In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
When the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s 2016 tour kicked off on November 17, it was the start of something big. Over the course of about six weeks, two separate TSO companies will crisscross North America, playing 105 shows in 61 different cities and bringing in millions upon millions of dollars in revenue for all involved. Last year alone, the tour grossed more than $41 million in 45 days, making it one of Pollstar’s top worldwide tours.
But who wrangles all the orchestra’s business, from day-of-show set-up to making sure 40 trucks and 20 buses run on time? That’s Elliot Saltzman, director of touring and production for TSO. The A.V. Club talked to him about how this classic Christmas production comes to life over and over, and what it means to spend the holidays on the road.
The A.V. Club: What’s your job with Trans-Siberian Orchestra?
Elliot Saltzman: Basically, my job description is to wrangle the approximately 250 touring staff members, the sound, the lights, the lasers, the trucking, the pyro, the video, the automation, and the prefabrication. All that is under my purview. I hire and negotiate the deals for all the vendors and all the employees. I have a brilliant team of production managers, production coordinators, and stage managers down the line that help me put this massive tour together every year.
AVC: Are you responsible for the musicians, too?
ES: Everything but the musicians. Of course, once the musicians are on tour, then they become under my purview and I’m looking after them as well.
We have a road manager in place that travels with the band, and we have an assistant road manager that is also with us at every venue that travels with the production crew. So all the musicians, and the hiring, and the rehearsals of the musicians besides what we do in production rehearsals—that’s all handled by the respective musical directors. We have a musical director on the East Coast and a musical director on the West Coast. Of course, Paul O’Neill—who is the creator of Trans-Siberian Orchestra—he’s got pretty much the final say on the musicians and the singers. Well, except for the core members of the band Sabotage that are in both the East and West productions.
AVC: Is this a year-round job? How far in advance are you working on these tours? Are you working on 2017 right now?
ES: It is a full-time, yearly job. When we’re on tour in November and December, we’re already looking for 2017 dates to put holds in for so that we can get the best choice of dates in 2017.
It’s a very difficult endeavor for our production and our show, because of basketball and hockey games being played. And everybody wants to play on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, but that’s not always available to you. So we start looking at our availability in buildings while we’re on tour the previous year, in November and December. January, everybody goes away on vacation, has a few weeks of rest, and then we start doing ideas and planning. We go through all the variables that the agency has sent in and we make our recommendation. Sometimes, we have to move things around.
It’s a very difficult puzzle for us because we do matinees, and that’s something that’s really never been done before with conventional rock ’n’ roll touring. We’ve perfected it, thank god, because Trans-Siberian Orchestra prides itself on elaborate shows, stage presentation, sets, lighting, video, lasers, and pyro, and we also pride ourselves on being on the cutting edge, and always looking for something new, because this is an annuity for us. We play every year to new fans and new audiences, but also our core fans.
Paul O’Neill’s edict to me is always “I want it bigger, I want it better.” So once again, within the parameters of doing this, after 17 years, those are the kinds of problems we get into. Like, “Okay, but that’s going to cost a lot of money.” Paul’s okay with that. Paul just wants it to be the most spectacular thing that we can do. We strive for that every year.
We realized a long time ago that if we want to do this kind of level of touring, that the only way to pay for it is to do matinee shows. So we figured out how to do it, and we implemented it, and now our schedule is pretty amazing. Just for our schedule that we’ll be doing this year, for both tours, we’re going to do almost 22,000 miles, 34 states, 61 cities, 105 shows, and 44 double-show days. We are actually going to be doing some blocks of weeks where we have four days in a row where we’re doing double shows. So that’s eight shows in four days. If you double that for the other coast, you’re doing 16 shows in eight days. It’s not an easy thing to do. A lot of sleep deprivation, but we figured out how to handle that and how to manage everybody’s rest and everything.
We’re very fortunate that we’ve built a kind of family community touring thing. I have people touring with me here that I have spent Christmas and Thanksgiving with for the past 14, 15 years, and some 17 years. So if you look at it that way, I’ve had Christmas and Thanksgiving with my TSO family more than I’ve had Christmas and Thanksgiving with my family. And that goes for most of the people on the tour.
We have a very loyal group of people that works with us. Only the best of the best can work on a TSO tour. We need that kind of excellence in what we do. They appreciate it, they get it, everybody is treated very well. Everybody wants to be on the tour. We have a philosophy here that we don’t want you on this tour if you don’t want to be here. Unfortunately, we hear stories from guys returning back to us going, “Oh man, the tour I was on, I can’t believe it, it was horrible,” and that happens out there. But we don’t allow that. We have a short period of time to do this. Because of the way we’ve worked things out in our production, every entity has to work together.
We have a pyramid in the middle of the audience that goes up 30 feet in the air and spews fireworks and has video screens on it and rotates. Well, that component has lights, video, pyro, and lasers on this one little unit. It’s a joint effort to put that thing in. So that’s how we’re able to do the fantastic and crazy pace of touring that we do. We hire the best, and they want to come back. We have continuity in what we do, and that shows at the end of the day, at the end of the night, and certainly at the end of the tour.
AVC: You guys are obviously very popular. The fact that you can do two shows in a lot of markets, and that you can do so many markets, speaks to the fact that people enjoy your show and want to come back year after year.
ES: They do, and that’s Paul’s plan of how he envisioned this. Paul and I go back 35 years. We worked in the realm of the big stadium shows and rock festivals and this and that, and we learned from that and we came up through those ranks, and a lot of that has been forgotten. It’s the new era and everything. We like to refer to it as old-school.
There are shows out there where the headline act will play 75 minutes or 90 minutes. TSO goes out there and the show this year will probably be about two-and-a-half hours, two hours and 45 minutes. Almost three hours with no intermission. So they are getting a show. They are seeing things that they may not normally see in one particular show, or unless they’re a big concert-goer, and then they’ll see it eventually. TSO gives you the experience that works for anyone from 4 years old to 70 years old. People experience sensory overload and a lot of them for the first time in their lives. We used to say the normal thing for concert-going people is, “Hey, I saw this band, they are great, you’ve got to go see them.” With TSO, it’s, “Oh my god, I just saw TSO. Have you seen them? Well, I’m taking you next year, or I’m buying you a ticket.” It’s the ultimate praise and it’s the ultimate respect where somebody will take money out of their pockets because they want you to share in the same experience that they had. It’s a true gift. When that’s relayed to Paul, he goes, “Yep, we’re doing what we’re supposed to do.”
AVC: How big is your team? How many people are you taking on tour?
ES: We have 40 trucks in total. A typical day of TSO touring is—every Friday this happens—there are 40 trucks out there, 20 buses, and two custom rolling stages. This year we have 10 custom elevators built in the stage that can go 25 feet in the air. We have a 200-foot catwalk that lifts four stories into the air over the audience. Twenty snow machines. Thirty-two foggers and haze machines, 28,096 feet of aluminum and steel trussing. Seven automated moving truss structures that float over the stage. Two hundred and forty touring personnel, 276 local stagehands, 256 rigging points hung from the ceiling. That’s 256 one-ton motors, and 32 two-ton motors. When you hang all this stuff in the air, you need to lift it up by motors. In order to attach the motor, you have to have 32 guys up in the catwalk of the ceiling attaching these chains to the motors. If you ever look at one of our concerts, you’ll see 256 rigging points just being able to lift everything in the air.
We have one of the largest contiguous indoor video wall displays. It covers almost half a football field—59,068 video panels, 14,976 high-powered programmable LED spots for a total of 1,921,536 RGB process channels of LEDs. We have 15,052 pyrotechnic effects and 596 flame and fire modules, and we also have the largest indoor kinetic wave pyrotechnic waterfall ever played indoors. Just the value of our four sound consoles is over $1 million dollars. We have 214 inputs, and that includes 48 channels of in-ear wireless monitors for the musicians and singers, and we broadcast over 140 channels of RF broadcast.
AVC: So, let’s say you’re in a town like Worcester, Massachusetts, and you do a 3:30 p.m and 8 p.m. The very next day you’re doing a 3 p.m. in Providence, Rhode Island. What’s the process like between 11 p.m. when the Worcester show ends, and 3 p.m. the next day in Providence?
ES: The load-out time varies, and obviously right at the beginning when we’re doing this new for the first time, it’s a little longer. It can be three, three and a half hours, four hours depending on the degree of difficulty of the building, and there are a lot of them. When you’re moving in anywhere from 18 to 22 trucks, and there are only two or three loading docks, it’s maddening. You can’t get them in any faster than driving them in and driving the next one out, which is going to take three to five minutes. So there’s a lot of math involved.
Say two and a half, three hours later, we’re out of there and on the road to the next city. At 5 a.m., our production team and our riggers go up and chalk the floor. That means they go up to the arena floor and make chalk marks on the floor after taking laser beam points in the ceiling so they can establish where these 256 rigging points are going. At 6 a.m. we start our load-in, and at 12 p.m. we roll the stage. We have so many things on the floor at one time that we build the stage at the opposite end of where it’s going to be. That’s one of the tricks of being able to do this, so that you’re not wasting any time. As you’re building the main set and the system on one end, you’re building the stage on the other end, and about 12:30 p.m., you get everybody together, and they roll that stage. It’s an amazing thing to watch, because it’s a 60-by-48-foot stage with robotic arms and five elevators in it sometimes, sound underneath, and it just rolls into place. Boom. Done. Finishing touches.
We have to set aside time for the fire marshals in every city. The fire marshals will come in, take a visit, stand on the stage, and go through every single device with my pyrotechnicians to make sure that everything is safe. They’ll look at our certificates to make sure we have the proper insurance. They’ll look at every piece of cloth and rug and fabric on the stage to make sure that they all have fireproofing certificates. That’s not in our control, so if they want to take a little more time or a little less time, we’re at their mercy. But due to the previous times we’ve been there, the quality and level of the pyrotechnicians, it’s almost like, “It’s great to see you back, I can’t wait to see the show. Let’s look at everything. You guys are always great. Not an issue, not a problem.”
After that’s done, the band comes on stage at 2 p.m. or 1:30 p.m. for a 3:30 p.m. door. At 1:30 p.m., they’ll do a sound check for a half-hour, check and make sure everything’s good. They’ll go back into the dressing rooms and we’ll finish everything up, drop the curtain, and get ready for the first performance. About 3:25 p.m., a couple of the band members will come and meet people. The local radio station will be announcing them, and also we have a component where we donate a dollar from every ticket to a local charity that’s usually chosen by the radio station or the city itself. So we make that presentation about five minutes before the show starts, in front of the audience, with a check-in on the amount of the number of people that are there. They go back stage for a few minutes, and then the show starts.
At 3:30, 3:40, we make sure everybody’s in the house so they can enjoy everything, and we do our two-and-a-half-hour performance, and the audience goes out, and the cleaners come in and do the seats. My crew sometimes has to go in a reload the pyro, and we set the stage. It takes them about half-hour, 20 minutes, then we’re ready for the doors to open for the evening show. And that just keeps on going until we have a day off.
Our days off are usually on Monday and Tuesday, which are the slowest days, historically, for concerts. So there’s a term we use in our business. We call whatever day we’re off Roadie Friday. We don’t have normal schedules like most people.
AVC: What do you think people want when they come to a Trans-Siberian Orchestra show?
ES: You know what? I think it cannot be universal. People come for different reasons. But I really think the reason why they come to a Trans-Siberian Orchestra show is that from the moment they walk in, everything else is closed off. There are no elections, no football teams, no what’s going on in school, no what’s going on in my job. It gives them two to three hours of pure enjoyment. They’re going to like it, they’re going to have sensory overload. The lasers, the pyro, the incredible musicians, and the singing, and the girls that dance, it’s just the whole package. You cannot think of anything else when you’re watching a TSO concert.
It’s like a really, really good book or a movie that you have to watch over and over again because every time you see it, you notice something else, because your mind just cannot grasp everything that’s going on. You will see repeats of people going in the afternoon and going in the evening, because they just can’t take it all in. They’re looking at the stage, and the truss is moving, the pyro, waterfalls, but at the same time, we have a pyramid spewing flames 40 feet in the air behind them. So you see them twisting their heads from the front to the back to the side. We have more lights over the audience than most bands have on the stage. So we give everybody that opportunity. So if you’re sitting in the back of the arena, you’re going to get a show that the people at the front of the arena aren’t going to get. They’re not going to be close to that for that effect out in front. For the people who go on the catwalks, who go on the lifts, they go out to the middle of the audience. So you can be sitting in the middle of the audience in an assigned seat, and all of a sudden, a 35-foot robotic arm will sweep out and meet you. This year we have a catwalk that goes out to about a third of the audience. So everybody gets taken care of, everybody has a great experience. Everybody is just sitting there, waiting for the next thing to happen.
AVC: You guys also do pretty well. You guys made $41 million in 45 days last year.
ES: Let me put into perspective. The East Coast crew could be in Philadelphia doing 28,000 people in one day. My West Coast could be in Sacramento doing 20,000 people in one day. So in one day the TSO experience is being seen by 48,000 people. That is a stadium show.
Another secret about TSO’s success is that our ticket prices have always been way, way below the industry standard, because we understand when somebody comes to a TSO concert, it’s not one or two tickets. You want to go with a couple of couples, or you want to bring the whole family. You’re buying seven or eight tickets, so we can’t charge $125. We can’t charge $150. We don’t make gold circle seats where have a little special section for rich people. Our fan club gets first shot at the tickets. There is no fee for the fan club. The fan club tickets are always right at the beginning of the floor or up in the sides, so they’re all the premium seats. It’s very fan friendly. People say, “You know what, I was just on so-and-so’s website, it cost me $35 to join the fan club. I went and got a ticket, I was four rows from the back of the arena, and the ticket was $125 a piece, and then there was another $10 on top of it for processing.” People are not stupid. People understand that TSO could be making five times the amount of money they’re making. But we’ve been here for 17 years, and we plan on being here for another 17 years. Paul O’Neill is more interested people coming up to him and saying, “That is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” or, “Thank you, you’ve been coming to Cleveland for 16 years and supporting our charity, and we now have $700,000 from you.”
Our charity number’s about $13 million. This is something that we didn’t even talk about for the past couple of years until it became kind of common knowledge. You don’t see anything our ads, you don’t see anything on our posters, TV. Nothing ever says “and a dollar of the ticket price will go to a charity!”
Everybody else’s production is half of ours. How do you feel when you pay $150 for a ticket and the whole lower bowl is $150, not just the front, so you’re sitting in the back of the lower bowl? You may love the band to death, but they come in with six trucks, and it looks pretty and it looks nice. A week later you go to a TSO show with your family and you pay half the amount of what you paid before, you’re sitting in the 10th row of the arena, and you’re looking at 22 trucks of production and lights and sound and lasers and flames, and whether it’s conscious or whether it’s not, people are going, “Oh my god, this is the most bang for my buck I’ve ever gotten in my life.” And unfortunately we’re in a point in our lives in this world of ours where it’s pretty hard to get those kind of deals. It’s pretty hard to get your money’s worth anymore. So as we say in the business, we turn it up to 11. We make sure everybody walks out of there and is happy.
Our customer service, and maybe I don’t want to say this, but if you have a problem with a show for whatever it is, that’s not an issue. We will give you a ticket. Knock wood, we’re in the winter, and we’ve never canceled a show. We’ve had a couple of situations, in Cleveland one year, Columbus another year, where the snow prohibited 3 to 4 to 6 thousand people from getting there. But of course we went on with the show. There were 10,000 people sitting, and 3,000 people didn’t make it. We get it, we’re not going to cancel. We refunded their money. The box office said, “You know, you don’t have to do that.” We said, “Yes we do.” Or we will offer them a ticket for any TSO show anywhere in the country. We understand they may have been in Cleveland for Christmas with their family, and they live in Chicago. So this is the kind of thing we do.
Somebody wrote a letter and said, “I’m a musician. I was sitting on the side of the stage, and I was really put off by the fact that you guys use tapes and nobody’s playing live. I was standing close, and to further prove my point, when they went out into the audience and played, there was no wires.” Of course, it’s all wireless. There may be a tape of a Christmas bell in the background, but not even that. The keyboard player plays live. We all sit and laugh, but you know what? “Sorry you had a problem. Here’s tickets.” And, we always upgrade them the tickets. So you’re sitting on the side. “Sorry for your inconvenience, we do play live, sorry there’s a misunderstanding, here’s two tickets, you’re on the 10th row, please enjoy the show.” We kill them with kindness.
Our bands and our people, they feel very fortunate that they can be able to do this. It’s a very nice family feeling on the road. Everybody gets together. We have Christmas dinners and Thanksgiving dinners with everybody, and their families fly in when they can. So we’re here, it’s November, we’re back in New York for two days off, and then we have 125 people at Carmine’s restaurant in New York City, right in Times Square. It’s that kind of thing that just makes everybody say, “I’m looking forward to being with TSO this year.”