it comes to health and safety,” said SFX’s medical and safety director, Dr. Andrew Bazos. “On our grounds, we make sure the level of care is like that in an emergency care setting.”

Health and safety is also a large topic covered at the annual International Music Festival Conference in Austin, TX, with many sessions stressing the importance of preparation before a festival begins.

“Our priority at the conference is to address the safety of the festival patrons—organizers want to make sure everyone goes home in one piece,” commented Laurie Kirby, president of the IMFCON. “Panels at the conference are designed specifically for a variety of things, from harm reduction to addressing drug and alcohol abuse. We also discuss weather-related safety issues, because not only are we concerned with what people are putting into their bodies, but also the environment around them.”

Before the Event
The IMFCON suggests producers do as much as they can to protect attendees, starting with educating them about potential hazards before the festival.

“It’s really about event preparedness and communication to attendees, educating them about and making them aware of the risks and the medical services available at the festival,” Kirby said.

Before any SFX-sponsored event, the company provides attendees with detailed information about suggested best practices while at the festival.

“Our health and safety approach starts before the event starts with public service announcements, followed by a screening at the gate,” said Bazos. “We have EMTs at the gates to make sure people are in good shape when they come to the show. It’s hard to have a good time if they are coming in a bad position, and we won’t allow anyone in who might put themselves or others in danger.”

Founder’s Entertainment, the production company behind New York’s Governors Ball, follows a similar protocol, providing attendees with information regarding drug and alcohol use, dehydration and more through social media and email blasts.

SFX and Founders also keep track of every medical incident that comes through their tents, even if it’s just a bruise or small cut, in order to prepare for those scenarios properly at future festivals. “In the practice of medicine, we make it a point to record data to better the job we do as a doctor. The more we can learn from our data, the better we can improve our coverage,” Bazos said.

“Every single person that comes through our medical tent is documented,” said Founders Entertainment co-founder Tom Russell. “On a four-hour cycle, we get a report on how many people were attended to and if there are any transports, and we share all that data with the police and Department of Health.”

At The Festival
With its main priority centered on providing a fun and safe environment for all patrons, SFX sets up multiple medical tents throughout each festival site, employed with medical professionals ready to treat anything from blisters to dehydration.

“In terms of personnel, our policy is to have an emergency medicine physician on site, equivalent to going to an emergency room,” explained Bazos. “That way, if you’ve had, for example, too much to drink, you can walk into our main medical tent and get top-notch, on-site care.”

SFX also provides a trained team of paramedics to assist in any medical emergency either at the tent or on the grounds. Many of the paramedics patrol the grounds looking for anyone showing signs of distress, so they can offer help before things get worse. “The signs and symptoms of someone not doing well are pretty obvious, even for an untrained person. Our team will do a quick medical evaluation in one of those situations and make sure the person is comfortable and oriented about what is going on,” explained Bazos.

Crowd control is also a factor in SFX’s medical plan, where injuries such as broken bones or concussions are more common. “Those injuries are generally very easy to stabilize and if they are more serious, the patient will get transported. When you put 50,000 people in a field to dance, there will be injuries, and we’re prepared for those,” Bazos said.

Founder’s Entertainment has a full safety plan set in place for its festivals, addressing all scenarios, like hurricanes, tornados or other weather-related incidents, as well as gun violence, terrorist attacks and more. A separate section within this emergency plan includes dealing with medical incidents. “We definitely put a lot of emphasis on patron safety and security. Our priority as producers is to do whatever we can to make sure everyone is having fun and is safe,” Russell said.

Dehydration is another big issue at festivals, especially during the summer months, where festivals are predominantly held in large, open fields with minimal shade. This adds extra risk for attendees, requiring producers to both provide free water refill stations at festivals and encourage everyone to stay hydrated. “Many of our shows have free filling stations, and we’re also aggressive about replenishing electrolytes and providing electrolyte gum and packets,” Bazos said.

A Rise in Drug Use?
In the past few years, music festivals, specifically those that cater to the EDM genre, have faced an increasing backlash after a rise in drug-related deaths at the events, with many related to MDMA or ecstasy. In 2014, the industry saw one person die from drug-related causes at the Las Vegas Electric Daisy Carnival and six at the Future Music Festival Asia, while more than 20 people were rushed to the hospital for drug overdoses at the Mad Decent Block Party Music Festival in early August 2014. Many members of the festival industry argue that drug use, and the unfortunate consequences that stem from it, have always been an issue at large festival events, but the rise in drug-related deaths has caused them to address the issue more.

While festival producers cannot control the decisions that attendees make, Kirby said, education and communication are the best ways to keep festival attendees informed about potential risks. “It’s nothing new (drug use and overdoses),” said Kirby. “I will say that the drugs out there are getting more concentrated and more dangerous, and with that, the stakes are higher. People on site are buying drugs and they might not know what they’re getting into, but that’s not just at music festivals. We need to build an awareness of what people are putting into their bodies.”

In 2013, Electric Zoo, one of New York City’s largest annual EDM festivals (presented by Made Event), cancelled its final day after two drug-related deaths. Acknowledging its decision, Made Event has increased its prefestival education, requiring all ticket holders to watch a PSA on drug use, and the event had drug-sniffing dogs on site during the 2014 edition of the event.

Bazos says age makes a big difference as well when it comes to drug use, as older attendees tend to be more aware of the decisions they make. SFX offers both 18-plus and 21-plus shows, depending on the situation. “I think older people are more aware of their limits in everything, and that means sun exposure, dancing, drinking, etcetera. Everyone makes mistakes and you think as a kid you can do whatever and be fine. Like everything in life, you learn to take care of yourself over time,” Bazos said.

Members of the EDM community are also taking matters into their own hands when it comes to safety, such as with the volunteer organization DanceSafe (www.dancesafe.org), which focuses on promoting health and safety within the EDM community. Launched in 1998, Dance Safe started its efforts towards promoting healthy partying within the underground EDM circuit, but has expanded in recent years with the growing popularity of the genre. The organization has a large focus on drug use, and offers educational services and drug checking services at events, with the purpose of providing people with the resources and information necessary to prevent a potentially harmful situation. Missi Wooldridge, Executive Director of DanceSafe, said that an open dialogue needs to be created to promote safe decisions, versus ignoring or prohibiting the use at all.

“When we do really open our eyes, no matter what we do, people are still going to use substances. We want to create a safe space for young people to come and ask about health and safety,” said Wooldridge. “One of the biggest barriers is implementing drug education and services into the festival community. There’s not a lot of educational resources for people, and that’s a big issue.”

Wooldridge said there is an influx of drugs coming through in recent years that are more potent, or a mix of various substances, causing more problems for users. This, in turn, requires more education on safe usage and drug testing so if someone chooses to make a poor decision, they aren’t aware of what they are putting into his or her body.

“There’s a lack of knowledge with these new substances, and there’s no regulation. The big problem is they are taking something that’s actually something else, and the effects and dosages might be completely different than what they expected,” Wooldridge said.

Protecting Hearing at Festivals
One of the less-addressed medical issues at festivals is that of hearing loss, a common side effect of any live concert event where attendees or employees are exposed to higher sound levels for a long period of time. While many festival promoters are not directly addressing this for employees and patrons, numerous companies in the audio industry are producing new gear to help preserve hearing without compromising the quality of the music.

Among those companies is Ultimate Ears, which caters to musicians with its line of custom in-ear monitors, as well as special earplugs for crews to help preserve hearing.

“Hearing conservation is based on an eight-hour exposure; if you’re working 16 hours a day at a festival, already you’re at a higher probability for long-term damage,” said Mike Dias, sales director at Ultimate Ears Pro.

After extended exposure to loud sound, or even short-term exposure to extremely loud sound, the ear mechanism protects itself with a sort of compression. Given 16 or more hours of rest, Dias explains, the ear can start to rehabilitate itself. However, constant exposure to harmful sound levels (typically 85 dB SPL or higher) can cause more permanent damage. Ultimate Ears encourages performing musicians to be aware of this danger, and designed custom earplugs with an attenuation of 26 dB without
reportedly compromising the quality of sound.

“Whenever someone says ‘earplugs,’ you think of those foamies and you think of it ruining the entire experience,” Dias said. “It sounds like you’re underwater and if you go to a festival, you don’t want to put a barrier on the sound. We offer musician-grade earplugs, one version that are custom-made to the ear, and then a universal earplug that has a linear attenuation that you can pop in and experience the music at a show at a lower volume level (without distorting the sound).

“If you are working at a music festival, it’s absolutely critical to have your ear plugs in. These don’t block anything or interfere with your work; they just block the level of exposure that can be damaging over time,” Dias added.

Understanding that hearing loss prevention is an important consideration for any concert event, festival organizers are aware that more attention needs to go towards it. “We certainly make earplugs available for free,” said Bazos. “There might be a fashion statement against it, but I think it’s a problem that should be addressed more. Overexposure to loud music is a problem in general, and that’s a topic that definitely needs to be explored.”


All That Jazz

By Kelleigh Welch

The original article in Pro Sound News.

The original article in Pro Sound News.

Note: This article originally appeared in the September 2015 edition of Pro Sound News.

At 4 p.m., the hall is empty. Everything is ready for the big night—the orchestra’s stands  are perfectly arranged under the stage, the microphones are cleaned to add a little sparkle, her elaborate costumes are neatly arranged backstage—all just waiting for the show to start. The crew is expected at 5:30; the plan is to hold a brief rehearsal, let the musicians settle in, and practice a few numbers with Tony before the doors open.

It’s the final night of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s four-night residency at Radio City Music Hall. Tom Young, the long-time production manager for Bennett, invited me to the historic hall before the show to see the set up and talk about working with the two platinum performers on their unexpected collaboration. With only the occasional patter of  footsteps of a venue employee, Young and I saw the silent side of the legendary room—the Art Deco walls echoing back tales of past performers that had passed through—as we dug into just how he helped bring the performance to life each night.

“Radio City—it’s probably my favorite music hall,” Young said, who, as a native of the New York City area, holds extra affection for the 6,000-seat venue. “I was actually a design  consultant when they did the renovations because I had mixed here so much.”

With an age difference of 60 years, the pairing of famous crooner Tony Bennett and pop superstar Lady Gaga might seem an unlikely match, but with her classical training, Gaga really stepped out and showed her versatility in Cheek to Cheek, the jazz album she and Bennett recorded together and released back in September, 2014. As a longtime fan of Gaga, I’ve known her talents from trolling the Internet for underground, acoustic performances, but with Cheek to Cheek, she’s able to really showcase her abilities front and center—breaking herself away from that meat-dress image she created back in 2010. Now on tour, it comes as no surprise that for the New York City stop, Bennett (a native of Astoria, the northern neighborhood in Queens), and Gaga (of New York City’s Upper West Side), would choose Radio City. Acknowledging the setlist of songs that relied on the acoustics of a room, Young said Radio City’s performance hall is capable of supporting that need.

Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett at the 2015 Grammy Awards

Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett at the 2015 Grammy Awards

“The room is so responsive—you can hear everything, even the grooves on the cymbals; that’s my favorite,” Young explained. “My goal is to capture a good performance. I have a lot of experience and I know that every room has its own personality.”

“Tony does this one number a cappella with no mics at all, and the room really helps make that impact even stronger. Tony owns the art of intimacy—it’s like he’s performing just for you,” Young added.

The stage set up for the Cheek to Cheek tour is fairly minimal. For reinforcement, the tour relies on each venue’s house system, so for the Radio City performances, they used a QSC-powered JBL VerTec line array system (which Young was instrumental in adding to the venue during the redesign). Young controlled the PA with a Yamaha PM5D console, while monitor engineer Jimmy Corbin manned the monitors on a DiGiCo SD7.

“The show is really all about the music. We fly sidefills but don’t use wedges for the main stage. Tony’s coming from a singing background and is very comfortable matching to the house PA,” said Young.

Working with Bennett and Gaga’s show also requires careful mixing with the three live bands. Young explained that the tour has three separate show sets, labeled A, B, and C, which are chosen based on the venue. The A show (used at Radio City, Hollywood Bowl in LA, and the Royal Albert Hall in London) includes a quartet on stage right for Tony, a quintet on stage right for Gaga, and a 38-piece orchestra that rises up on the elevator platform at the front of the stage. Show B, which is the most common of the shows, has an extra 13 musicians added to the mix. Show C eliminates the orchestra all together.

“I’ve been doing this orchestra thing for a long time; I know the music and its sensitivity,” said Young. “The challenge is knowing which mics should be on at various times.”

Young has partnered with Bennett for a number of years, and because of this close relationship, Young said, Bennett trusts him with the sound at each show. “He has a lot confidence in what I do,” Young said.

While Corbin has worked with Lady Gaga before, Young noted it is his first time working with the 29-year-old artist. Gaga, known for her eccentric outfits and catchy pop music, took a big turn in her career by partnering with Tony Bennett for Cheek to Cheek, which allowed her to show another side of her talents.

“This is a new genre for her and she’s done really well with it. She’s a legit singer, and you can see it through her performances,” Young said. Of course, even with a change in genre, it wouldn’t be a Lady Gaga show without seven costume changes.

For wireless microphones, both Tony and Gaga use Sennheiser SKM 5200 transmitters with Neumann KK 105 S capsules. Occasionally, Young said, he also uses DPA and Shure microphones when needed.

At the end of the day, Young said his main goal was to make sure everything sounded perfect for the audience.

“Your biggest comparison is trying to make the live show sound as good as the record,” he said, “but what’s gratifying about the live performance is that you have an immediate response from the people and performers.”