The Man Behind The Wow Factor at Your Favorite Festivals & Nightclubs: Production & Lighting Expert Stephen Lieberman
By Danielle Ilag | EDM World Magazine
Stephen Lieberman is the man behind the electrifying lighting designs of Insomniac's major festivals and events. His company, SJ Lighting, takes on all work that includes some sort of lighting element. His focus and motivation has driven him to create and remodel some of the best nightclubs and festivals in the States. When Stephen was coming up through the industry, electronic dance music was just a subculture. He was there because he was passionate about the business, the industry, the community, the vibe of what was going on, and the art and creative side of it. Soon enough, this subculture turned mainstream and became this huge explosive environment that is now globally taking over the industry. Now, Stephen is producing shows that many people didn't think possible at the levels they are currently being produced.
When did you realize you wanted a career in the live part of the music industry?
I'm not sure it was ever a realization or an epiphany. It was just something that has always been a part of my life. Almost like it was a calling, it was just there, and it was something that was very natural. I have worked in nightclubs and kind of in the hospitality world since 1987, so the first job in a nightclub was back when I was 15 years old. It was always something that I've shown a lot of interest in, and I was just always fascinated by the industry. So as I got older and finished high school, I went to college and never really got out of the industry. So I guess it's just always been kind of in my blood and something that I've done since as long as I can remember.
As a stage designer, what inspires your work?
As a designer, in general, we're always looking for inspiration to work on current designs, future designs, ideas, things that motivate us or just feel good. I look at architecture, music, art, and nature. You just have to keep an open perspective when you're doing design work and really kind of look at the environment around you in order to pick up ideas, even things like walking down the street and observing the way buildings are constructed. I've gone on missions where I was just looking at manhole covers and architecture of doorways and door handles. Sometimes patterns in carpet, geometry, and anything that you can use for inspiration. Could be something as simple as a cloud in the sky, or I Google images as well. I use all the same resources that we all have available to us; just maybe as a designer we're a little more observant of our surroundings. The information is there in front of you—you just need to pick it up. Sometimes, the most obvious things are the hardest things to see. It's like on the tip of your nose, and you can't see if it is too close to you.
How did you first get the job to work for Insomniac Events?
I started working with Insomniac back in 2001. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I was doing a job for another event company called Giant, which also produced dance music events. I moved here in July of 2001 and that New Years, Giant had contracted me to design their show. Giant had collaborated with Insomniac for their New Year's event for one bigger event, so I designed all things Giant, and then Insomniac handled their own stuff, and after that, that was kind of like the introduction to our relationship. I've been doing work for them ever since. Maybe the first couple years I didn't do everything, and then I probably had at least a string of a decade where I designed every single stage. Since Insomniac has so much work, I will probably do 20% more than I've ever done for them as the years go on, and I only do probably 30% of their designs now because they produce so many events.
How do you consistently take tech that's available and use it in a new and innovative ways?
For me, technology is a tool. To be new and innovative, it's more of a methodology; it's a way of thinking. So the tools of the trade make your job easier and sometimes more efficient, and you can go bigger with some of them as technologies change and become more available to the industry. But tech is not what drives the design. The ideas, concepts, philosophies, and the design aesthetic is what drives everything, and the tech fills in the blanks. Tech for me is a secondary function of doing the design work.
How important was lighting and decorations for electronic dance music events when you first started in the industry vs. how important they are now?
It was a secondary function of the show back then. The tech wasn't really available. There were moving lights, there were special effects, but they were not in abundance like they are now. If you also think abouthow many people went to the show and what the ticket price was, there wasn't really a budget to do this kind of stuff. Back in the early 90s, in the early rave days, if you had a light show at one of these events, it was six to eight fixtures on stands on a stage and the controller just off to the side with cables running in every direction just plugging in wherever we could. As things progressed, shows got a little bit bigger, and over the past decade, they have grown exponentially, and that's when the production world just followed to keep pace with the demand on the market.
What kind of mindset do you have to have when designing an environment?
Every show is a little bit different. Every design is different, even if it's a different stage at the same festival. As a designer, you need to be open-minded. At the same time, you have to have an understanding of art mixed with science mixed with engineering mixed with technology. You need to be able to balance all of those disciplines. On top of that, you have fiscal responsibility, so you'll be given a budget. You need to know what's available technology-wise, commodity-wise, what I like to call technology commodities. Understanding your environment and your available resources is critical.
What is your favorite aspect of your job? What is your least favorite aspect of your job?
My favorite aspect of the job is absolutely leaving a legacy of design work that we feel proud of. My company, SJ Lighting, designs nightclubs and festivals. They're both equally enjoyable and give me satisfaction. The nice part about a nightclub is when I design and build it, chances are 90% of the time it's going to make it a couple of years. So there will be a lot of people who get to come through and see what our visual concept and philosophy was and how we executed it on the property. At a festival, we might use a hundred times more product, so it's a bigger stage, but it gets pulled out after the show's over. So that legacy, whether it's a picture or you get to go back to the club and you get to see it again, is everything. I would say my least favorite part of my job is the mundane day-to-day business things. I wish I could just do design every day.
Is there anything you do for work on a daily basis others might be surprised about?
Our day-to-day tasks are fairly ordinary when it comes to running a business and what you would think it is for doing design. I bounce from station to station because we have like 40 or so projects going on at one time. The one thing that differentiates me from everyone else is I that am completely over-the-top OCD, which you probably need to be to be a designer.
How long does it normally take you to map out the elaborate lighting and production for festivals and permanent nightclubs?
When you're putting together a job, there are phases. Whether you're designing a stage or you're designing a club, there's a design phase, concept phases, and production and concept drawing phases. Based on what your resources are that are available and what's provided to you as background to work off of impacts what each of the phase timelines are. If we're given a blank canvas, the design phase is a two to fourweek process, minimum. Once designs are approved doing production, drawings or construction drawings can actually be delivered to the field and produced—that's probably another two to four weeks by the time you're done. So four to eight weeks for one stage if you're moving really fast.
During a festival, do you control the lights constantly as if you were a composer, or are the lights on autopilot? What is the process like?
We control everything. We stand at the desk, and we operate. When it speeds up, we speed up. When it slows down, we slow down. When the music changes, like an emotional experience, we do our best to match that experience with color and effect, so we're operating. Part of the job of putting together these systems is getting to sit in the driver's seat and take it around the track. It's programmed, but it's programmed in order to access functions quickly. We have no idea what the DJ is going to play 90% of the time, but for me, electronic dance music is fairly predictable, meaning I understand when it's going to build, when it's going to break, and when there will be transitions and bridges. That to me is just music theory, and I've always had a knack for that. If you put it on autopilot, it's going to look like autopilot.
Do you have a favorite festival or club you designed lighting for?
You just asked me which one of my children I love the most. I love them all. However, I've got things we've just recently done that we're proud of. We just finished remodeling Marquee Nightclub in New York, which we designed six or seven years ago. We did the lighting and special effects design. We just did a new design for it, and it came out fantastic. We revealed our remodel of LIV Nightclub at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach. We designed that for the first time eight or nine years ago, so we just redid that. Out in Los Angeles, we did Academy, which formerly was Create. This was actually the third time I designed a club inside that building, so it's always cool to come into venues that I've done before and do them again over and over again. On top of that, as far as favorite festivals, EDC Las Vegas (before it was called EDC Los Angeles) has always been this euphoric unbelievable experience, and it will always hold a very high place in my heart. Partly, because I just love all the genuinely good human beings at Insomniac. I love all of their shows; it's fantastic.
How does the tech aspect of your work help or hurt in molding your vision for their final installations?For us, technology is a tool. It's the same as walking down the street and seeing a building and wondering what sort of tools they used to assemble it. The idea is not from the tech. Being creative in order to get your final installation and how to get your vision, the tech will help you have efficiencies, but for me, it's not a motivating factor when it comes to the ideas.
What festival stage or club do you admire most (that you didn't design yourself ) which pushed you to be more creative?
I've actually never been to Burning Man, but I've got some books in my office. I've googled it. Some of the stuff they do out there is fantastic. I love seeing the creative environments that go on out there. Tomorrowland is a fantastic show. I love their set designs, and that's mostly a daytime show. I love the daytime shows in Europe where it's built for you to actually have this more daytime experience, so it's more scenic. It's very inspiring as opposed to like the production-heavy stuff. As a production specialist, my stuff is production heavy. My shows are meant for the nighttime. As my career has progressed over the years, I've added more scenic elements into my stuff, but I like to have an edge to it. I like sharp, aggressive, industrial, in-your-face kind of designs. That's just my style, and I don't know that that will ever go away. I do enjoy the artistic and theatrical philosophies of the daytime festivals that you see throughout the Netherlands and Europe. I think it's really cool.
What have been your most memorable jobs? Why?
Crobar New York many years ago was absolutely borderline chaos to the point where I was literally having a mental breakdown getting this place done, even all the way up till opening. It was received so tremendously that I could not have anticipated that. So that job had the highest and lowest points of emotional reaction to doing a job, and that created some pretty significant memories for me. On the show side, the last Electric Daisy Carnival in Los Angeles that we did where the whole LA Coliseum property was just overrun with audience members and it was like this unbelievable experience good, bad, and otherwise. EDC in Las Vegas the year that we had to shut down 90% of the show because the winds were sustained at 60+ mph and knocking over light poles. I remember doing Carl Cox and friends at Ultra, and the rain started coming in sideways. I literally was operating the show under a tarp with just my head popping out, and because we were in the megastructure, I had my hands on the desk, and we were flowing. Last year, at the show, we had a leak in the front of house. I didn't realize it, but there was water dripping on my console, and in the middle of the show, my lighting console just went black and shut off. We didn't miss a beat. It shut off, and I turned to my guys and said, “Get my back up desk right now,” and literally, just whipped the backup desk as we were rolling it on a road cage. My hands were still on it, and we were just still running the show. The audience never missed a beat, and everybody in the front of house was just like, “What the hell was that?” So there are some memories. Those definitely left indelible marks—good learning lessons about the realities of doing outdoor festivals.
What is the shortest amount of time you've had to set up a festival? What did this experience teach you?
We've done shows that load in that morning and the show is that night. When you do something like that, you just have to understand that as a designer it's not always just about the pretty picture. You have to understand that there's balance. That balance is a balance of time, money, value, quality, and resources. All of those things need to kind of check each other. Understanding logistics is equally as important to understanding design.
Your company SJ Lighting is a reflection of your life's work. How many staff members work for you? What projects do you take on that are non-lighting related?
There are five of us. It's myself and my wife; we are business partners. I do all things lighting, and my wife does all things human resources/accounting, and then we have three full-time employees. Everybody kind of divides and conquers. We're SJ Lighting, so everything has a lighting element in it somewhere, or I wouldn't even know what to do. We know just enough about audio to be dangerous, but not to consult. If we're doing production design, there will be lighting, video, and special effects included in it, so all things come back to lighting.
How important is it for industry professionals to pay it forward?
For me, it's critical. It's part of what I do. This industry is family to me, and I want to do everything I can to perpetuate it, whether it's donating my time, resources, information, or speaking on panels. I do a workshop once a year at a convention called LDI, which is Live Design International in Las Vegas. This past year, I did a panel on festival design in the studio and in the field. We had probably 50 people a day inside my class, so my phone number was given out to lots of people. I help people on how to troubleshoot systems and give programming advice. But I don't know everything, so I have people that I call when I need resources as well. It's about the community and giving back more than you take, and it's fulfilling; I want to give back.
One of your most memorable jobs was being one of the lighting directors and lighting operators at the historic club Webster Hall in New York City. It left an indelible mark on your career. Now, Webster Hall is undergoing renovation. Have you ever thought of opening your own club in New York City or becoming a part owner of a club like Webster Hall? Why or why not?
It was actually my childhood dream to open up a club. Through college, I was working in the raves and doing some production, and then, even at the end of college, I still had a plan to move back to New York and open up a nightclub in New York. Then I don't know what happened—I just kind of shifted gears and started doing production and club installation. I really enjoyed the design; I found I had a knack for it. Rather than getting married to one building in one nightclub and being in and out of that place every day, I switched paths. It felt really good being part of many club families and being able to be a common denominator between different operators and different venues. I enjoyed that kind of variety, so I gave up that dream for a better dream and chose to follow this path instead.
Outside of light design, what other hobbies interest you? Have you ever thought about becoming a DJ or producer yourself?
Love hanging out with the family— my wife and my kids are my favorite people. I'm also an aviator, so I'm a pilot and I have an airplane. I love to fly my plane both for business and for pleasure. Whether it's flying up to Pismo Beach with friends and family to hang out for the day or flying out to San Diego for some meetings when that's a four to five-hour drive from Los Angeles vs. the plane, it's an hour. I enjoy playing golf and mountain biking. I love music, but I am dedicated to my trade. I've always been the lighting guy; I've always just enjoyed the visual aspect of the performance. I love what I do, and I'm passionate about what I do, so becoming a DJ or producer, there's no time for that. I barely have time to get my own work done.
What shows are you preparing for this year? Where can fans expect to see more of your work?
EDC Las Vegas, EDC Mexico, Beyond Mexico, Beyond SoCal. We design the Yuma tent to Coachella every year, and we design Perry stage for Lollapalooza. We're designing the Hard Rock in San Diego. We're redoing the pool and the nightclub downstairs. We're doing Side Bar in San Diego. We're working on the Palms in Las Vegas and Marquee Nightclub in Singapore.
Recently, you were on a job site in New York getting a club opened. Can you tell me more about this new nightclub?
It's Marquee Nightclub, which has been open for maybe nine or ten years. This is now the second time I've designed it, but it's actually the third incarnation of Marquee, which is owned and operated by Tao Group. They are probably one of the most successful club operators in the world. It's an amazing property. We just put in a whole new design that's this very cubic design throughout the entire venue all the way to the back wall of the mezzanine that's all pixel mapped, video ceiling, and new lighting system, and we've revealed it for Grammy weekend. So we had lots of celebrities in the music industry and lots of nightclub professionals in there. It was awesome to be there that weekend and get the system up and running and to have clients and friends all on the venue at the same time for all of us to experience this club. Tao's very happy and proud of it, and we're very happy and proud of it. We were literally working on it right up until opening, like an hour before opening, but the place looks fantastic. If you're ever in New York, I definitely recommend you going there. This has been one of the staples of New York nightlife that's been around for a decade or more, and it's still a fantastic evening anytime you go in there.
What is the one thing you would like to change about the lighting business? Why?
I'd like to see more professionals give back to the industry. There's a deficiency of good people and especially, when you get to the professional level, you notice that a little bit more. If we can reduce poor traits of arrogance and incompetence and get that to a more manageable level and increase the giving back and philanthropic attitude, we can help sustain the industry.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Without sounding mushy, I would say most of the days I've had in this industry have been a blessing. I'm very lucky to have the opportunities and be where I am right now in this industry. I'm very grateful for all of it; I work hard really hard for it, and I have taken my bumps and bruises over the years. Every time we do a festival or a show, I still get chills, even 25 years later. That opening night has a crowd out there. I'm walking out the front of house and the music's playing, and we start getting this place going. I have my backpack on, and I'm going out to the console for the first time. It's electric. It's an amazing, invigorating feeling, and that for me is probably one of the items that definitely keeps you coming back.
What advice can you give for those trying to find a career path in the live music industry?
This is a tough industry. If you want to get into this industry, you need to have passion, you need to have drive, you need to have focus and motivation—a never quit, never die, never give up attitude. And if you don't have those things, maybe this industry is not going to be as receptive, because people who get into this world are here for the passion first, and then once you find success, God willing, the money comes after. If you really want it, it's just a function of motivation to just be there and the never die attitude to get it done.
What is an example of a time in your career where you took a risk and failed and one where you took a risk and succeeded?
I do remember in 1998 or 1999, I had designed a show in Palm Springs where if it could have gone wrong, it absolutely went wrong. We ordered equipment from Las Vegas, and we had cables that didn't show up when the show was that night. I was to the point where I was trying to hang lights in this tent, and I didn't have the right electrical cables, so I literally took the plugs off of the fixtures and was shoving raw wires into sockets. We didn't have feeder cable to tie in a distro, so we tied it into these really dangerous hot plates, basically like alligator clips. Totally illegal, but I remember doing that. They held the door for like two hours for me to get it going, and I probably got the systems to 50-60%, never had the night to program it. I dropped to my knees. I remember calling my wife, and I'm pretty sure I was in tears. That hurt, but you learn from those lessons, and fortunately, that never happened again.
Working on Crobar New York was the edge of chaos and disaster. I literally was freaking out the night before opening because there were some things that weren't working. It was 3:00 am, and I just wanted to start calling people to fix these things. I was in the car with my buddy who was the technical director of the club, and my buddy reminded me that we were stuck in traffic in New York City in the pouring rain. We couldn't do anything about it. In the end, I won the Club World Awards for number one lighting system for it, but I remember freaking out the night before opening.