Feature

Case studies: The systems behind the shows

The disparate and highly mobile nature of international entertainment adds layers of complexity to all the usual business problems. Jane Dudman investigates the IT that keeps the shows on the road.

When Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards fell out of a tree while on holiday in Fiji in April, spare a thought for his IT manager.

The Stones were halfway through their A Bigger Bang world tour and Richards’ fall meant the rock band had to postpone 15 European concert dates. That is a lot of rearranging, and somewhere there is an IT manager having to cope with the impact on their administrative systems.

Some of today’s big artists now have such complex IT requirements that they need to take a computer support technician on tour with them. Joshua Kapellen for instance, a computer support technician employed by US computer repair firm Geek Squad, has been on tour with U2 since last year, providing technical support to the 120 people travelling on the band’s Vertigo world tour.


Today, entertainment is a multimillion-pound business and it is run by global firms. Just like their blue chip counterparts, they need customer databases, general ledger systems and payroll – but they need some fairly business-specific software as well.

Like the system to keep track of how much of a cut the Red Hot Chilli Peppers took the last time they played Hammersmith Apollo. Or to keep track of the costumes and make-up used every night of a global circus tour.

Being the IT manager of such a company has some similarities to the jobs of everyday IT managers in a global enterprise – and some big differences. We take a look at the way two such managers approach their job.

Case study: Cirque du Soleil

Danielle Savoie has just outsourced her company’s IT in a £64m deal. A sizeable deal, that took Savoie a good deal of hard work to complete, for Savoie runs the systems for Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil, a business that has, as she points out, “complex needs”.

As a result, 84 IT staff have been transferred over to CGI, the outsourcer that has won the Cirque du Soleil contract.

Cirque du Soleil is a major global business. It has 3,000 employees, of whom 900 are artists, appearing in the spectacular shows that the company puts on around the world.

The company has three permanent offices in addition to its Montreal headquarters, but most staff are on tour for a lot of the time, usually staying for between four and six weeks in each city, before packing up and moving on.

“Our culture is very specific. It has been a very big challenge to go through its process of transformation to a new IT model. We have had to review all our processes and governance models and the business requirements for new information systems,” says Savoie.

The company’s main finance and administrative system is SAP, with separate applications for electronic document management and for maintaining theatrical equipment. “SAP was not a good fit for those areas, so we have implemented best-of-breed applications,” says Savoie.

The company also has a highly complex payroll system, which has to manage paying staff of many different nationalities, in different currencies, for different amounts of time.

“For the core business, we have had to develop a set of information systems specifically designed for what we do.” This includes a system to support the task of casting the artists who appear in the shows.

“We see a lot of talented people and a lot of demos. We need to keep track of that, and of everything related to each artist, which would include their address, any notes on immigration status, and so on. That is all dealt with by an in-house application running on a Microsoft platform,” says Savoie.

The unique nature of the Cirque du Soleil’s performances, with complex, gymnastic movements, requires support from a number of specific systems. One application is Kincirque, which is used in the company’s training centre to keep track of the movements carried out by artists and any injuries they may incur.

There is also a system to keep track of the make-up used by the artists. “This is very important, because each artist is responsible for their own make-up,” says Savoie.

“When I started, the information about the make-up, which is very specific, was all held by one person in a big binder. Now we have a centralised system, from which every artist can access their own performance technical specifications. They learn the details initially here in Montreal and it is all documented on a fact sheet, with images and a step-by-step guide. They take away the brushes and the colour and they are now self-sufficient.”

Another important system keeps track of the 15,000 separate costumes required for performances and the 3,300 sets of instructions relating to the costumes.

Stage management is another vital area that is now supported by IT. “We have a fully-integrated business solution that provides consistent and accurate data to help our stage technicians carry out their job,” says Savoie.

One important aspect of this, which will be very familiar to those in more corporate settings, is the ability to pull out management reports and ensure that the quality of the shows is consistent. “We have that information and are able to compare performances, to ensure we retain the very highest level of quality,” says Savoie.

Outsourcing this complex set of systems has been a major challenge, but Savoie believes it will provide the company with the best way forward as it looks to manage continuing growth.

Savoie consulted widely with peers in other businesses as part of the outsourcing process. “Although they were not in the same business, I was able to see what would be applicable to Cirque du Soleil and the pitfalls to avoid,” she says.

“The challenge now is to keep the agility I had before with my group. We are a very opportunistic business. We add new opportunities all the time and that means I have to be very agile. CGI is a huge business, but we have to keep CGI agile too.”

Case study: Live Nation

Rob Mason faces two major challenges. The technical challenge for him, as for any other IT manager, is ensuring his business users have the right information to get their jobs done properly.

But getting the processes in place to do that has not been entirely plain sailing. “This is a very entrepreneurial business. These are the kind of people who do not like too many processes and procedures,” says Mason.

Mason has been with Live Nation for the past three years. A global concert company based in Beverly Hills,  Live Nation, which is a spin-off from US entertainment and events firm Clear Channel Communications, last year promoted or produced more than 28,500 events, including music concerts, theatrical shows and motor sports events. It runs more than 117 venues and has a turnover of £1.6bn.

As the vice-president of IT for Live Nation International, Mason looks after systems supporting 1,700 staff across Europe, with an IT team of 25 people.

Live Nation owns some 30 venues in the UK, including London’s Lyceum and Dominion theatres, the Edinburgh Playhouse and many more. Through its stake in the Mean Fiddler organisation, Live Nation also runs major music events such as the Glastonbury Festival and open-air events in Hyde Park.

“We promote the events, but the main part of our business is the venues, because that is where the customer gets the experience. A successful show will be put through all our venues, but we have many different shows going on at all our venues.”

Live Nation employs permanent staff at its venues, and each of the shows, bands and concerts coming in to the venue brings its own staff and equipment.

“We have the obvious systems to run our company, such as general ledger, administrative systems and payroll. But what is unique to us are the systems that enable us to handle the bookings process into all the venues and do the deals on renting out the venues,” says Mason.

While some venues house long-running shows such as the Lion King, others are concert venues that will see a different act every night. The company runs its own workflow system, called Artifax, to manage the booking process, generate a contract and track the transaction through to settlement.

Negotiating these deals is a complex process that is different for each band booked. The system that supports this process has been developed in-house, by the US parent company. “Acts come back time and again and we need to know how much we offered them on previous occasions,” says Mason.

The challenge has been that as a very people-based business, Live Nation has only moved over to a centralised approach in the past few years. Before that, this information was all on local spreadsheets.

There is also an extensive customer database. “As a business, we try to touch the customers more, so when people subscribe to our website or buy tickets, we are passed that information and we attempt to continue our dialogue with the customer,” says Mason. “That is all about having a single customer view.”

 

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This was first published in August 2006

 

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